The ceremonies connected with the obsequies of Pope Innocent VIII lasted as prescribed nine days ; they were concluded on August 5, 1492, and, says Infessura naively, " sic finita fuit eius memoria."
The Sacred College consisted at the time of twenty seven cardinals, four of whom were absent at distant sees and unable to reach Rome in time for the immuring of the Conclave. The twenty three present were, in the order of their seniority : Roderigo Borgia, Oliviero Caraffa, Giuliano della Rovere, Battista Zeno, Giovanni Michieli, Giorgio Costa, Girolamo della Rovere, Paolo Fregosi, Domenico della Rovere, Giovanni dei Conti, Giovanni Giacomo Sclafetani, Lorenzo Cibo, Ardicino della Porta, Antoniotto Pallavicino, Maffeo Gerardo, Francesco Piccolomini, Raffaele Riario, Giovanni Battista Savelli, Giovanni Colonna, Giovanni Orsini, Ascanio Maria Sforza, Giovanni de' Medici, and Francesco Sanseverino.
On August 6 they assembled in St. Peter's to hear the Sacred Mass of the Holy Ghost, which was said by Giuliano della Rovere on the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles, and to listen to the discourse " Pro eligendo Pontefice," delivered by the learned and eloquent Bishop of Carthage. Thereafter the Cardinals swore upon the Gospels faithfully to observe their trust, and thereupon the Conclave was immured.
According to the dispatches of Valori, the Ferrarese ambassador in Rome, it was expected that either the Cardinal of Naples (Oliviero Caraffa) or the Cardinal of Lisbon (Giorgio Costa) would be elected to the Pontificate; and according to the dispatch of Cavalieri, the ambassador of Modena, the King of France had deposited 200,000 ducats with a Roman banker to forward the election of Giuliano della Rovere. Nevertheless, early on the morning of August II it was announced that Roderigo Borgia was elected Pope, and we have it on the word of Valori that the election was unanimous, for he wrote on the morrow to the Council of Eight (the Signory of Florence) that after long contention Alexander VI was created " omnium consensum ne li manco un solo voto."
The subject of this election is one with which we rarely find an author dealing temperately or with a proper and sane restraint. To vituperate in superlatives seems common to most who have taken in hand this and other episodes in the history of the Borgias. Every fresh writer who comes to the task appears to be mainly inspired by a desire to emulate his forerunners, allowing his pen to riot zestfully in the accumulation of scandalous matter, and seeking to increase if possible its lurid quality by a degree or two. As a rule there is not even an attempt made to put forward evidence in substantiation of anything that is alleged. Wild and sweeping statement takes the place that should be held by calm deduction and reasoned comment.
" He was the worst Pontiff that ever filled St. Peter's Chair," is one of these sweeping statements, culled from the pages of an able, modern, Italian author, whose writings, sound in all that concerns other matters, are strewn with the most foolish extravagances and flagrant inaccuracies in connection with Alexander VI and his family.
To say of him, as that writer says, that " he was the worst Pontiff that ever filled St. Peter's Chair," can only be justified by an utter ignorance of papal history. You have but to compare him calmly and honestly your mind stripped of preconceptions with the wretched and wholly contemptible Innocent VIII whom he succeeded, or with the latter's precursor, the terrible Sixtus IV.
That he was better than these men, morally or ecclesiastically, is not to be pretended ; that he was worse measuring achievement by opportunity is strenuously to be denied. For the rest, that he was infinitely more gifted and infinitely more a man of affairs is not to be gainsaid by any impartial critic.
If we take him out of the background of history in which he is set, and judge him singly and individually, we behold a man who, as a churchman and Christ's Vicar, fills us with horror and loathing, as a scandalous exception from what we are justified in supposing from his office must have been the rule. Therefore, that he may be judged by the standard of his own time if he is to be judged at all, if we are even to attempt to understand him, have we given a sketch of the careers of those Popes who immediately preceded him, with whom as Vice-Chancellor he was intimately associated, and whose examples were the only papal examples that he possessed.
That this should justify his course we do not pretend. A good churchman in his place would have bethought him of his duty to the Master whose Vicar he was, and would have aimed at the sorely needed reform. But we are not concerned to study him as a good churchman. It is by no means clear that we are concerned to study him as a churchman at all. The Papacy had by this time become far less of an ecclesiastical than a political force; the weapons of the Church were there, but they were being employed for the furtherance not of churchly, but of worldly aims. If the Pontiffs in the pages of this history remembered or evoked their spiritual authority, it was but to employ it as an instrument for the advancement of their temporal schemes. And personal considerations entered largely into these.
Self aggrandizement, insufferable in a cleric, is an ambition not altogether unpardonable in a temporal prince; and if Alexander aimed at self aggrandizement and at the founding of a permanent dynasty for his family, he did not lack examples in the careers of those among his predecessors with whom he had been associated.
That the Papacy was Christ's Vicarage was a fact that had long since been obscured by the conception that the Papacy was a kingdom of this world. In striving, then, for worldly eminence by every means in his power, Alexander is no more blameworthy than any other. What, then, remains ? The fact that he succeeded better than any of his forerunners. But are we on that account to select him for the special object of our vituperation ? The Papacy had tumbled into a slough of materialism in which it was to wallow even after the Reformation had given it pause and warning. Under what obligation was Alexander VI, more than any other Pope, to pull it out of that slough ? As he found it, so he carried it on, as much a self seeker, as much a worldly prince, as much a family man and as little a churchman as any of those who had gone immediately before him.