Diary of a Borgia Pope - The Tale of Johannes Burchardus

May 21, 2011

The Diary Keeper of the Borgia Pope

Let writers of history remember never to dare to tell a lie nor fear to tell the truth. 
Pope Leo XIII

Johannes Burchardus (or Burchard, Burckhart) would perhaps only be a footnote in the history of the Catholic Church save for his contribution to the annals of history with a diary - the Liber Notarum -  invaluable for anyone studying the papacy of Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia. Serving as master of ceremonies for five pontiffs, Burchardus’ meticulous knowledge of law and diplomatic protocol made him indispensable within the papal court. Lapses of etiquette causing him acute annoyance, Burchardus controlled all placements of visiting dignitaries, cardinals, and wayward offspring such as Cesare, Lucrezia and Juan Borgia.

Born in Strasbourg in Alsace the mid 15th century and educated in the ecclesiastical influences, he was destined for a life of service in the Catholic Church   He chose not to follow the course of theology with another 10 years of study to achieve a doctorate.  Instead, Burchardus chose law, which suited his methodical nature and required only four years of study to achieve a doctoral degree.

Relocation to Rome proved monetarily rewarding for the young advocate.  Numerous lawsuits were continually before the ecclesiastical court in pursuit of benefices and acts of injustices in conjunction with the practice.  Citizens did not give up their property or homes without protest, no matter how high the law appeared to be placed.

Agostino Patrizzi, assistant master of ceremonies and friend of Burchardus longed to retire.  With his friend’s recommendation, Burchardus secured the appointment with 450 ducats and his destiny began.  Noting all detail of his duties proved to be an advantage, with his diary expanding over time, the value of his investment became evident.

Increasing attention to detail, both political and anecdotal, became especially crucial during the reign of Alexander VI.  The formalities of religious rules held no meaning for this pope, but the rituals required for celebration were particularly spectacular. We are made aware of Alexander's pursuit the of the façade of glory, a factor later explored by commentators such as Machiavelli.  The diary also correlates the gradual secularization of the papacy beginning with Sixtus IV, carried through by Innocent VIII and nurtured by Alexander VI.

Alexander's efforts in resuming the crusades against the Turks is also described - a complex financial and logistical process, leaving no stone unturned as monies were gathered from principalities, beleaguered neighboring kingdoms, and individual churches to fund the ever increasing expenses of  the 'holy war’.  Alexander understood money matters thoroughly, using every means at his disposal to fund his pontificate and justify a war with France, while keeping the Ottoman Empire at bay.  

Alexander was astute in the payment of salaries, knowing the way to keep officials in your employ happy is punctual payment.  This constant was a change from previous popes.  Poisoning cardinals though, to replenish his treasury as needed, can neither be proven nor disproved, though is often referenced by commentators:

“There was a kind of ‘white powder’ resembling sugar which the Borgias had already often found an expeditious means of dispatching their enemies.  It was a poison of the deadliest kind, and Cesare gave express commands that the wine should be offered to no one but the doomed persons.” [1]

The Borgia Pope did not revel in cruelty, but did not let any human scruples stand in the way of his own advancement and that of his family. Alexander put the money and influence of the church at Cesare’s disposal.  The late night comings and goings of this mercenaries, strangulations and murder are often entries without comment.  Lucrezia’s strategic marriages to strengthen alliances at the direction of her father are duly noted without expansion. 

Titian's Alexander presents Jacopo Pesaro to Saint Peter. The figure in this painting is sometimes incorrectly identified as Giovanni Sforza, Lucrezia Borgia's first husband and Lord of Pesaro.

Burchardus seemed more compelled to record the myriad rules of etiquette: when gold cushions were to be placed at the feet of the pope during family visits, specifying only honest courtesans being  allowed at the bacchanals, and the seating arrangements of cardinals during late night consistories. 

