Tasting the cup of the Borgia.
“THE “CANTARELLA,” DEADLY POISON OF THE BORGIA,’ THE SECRET OF ITS PREPARATION HAS BEEN LOST—”ETERNITY POWDERS” AND “TIME POISONS”—RICH CARDINALS FORCED TO DRINK THE FATAL CUP-RAISING MONEY FOR THE ARMIES OF THE POPE’S SON—THE BANQUET OF DEATH WITH THE GRIM GODDESS NEMESIS AS AN UNBIDDEN GUEST—THE LAST DAYS OF ALEXANDER, AND HIS HORRIBLE END.
The Vatican looms large in the proverbs of the Roman populace. The dominant note is one of fear and distrust. “He who drinks of the water in the Vatican will die soon,” is a saying that is heard to this day. “Tasting the cup of the Borgia” means the sudden or mysterious passing out of this world into the next. Proverbs are not only crystals of wisdom but often reflections of history. The history of the Roman church has been altered more than once by poison skillfully prepared and cunningly administered. In the biographies of popes and cardinals the tale of poisoning is not unfamiliar. Not all the poison in the Vatican, however, was made by hands. There has always been the deadly venom conceived in the mind and distilled to the world even at this hour in the pulpit and the press and the school. The Inquisition, the St. Bartholomew massacre, wars between nations and civil strife, ills and woes without number have come from the toxic laboratory of the Vatican, where they brew poisons for the mind in such infinite variety.
The doctrine that all power on earth is but a fief of the pope; that the state is and ought to be subject to the jurisdiction of the church, that there is no salvation outside of Romanism; that the pope is infallible; that the control of all schools belongs to the pope as of divine right—there you have some of the ingredients of that “leprous distilment,” which is decanted by Romanism in vessels of all shapes and sizes. Fraud, violence, deceit, forgery—an analysis of popery will show the presence of all these poisonous elements as well.
The Borgias were experts in poisons for the mind, but in the decoction of poisons for the body they have attained a mastery which has never been equalled in the history of the human race. Their skill and knowledge of the terrible art died with them; they have left to history the name of their dreaded poison, “cantarella,” but the secret of its preparation and the manner of its use are buried with them. Modern science has evolved toxicology, a special knowledge of poisons, but the “cantarella” of the Borgia Pope has baffled even the experts in toxicology. We can only guess at its composition by the symptoms of its victims. How the pope and his interesting family were able on the one hand to prepare the so-called “eternity powders” warranted to insure death in a few minutes and on the other hand contrived the manufacture of so-called “time poisons” which killed within a desired period will never be known.
It is now generally believed that the base of the “cantarella” was arsenic. Arsenic in its pure form, unless taken in large doses, rarely kills outright. Indeed the human system has shown itself capable of absorbing small doses of arsenic regularly without any apparent evil effect. There is a province in Austria known for its “arsenic eaters.” They are hardy mountaineers who after years of regular use of the drug, even in quantities far beyond a medicinal dose, seem to enjoy excellent health. The attempt to kill a human being with one dose of arsenic in its pure form results in symptoms at once distressing and characteristic.
The Borgias, therefore, disdained the use of arsenic in such form as something too coarse and too obvious. They discovered that when arsenic is mixed with inorganic matter it loses none of its lethal qualities, but kills more unostentatiously. In this way they learned the art of making doses of varying strength—in other words the “time poisons.” Much, of course, depended on the matter of solution and mixture with wine, milk and other liquids. According to one report the raw material of the “cantarella,” or its original crude form, was obtained in this manner. Some animal, by preference a pig, was slaughtered and disembowelled. The entrails were then freely sprinkled with pure arsenic. The poison checked but did not entirely arrest the ensuing process of putrefaction. After allowing a certain time to elapse, the semi-putrid matter was squeezed out. The juice thus obtained became far more deadly than arsenic in its pure form but continued just as tasteless. All now depended on the size of the doses, the manner of mixing it, and the best way of administering.
