The tale of Italy’s greatest scoundrel always ends with a brief reference to his obscure death in a skirmish, somewhere in Spain. That’s all you get.
Well, he died near Viana, defending the Navarrese against those bloody Castilians, though more for something to do than for any ideals. His unwanted remains, after some back-and-forth due to spiteful moralists and bloody Castilians, still rest here in Santa Maria.
It’s a fitting place for him. A lover of art, Spanish by descent, he was the son of a pope, was made a cardinal in his youth (by dad), resigned from the clergy to marry Navarrese royalty. I say, let him stay here…but let him stay dead!
Guys, I’m Catholic if I’m anything. But if you are ever wondering why there was a Reformation, just recall the lives of Caesar Borgia and his father, Rodrigo Borgia, also known as His Holiness Alexander VI.
Today’s naughty boys are pussycats. When Pope Alexander had a bastard, he didn’t fudge it. He didn’t say: “I did not have sex with that woman…with Miss Vannozza…” Nor did he hit the Renaissance equivalent of rehabs or blubber a public repentance. Instead, he called the bastard Caesar, made sure he was a proper bastard, and sent him out to conquer as much of Italy as Alexander couldn’t handle on his own.
Caesar Borgia was supremely capable. Admired to some degree by Leonardo and by Machiavelli, he is still remembered as a just and efficient ruler from the time he spent running parts of Northern Italy. Like England’s equivalent, Richard III, his problem was not ability, but rather his impatience, and his wild ambition which overrode all morality. It’s not so much the murders one minds, it’s the fibbing. Feeling protected from childhood, (he was Bishop of Pamplona at fifteen), Caesar lied, betrayed, broke oaths with such ease and frequency, it’s a wonder anyone ever believed him. But charm, self-belief and that undeniable ability stretched his successes beyond what seemed possible.
As the result of a poisoning (possibly) which made both Caesar and Rodrigo very sick, the father died. Now the great flaw in Caesar’s plans became apparent: he couldn’t do without dad, and couldn’t determine a papal election. To make things worse, after a brief lame-duck papacy, possibly ended by poison, a della Rovere became pope, the worst possible outcome if you are a Borgia.
And so the phenomenal condottiere and potential stupor mundi ended up in Navarre as a hired lance. And so, just 31, he ended his days in that obscure skirmish, somewhere in Spain. And the pilgrims troop past his remains in Viana every day.
His motto was Aut Caesar Aut Nihil. To be Caesar or nothing. If he hadn’t been such a daddy’s boy…who knows?
Viana is worth a long stroll if you’ve got some energy left after the hike. It’s the last of Navarre, before we head to the Rioja, so check out that architecture.