The Life of Cesare Borgia

Author: Rafael Sabatini

Chapter V the Murder of Alfonso of Aragon

We come now to the consideration of an event which, despite the light that so many, and with such assurance, have shed upon it, remains wrapped in uncertainty, and presents a mystery second only to that of the murder of the Duke of Gandia.

It was, you will remember, in July of 1498 that Lucrezia took a second husband in Alfonso of Aragon, the natural son of Alfonso II of Naples and nephew of Federigo, the reigning king. He was a handsome boy of seventeen at the time of his marriage—one year younger than Lucrezia— and, in honour of the event and in compliance with the Pope’s insistence, he was created by his uncle Duke of Biselli and Prince of Salerno. On every hand the marriage was said to be a love-match, and of it had been born, in November of 1499, the boy Roderigo.

On July 15, 1500, at about the third hour of the night, Alfonso was assaulted and grievously wounded—mortally, it was said at first—on the steps of St. Peter’s.

Burchard’s account of the affair is that the young prince was assailed by several assassins, who wounded him in the head, right arm, and knee. Leaving him, no doubt, for dead, they fled down the steps, at the foot of which some forty horsemen awaited them, who escorted them out of the city by the Pertusa Gate. The prince was residing in the palace of the Cardinal of Santa Maria in Portico, but so desperate was his condition that those who found him upon the steps of the Basilica bore him into the Vatican, where he was taken to a chamber of the Borgia Tower, whilst the Cardinal of Capua at once gave him absolution in articulo mortis.

The deed made a great stir in Rome, and was, of course, the subject of immediate gossip, and three days later Cesare issued an edict forbidding, under pain of death, any man from going armed between Sant’ Angelo and the Vatican.

News of the event was carried immediately to Naples, and King Federigo sent his own physician, Galieno, to treat and tend his nephew. In the care of that doctor and a hunchback assistant, Alfonso lay ill of his wounds until August 17, when suddenly be died, to the great astonishment of Rome, which for some time had believed him out of danger. In recording his actual death, Burchard is at once explicit and reticent to an extraordinary degree. "Not dying," he writes, "from the wound he had taken, he was yesterday strangled in his bed at the nineteenth hour."

Between the chronicling of his having been wounded on the steps of St. Peter’s and that of his death, thirty-three days later, there is no entry in Burchard’s diary relating to the prince, nor anything that can in any way help the inquirer to a conclusion; whilst, on the subject of the strangling, not another word does the Master of Ceremonies add to what has above been quoted. That he should so coldly—almost cynically—state that Alfonso was strangled, without so much as suggesting by whom, is singular in one who, however grimly laconic, is seldom reticent— notwithstanding that he may have been so accounted by those who despaired of finding in his diary the confirmation of such points of view as they happen to have chosen and of such matters as it pleased them to believe and propagate.

That same evening Alfonso’s body was borne, without pomp, to St. Peter’s, and placed in the Chapel of Santa Maria delle Febbre. It was accompanied by Francesco Borgia, Archbishop of Cosenza.

The doctor who had been in attendance upon the deceased and the hunchback were seized, taken to Sant’ Angelo and examined, but shortly thereafter set at liberty.

So far we are upon what we may consider safe ground. Beyond that we cannot go, save by treading the uncertain ways of speculation, and by following the accounts of the various rumours circulated at the time. Formal and absolutely positive evidence of the author of Alfonso’s murder there is none.

The Venetian ambassador, the ineffable, gossip­mongering Paolo Capello, whom we have seen possessed of the fullest details concerning the Duke of Gandia’s death—although he did not come to Rome until two and a half years after the crime—is again as circumstantial in this instance. You see in this Capello the forerunner of the modern journalist of the baser sort, the creature who prowls in quest of scraps of gossip and items of scandal, and who, having found them, does not concern himself greatly in the matter of their absolute truth so that they provide him with sensational "copy." It is this same Capello, bear in mind, who gives us the story of Cesare’s murdering in the Pope’s very arms that Pedro Caldes who is elsewhere shown to have fallen into Tiber and been drowned, down to the lurid details of the blood’s spurting into the Pope’s face.

