Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Borgia Apartments – The Pope was in his parlour . . .

A portrait bust of Pope Alexander VI by Pasquale da Caravaggio (Berlin Museum)

It’s not easy to find more than basic particulars about the Borgia apartments on the Web. It soon becomes clear that the Borgias, after more than half a millennium, are still not the flavour of any era. I remember reading an article on the Web (by a New York Times or New Yorker journalist?) about a visit to the Borgia Apartments a decade or so ago, and when he or she wanted information about a finer point in their history, even some Vatican official was not able to help out and was clearly also not interested in the topic. I also remember a recent comment by a tourist about how quiet the Borgia Apartments are: not at all thronging with people as other sights in the Vatican Museums.

This benign disregard becomes more obvious when you search the Web for finer detail about the apartments; just compare the information available on the Raphael Rooms on Wikipedia, for instance, and is it my imagination or do Vatican sites provide only the bare minimum of information about the Borgia Apartments? Even in academic books on the Vatican you will find that a detailed plan will be provided for the Raphael Stanze, perhaps with a comment that the Borgia Apartments are just below and have the "same layout". Not quite, you realise when taking enormous trouble to discover century-old maps on the Web.

Information about the apartments (plans, layout) cannot be considered in isolation from information about the "old" Vatican Palace. For example, in the posting about the Sala dei Pontefici in this blog, there is a reference to Maria Donati Barcellona's comment on the collapse of the roof of the Sala dei Pontefici, or Sala de’ Papi. It is precisely that comment which sidetracked me into searching for further and more-or-less reliable detail about an event that I've already come across in general reading about the Borgias.

Let's go back in time a tad more than half a millennium:

So, the Pope was in his parlour, conversing with his banker. Or preparing for an audience. Or waiting for his children. . . 

The various sources differ, as they do about the date: either 29 June or 30 June 1500, a jubilee year. The details of the event are not quite clear either. A sudden summer squall struck the Vatican, or lightning struck the roof the Vatican Palace, or a sudden gust of wind blew down a chimney stack onto the roof, or because of a combination of the foregoing, or because of the will of God as expressed in these events. And there is, furthermore, also uncertainty about the number of people present in the Sala: some say only the pope and two others (Cardinal Ferrari of Capua, who was the Vatican’s datary, and Gaspar the chamberlain), whereas others add a third to the trinity, the banker Lorenzo Chigi, to whom the pope was supposedly speaking.

This means that you have to go back to the most reliable contemporary source, at least in the sense that he was closest to the event, Johann Burchard, “the pope’s [Alexander VI’s] Master of Ceremonies . . . who kept his own secret diary and provided the most extensive source of information for any study on the Borgia period” (JB 8). But you find, to your great surprise, that two English books with translated excerpts from Burchard’s diary – Geoffrey Parker’s At the Court of the Borgia and F L Glaser’s Pope Alexander VI and his Court – do not contain any mention of the collapse of the roof at all. They do dwell on fascinating bits of gossip and tabloid news in Rome at the time, juicy stuff indeed, but not a word about the cave-in. 

Naturally, I could not help wondering: where did the other sources find this information? Was Burchard the origin, or someone else? Eventually I came across a French book with the full text of the Diarium sive rerum urbanarum commentarii, (1483-1506), texte latin publié intégralement pour la première fois, d'après les manuscrits de Paris, de Rome et de Florence (1885), of Burchardus, Joannes.

I have no French, Italian or Latin, but I was able to search in the text among what appeared to be the relevant dates. I am familiar with the word fenestra for “window” because I know that various people got defenestrated at various times in history: they got chucked out. So, when I encountered the words fenestras and Papa è morto! Papa è morto! I realised that I must be on the right page – windows had to be closed just before or when the storm struck and the pope was thought to have died. I copied some passages in the vicinity of the fenestras spot and submitted them to Google’s Translator:

Supercelum more consueto erat extensum. In aula superiori, lesit et interfecit tres personas, que simul cum ruina ceciderunt in aulam inferiorem, quarum una adstatim mortua est, alie persone due mortue sunt postea. Cum Papa soli rant Rmus D cardinalis Capuanus et D. Gaspar Pot, cubicularis secretus; qui videntis tempus adeo turbatum et ventum frigidum cum pluvia per fenestras aulam ingredi, de commissione Pape iverunt versus dua fenestras, unus ad unam et alius ad aliam ut eas clauderent; vix erant in fenestris, et ecce ruina; saltarunt in fenestras,in quibus salvati sunt: videntes autem ruinam Pontificis sedem circumdedisse, acclamarunt illis portam aule predicte custodientibus qui ad portam erant: Papa e morto! Papa e morto!

