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When Leonardo Da Vinci, Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia met

…the artist, the philosopher and the warrior

By Osa Mbonu

Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, as many of us know, was also a great conqueror. Alexander grew up crying that his father, Philip, had conquered the whole world, leaving none for him to conquer. Nevertheless, the young Alexander later found enough unconquered lands and people to overrun and subdue.

Philip did something strange during his lifetime when he was moving from one tent to another in the battlefields. He employed a young man and assigned to him a weird duty: to wake him up every morning and say to him: “Philip of Macedonia, remember that one day you will die.”

The horrified servant protested to his master, saying it was not a pleasant way for anyone to wake up in the morning. But it was for Phillip, and he compelled the servant to carry out his assigned duty. So, every morning, the servant entered into the general’s tent and woke him up and said to him: “Philip of Macedonia, remember that one day you will die.”

Philip was a wise man, for when men have become great, or made some level of transient achievements (for all human achievements are ephemeral) they tend to forget that one day they will die.

If these four protagonists – Leonardo Da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli, Cesare Borgia and especially, Rodrigo Borgia who later became Pope Alexander VI – had constantly had it mind that one day they will die, or even fall before their dying day, they probably would have acted differently.   They need little or no introduction for those who are abreast with history. Their intersecting lives and the world they tried to shape are documented by Paul Strathern in his great book titled “The artist, the philosopher, and the warrior”.

The scene is Florence, a city-state of Italy, and the story begins with the birth of Leonardo Da Vinci and the beginning of his career as an artist and military engineer. Then enters Machiavelli, who was born on May 3, 1469 to an impoverished lawyer, Bernardo. Through his observation of the political events of his days, Machiavelli became convinced that events are determined by the character of the leader, but that even the most inspirational of leaders was nothing, unless he had a means to combat his enemies and retain power, of which only the power of arms could do.

Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI)

It may sound blasphemous to say that a Pope is evil, a rogue, treacherous and a murderer. But these are even not enough venomous words to describe the father of Cesare Borgia, Rodrigo Borgia who later became Pope Alexander VI.

The Borgias were originally Spanish and therefore regarded as outsiders in Italy, the real owners of the papacy. In September 1475, Cesare was born to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia by one of his numerous mistresses, Vannozza de’ Cattanei. The Cardinal had other sons and daughters from other mistresses but Vannozza was a strong-willed woman and she made sure that the children she bore for the Cardinal were more loved by their father and his chief beneficiaries than his other children. Cesare was educated for entry into the Church. He was taught Latin, and at age 6 Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia prevailed on Pope Sixtus IV to grant Cesare a “dispensation” from his illegitimacy which would qualify him for ecclesiatical offices. Besides other strings of lucrative benefices obtained for Cesare, who had not even taken any holy order, by his father, at age 15, Cesare was made the Bishop-elect of Pamplona, the capital of the Spanish kingdom of Navarre which resulted in a serious uprising by the angry citizens of Pamplona who saw the appointment of a 15 year old boy to be their Bishop as insult to them and their kingdom.

By hook, crook and fraud, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia continued to advance his own career in the Church. He wangled his way to become the vice-chancellor, a position that enabled him to amass great wealth and became one of the most powerful figures in Rome.

“Although Cardinal Borgia may have lived a louche life,” Strathern writes, “he made sure he always attended the consistory, when the cardinals met to discuss the business of the Church. A man of intelligence and cunning, he quickly gained an expert knowledge of the financial dealings of the Church and of the power politics involved in its operations.”

There are testimonies to the wittiness of Cesare’s mind both in school and ordinary life, but he had no inclination whatsoever for the priesthood.

In July 1492, the reigning Pope Innocent VIII died and on August 5, the cardinals embarked on their secret conclave to elect his successor. Just as it is in the worldly politics, possibly more, horse-trading, briberies, and treacheries attended the papal election, and Cardinal Borgia proved to be a master in such evil maneuverings. At the previous election in 1484, he had been out-maneuvered by some cabals and had lost to Innocent VIII. Once again, the cardinal found himself being blocked by the same forces. At 61, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia realized that it was his last chance of becoming the pope.

For five days, the intense discussion continued, with no sign of resolving the deadlock. Eventually it emerged that the balance was held by Cardinal Ascanio Sforza.

“On the night of August 10,” the contemporary diarist Stefano Infessura recorded, “four mules laden with treasure were observed leaving Cardinal Borgia’s palazzo for that of Cardinal Sforza…during those days, the withdrawals from the Spannocchi Bank in Rome, where Cardinal Borgia deposited his money, were so massive that the bank itself almost went under. On the morning of August 11…it emerged – to widespread astonishment – that Cardinal Ascanio Sforza had decided to cast his vote (and those of his faction) for Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who was consequently elected as the new pope and took the name Alexander VI…the pope’s annual income around this time was around 300,000 ducats, and the selling of rich benefices could amount to even more than this sum. Previous conclaves had been known to be corrupt, with money used to influence voting, but this occasion was generally reckoned to have been the first time in history when the papacy was simply bought outright.

 

 

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