It has been said again and again that this Bull amounting to a declaration of war, was no more than a pretext to indulge his rapacity; but surely it bears the impress of a real grievance, and, however blameable the results that followed out of it, for the measure itself there were just and ample grounds.
The effect of that Bull, issued at a moment when Cesare stood at arms with the might of France at his back, ready to enforce it, was naturally to throw into a state of wild dismay these Romagna tyrants whose acquaintance we shall make at closer quarters presently in the course of following Cesare's campaign. Cesare Borgia may have been something of a wolf ; but you are not to suppose that the Romagna was a fold of lambs.
Giovanni Sforza Cesare's sometime brother in law, and Lord of Pesaro flies in hot haste to Venice for protection. There are no lengths to which he will not go to thwart the Borgias in their purpose, to save his tyranny from falling into the power of this family which he hates most rabidly, and of which he says that, having robbed him of his honour, it would now deprive him of his possessions. He even offers to make a gift of his dominions to the Republic.
There was much traders' blood in Venice, and, trader like, she was avid of possessions. You can surmise how she must have watered at the mouth to see so fine a morsel cast thus into her lap, and yet to know that the consumption of it might beget a woeful indigestion. Venice shook her head regretfully. She could not afford to quarrel with her ally, King Louis, and so she made answer a thought contemptuously, it seems that Giovanni should have made his offer while he was free to do so.
The Florentines exerted themselves to save Forli from the fate that threatened it. They urged a league of Bologna, Ferrara, Forli, Piombino, and Siena for their common safety a proposal which came to nothing, probably because Ferrara and Siena, not being threatened by the Bull, saw no reason why, for the sake of others, they should call down upon themselves the wrath of the Borgias and their mighty allies.
Venice desired to save Faenza, whose tyrant, Manfredi, was also attainted for non payment of his tributes, and to this end the Republic sent an embassy to Rome with the moneys due. But the Holy Father refused the gold, declaring that it was too late for payment.
Forli's attempt to avert the danger was of a different sort, and not exerted until this danger in the shape of Cesare himself stood in arms beneath her walls. Two men, both named Tommaso though it does not transpire that they were related one a chamberlain of the Palace of Forli, the other a musician, were so devoted to the Countess Sforza-Riario, the grim termagant who ruled the fiefs of her murdered husband, Girolamo Riario, as to have undertaken an enterprise from which they cannot have hoped to emerge with their lives. It imported no less than the murder of the Pope. They were arrested on November 21, and in the possession of one of them was found a hollow cane containing a letter " so impregnated with poison that even to unfold it would be dangerous." This letter was destined for the Holy Father.
The story reads like a gross exaggeration emanating from men who, on the subject of poisoning, display the credulity of the fifteenth century, so ignorant in these matters and so prone to the fantastic. And our minds receive a shock upon learning that, when put to the question, these messengers actually made a confession upon which the story rests admitting that they had been sent by the countess to slay the Pope, in the hope that thus Forli might be saved to the Riarii. At first we conclude that those wretched men, examined to the accompaniment of torture, confessed whatever was required of them, as so frequently happened in such cases. Such, indeed, is the very explanation advanced by more than one writer, coupled with the suggestion, in some instances, that the whole affair was trumped up by the Pope to serve his own ends.
They will believe the wildest and silliest of poisoning stories (such as those of Djem and Cardinal Giovanni Borgia) which reveal the Borgias as the poisoners ; but, let another be accused and the Borgias be the intended victims, and at once they grow rational, and point out to you the wildness of the statement, the impossibility of its being true. Yet it is a singular fact that a thorough investigation of this case of the Countess Sforza-Riario's poisoned letter reveals it to be neither wild nor impossible but simply diabolical. The explanation of the matter is to be found in Andrea Bernardi's Chronicles of Forli. He tells us exactly how the thing was contrived, with a precision of detail which we could wish to see emulated by other contemporaries of his who so lightly throw out accusations of poisoning. He informs us that a deadly and infectious disease was rampant in Forli in that year 1499, and that, before dispatching her letter to the Pope, the Countess caused it to be placed upon the body of one who was sick of this infection thus hoping to convey it to his Holiness.1
Alexander held a thanksgiving service for his escape at Santa Maria della Pace, and Cardinal Raffaele Riario fled precipitately from Rome, justly fearful of being involved in the papal anger that must fall upon his house.