Supercelum was extended in the usual manner. In the court of the above, the wounds, and killed three persons, at the same time they fell in the hall with the ruin of the lower, of which one stands is dead, two other persons died later. When the Pope alone had 500 Rmus cardinal of Capua, and D. Gaspar drunk, private servants, who, seeing him so upset, and a cold wind with rain at the windows to enter the hall, the commission of the pope went to the two windows, one on one and the other one close to them, it was hardly in the windows, and a a fall; saltarunt in the windows, in which they were saved, they saw the downfall of the pope surrounded the throne, exclaimed to those who keep the gate of the hall to the gate, the pope, the outlet! Outlet of the Pope!

Very funny and very confusing. Even more puzzling to me was the fate of Lorenzo Chigi in context of the translation:

Laurentius, marchio de Chisis, qui exe caso predicto mortuus est, fuit in mane sequenti a familia Rmi. D. Cardinalis sensensis et alliis amicis ad basilicam s petri associatus et ibidem sepultus.

Lawrence, Marquis of end to end, which carries out the caso he died, was the following morning from the family of Rmi. D. Cardinal sensensis garlic and friends to support him and that St Peter was buried there.

Even more confusing. With a whiff of garlic.

Fortunately I found translations of reliable texts about the event on the Web. First, Ludwig Pastor, The History of the Popes, from the Close of the Middle Ages, Vol. 6, 1901, pp. 78-79:

Shortly before . . . , Alexander’s own life had been in great danger. In the ninth year of his reign, on the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, Sigismondo de’ Conti relates, just as the Pope was about to give his audience, the sky being clear, suddenly, with no warning, a tornado of wind sprung up and tore off the very solid roof of the upper part of the Sala de' Papi as though it had been made of straw. In consequence, that portion of the roof under which the Pope was sitting also gave way, but the balcony over his head, still remaining attached to the wall, protected  him from the falling masonry, and the gold-embroidered hanging over his throne from the smothering dust. Half an hour elapsed before his servants could make their way through the wind and dust to the place where he lay, bleeding and apparently hardly alive. He was carried into the adjoining hall and there soon recovered consciousness. His physicians found that two fingers of the right hand had been injured, and he had a wound in his head. The first night he was very feverish, but soon began to get better. “If nothing unforeseen occurs,” the Mantuan Envoy writes on the 2nd July, “he will recover.” This Envoy states that on the previous day also Alexander had a narrow escape of being killed by a heavy iron chandelier, which fell just in front of him. Any other man would have been led to look into himself and consider his ways by such a series of narrow escapes; but Alexander was a true Borgia, he thanked God and the Blessed Virgin and SS. Peter and Paul for his preservation, and lived on as before.

(Although Sigismondo dei Conti da Foligno, a papal chamberlain or secretary, is a contemporary source, it is somewhat odd that Pastor makes no mention in this context of the observations of Burchard who, after all, was also at the heart of events at the Vatican.)

And then Ferdinand Gregorovius, History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, Vol. 7, Pt. 2, 1900, pp. 465-66:

Meanwhile the Pope was attacked by fever. Roman satire composed a dialogue between him and death, which again spared him in an accident that followed. On the afternoon of June 29 he was sitting in a room in the Vatican, when a sudden storm burst over the palace, and a chimney fell through the roof, carrying with it people from the upper floor and killing Lorenzo Chigi, brother of the celebrated Agostino. The datary Ferrari and the chamberlain Gaspar sprang into the recess of a window, shrieking, “The Pope is dead!" The cry re-echoed through Rome, and Caesar may well have turned pale! The city rose in momentary confusion; several Spaniards fled to S. Angelo; the citizens rushed to arms; messengers hurried to the exiles to tell them that now was the time to return and take vengeance on their enemies. But meanwhile cannons announced from S. Angelo that the Pope was still alive. He was found sitting among the débris, protected by a curtain, but with two wounds on his head, and was carried out. On July 2 he caused thanksgivings to be offered to the Virgin, with whose special protection he believed himself favoured. His natural force was inexhaustible.

