Renaissance and Reformation Pope Alexander VI
Stella Fletcher
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0357


There were two Spanish popes during the Renaissance period: Calixtus III (r. 1455–1458) and his nephew Alexander VI (r. 1492–1503). The latter was born in Xàtiva (Játiva), near Valencia, but spent most of his life in Italy and tends to be known as Rodrigo Borgia, the Italian version of his name. Calixtus made him a cardinal in 1456. He served as vice-chancellor of the Church from 1457 through to his papal election in 1492, and some effort is made in this article to balance the achievements of his time as a cardinal with the events that dictated his actions as pope. Summaries of his life and career can be found in numerous Reference Works and in some Overviews, though Journals tend to be less rewarding. Such is the reputation of Alexander and his children—principally, Cesare and Lucrezia (see Oxford Bibliographies in Renaissance and Reformation articles Cesare Borgia and Lucretia Borgia—that numerous relevant Primary Sources have been made available in print, though perhaps the most remarkable feature of this article is the sheer quantity of Collections of Papers published to mark the fifth centenary of the second Borgia pontificate. In other Oxford Bibliographies articles, one or two such collections might be dissected, with certain pieces being selected for more detailed examination. In this instance, there are so many volumes of essays that it would be unfair to single out a handful of contributions. Not only that, but there are so many collections of papers that the genre even spills over into other sections of the article. More restrained are the Lives and Times, the standard works on Alexander and his pontificate. Renaissance popes did not compartmentalize their lives and responsibilities, though the present format requires that we do precisely that, making for some artificial divisions between Ecclesiastical Responsibilities and Relations with Secular Powers. Easier to distinguish is Cultural Patronage. The article acknowledges the remarkably rich afterlife of Alexander VI with a section tracing his posthumous evolution From Man to Myth.

Reference Works

Eubel 1913 is the most venerable work in this selection and has been an inspiration to many historians of the papacy, cardinalate, and episcopate in the Renaissance period. Its most direct descendant is Catholic Hierarchy, which has an advantage in terms of flexibility, though Eubel 1913 retains a scholarly edge because all appointments are supported by archival references. The other reference works all provide variations on the theme of a potted biography of Alexander VI, the model being established by the Dizionario biografico degli italiani (DBI), which includes him because of the eminence he achieved in Italy, overriding his non-Italian birth. The Diccionario de historia eclesiástica de España provides similar coverage, though it should be noted that the entry on Alexander VI is by a prolific historian of the Borgia/Borja whose name can appear variously as Miguel or Miquel Batllori, depending on whether the publication is in (Castilian) Spanish or the author’s native Catalan. The most accessible potted biography in English is to be found in Kelly and Walsh 2010. The Internet being more immediately accessible for many students than any library book, Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church is superficially attractive, but needs to be treated with some caution because it lists names, titles, appointments, events, and sources without any attempt to differentiate between them in terms of significance. Enciclopedia dei papi is much more discerning, combining the erudition of the long-deceased Giovanni Battista Picotti, one of the most prolific historians of Alexander’s pontificate, with the advantages of recent updating. In direct competition is Levillain 2002, which has to provide more than potted biographies of popes and does so with impressive and reliable consequences.

  • Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church.

    This website is omnivorous in its acquisition of information about all cardinals past and present, each of whom comes with a bibliography and some of whom merit a webography. Alexander’s personal entry has similar coverage of each of the cardinals he created, together with accounts of the five conclaves in which he participated.

  • Catholic Hierarchy.

    Essentially a more flexible but less scholarly version of Eubel 1913 and the other tomes in the nine-volume Hierarchia catholica series. Information about Rodrigo Borgia/Alexander can be accessed via the “structured view” of dioceses, the list of deceased bishops (as “de Borja”), “events by year,” “consistories” (for the creation of cardinals), and “conclaves.”

  • Diccionario de historia eclesiástica de España. 4 vols. Madrid: Instituto Enrique Flórez, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1972–1975.

    The entry on “Alejandro VI” (1: 36–39) is by the veteran Catalan historian of Borgia-centered Italo-Spanish relations, Miguel Batllori. It provides a good summary of his career, emphasizing the years 1492–1503, including the vicissitudes of the Italian Wars and Alexander’s dealings with Savonarola. Cultural patronage is not a priority. Supplement published in 1987.

  • Dizionario biografico degli italiani. 100 vols. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1960–2020.

    The Dizionario biografico degli italiani is the standard reference work for all major historical figures associated with the peninsula. Volumes were published in strictly alphabetical order, which means that Giovanni Battista Picotti’s entry on Alexander (2: 196–205) is one of the earliest and, bibliographically, most out of date. Some compensation can be found in the entry for the pope’s daughter Lucrezia, which was not published until 2006. All entries, including that for Alexander, are also available online.

  • Enciclopedia dei papi. 3 vols. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 2000.

    The entry on Alexander VI is in Volume 3 at pp. 13–22. It was originally written by Giovanni Battista Picotti for the DBI and was updated by Matteo Sanfilippo for this work. Citing Mallett 1969 (cited under Lives and Times) as a turning point in appreciation of Alexander and his kin, Sanfilippo explains that the “Borgia excesses” identified by previous generations are now accepted as behavior typical of their era.

  • Eubel, Konrad. Hierarchia catholica medii aevi. Vol. 2, 1431–1503. 2d ed. Münster, Germany: Sumptibus et Typis Librariae Regensbergianae, 1913.

    Details all cardinalitial and episcopal appointments. Rodrigo Borgia therefore appears as cardinal deacon of S. Nicola in Carcere (1456–1484), cardinal bishop of Albano (1471–1476) and of Porto and S. Rufina (1476–1492), administrator of the bishoprics of Gerona (1457–1458), Valencia (1458–1492; elevated to archbishopric, 1492), Cartagena (1482–1492), Mallorca (1489–1492), and Eger (1491–1492).

  • Kelly, John N. D., and Michael J. Walsh. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes. 2d rev. ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acref/9780199295814.001.0001

    Kelly’s original text was published in 1986 and included the entry on Alexander (255–257). Walsh added entries on the most recent popes and updated the bibliographies for each of Kelly’s pieces. This is the most easily accessible of the books in this selection, though the others are to be preferred for more specialist treatment of each pope.

  • Levillain, Philippe, ed. The Papacy: An Encyclopedia. 3 vols. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

    The entry on Alexander (1: 25–28) is by Alonso Justo Fernandez. The advantage of this publication over rival works lies in the range of its alphabetically listed topics, which extend far beyond the lives and times of individual popes, relevant entries including “Castel Sant’Angelo,” “Donation of Constantine,” “Feasts of Papal Rome,” “Holy Year,” “Rome,” and “St Peter’s Basilica.”

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