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Did Cesare Borgia Kill Juan Borgia?

Believed to be Juan Borgia 

A post from 2012:


Did Cesare Borgia kill Juan Borgia?


In my  e-mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies, the first corpse is plucked from the Tiber by the same fisherman who found Juan's body, and became famous because. . . .well, enough of that. If you want to know, A Borgia Daughter Dies will tell you exactly what happened and when, in a fun way.

Cesare Borgia may well have killed  his brother Juan, or had him killed,  to escape from ecclesiastical orders and become the chief soldier of the papacy.  But no one knows for sure.  It's obvious that his own father suspected him, from the pope's  behavior at the time.  Ultimately,  Cesare either persuaded his father that the accusation was false, or the pope decided  to forgive his most competent son.  Pope Alexander VI  could forgive much, but it seems unlikely he could forgive fratricide, particularly since his love for Juan was made clear by the extremes of his mourning.  So I vote for Cesare's powers of persuasion.


It is very unlikely that Lucrezia had anything to do with Juan's murder, contrary to the Showtime miniseries. Juan did not threaten  baby Giovanni Borgia, who was born after Juan died.  And Juan didn't kill Lucrezia's lover, who was not named Paolo and was not a stable boy.  Cesare  did.  (See my earlier blog on this subject, if you want the details. Or read A Borgia Daughter Dies.)


But there were certainly other suspects.   The Showtime series could have blamed Caterina Sforza, who had vowed vengeance for Juan's treatment of her son. These events were fictional, but in real life Juan had botched  a siege of an Orsini  castle, and the Orsini were angry because  Virginio Orsini had died abruptly in the Castel Sant'Angelo, where the pope had imprisoned him for siding with the French army in the recent invasion.  They were sure Virginio was poisoned, and he may well have been.  Secret vengeance by killing a relative was part of the vendetta culture in Italy at the time, and the Orsini /Borgia vendetta dated back at least to the reign of the first Borgia pope, Calixtus III.  And the nine stab wounds, all over Juan's body and legs, suggest multiple assailants who wanted vengeance.  Cesare and Michelotto were killers, but they were rational and efficient ones.  Something that messy doesn't seem like their style.


There were also rumors that a wronged husband, father or brother killed Juan, who was definitely pushy, arrogant  and promiscuous. One thing is certain: it wasn't a robbery.  Juan's body still bore a rich purse when it was pulled from the Tiber. And the fisherman who found it became famous because. . . . Oh, right.  You can read  the story in A Borgia Daughter Dies.  I believe the first pages are free--you can easily  find the answer there. 




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Did the Borgia's kill Prince Djem?

Believed to be Prince Djem, with Lucrezia Borgia. In the  Borgia apartments, the Vatican 

Did the Borgias kill Prince Djem?

Prince Djem, portrayed in the Borgia Showtime miniseries, was the brother of the Sultan of Turkey.  He was a real historical figure, thought to be the turbaned figure to the left of Lucrezia Borgia  in this painting, found in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican.   But he was a middle aged man with grown children, who died later than shown in the Showtime series, and probably wasn't poisoned. However, he was widely rumored to have been poisoned by the Borgias–even though this was virtually impossible.


Showtime has seized on the rumor, put it in a different time frame, added a character to the plot who wasn't there (Juan Borgia), and turned rumor into fact. Great story, but very bad history.


Here's the real story:  The Sultan of Turkey was paying  Pope Alexander VI 40,000 ducats a year–an enormous sum–to keep Prince Djem a pampered prisoner, because Djem was a  threat to the Sultan's throne.  At some point, the Sultan offered the pope 300,000 ducats to do away with Djem entirely.  The Turkish envoy who carried this message was somehow compromised, and the bribe became public knowledge. Renaissance Italians loved to gossip, so the entire aristocracy–all of whom hated this powerful and capable pope–knew about it.  For this reason, when Djem died, the Italian aristocracy and eventually the  public believed the pope had somehow poisoned him.


But there are problems with this inference, both factual and logical. Facts:  Prince Djem was a hostage of the King of France, an enemy of the pope, when he died, many miles from Rome. And, despite the fact that the Vatican kept good financial records even in those days, there is no trace of those 300,000 ducats the pope supposedly received. Ivan Cloulas, a scholar of the Borgias who does not sugarcoat what they did, believes the symptoms Djem displayed are consistent with pneumonia.  All I have read about is abdominal pains–why not a ruptured appendix?  The fact is, being a hostage was not a healthy occupation, and  people died young in those days.  It is a stretch to assume the pope managed to poison someone despite a long separation in space and time from Rome.


But wait: Cesare Borgia had been a hostage with Djem, but escaped earlier. (A later episode of the miniseries portrays his escape.)  Conceivably Cesare somehow administered a long-acting poison before escaping.  But this conclusion  requires difficult assumptions– among them, that  Cesare was able to conceal poison, and actually had access to Djem when they were both prisoners of the King of France.


Setting aside the logistic difficulties, the pope's motive is very questionable.  Even assuming he was evil enough to kill someone in cold blood, purely for money (which I doubt), he had a guaranteed annuity of 40,000 ducats a year if he simply kept Djem safe.  Why would he give it up for 300,000 ducats, when he had no way of forcing the Sultan of Turkey to pay up, once Djem was dead? Christians then didn't trust Turks, putting it mildly.  Pope Alexander, a wily and intelligent man, surely realized that if the Sultan disavowed his 300,000 ducat offer as a forgery or simply refused to pay, there was no way to force the issue. On the other hand, if the Sultan defaulted on his 40,000 ducat stipend for keeping Djem safe and far away, all the pope had to do was threaten to send Djem back to Turkey to get his payment.


Pope Alexander may have been evil, but no one has ever accused him of stupidity.  It is very unlikely he ordered the murder of Prince Djem, and even less likely that he could have poisoned a prisoner of the King of France.


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