Borgia Pope, Son Threw Orgies With Virility Prizes: Lewis Lapham

The cover jacket of "Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy" by John Julius Norwich. Source: Random House via Bloomberg

Aug. 6 (Bloomberg) -- No one had a better understanding of the papal machinery than Rodrigo Borgia. A cardinal at age 25, he served in the Roman Curia under five popes, so when Innocent VIII died, he knew what to do: Four mules packed with bullion were sent to a crucial cardinal, and in 1492 Borgia duly became Alexander VI.

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He didn’t let religion interfere with his lavish lifestyle and love of family. By the time he ascended to the papacy, Borgia had fathered eight children with three different women, and he was especially close to those he’d had with long-time mistress Vanozza Catanei: Giovanni, Cesare, Lucrezia and Goffredo, showering them with churchly and secular riches.

Cesare, who may have murdered brother Giovanni and slept with sister Lucrezia, was equally fond of his old man, inviting him to parties, most memorably the “Banquet of Chestnuts” with 50 naked prostitutes.

After a nice supper, lamp stands with candles were placed throughout, chestnuts were tossed around the room, and the women crawled on their hands and knees to find them. The Pope admired virility, and prizes of fashionable shoes, doublets and hats were offered to the top performing men.

I spoke with John Julius Norwich, author of “Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy,” on the following topics:

1. One Biblical Sentence

2. Moral Blackmail

3. Monsters & Mediocrities

4. Alexander VI

5. Current Papacy

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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at