Renaissance and Reformation Cesare Borgia
Stella Fletcher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0389


Cesare Borgia (b. 1475–d. 1507) came to prominence when his father, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, was elected Pope Alexander VI in 1492. A year later Alexander raised the teenage Cesare to the cardinalate, only for the young man to renounce his clerical career in 1498 and devote himself to the military unification of the Papal States. This meant playing off the competing interests of France and Spain in the early phases of the Italian Wars, in the course of which Cesare gained a French bride and a French title, duke of Valentinois (hence “Valentino” in Italian). Even as a cleric his name was linked with the murder of his brother Juan, duke of Gandia, in 1497; as a soldier and duke of the Romagna he gained a reputation for strong and ruthless leadership. The vicars who generally ruled their portions of the Papal States without interference from Rome were picked off one by one, until many of them and their fellow condottieri plotted against Cesare at Magione and were efficiently captured and killed by him in a coup at Senigallia (Sinigaglia), an episode that particularly impressed the Florentine envoy Niccolò Machiavelli. A few months later, in August 1503, Fortune’s wheel turned when Pope Alexander died and Cesare found himself at the mercy of his numerous enemies. The final portion of his life was spent fighting for his brother-in-law the king of Navarre, dying as violently as he had lived. Such a varied career means that Cesare can be found in a particularly wide variety of Reference Works. The drama of his life means that Biographies of him tend to be aimed at the general market. The serious student would be well advised to get the measure of these books and then set them aside, relying instead on Primary Sources and the assessments of the scholars whose works are featured here under the heading of Contexts. Some detailed material is available via Journals, but Collections of Papers are a mixed bag, ranging from academic conference proceedings to the most superficial of exhibition catalogues. Students looking for essay or dissertation material could mine all these sources in order to assess Cesare’s military significance. An alternative would be to focus on his reputation as Machiavelli’s Muse, a theme for which a good balance of primary and secondary sources is available. The same could even be said for the literary afterlife of Cesare and his closest relatives, though tutors might take some convincing of the academic rigor involved in tracing his progress From Fact to Fiction.

Reference Works

The only resource dedicated to all aspects of the Borgia family history is the website of the Institut Internacional d’Estudis Borgians, which is worth consulting throughout any research into the career of Cesare Borgia. Cesare’s paternal ancestry was entirely Spanish, but he was born in Italy, spent most of his life there, and consequently qualifies for inclusion in the standard biographical reference work Dizionario biografico degli italiani. For most academic purposes this is the work that should be kept to hand. Although Cesare’s life was relatively short, it encompassed two careers, clerical and military. Regarding the former, a wealth of ecclesiastical records exist from which information has been extracted. Eubel 1913 is the classic resource for all bishops and cardinals of the Renaissance period up to 1503, so it may be consulted for details of all Cesare’s episcopal appointments, together with his time spent as a cardinal. The Catholic Hierarchy website contains all the same appointments, without the supporting archival references in Eubel 1913. The same basic information can also be found on the website Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, which is an impressive source of information about cardinals of all periods, but should not be preferred to either Eubel 1913 or Catholic Hierarchy. As a group cardinals could hardly be more clearly defined, in contrast to which the military website Condottieri di ventura has a harder task identifying mercenary soldiers who operated in Italy between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries and then in assembling a uniform standard of information for each of them. Cesare Borgia was an employer of such soldiers and therefore does not loom as large in this resource as do many of his contemporaries who were on the receiving end of such contracts. However, if enough time is allowed for exploring this resource, it can yield interesting results.

  • Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church.

    The webpage devoted to Cesare Borgia can be accessed via the General List of Cardinals, that of Cardinals in Alphabetical Order, or the Catalogues section, which includes a list of the cardinal deacons of S. Maria Nuova. It is a reasonable source of biographical information. The bibliography is severely limited, though the webography may be of use as a source of visual images.

  • Catholic Hierarchy.

    Directly derived from Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church and indirectly from Eubel 1913, this online resource includes a page devoted to César de Borja, where his episcopal appointments are conveniently tabulated. The stress placed on Cesare as a “layman” and “former archbishop-elect” of Valencia suggests a desire to put a degree of distance between the Church Militant and the cardinal who resigned his status to become a soldier.

  • Condottieri di ventura.

    This online resource consists largely of biographical entries for hundreds of mercenary captains who operated in Italy between 1330 and 1550, some of whom feature in Cesare Borgia’s story either because he employed them or because they rebelled against him. There is no entry for Cesare, but one way of tracing his influence is to look at Battaglie and focus on the battles of Calmazzo (October 1502), Ponte San Giovanni (September 1503), and Castiglion Fiorentino (October 1503).

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

    This is the principal biographical resource for individuals throughout Italian history. The entry on Cesare Borgia is by Felix Gilbert and can be found in Volume 12 at pages 696–708, the same text appears online. Gilbert’s coverage is thorough, and his bibliography contains useful observations about earlier biographies. Cesare’s wife Charlotte d’Albret and daughter Louise lived exclusively in France and are therefore not featured in the Dizionario biografico.

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

    This volume serves as the foundation stone for any serious exploration of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the Renaissance period. Cesare appears as the fifth of the forty-three cardinals created by Alexander VI, and can also be found among the cardinal deacons of S. Maria Nova, the bishops of Pamplona and archbishops of Valencia, all of whom are listed, together with all other cardinals and bishops of that era.

  • Institut Internacional d’Estudis Borgians.

    This site is fast becoming an essential resource for a wide variety of information about the Borgia dynasty, whether they lived in Spain or in Italy, including a bibliography and filmography, details of relevant archives in the Vatican, and guides to the cities most directly associated with the family. It is the means of accessing the specialist journal Revista Borja (cited under Journals).

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