By that time, however, Cesare had already taken the field. The support of Louis, conqueror of Milan, had been obtained, and in this Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere had once more been helpful to the Borgias.
His reconciliation with the Pope, long since deserved by the services he had rendered the House of Borgia in forwarding Cesare's aims, as we have seen, was completed now by an alliance which bound the two families together. His nephew, Francesco della Rovere, had married Alexander's niece, Angela Borgia.
There is a letter from Giuliano to the Pope, dated October 12, 1499, in which he expresses his deep gratitude in the matter of this marriage, which naturally redounded to the advantage of his house, and pledges himself to exert all the influence which he commands with Louis XII for the purpose of furthering the Duke of Valentinois' wishes. So well does he keep this promise that we see him utterly abandoning his cousins the Riarii, who were likely to be crushed under the hoofs of the now charging bull, and devoting himself strenuously to equip Cesare for that same charge. So far does he go in this matter that he is one of the sureties the other being the Cardinal Giovanni Borgia for the loan of 45,000 ducats raised by Cesare in Milan towards the cost of his campaign.
1 " Dite litre lei le aveva fate tocare et tenere adose ad uno nostro infetado." Andrea Bernardi (Cronache di Forli).
This is the moment in which to pause and consider this man, who, because he was a bitter enemy of Alexander's, and who, because earlier he had covered the Pope with obloquy and insult and is to do so again later, is hailed as a fine, upright, lofty, independent, noble soul.
Not so fine, upright, or noble but that he can put aside his rancour when he finds that there is more profit in fawning than in snarling ; not so independent but that he can become a sycophant who writes panegyrics of Cesare and letters breathing devotion to the Pope, once he has realized that thus his interests will be better served. This is the man, remember, who dubbed Alexander a Jew and a Moor ; this the man who agitated at the Courts of France and Spain for Alexander's deposition from the Pontificate on the score of the simony of his election ; this the man whose vituperations of the Holy Father are so often quoted, since coming from lips so honest they must, from the very moment that he utters them, be merited. If only the historian would turn the medal about a little, and allow us a glimpse of the reverse as well as of the obverse, what a world of trouble and misconceptions should we not be spared !
Della Rovere had discovered vain his work of defamation, vain his attempts to induce the Kings of France and Spain to summon a General Council and depose the man whose seat he coveted, so he had sought to make his peace with the Holy See. The death of Charles VIII, and the succession of a king who had need of the Pope's friendship and who found a friend in Alexander, rendered it all the more necessary that della Rovere should set himself to reconquer, by every means in his power, the favour of Alexander.
And so you see this honourable, upright man sacrificing his very family to gain that personal end. Where now is that stubbornly honest conscience of his which made him denounce Alexander as no Christian and no Pope ? Stifled by self interest. It is as well that this should be understood, for this way lies the understanding of many things.
The funds for the campaign being found, Cesare received from Louis three, hundred lances captained by Yves d'Allegre and four thousand foot, composed of Swiss and Gascons, led by the Bailie of Dijon. Further troops were being assembled for him at Cesena the one fief of Romagna that remained faithful to the Church by Achille Tiberti and Ercole Bentivogli, and to these were to be added the Pontifical troops that would be sent to him; so that Cesare found himself ultimately at the head of a considerable army, some ten thousand strong, well equipped and supported by good artillery.
Louis XII left Milan on November 7 one month after his triumphal entrance and set out to return to France, leaving Trivulzio to represent him as ruler of the Milanese. Two days later Cesare's army took the road, and he himself went with his horse by way of Piacenza, whilst the foot, under the Bailie of Dijon, having obtained leave of passage through the territories of Ferrara and Cremona, followed the Po down to Argenta.
Thus did Cesare Borgia personally attended by a caesarian guard, wearing his livery set out upon the conquest of the Romagna. Perhaps at no period of his career is he more remarkable than at this moment. To all trades men serve apprenticeships, and to none is the apprenticeship more gradual and arduous than to the trade of arms. Yet Cesare Borgia served none. Like Minerva, springing full grown and armed into existence, so Cesare sprang to generalship in the hour that saw him made a soldier. This was the first army in which he had ever marched, yet he marched at the head of it. In his twenty four years of life he had never so much as witnessed a battle pitched ; yet here was he riding to direct battles and to wrest victories. Boundless audacity and swiftest intelligence welded into an amazing whole !