In 1494 a Dominican friar called Savonarola preached against the Vatican. He did not mince his words.
‘They preach chastity but keep mistresses; poverty and think only of worldly riches. They have made the church a prostitute whose poisoned breath rises to the heavens.’
He caught the public’s imagination by demanding the city of Florence become a ‘Religious and Christian Republic’. In a fit of excessive zeal the populace held bonfires of the vanities, burning anything that smacked of pleasure: mirrors, cosmetics, clothes, books, gaming tables, musical instruments and even painting by Michaelangelo and Botticelli.
According to Savonarola, the root of all evil lay with Pope Alexander IV, otherwise known as Rodrigo Borgia. Even today, the Borgia name is remembered as a by-word for treachery and depravity.
Yet Rodrigo was not such a bad pope. He had a slight issue with the 10 commandments – mainly the excessive use of the word ‘not’.
But he was an able administrator and unlike many of his predecessors absolutely never ever murdered anyone unless they stood in his way. Despite being a cardinal since the age of 25, Rodrigo had 4 children to his beautiful mistress. Two are notorious.
Lucrezia, allegedly a poisoner, was believed to have committed incest with her father and brothers. This is unfair. There is no evidence, only scandal. Married at 13, she was divorced on the grounds of non-consummation (despite being pregnant) when her husband outlived his usefulness and churlishly refused to be murdered. Then her brother Cesare killed her beloved 2nd husband. Lucrezia is often seen as her father’s pawn. Regardless, she was no bimbo. He twice left her in charge of the Papal Palace during absences.
If Lucrezia’s reputation is undeserved, Cesare’s doesn’t do him justice. His ruthlessness inspired Machiavelli to write ‘The Prince’ – the essential how to manual for the medieval noble on the make. At 22, he murdered his brother. It was never proved because his father prevented an investigation. Then it was his brother- in-law and eventually everyone else standing in the way.
Cesare also liked the girls. The family orgies would make any decent Christian blush. Fortunately there were not many decent Christians in the Vatican at this time so we know quite a lot about them. Cesare died at 31. Towards the end he wore a mask, due to being hideously disfigured by syphilis.
As for Savonarola, Rodrigo was far too laid back to give a toss about the ravings of some mad monk. But it was inevitable even his patience would eventually wear thin. In 1497 he excommunicated Savonarola, and when the monk ignored him demanded his arrest.
By this time the novelty of repentance had worn off with the Florentians. For once they not only obeyed the pope but took it one step further by burning the turbulent friar at the stake. I wonder if Savonarola appreciated the irony of his grisly end. Surely he knew the greatest vanity of all is pride.