Sex and corruption at the Vatican: The cardinals prepare for conclave

500 years ago the Vatican was at the center of sex scandals, financial corruption, and enemies determined to destroy it. Not much is new. Photo: Pope Alexander VI

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 4, 2013 — The cardinals are gathered amid scandal. The Vatican is widely known to be corrupt. Cardinals use their offices to market favors, and even positions within the Holy See are up for bid. One frontrunner for the papacy has bought off the other leading candidates, sending his closest rival four mules laden with gold ingots.

That frontrunner was Spanish cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, soon to become Pope Alexander VI, and the year was 1492. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Alexander’s papacy was the stuff of legend. He brought the most beautiful prostitutes in Italy to his Vatican orgies, and he was justifiably proud of his impressive collection of pornography; it was the finest in Rome, and that was no mean feat. Vatican parties, already extravagant, become more so. Guests approaching the papal palace would walk past rows of living statues - naked young men and women, dusted with gold and arranged in erotic poses. Alexander admired virility, and his chamberlain would keep track of each male guest’s orgasms. At the end of the party, His Holiness would award prizes to those “who made love with those courtesans the greatest number of times,” according to master of ceremonies Johan Burchard.

Alexander was widely believed to be involved in an affair with his beautiful, 17-year-old daughter, Lucrezia. For her part, Lucrezia became unavailable for her father’s bed when she entered a torrid sexual triangle with her brothers, handsome older brother Juan, and his equally handsome younger brother, Cardinal Cesare Borgia.

When Juan Borgia was found floating in the Tiber, butchered, Rome automatically assumed that Cesare had done the deed. Cesare had become a proficient killer in his teens, and he continued to enjoy bloodshed until his own murder at Viana. No mere thug, he was witty, urbane and well educated, as well as brutal. He was also jealous of Juan. Lucrezia had enjoyed her relations with both her brothers, but being more traditional than she, each wanted her for himself. They were also both involved with the wife of their younger brother, Gioffre.

Lucrezia was available because her father had manipulated her into leaving her husband, Giovanni Sforza, nephew of Ascanio. Her marriage was annulled when Alexander declared to the world that her husband was impotent. Infuriated, Giovanni announced that Alexander had broken up their marriage so that he could have his daughter for himself, and then proved his virility by going off to father some children of his own.

Lucrezia attended the ceremonial annulment at the Lateran Palace six months pregnant. The canonical judges declared her a virgin, to the general mirth of bystanders. Three months later, she gave birth to a son, also Giovanni.

Giovanni’s father was either Lucrezia’s father, the pope, or her brother, the cardinal. It’s possible that Lucrezia herself didn’t know which it was. She went to give birth in the Convent of San Sisto, taking with her a new Spanish lover. She was surrounded at San Sisto by nuns who were apparently as sexually adventurous as she (the convent was eventually thoroughly cleansed, figuratively speaking), and was eventually married off to the future Duke of Ferrara, who had ample experience with illegitimate children whose provenance could not be revealed.

Alexander decided to legitimize the bastard, issuing two bulls. The first, which was made public, identified the father of young Giovanni as Cesare Borgia, and his mother as an unnamed, unmarried woman. By naming Cesare as the father, Alexander was able to recognize as legitimate a child he could not claim as his own son. The second bull, kept secret, named as Giovanni’s parents the pope and the same unmarried woman mentioned in the first. Pope Alexander VI named his son/grandson the Duke of Nepi and Camerino. A generous man, he also made the brother of a former mistress a cardinal.


“God has granted us the papacy,” wrote Pope Leo X, “now let us enjoy it.”

The papacy is an ancient institution, and like all ancient institutions, it’s had its ups and downs. The conclave that elects the new pope will meet amid scandal - sexual abuses by priests and high-level cover-ups, sexual “misconduct” by Cardinal Keith O’Brien and a cover-up that may extend to emeritus Pope Benedict, dishonest dealings at the Vatican bank, a group of homosexual Vatican priests and blackmail allegations - and critics talk hopefully of a church in terminal crisis.

READ MORE: Now that Benedict is gone, what’s next?

Catholicism and the papacy have gone through much worse than this, and they’ve shown themselves remarkably resilient. Not all 115 cardinal electors have arrived at the Vatican, but the cardinals there have started to discuss what the church needs in a new pope and consider the starting date for the conclave that will elect him. They have been sworn to secrecy about the deliberations for a new pope under pain of excommunication.

It’s unlikely that we will learn much about the conclave’s deliberations, but we can be certain that the next pope will enjoy the papacy much less than Leo X did. We can also be certain that an institution that survived the Protestant Reformation and the brutal sack of Rome by the troops of Charles V will survive a century or two longer.

READ MORE by Jim Picht at Stimulus That!


James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. If he could have three people from history over for dinner, one would certainly be Cesare Borgia. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at 




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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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