To ascertain the exact effects of given quantities and given mixtures the pope and his son Cesare experimented for some time on living animals. These experiments being not entirely satisfactory, they next tried out their preparations on human beings. It may have been this diabolical work which gave them that pre-eminence that has associated the word poison with the name of Borgia in the minds of all readers of history. The victims, always of humble origin, having served their purpose, were flung into the Tiber through the secret passageways in the Castel S. Angelo. Many of these subterranean openings exist in the historic building to this day, but others have been walled up since it passed out of possession of the popes.
We have no intention to catalogue the crimes of the Borgias, for even if we were to confine ourselves to their murders by means of the”cantarella” the record would prove far too bulky for a volume of so modest a size. We will, therefore, only take up four well authenticated cases. In three cases the “cantarella” worked to perfection, in the fourth the intended victim, through some mysterious turn of luck, escaped, while the poisoners, i.e., the pope and his eldest son, were both caught in the toils of fate. Alexander VI died shortly after, the involuntary victim of his own poison, while his son was brought to the verge of the grave. Of this last case we propose to speak later at some length.
It must be pointed out here that the Borgia generally reserved the “cantarella” for their “friends” and even relatives. Men of wealth and power close to the papal court, preferably cardinals or influential churchmen, were removed by what one of them facetiously called the “liquor of succession.” The estates of victims always passed quickly into the hands of the pope or his son or daughter.
The pope bitterly hated the cardinals who had sold themselves to him to insure his election. This feeling was not due of course to any promptings of conscience. Borgia hated them because of his belief that the price he had paid for their votes had been too high. The simplest way to get back the money and the lands and the offices he had used as bribes was to put the offending “princes of the church” out of the way. For this purpose the “cantarella” was eminently the straightest means.
The killing need not be done too openly. His meditated malice had centered on Cardinals Orsini and Michiel. They were now the two wealthiest members of the Sacred College. Upon some trivial pretext Orsini was taken to the Castel S. Angelo, which in those days might well have been likened to the Tower of London. Orsini had hidden his wealth away and a swift death might have spoiled the proposed robbery of the dead. The cardinal was therefore treated to “time poisons.” The doses at first were small and produced only the earliest stages of arsenic poisoning, an inflammation and compression of the alimentary canal. This was enough to alarm the relatives who, Alexander hoped, would soon appear with offers to give up the cardinal’s treasures to save his life. None appeared, however, but the cardinal’s aged mother, who had heard that her son had been taken ill and was suffering from fits of vomiting. She went to the Holy Father with a rare and most precious pearl, offering to exchange it for the pope’s permission to have the food for the imprisoned cardinal supplied from her own kitchen. Alexander VI accepted the pearl and thereafter had the poison put in the food sent by the mother. The cardinal lingered for a week but pressure on the family failed to bring the desired results and the angry pope finally sent him the Borgia cup full of the fatal drops. He was given two hours to drain it. When at the end of that time the papal jailer found the cup untouched there appeared another visitor in the cardinal’s cell—the most dreaded of all the secret executioners of the pope, his countryman from Spain, the cruel Michelotto.
Now the specialty of Michelotto was not poison but strangling. The cardinal chose the poison and died within the hour. The other cardinal who had been among those who were bought was Michiel. He was poisoned in his home through the treachery of his own servant. The pope had bribed this man who mixed the slower variety of the “cantarella” with his master’s food and drink. Cardinal Michiel endured the four painful stages of the “cantarella”: violent compression of the alimentary canal, appearance of a horrible rash, “the most vile and loathsome crust,” an undermining of the whole nervous system, and finally a fatty and rapid degeneration of the heart. He died in four days.
Curiously enough the treacherous servant, bribed by the pope, was afterward arrested, made a full confession and was burned at the stake. This of course happened after the death of Alexander. Cardinal Ferrari was poisoned in exactly the same way, the pope corrupting a young priest in the cardinal’s household. The symptoms were much the same, death ensuing at the end of the second day after the first dose. The estates of the dead churchmen were immediately seized by Borgia, but were in part restored to the heirs after the election of a new pope. The young priest who had served as the pope’s tool was also arrested some years later, made a full confession and suffered death by burning—the penalty for poisoners in that age.