The banker, then, seems not  to have been in conversation with the pope, but came from above, like a divine portent, along with the masonry, like an angel from on high. And so it proved, since further searching for the name “Lorenzo Chigi” yielded the following clarification by Alexandre Dumas Sr.:

But it seemed as though God wished to show His strange vicar on earth that He was angered by the mockery of sacred things, and on the Eve of St. Peter`s Day, just as the pope was passing the Campanile on his way to the tribune of benedictions, a enormous piece of iron broke off and fell at his feet; and then, as though one warning had not been enough, on the next day, St. Peter`s, when the pope happened to be in one of the rooms of his ordinary dwelling with Cardinal Capuano and Monsignore Poto, his private chamberlain, he saw through the open windows that a very black cloud was coming up. Foreseeing a thunderstorm, he ordered the cardinal and the chamberlain to shut the windows. He had not been mistaken; for even as they were obeying his command, there came up such a furious gust of wind that the highest chimney of the Vatican was overturned, just as a tree is rooted up, and was dashed upon the roof, breaking it in; smashing the upper flooring, it fell into the very room where they were. Terrified by the noise of this catastrophe, which made the whole palace tremble, the cardinal and Monsignore Poto turned round, and seeing the room full of dust and debris, sprang out upon the parapet and shouted to the guards at the gate, "The pope is dead, the pope is dead!" At this cry, the guards ran up and discovered three persons lying in the rubbish on the floor, one dead and the other two dying. The dead man was a gentleman of Siena ailed [“hailed”: dropping of the French “h” here, which has been done in all text versions on the Web?] Lorenzo Chigi, and the dying were two resident officials of the Vatican. They had been walking across the floor above, and had been flung down with the debris. But Alexander was not to be found; and as he gave no answer, though they kept on calling to him, the belief that he had perished was confirmed, and very soon spread about the town. But he had only fainted, and at the end of a certain time he began to come to himself, and moaned, whereupon he was discovered, dazed with the blow, and injured, though not seriously, in several parts of his body. He had been saved by little short of a miracle: a beam had broken in half and had left each of its two ends in the side walls; and one of these had formed a sort of roof aver [over] the pontifical throne; the pope, who was sitting there at the time, was protected by this overarching beam, and had received only a few contusions (AD).

Later in his narrative, Dumas remarks that Lorenzo was the brother of Agostino Chigi (the famous entrepreneur and banker who helped to finance the popes from Alexander to Leo X). I’m glad I found Dumas’s version last, because if his had been the first, I would have doubted whether I could trust the novelist’s version. It just goes to show. 

The omission of this event in books with excerpts from Burchard’s diary remains puzzling.  The episode happens to be one of those quieter moments in history (despite the loud crashing down of the roof) that had far more thundering consequences than may initially have been apparent.

First, it can only have increased Pope Alexander's sensitivity to hearing "time's wingèd chariot hurrying near" – like most popes, he would have needed no reminding of "so little done, so much to do". For his kids, at least.

Second, as both Gregorovius and Pastor point out, Cesare Borgia himself realised in what a vulnerable position he was and that he just had to achieve what he could while his father was still alive. This point was driven home a mere two or three days after the incident when the Venetian ambassador Paolo Capello came to visit the Pope to check on the seriousness of the Holy Father’s injuries – sincere political solicitude, one might call it. When the ambassador left the Vatican, Cesare tried to sound him out on obtaining protection from Venice by confessing that it was dangerous for himself and his political future to rely only on the pope. So it was, the ambassador agreed, rubbing Cesare’s nose in it: “You are very wise, my lord Duke, for should the Pope die, you would be reduced to nothing within four days” (CF 225).

It is for this reason that the roof-collapse incident should not have been be omitted from Glaser’s and Parker’s excerpts from Burchard’s diary. It is after that point that Cesare perhaps came to be more driven than ever before. Is it not significant that the attack on and eventual murder of Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie, Lucrezia’s husband, follows a mere month and a half afterwards?

In other postings, I'll take a look at the "Old" Vatican Palace and Borgia Apartments in the time of the Borgia family.

