The custom that flourished, especially during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, by which a pope would name as his chief minister and most important advisor a nephew or similar relative who was elevated to the rank of cardinal and thereafter oversaw many of the most vital elements of papal administration. The practice was not invented in the sixteenth century, as papal nepotism had long been an established part of the pontifical court.

Pope Innocent III, himself a cardinal-nephew, created an unprecedented four cardinal-nephews

Pope Innocent III, himself a cardinal-nephew, created an unprecedented four cardinal-nephews

Pope Adrian IV (1154-1159), for example, named his nephew Boso to the cardinalate and put him in charge of Castel Sant’Angelo. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was common for a pope from one of the leading noble families to promote the interests of his house, but nepotism began reaching absurd heights toward the end of the fifteenth century with the accession of Alfonso de Borja y Borja as Callistus III (1455-1458). He made two nephews cardinals and worked to assist other family members with such vigor that at his death, the Aragonese who had profited from his generosity were driven from Rome. One nephew, Rodrigo Borgia, became Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503). He made his son Cesare Borgia a cardinal and surrendered to him vast powers over papal policy. Cardinal-nephew could be young chaps; in 1545, Ranuccio Farnese was made cardinal by Paul III at the age of 15.

“A Pope’s nephew dies twice; the second time like all men, the first time when his uncle dies.” – Cardinal Albani

The cardinal nephew in later years developed out of the need for the pope, usually old at the time of his election, to be assisted in the demands of office by a younger and more energetic assistant. Given the climate of intrigue that often pervaded Roman society in the period, the pope regularly turned to a promising young nephew, as relatives were slightly more reliable than scheming prelates who might be anxious to replace the reigning pontiff. As a brother to Leo XIII, Giuseppe Pecci became the last cardinal-nephew to date in 1879. The practise seems to have died out.

Banquet of Chestnuts

The Banquet of Chestnuts, known more properly as the Ballet of Chestnuts, refers to a fĂȘte in Rome, and particularly to a supper held in the Papal Palace by Don Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI on October 30, 1501.

An account of the banquet is preserved in a Latin diary by Protonotary Apostolic and Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard entitled Liber Notarum.

Portrait of Pope Alexander VI. Painting locate...

Pope Alexander VI

The banquet was given in Cesare’s apartments in the Palazzo Apostolico. Fifty prostitutes or courtesans were in attendance for the entertainment of the banquet guests.

After the food was eaten, lamp stands holding lighted candles were placed on the floor and chestnuts strewn about. The clothes of the courtesans were auctioned; then the prostitutes and the guests crawled naked among the lamp stands to pick up the chestnuts. Immediately following the spectacle, members of the clergy and other party guests together engaged in sexual activity with the prostitutes. According to Burchard:

“Prizes were offered – silken doublets, pairs of shoes, hats and other garments – for those men who were most successful with the prostitutes.”

And according to chronicler William Manchester:

“Servants kept score of each man’s orgasms, for the pope greatly admired virility and measured a man’s machismo by his ejaculative capacity.”

Manchester also refers to the use of several sex toys. Burchard, however, makes no reference to this in his account of the banquet.

Vatican researcher Right Reverend Monsignor Peter de Roo strongly rejects the story of the fifty courtesans as described in Louis Thuasne’s edition of Burchard’s diary. While granting that Cesare Borgia may have indeed given a feast at the Vatican, de Roo attempts, through exhaustive research, to refute the notion that the Borgias – certainly not the pope – could have possibly participated in ‘a scene truly bestial’ such as Burchard describes, on grounds that it would be inconsistent with:

  • Alexander VI’s essentially decent but much maligned character;
  • Burchard’s otherwise decent ways of writing;
  • The majority consensus of modern writers, who either question the story, or reject it as outright falsehood.

Monsignor de Roo believes that a more credible explanation for the alleged orgy is a later interpolation of events by those hostile to Alexander:

“To support the interpolated story, the enemies of pope Alexander VI bring forth of late other writers of the time. So does Thuasne produce Matarazzo, or the Chronicle ascribed to him. But Matarazzo essentially alters the tale, taking away its greatest odium, when he replaces Burchard’s courtesans and valets with ladies and gentlemen of the court.

Thuasne also quotes Francis Pepi, who writes that it was Cesar de Borgia, not the Pontiff, who invited low harlots, and who cuts away the most abominable details, by saying that they passed the night in dancing and laughing, and by leaving out the presence of Lucretia de Borgia.

The anonymous letter to Silvio Savelli is also mentioned to prop up the report of Burchard’s diary. This letter, however, states only that the courtesans were invited to eat at the palace and offered a most shocking sight. It notices no further particulars nor the presence of any of the Borgias.”

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