His famous Relazione to the Senate in September of 1500 is little better than an epitome of all the scandal current in Rome during his sojourn there as ambassador, and his resurrection of the old affair of the murder of Gandia goes some way towards showing the spirit by which he was actuated and his love of sensational matter. It has pleased most writers who have dealt with the matter of the murder of Alfonso of Aragon to follow Capello’s statements; consequently these must be examined.

He writes from Rome—as recorded by Sanuto—that on July 16 Alfonso of Biselli was assaulted on the steps of St. Peter’s, and received four wounds, "one in the head, one in the arm, one in the shoulder, and one in the back." That was all that was known to Capello at the time he wrote that letter, and you will observe already the discrepancy between his statement, penned upon hearsay, and Burchard’s account—which, considering the latter’s position at the Vatican, must always be preferred. According to Burchard the wounds were three, and they were in the head, right arm, and knee.

On the 19th Capello writes again, and, having stated that Lucrezia—who was really prostrate with grief at her husband’s death—was stricken with fever, adds that "it is not known who has wounded the Duke of Biselli, but it is said that it was the same who killed and threw into Tiber the Duke of Gandia. My Lord of Valentinois has issued an edict that no one shall henceforth bear arms between Sant’ Angelo and the Vatican."

On the face of it, that edict of Valentinois’ seems to argue vexation at what had happened, and the desire to provide against its repetition—a provision hardly likely to be made by the man who had organized the assault, unless he sought, by this edict, to throw dust into the eyes of the world; and one cannot associate after the event and the fear of criticism with such a nature as Cesare’s or with such a character as is given him by those who are satisfied that it was he who murdered Biselli.

The rumour that Alfonso had been assailed by the murderer of Gandia is a reasonable enough rumour, so long as the latter remains unnamed, for it would simply point to some enemy of the House of Borgia who, having slain one of its members, now attempts to slay another. Whether Capello actually meant Cesare when he penned those words on July 19, is not as obvious as may be assumed, for it is to be borne in mind that, at this date, Capello had not yet compiled the "relation" in which he deals with Gandia’s murder.

On July 23 he wrote that the duke was very ill, indeed, from the wound in his head, and on the 28th that he was in danger owing to the same wound although the fever had abated.

On August 18 he announces Alfonso’s death in the following terms: "The Duke of Biselli, Madonna Lucrezia’s husband, died to-day because he was planning the death of the Duke [of Valentinois] by means of an arbalestbolt when he walked in the garden; and the duke has had him cut to pieces in his room by his archers."

This "cutting-to-pieces" form of death is one very dear to the imagination of Capello, and bears some witness to his sensation-mongering proclivities.

Coming to matters more public, and upon which his evidence is more acceptable, he writes on the 20th that some servants of the prince’s have been arrested, and that, upon being put to the question, they confessed to the prince’s intent to kill the Duke of Valentinois, adding that a servant of the duke’s was implicated. On the 23rd Capello circumstantially confirms this matter of Alfonso’s attempt upon Cesare’s life, and states that this has been confessed by the master of Alfonso’s household, "the brother of his mother, Madonna Drusa."

That is the sum of Capello’s reports to the Senate, as recorded by Sanuto. The rest, the full, lurid, richly-coloured, sensational story, is contained in his "relation" of September 20. He prefaces the narrative by informing the Senate that the Pope is on very bad terms with Naples, and proceeds to relate the case of Alfonso of Aragon as follows:

"He was wounded at the third hour of night near the palace of the Duke of Valentinois, his brother­in-law, and the prince ran to the Pope, saying that he had been wounded and that he knew by whom; and his wife Lucrezia, the Pope’s daughter, who was in the room, fell into anguish. He was ill for thirty-three days, and his wife and sister, who is the wife of the Prince of Squillace, another son of the Pope’s, were with him and cooked for him in a saucepan for fear of his being poisoned, as the Duke of Valentinois so hated him. And the Pope had him guarded by sixteen men for fear that the duke should kill him. And when the Pope went to visit him Valentinois did not accompany him, save on one occasion, when he said that what had not been done at breakfast might be done at supper.... On August 17 he [Valentinois] entered the room where the prince was already risen from his bed, and, driving out the wife and sister, called in his man, named Michieli, and had the prince strangled; and that night he was buried."

