The only one of the four " nephews " of Sixtus and to this one was imputed no nearer kinship who was destined to make any lasting mark in history was Giuliano della Rovere. He was raised by his uncle to the purple with the title of San Pietro in Vincoli, and thirty two years later he was to become Pope (as Julius II). Of him we shall hear much in the course of this story.
Under the pontificate of Sixtus IV the position and influence of Cardinal Roderigo were greatly increased, for once again the Spanish Cardinal had made the most of his opportunities. As at the election of Pius II, so at the election of Sixtus IV it was Cardinal Roderigo who led the act of accession which gave the new Pope his tiara, and for this act Roderigo in common with the Cardinals Orsini and Gonzaga who acceded with him was richly rewarded and advanced, receiving as his immediate guerdon the wealthy Abbey of Subiaco.
At about this time, 1470, must have begun the relations between Cardinal Roderigo and Giovanna Catanei, or Vannozza Catanei, as she is styled in contemporary documents Vannozza being a corruption or abbreviation of Giovannozza, an affectionate form of Giovanna.
Who she was, or whence she came, are facts that have never been ascertained. She is generally assumed to have been a Roman; but there are no obvious grounds for the assumption, her name, for instance, being common to many parts of Italy. And just as we have no sources of information upon her origin, neither have we any elements from which to paint her portrait. Gregorovius rests the probability that she was beautiful upon the known characteristics and fastidious tastes of the cardinal. Since it is unthinkable that such a man would have been captivated by an ugly woman or would have been held by a stupid one, it is fairly reasonable to conclude that she was beautiful and ready witted.
All that we do know of her up to the time of her liaison with Cardinal Roderigo is that she was born on July 13, 1442, this fact being ascertainable by a simple calculation from the elements afforded by the inscription on her tomb in Santa Maria del Popolo :
Vix ann. lxxvi m. iv d. xn Objit anno mdxviii xxvi, Nov.
And again, just as we know nothing of her family origin, neither have we any evidence of what her circumstances were when she caught the magnetic eye of Cardinal Roderigo de Lanzol y Borja or Borgia as by now his name,which had undergone italianization, was more generally spelled.
Infessura states in his diaries that Roderigo desiring later as Pope Alexander VI to create cardinal his son by her, Cesare Borgia, he caused false witness to be borne to the fact that Cesare was the legitimate son of one Domenico d'Arignano, to whom he, the Pope, had in fact married her. Guicciardini1 makes the same statement, without, however, mentioning the name of this d'Arignano.
1 Istoria dy Italia.
Now, bastards were by canon law excluded from the purple, and it is probably upon this circumstance that both Infessura and Guicciardini have built the assumption that some such means as these had been adopted to circumvent the law, and as so often happens in chronicles concerning the Borgias the assumption is straightway stated as a fact. But there were other ways of circumventing awkward commandments, and, unfortunately for the accuracy of these statements of Infessura and Guicciardini, another way was taken in this instance. As early as 1480, Pope Sixtus IV had granted Cesare Borgia in a Bull dated October I1 dispensation from proving the legitimacy of his birth. This entirely removed the necessity for any such subsequent measures as those which are suggested by these chroniclers.
Moreover, had Cardinal Roderigo desired to fasten the paternity of Cesare on another, there was ready to his hand Vannozza's actual husband, Giorgio della Croce.2 When exactly this man became her husband is not to be ascertained. All that we know is that he was so in 1480, and that she was living with him in that year in a house in Piazza Pizzo di Merlo (now Piazza Sforza Cesarini) not far from the house on Banchi Vecchi which Cardinal Roderigo, as Vice-Chancellor, had converted into a palace for himself, and a palace so sumptuous as to excite the wonder of that magnificent age.
This Giorgio della Croce was a Milanese, under the protection of Cardinal Roderigo, who had obtained for him a post at the Vatican as apostolic secretary. According to some, he married him to Vannozza in order to afford her an official husband and thus cloak his own relations with her. It is an assumption which you will hesitate to accept. If we know our Cardinal Roderigo at all, he was never the man to pursue his pleasures in a hole and corner fashion, nor one to bethink him of a cloak for his amusements. Had he but done so, scandalmongers would have had less to fasten upon in their work of playing havoc with his reputation. What is far more likely is that della Croce owed Cardinal Roderigo's protection and the appointment as apostolic secretary to his own complacency in the matter of his wife's relations with the splendid prelate. However we look at it, the figure cut in this story by della Croce is not heroic.
1 See the supplement to the Appendix of Thuasne's edition of Burchard's Diarium.
2 D'Arignano is as much a fiction as the rest of Infessura's story.
Between the years 1474 and 1476, Vannozza bore Roderigo two sons, Cesare Borgia (afterwards Cardinal of Valencia and Duke of Valentinois), the central figure of our story, and Giovanni Borgia (afterwards Duke of Gandia).
Lucrezia Borgia, we know from documentary evidence before us, was born on April 19, 1479.
But there is a mystery about the precise respective ages of Vannozza's two eldest sons, and we fear that at this time of day it has become impossible to establish beyond reasonable doubt which was the firstborn ; and this in spite of the documents discovered by Gregorovius and his assertion that they remove all doubt and enable him definitely to assert that Giovanni was born in 1474 and Cesare in 1476.