On the 17th the Pope was much worse, and on the 18th, the end being at hand, he was confessed by the Bishop of Culm, who administered Extreme Unction, and that evening he died.
That, beyond all manner of question, is the true story of the passing of Alexander VI, as revealed by the Diarium of Burchard, by the testimony of the physician who attended him, and by the dispatches of the Venetian, Ferrarese, and Florentine ambassadors. At this time of day it is accepted by all serious historians, compelled to it by the burden of evidence.
The ambassador of Ferrara had written to Duke Ercole, on August 14, that it was no wonder the Pope and the duke were ill, as nearly everybody in Rome was ill as a consequence of the bad air (" Per la mala condictione de aere").
Cardinal Soderini was also stricken with the fever, whilst Corneto was taken ill on the day after that supper party, and, like Cesare, is said to have shed all the skin of his body before he recovered.
Even Villari and Gregorovius, so unrestrained when writing of the Borgias, discard the extraordinary and utterly unwarranted stories of Guicciardini, Giovio, and Bembo, which will presently be considered. Gregorovius does this with a reluctance that is almost amusing, and with many a fond, regretful, backward glance so very apparent in his manner at the tale of villainy as told by Guicciardini and the others, which the German scholar would have adopted but that he dared not for his credit's sake. This is not stated on mere assumption. It is obvious to any one who reads Gregorovius's histories.
Burchard tells us as certainly matter for comment that, during his last illness, Alexander never once asked for Cesare nor ever once mentioned the name of Lucrezia. So far as Cesare is concerned, the Pope knew, no doubt, that he was ill and bedridden, for all that the gravity of the duke's condition would, probably, have been concealed from him. That he should not have mentioned Lucrezia nor, we suppose, Giuffredo is remarkable. Did he, with the hand of Death already upon him, reproach himself with this paternity which, however usual and commonplace in priests of all degrees, was none the less a scandal, and the more scandalous in a measure as the rank of the offender was higher ? It may well be that in those last days that sinful, worldly old man bethought him of the true scope and meaning of Christ's Vicarship, which he had so wantonly abused and dishonoured, and considered that to that Judge before whom he was summoned to appear the sins of his predecessors would be no justification or mitigation of his own. It may well be that, grown introspective upon his bed of death, he tardily sought to thrust from his mind the worldly things that had so absorbed it until the spiritual were forgotten, and had given rise to all the scandal concerning him that was spread through Christendom, to the shame and dishonour of the Church whose champion he should have been.
Thus may it have come to pass that he summoned none of his children in his last hours, nor suffered their names to cross his lips.
When the news of his father's death was brought to Cesare, the duke, all fever racked as he was, more dead than living, considered his position and issued his orders to Michele da Corella, that most faithful of all his captains, who so richly shared with Cesare the execration of the latter's enemies.
Of tears for his father there is no record, just as at no time are we allowed to see that stern spirit giving way to any emotion, conceiving any affection, or working ever for the good of any but himself. Besides, in such an hour as this, the consciousness of the danger in which he stood by virtue of the Pope's death and his own most inopportune sickness, which disabled him from taking action to make his future secure, must have concerned him to the exclusion of all else.
Meanwhile, however, Rome was quiet, held so in the iron grip of Michele da Corella and the ducal troops. The Pope's death was being kept secret for the moment, and was not announced to the people until nightfall, by when Corella had carried out his master's orders, including the seizure of the Pope's treasure. And Burchard tells us how some of Valentinois's men entered the Vatican all the gates of which were held by the ducal troops and, seizing Cardinal Casanova, they demanded, with a dagger at his throat and a threat to fling his corpse from the windows if he refused them, the Pope's keys. These the cardinal surrendered, and Corella possessed himself of plate and jewels to the value of some 200,000 ducats, besides two caskets containing about 100,000 ducats in gold. Thereafter the servants of the palace completed the pillage by ransacking the wardrobes and taking all they could find, so that nothing was left in the papal apartments but the chairs, a few cushions, and the tapestries of the walls.
All his life Alexander had been the victim of the most ribald calumnies. Stories had ever sprung up and thriven, like ill weeds, about his name and reputation. His sins, great and scandalous in themselves, were swelled by popular rumour, under the spur of malice, to monstrous and incredible proportions. As they had exaggerated and lied about the manner of his life, so with a consistency worthy of better scope they exaggerated and lied about the manner of his death, and, the age being a credulous one, the stories were such that writers of more modern and less credulous times dare not insist upon them, lest they should discredit as they do what else has been alleged against him.
Thus when, in his last delirium, the Pope uttered some such words as : "I am coming ; I am coming. It is just. But wait a little," and when those words were repeated, it was straightway asserted that the Devil was the being he thus addressed in that supreme hour. The story grew in detail; that is inevitable with such matter. He had bargained with the devil, it was said, for a pontificate of twelve years, and, the time being completed, the devil was come for him. And presently, we even have a description of Messer the Devil as he appeared on that occasion in the shape of a baboon. The Marquis Gonzaga of Mantua, in all seriousness, writes to relate this. The chronicler Sanuto, receiving the now popularly current story from another source, in all seriousness gives it place in his Diarii, thus :