Now the following points must arise to shake the student’s confidence in this narrative, and in Capello as an authority upon any of the other matters that he relates:

(i) "He was wounded near the palace of the Duke of Valentinois." This looks exceedingly like an attempt to pile up evidence against Cesare, and shows a disposition to resort to the invention of it. Whatever may not have been known about Alfonso’s death, it was known by everybody that he was wounded on the steps of St. Peter’s, and Capello himself, in his dispatches, had said so at the time. A suspicion that Capello’s whole relation is to serve the purpose of heaping odium upon Cesare at once arises and receives confirmation when we consider that, as we have already said, it is in this same relation that the fiction about Pedro Caldes finds place and that the guilt of the murder of the Duke of Gandia is definitely fixed upon Cesare.

(ii) "He ran to the Pope [’Corse dal Papa’] saying that he had been wounded, and that he knew by whom." A man with a wound in his head which endangered his life for over a week would hardly be conscious on receiving it, nor is it to be supposed that, had he been conscious, his assailants would have departed. It cannot be doubted that they left him for dead. He was carried into the palace, and we know, from Burchard, that the Cardinal of Capua gave him absolution in articulo mortis, which abundantly shows his condition. It is unthinkable that he should have been able to "run to the Pope," doubtful that he should have been able to speak; and, if he did, who was it reported his words to the Venetian ambassador? Capello wisely refrains from saying.

(iii) Lucrezia and Sancia attempt to protect him from poison by cooking his food in his room. This is quite incredible. Even admitting the readiness to do so on the part of these princesses, where was the need, considering the presence of the doctor—admitted by Capello—sent from Naples and his hunchback assistant?

(iv) "The Pope had him guarded by sixteen men for fear the duke should kill him." Yet when, according to Capello, the duke comes on his murderous errand, attended only by Michieli (who has been generally assumed by writers to have been Don Michele da Corella, one of Cesare’s captains), where were these sixteen guards? Capello mentions the dismissal only of Lucrezia and Sancia.

(v) "Valentinois...said that what had not been done at breakfast might be done at supper." It will be observed that Capello never once considers it necessary to give his authorities for anything that he states. It becomes, perhaps, more particularly noteworthy than usual in the case of this reported speech of Cesare’s. He omits to say to whom Cesare addressed those sinister words, and who reported them to him. The statement is hardly one to be accepted without that very necessary mention of authorities, nor can we conceive Capello omitting them had he possessed them.

It will be seen that it is scarcely necessary to go outside of Capello’s own relation for the purpose of traversing the statements contained in it, so far as the death of Alfonso of Aragon is concerned.

It is, however, still to be considered that, if Alfonso knew who had attempted his life—as Capello states that he told the Pope—and knew that he was in hourly danger of death from Valentinois, it may surely be taken for granted that he would have imparted the information to the Neapolitan doctor sent him by his uncle, who must have had his confidence.

We know that, after the prince’s death, the physician and his hunchback assistant were arrested, but subsequently released. They returned to Naples, and in Naples, if not elsewhere, the truth must have been known— definite and authentic facts from the lips of eye-witnesses, not mere matters of rumour, as was the case in Rome. It is to Neapolitan writings, then, that we must turn for the truth of this affair; and yet from Naples all that we find is a rumour—the echo of the Roman rumour— "They say," writes the Venetian ambassador at the Court of King Federigo, "that he was killed by the Pope’s son."

A more mischievous document than Capello’s Relazione can seldom have found its way into the pages of history; it is the prime source of several of the unsubstantiated accusations against Cesare Borgia upon which subsequent writers have drawn—accepting without criticism—and from which they have formed their conclusions as to the duke’s character. Even in our own times we find the learned Gregorovius following Capello’s relation step by step, and dealing out this matter of the murder of the Duke of Biselli in his own paraphrases, as so much substantiated, unquestionable fact. We find in his Lucrezia Borgia the following statement: "The affair was no longer a mystery. Cesare himself publicly declared that he had killed the duke because his life had been attempted by the latter."

To say that Cesare "publicly declared that he had killed the duke" is to say a very daring thing, and is dangerously to improve upon Capello. If it is true that Cesare made this public declaration how does it happen that no one but Capello heard him? for in all other documents there is no more than offered us a rumour of how Alfonso died. Surely it is to be supposed that, had Cesare made any such declaration, the letters from the ambassadors would have rung with it. Yet they will offer you nothing but statements of what is being rumoured!