It may be well to mention in passing that the vast sums which the pilgrims of the “Holy Year” of 1500 had brought to Rome and the huge tax that had been collected by the Vatican as a tribute for the prosecution of the wars against the Turks had all found their way into the hands of Cesare Borgia, who constantly needed new funds for the maintenance of his armies. It was the dream of both of the pope and his son to advance the fortune of Cesare until he was to become the ruler of all Italy. The money realized from the seizure of the estates of the poisoned cardinals all had gone to satisfy the demands of the mercenaries of Cesare. A new victim was needed and was soon found.
For some time the pope had had his eye on the immense wealth of another cardinal, Adrian by name. The wealth of Adrian was mostly liquid, just what Cesare wanted most. Adrian owned an estate on Vatican Hill, where the pope was a frequent visitor. Not all of the facts in the tragedy which was enacted on that estate have come down to us. The events occurred in the early part of August, in the year 1503, not long before the date of the anniversary of Borgia’s election, which had he lived would have been the eleventh.
Before relating the happenings on the fatal summer evening let us take a rapid glance at the state of the Borgia fortunes at this time.
The cunning political genius of Cesare Borgia had maneuvered the pope into a position of great advantage. France and Spain were bidding for the support of Alexander, who through his son now controlled a not inconsiderable portion of Italian territory. All indications pointed to a further increase of Cesare’s conquests and to a corresponding augmentation of the papal power in the politics of Europe. It is not too much to say that the Borgia were on the road to absolute dominance of the world when they plotted to poison and rob the aged Cardinal Adrian of Corneto. Fortune seemed to have singled them out for her favorites at every turn. Though now well past sixty, Alexander was in robust health and gifted with an almost incredible capacity for enjoyment. He seemed at his zenith rather than at his decline. As to Cesare, in all human probability he was destined to fill a great part in the annals of mankind. He had reduced most of the petty rulers of Italy to obedience and had taken their lands from them. Nothing seemed capable of stopping his career of triumph. If he could hold his armies together another month or two he and his father would be in a position to gain the support of the great monarchs of the world for the complete subjugation of Italy and its surrender to the Borgia ambitions.
Like many a smaller criminal, the pope had resolved that this poisoning should be his last and that with the cardinal’s wealth in his hands he need no longer stoop to the common crime of murder for money.
We do not know how the dinner in the cardinal’s villa had come about, but it appeared rather probable that the pope and Cesare had diplomatically invited themselves and that from the very outset their plan had been very cleverly conceived. Unless some circumstances altogether unforeseen and unforeseeable intervened, the old cardinal must soon be in the great beyond and his money in the hands of the pope and his son. Adrian had invited a number of distinguished guests, whether with or without the pope’s knowledge we do not know. If he asked the pope’s consent it is most likely that he received it, for a refusal might have awakened suspicion. Guicciardini, a contemporary historian and usually most painstaking and reliable, relates that Cesare Borgia some hours ahead of the dinner sent his personal messenger to the cardinal’s villa with several bottles of wine mixed with suitable doses of the “cantarella.”
The messenger had instructions to hand the bottles to the head steward of the cardinal’s household and to enjoin the latter not to open the bottles under any circumstances until after Cesare’s arrival at the banquet. According to all accounts the day was extremely hot. Alexander, tortured by the heat and a great thirst, arrived at the villa some time before the banquet, which was set for a late hour. The cardinal being out, he was received by the head steward. The pope complained of the weather and asked for a glass of wine. The head steward thinking that the wine sent by Cesare was undoubtedly some very fine brand probably intended for the pope in any event, disregarded the injunction of Cesare’s messenger and opened the forbidden bottles. He filled the pope’s glass and while the latter was sipping the wine, Cesare appeared and unaware of the true state of affairs, drank likewise of the wine that had been served to his father. The trouble with this version is that it does not account for the sickening of the cardinal and his guests at the banquet, which must have taken place not long afterwards.
There is another version which may seem more plausible. According to this account, the cardinal had received a warning and knew what the Borgia intended to do. He investigated and was led to suspect his steward. Putting the latter to a gruelling cross examination and threatening to have him hung on the spot if he did not make a clean breast of the affair, the cardinal obtained a full confession. Having learned of the bribe which his servant had accepted from the Borgia he doubled the amount upon condition that he, the steward, put the poisoned wine before the pope and Cesare. We know that the pope and his son did drink of the poisoned wine in quantities, which proved fatal to the pope and almost fatal to the son.