A postscript added later:

In praise of Pinturicchio's Borgia Apartments – Douglas Brooke Wheelton Sladen, author of The Secrets of the Vatican (1907):
It is not my intention in describing the Palace rooms, which are among the most delightfully gay and gorgeous of the world's monuments, to pause to inquire if Pinturicchio painted the whole of the Pope's mantle in that wonderful kneeling figure of Alexander VI, or to discuss technicalities at all. That is for artists to propound to artists, a very small and depreciative audience. I am not capable of writing for them, and I do not wish to write for them; most of them go through galleries looking out for faults, not beauties, and though the chance of the humblest living depends on it, they nearly always fail to remember that art was made for man kind, not for rival artists. I have a melancholy example before me of the dangers of a little knowledge of art. Writing about the Borgia Rooms, which form admittedly one of the most beautiful ensembles in the whole of art, it is only occasionally that the author [an over-critical one] vouchsafes a salt-spoonful of praise; he is afraid of devoting one word to enthusiasm. That is not the way to write about the Borgia Rooms. The ordinary visitors who go there do not want to know if Pinturicchio and his school drew hands well; they want to rise on stepping-stones to higher things  . . .  
Then you step through a door into a second room, the fine applicability of whose title you recognize before your foot is off the threshold: the Sala dei Misteri, the Hall of the Mysteries. You are in Aladdin's cave. There is nothing like it in Rome outside of these precincts. The Garden of Paradise in the ancient basilica of S. Prassede is likewise all gold and colour, with its mosaics of a thousand years ago, but it is small, and its figures are cramped, almost grotesque; the roof of the Farnesina, with Raffaelle's Cupid and Psyche spread over it, lacks the richness of setting which these great frescoes of Pinturicchio have in the moulding and gilding of the Gothic ribs of the Borgias' pleasure-house. There may be this or the other fault to find with the work of Pinturicchio; the faults need little finding in the work of most of his pupils; but the fact remains that, if one suddenly became a fairy prince and had the choice of all the frescoes in the world for the decoration of one s pleasure-house, these are the frescoes one would choose, before the more serious frescoes of the Library of Siena; before the nobler frescoes of Raffaelle in the rooms exactly above (the Stanze), which contain the School of Athens, and the other tableaux of that glorious suite; before the frescoes of the Farnesina, more perfect, but with less to nourish the eyes (DBWS 433-34).

And added even later:

I realised that I had a battered third-hand copy of H V Morton's A Traveller in Rome on my shelf. And yes, he does comment on the Borgia Apartments:
Beneath the stanze of Raphael I entered the Borgia Apartments, which I thought the most interesting of all the rooms on view in the Vatican. The moment I passed under a low marble door lintel and saw the rich rooms leading one into another, their gilded ceiling vaults framing the finest frescoes of Pinturicchio, I had the feeling that five centuries had melted away and that a bony hand was beckoning me into one of the window alcoves. These beautiful rooms are jewel caskets which the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, made for himself, in which he plotted and schemed for his children and in which he died . . . I left the Borgia Apartments with the thought that I had seen few rooms so soaked in the atmosphere of a past time. Even in the Tower of London or Hampton Court one has the feeling that those who lived there have long been dead and have no further interest in the scenes of their earthly lives: but the Borgia rooms are haunted by uneasy spirits (HVM 383-84).
And still later:

A lovely article by Dr Christopher Evan Longhurst here:


Clemente Fusero. The Borgias. London: The Pall Mall Press, 1972.

Douglas Brooke Wheelton Sladen, The Secrets of the Vatican, 1907, pp.433-36.

H V Morton, A Traveller in Rome, London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1958.

Johann Burchard: At the Court of the Borgia: Being an Account of the Reign of Pope Alexander VI written by his Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard edited and translated by Geoffrey Parker. London: The Folio Society. 1963


  1. Hi, I just have to say thanks and applaude you for these pages. Cause as you say, there is very little in the form av details to be found on the web about the Borgia apartments. I keep coming back here, comparing my notes and photos to your texts. So thanks a lot! / Erik, Sweden.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment: I appreciate it deeply. If you have any criticism or hints for improvements, please let me know. I think it's time for a review of the material anyway. Thanks once again!