Nor does Gregorovius confine himself to that in his sedulous following of Capello’s Relation. He serves up out of Capello the lying story of the murder of Pedro Caldes. "What," he says of Cesare, to support his view that Cesare murdered Alfonso of Aragon, "could be beyond this terrible man who had poignarded the Spaniard Pedro Caldes...under the Pope’s very cloak, so that his blood spurted up into the Pope’s face?" This in his History of Rome. In his Lucrezia Borgia he almost improves upon it when he says that "The Venetian ambassador, Paolo Capello, reports how Cesare Borgia stabbed the chamberlain Perotto, etc., but Burchard makes no mention of the fact." Of the fact of the stabbing, Burchard certainly makes no mention; but he does mention that the man was accidentally drowned, as has been considered. It is again—and more flagrantly than ever—a case of proving Cesare guilty of a crime of which there is no conclusive evidence by charging him with another, which—in this instance—there is actually evidence that he did not commit.

But this is by the way.

Burchard’s entries in his diary relating to the assault upon Alfonso of Aragon can no more escape the criticism of the thoughtful than can Capello’s relation. His forty horsemen, for instance, need explaining. Apart from the fact that this employment of forty horsemen would be an altogether amazing and incredible way to set about the murder of a single man, it is to be considered that such a troop, drawn up in the square before St. Peter’s, must of necessity have attracted some attention. It was the first hour of the night, remember—according to Burchard—that is to say, at dusk. Presumably, too,those horsemen were waiting when the prince arrived. How then, did he—and why was he allowed—to pass them, only to be assailed in ascending the steps? Burchard, presumably, did not himself see these horsemen; certainly he cannot have seen them escorting the murderers to the Pertusa Gate. Therefore he must have had the matter reported to him. Naturally enough, had the horsemen existed, they must have been seen. How, then, does it happenthat Capello did not hear of them? nor the Florentine ambassador, who says that the murderers were four, nor any one else apparently?

To turn for a moment to the Florentine ambassador’s letters upon the subject, we find in this other Capello—Francesco Capello was his name— accounts which differ alike from Paolo Capello’s and from Burchard’ stories. But he is careful to say that he is simply repeating the rumours that are abroad, and cites several different versions that are current, adding that the truth of the affair is not known to anybody. His conclusions, however, particularly those given in cipher, point to Cesare Borgia as the perpetrator of the deed, and hint at some such motive of retaliation for an attempt upon his own life as that which is given by the ambassador of Venice.

There is much mystery in the matter, despite Gregorovius’s assertion to the contrary—mystery which mere assertion will not dissipate. This conclusion, however, it is fair to draw: if, on Capello’s evidence, we are to accept it that Cesare Borgia is responsible for the death of Alfonso of Aragon, then, on the same evidence, we must accept the motive as well as the deed. We must accept as equally exact his thrice-repeated statement in letters to the Senate that the prince had planned Cesare’s death by posting crossbow-men to shoot him.(1)

1 It is extremely significant that Capello’s Relazione contains no mention of Alfonso’s plot against Cesare’s life, a matter which, as we have seen, had figured so repeatedly in that ambassador’s dispatches from Rome at the time of the event. This omission is yet another proof of the malicious spirit by which the "relation" was inspired. The suppression of anything that might justify a deed attributed to Cesare reveals how much defamation and detraction were the aims of this Venetian.

Either we must accept all, or we must reject all, that Capello tells us. If we reject all, then we are left utterly without information as to how Alfonso of Aragon died. If we accept all, then we find that it was as a measure of retaliation that Cesare compassed the death of his brother-inlaw, which made it not a murder, but a private execution—justifiable under the circumstances of the provocation received and as the adjustment of these affairs was understood in the Cinquecento.


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Chicago: Rafael Sabatini, "Chapter V the Murder of Alfonso of Aragon," The Life of Cesare Borgia, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Ingram, J. H. (James Henry) in The Life of Cesare Borgia (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed March 31, 2023,

MLA: Sabatini, Rafael. "Chapter V the Murder of Alfonso of Aragon." The Life of Cesare Borgia, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Ingram, J. H. (James Henry), in The Life of Cesare Borgia, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 31 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Sabatini, R, 'Chapter V the Murder of Alfonso of Aragon' in The Life of Cesare Borgia, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The Life of Cesare Borgia, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 31 March 2023, from