The fact that the cardinal himself was poisoned in a less dangerous degree remains to be explained. It is quite possible that the steward in his nervous fear made a mistake all around and had lost the means of distinguishing the poisoned wine from the other. The cardinal probably owed his better fortune to the general suspicion which must have filled his mind and which no doubt made him partake very sparingly of any of the wines offered at his table.
Unfortunately we get no help from Burckard’s diary, which is a blank between the months of February and August, 1503. However, the poisoning of the cardinal, the Borgias, father and son, and the other guests at the banquet are sufficiently proven from other sources. We know from the dispatches of various ambassadors to their masters that the pope and Cesare immediately after the banquet showed unmistakable signs of poisoning. Both complained of fever and both had vomiting spells. The pope appeared terribly depressed. The next day the vomiting spells increased in violence and the discharges were mixed with gall and greenish substances. There follows a passing improvement, but presently the gravest symptoms reappear and the doctors cut and bleed the pope. The frightful heat, the exhaustion consequent upon the vomiting and later upon the letting of blood rapidly exhausted the vitality of the pope, who was then over seventy-three years old. As the death of Borgia now seemed but a matter of hours, orders were issued that no one be allowed to leave the Vatican. In spite of the prohibition, a number of persons succeeded in leaving the place and taking great treasures with them. Shortly before he expired, the pope fell into a coma and was unable to remember anyone, not even Cesare and Lucrezia. All this time Cesare suffered much in the same way as the pope, but his youth was in his favor and he passed through a very painful crisis to escape with his life.
When it is remembered that Cardinal Adrian was likewise poisoned, though in some way much less severely, it is obvious that the “cantarella” had been at work at the banquet and that in all human probability it had been introduced by the Borgia or their servants. The symptoms of the “cantarella” with its arsenic base are conclusive as to the nature of the illness. Had any further proof been wanting, however, it was soon furnished in most fearful fashion. The pope had died without regaining consciousness.
His body was washed and dressed and was placed in a chamber of his apartments. Two candles only were provided; there were no prayers and no night vigils. The next morning, according to custom, the dead body was carried into St. Peter’s. The cardinal who had charge of the transportation was afraid that some personal enemy might want to disfigure the corpse, which would have been atrocious, of course, but strictly within the etiquette of the Italian “vendetta,” or revenge. To make sure that nothing untoward would happen the cardinal ordered the body placed in a side chapel with a strong and high railing made of iron. And now appeared a last and most terrible symptom of the poison to which the pope had given his name. While a slight discoloring of the face had been noticed before death, a ghastly black crust now began to form on the corpse.
I hesitate to translate the description Burckard has given of the state of the body as it lay in state in the basilica. In its painstaking details and its crudeness it is scarcely fit to be placed before the modern reader. He says that the pope looked “like a very black negro “morus nigerrimus”—that “the mouth was wide open, the nose heavily swollen, the tongue split in two, the parts hanging over the lips * * * all of which was so horrible that no one would ever have believed it was the same man.” The ambassador of Venice writes home to this effect: “Today the pope, according to custom, was carried to St. Peter’s and shown to the people, but it was the most loathsome and the most monstrous and frightful corpse that had ever been seen. It had neither the form nor the aspect of a human being.” Another ambassador writes that the body was horribly swollen and entirely black, “many think that he died of poison.” Another eyewitness declares that the body looked “more black than the devil.” Ghastly as the spectacle must have been in the day time it was even more insufferable at night in the yellow flickering and smoky light of the candles. Without further ceremony and long before the usual time, the remains of the pope were turned over to some carpenters and laborers to be put into a coffin. The men went about their work, as Burckard says, “joking and cursing.” When it was found that the coffin was somewhat small for the distended proportions of the deceased pontiff they kicked and pushed the remains until they were able to close the coffin and nail it down. Such was the end of Roderigo Borgia, known among the popes as Alexander VI. Here we may well leave him forever.