The minutiae detailed in these pages illustrates the daily duties of one observer within the close circle of papal attendants.  While Burchardus could be viewed as a “harmless pedant” his contribution to the magnificence of the façade of the ceremony cannot be diminished.  Several entries are notably lacking in detail, while others concerning anonymous crimes of the citizenry recounted with a level of detail not usually applied in the papal records. Reports of torture and hangings go beyond hearsay and speculation, and are often regarded as documented circumstance.  It is because of such reports that the legacy of Alexander's Papacy is often a darkened one. The diary also records the infamous 'Banquet of the Chestnuts' hosted by Cesare in the papal palace in 1501. [2]

Simon McBurney as Burchardus(Burckhart) in the Showtime series The Borgias

Of the more official events organized by Burchardus were the coronation of Alfonso II of Naples, the reception pageantry of King Charles VIII of France, and the religious rituals surrounding the death of Pope Alexander VI.  Pope Pius III appointed Burchardus Bishop of Orta and Civita Castellana, while Julius II awarded him other honors and offices.  Eventually the diary entries begin to condense as his health ebbed.  In 1505, Burchardus witnessed the marriage of Laura Orsini, daughter of Giulia Farnese and Pope Alexander VI to Nicholas della Rovere, nephew to Pope Julius II.  One of his final acts of office was supervising the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Peter in May 1506.  His residence can still be viewed at Via del Sudario 44, in Rome.

1. Mathew, A.H. The Life and Times of Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI. New York: Brentano’s. c.1910. p. 333. link

2. Glaser, F.L(ed.). Pope Alexander VI and His Court, Extracts from the Latin Diary of Johannes Burchardus. Nicholas L. Brown. 1921. p. 152.*  link

*Burchardus’ Liber Notarum is a form of official record of the significant papal ceremonies with which he was involved. The first critical edition of this work was published by E. Celani in 1906 as Johannis Burckardi Liber Notarum ab anno MCCCCLXXXIII usque ad annum MDVI. Celani's edition collated various earlier printed editions of the work, and a collection of uncertain notations, with Burchardus’ original manuscript, thereby establishing an important critical edition to this account of the papal court at the end of the fifteenth century.

Mary Jo Gibson is the author of This Write Life, a site inspired by a museum visit with scant details provided on works by Rembrandt and Bernini.  With a background in public relations, she realized that dead artists needed promotion too, and hence This Write Life was born.

Top image: The disputation of St Catherine by Pinturicchio, 1492-4. Sala dei Santi (Room of the Saints). Borgia Apartments. Vatican Museum.


Anonymous said...

Good Afternoon H!
I am simply thrilled to be a guest blogger on your site. The picture of Burchardus from "The Borgias" is a master stroke in correlation.

Thank you so much!

Mary Jo

Unknown said...

Cheers for agreeing to do this guest post Mary Jo.

It was great to find out a bit more about this figure in history to whom we owe so much as far as the surviving documentation of this period in the Vatican.

Kind Regards

Alberti's Window said...

Interesting post! I've never seen that painting by Titian before. That classical pedestal (with relief carvings) for St. Peter is quite an interesting addition, too.

H Niyazi or Mary Jo, do you know if this painting was commissioned by Alexander IV or Giovanni Sforza?

Unknown said...

Hi M! Well spotted. I have done more digging around on this work because it didnt seem right that Alexander would be in a painting with Giovanni Sforza! I added this image so best I clear it up:

Here are some (hopefully!) more reliable sources:

Museum of Antwerp: currently owns the piece and says it depicts Jacopo Pesaro, the Bishop of Cyprus and whose forces occupied the Island of Santa Maura in 1502, which was held by the Ottomans. This painting was commissioned to celebrate it. It is suggested that the design of the piece was made by Giovanni Bellini, making it a piece from an earlier part of Titian's career. link

Giovanni Sforza was Lord of Pesaro, and under Julius II was given a spiritual dimension to his poistion known as a vicariate - however he was not involved in the Santa Mauro campaign.

Also, the reference below seems to the most up to date piece on the work but getting access to it isnt easy:

Campbell, C. Titian: Jacopo Pesaro being presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter. 'Restoration'. Vol. 3:1. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium. 2003

The date of the work is not clarified on the Museum Antwerp site, and I have seen c.1502-12 given as a date range. Although Alexander died in 1503, a painting extolling the great victory in 1502 would have needed to portray Alexander instead of the contemporary Pope, who would have been Julius II.

The Classical reliefs can be seen in other Titian works, such as 'Sacred and Profane' and would have their attached story - likely a depiction of heroism to match the main theme of the work.

I would say the rest of the answers lie within Campbell's piece, getting access to it is another story!

Kind Regards

Hels said...

I can imagine popes allowing a diarist to write up cardinals' dinners, coronations, stategic weddings and even hangings. But you suggested that Burchardus' diary documented the gradual secularisation of the papacy, beginning earlier but nurtured by Alexander VI. What secularisation was Burchardus writing about and why on earth would a pope allow it?

mary jo gibson said...

