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
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.” 
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. 
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.