Cesare Borgia. Portrait in the Palazzo Venezia, Rome, c. 1500–1510.
13 June 2017
Dante created with the Inferno a completely new idiom for discussing sin. The idea of damnation was nothing new for Dante and his contemporaries, nor the concept of the punishment fitting the crime. But Dante imbued these notions with a completely new poetic and symbolic resonance. Thus the adulterers in his Inferno, for instance, are eternally flung around the skies like a flock of starlings, unable to pair, unable to find any rest consolation, in punishment for their sexual restlessness during their lives.
I have been reading a lot about Cesare Borgia recently. It strikes me that Dante might have envisioned him being eternally gored by a bull. The bull was the emblem of the Borgias, who came originally from Spain, and Cesare Borgia was a remarkable bullfighter. When he was allowed at last to give up his cardinal’s hat and devote himself to military affairs, he gave public exhibitions of his fitness for his new role, demonstrating his skills as a swordsman, vaulter, horseman and bullfighter. (This means he must have been practising these accomplishments for years behind closed doors.)
According to one account, on one occasion he slew six bulls from horseback and the seventh from the ground, striking off its head with a single blow.
This is an astonishing feat by any standard. It is in many ways symbolic of the military career that was to follow, whose early phases were characterised by strategic brilliance and swiftness of execution, a superb display of the animal capabilities that Cesare had been obliged to keep bottled up when a cardinal. But no one, however brave and brilliant, can slay seven bulls a day, day in, day out. Metaphorically speaking, that is what Cesare was trying to do – aut Caesar, aut nihil, “Caesar or nothing,” as his motto went.
His continuous efforts to bring the Papal States to heel and carve out a duchy for himself seem increasingly compulsive and increasingly hopeless as one reads of them: there is a manic quality to the repetition of the same pattern, as the victories of a bold moment fall away a second later and require continuous and exhausting shoring up. And all the time, Cesare Borgia was being destroyed by syphilis – the product of a lifetime of sexual licence.
The eternal search for legitimacy, the eternal attempted dominance, the eternal striving for physical perfection – all brought to an end on the horns of a bull that can never be conquered, however many times it might appear in your coat of arms: that’s how I see Cesare Borgia in hell.
The coat of arms of Cesare Borgia as the Duke of Valentinois, a title created for him in 1498. The Borgia bull is quartered with the fleurs de lys of the French royal house.