Good Afternoon Hels,

Forgive my delayed response to your excellent question, condensing research takes a moment or two.

Secularization taken in its broadest sense means the increase in worldly, the temporal, or non-church functions or activities. It added a ‘political’ dimension stressing the greater participation, where the original ‘religious’ dimension was confounded with authoritarian, exclusivistic, and special interest group characteristic.

The times shaped the movement of the Roman church and the papacy towards secularism. The fall of Constantinople and the Protestant break that shattered united Christianity under Rome are two historical bookends that frame the time.

During this period in Rome, popes came to occupy the position of princes being elected as in other Italian states, like the doges of Venice, by a small oligarchy. Within 70 years the families of Borgia, Piccolomini, Rovere and Medici are each represented by more than one pontiff and a majority of the others were related by blood or marriage to one of these families. Cardinals were often appointed from the pontiff’s sons or nephews, and numerous others in their patronage. Papal appointments to other offices were distributed to personal or political friends, known as benefices. Indulgences were sold, meaning today’s murder would be forgiven tomorrow by payment for absolution.1

As secularization advanced, appointments were given more frequently to laymen, sons and brothers of princes, or designated agents of secular kings and monarchs of which none had any sort of ecclesiastical training. The best example being Giovanni de Medici, made abbot at age eight and later to become the fifth Renaissance pope, Leo X. Absenteeism occurred as cardinals collected many different bishoprics, abbeys and other benefices as a way to augment their incomes. In the words of Lorenzo de Medici, the college of cardinals was a ‘sink of all iniquity’ full of men with high incomes and low morals. 2

Perhaps the biggest change during the Renaissance was politicalization of the Holy See. As a major landowner in Europe the church functioned as a political power. The popes during this era began to entangle themselves in a web of political alliances instead of tending to the spiritual concerns of their followers.3 This continued cycle of secularization came to a head with the Protestant break permanently shattering united Christianity under the Roman See.

Burchardus’ diary of the events during the pontificates of Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Pius III and Julius II, is straight forward, a matter of fact record of the common every day business of the papacy. Only through the magnifying glass of history does the business of the papacy become evident, the secularization was a gradual evolution of this business.

1. The March to Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Barbara W. Tuchman, Knopf, 1984.
2. Ibid
3. The Age of Reformation, Preserved Smith, Project Gutenberg ebook, 2006.

I do hope this answers your question, I appreciate researching the finer points of history!

Unknown said...

Now that's one superb response Mary Jo! Fascinating stuff, and thank you for taking the extra time!

There are some writers that spend a great deal of time on Alexander's secularisation efforts, the Mathew reference in the post is also one.

Another source that covers this issue is Mandell Creighton's 'A History of the Papacy from the Great Schism to the sack of Rome' >> which is now in the public domain >> link

Kind Regards

Alberti's Window said...

Thanks for the references and information about the Titian painting, H. Very interesting! I wish I had access to Campbell's book, too!

It does make sense that Alexander VI (I accidentally wrote Alexander IV in my earlier comment - oops!) would be included in a painting to commemorate a victory in 1502, even if this painting was commissioned posthumously.

Sergio Momesso said...

Just a little clarification on the painting by Titian. One of the most accredited date for the painting of Antwerp is about 1506. The painting should be considered a posthumous homage to Alexander VI for many reasons that you can not mention here (see the catalog: Le siecle de Titien, Louvre, 1993, No. 40, pp. 316-23).
Even many years after in his will (1547) Jacopo Pesaro remember with affection Alexander VI.
It may be recalled that Jacopo Pesaro in 1519 commissioned to Titian the famous altarpiece of the Church of the Frari in Venice: here Jacopo Pesaro is still portrayed by Titian in the foreground, though with a few more years. Here also, indirectly, the image refers to the conquest of the island of Santa Maura and Pope Alexander VI.

The attribution of the invention to Giovanni Bellini is an old argument that seems to have been dropped, thanks also to the analysis of radiographs.

Best regards,

Unknown said...

@M - Thanks for mentioning it in the first place. Your inquisitiveness always reveals new information!

@Sergio - Many thanks for this extra information - it is interesting to know that the Borgia Pope was not as universally despised as Julius II would have wanted him to be. An interesting example of how Julius (and associates like Egidio da Viterbo) were also masters of propaganda.

Julius' legacy hence extends beyond the great artworks he commissioned, it could be argued he had a significant role in the prevailing negativity towards the Borgia after Alexander's death. This is something I hope to be exploring further in a future post.

Kind Regards

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