The Borgia family originated in Spain, where the family name was spelled "Borja." When Cardinal Alfonso de Borja was unexpectedly elected Pope Calixtus III in 1455, the career of the Borgias was launched. In 1456, Calixtus made his nephew Rodrigo, then only 25 years old, a cardinal and vice-chancellor of the church. Rodrigo used his position to acquire lucrative church offices and build alliances that would eventually allow him to maneuver his own election as Pope Alexander VI in 1492. Expert at accumulating wealth both for himself and the church, Alexander would use his money to maintain a luxurious court and to advance the position of his family.
Sensuous by nature and notoriously attractive to women, Alexander openly kept a series of mistresses, most notably Vannozza Catenei, a Roman beauty who bore him four children. In all, he had nine children, including two born after he became pope. Alexander shamelessly used his children as political pawns, plotting strategic marriages to establish a Borgia dynasty. He arranged three marriages for his unfortunate daughter Lucrezia: When her first husband, a member of the Sforza family, proved no longer politically useful, Alexander annulled the marriage, publicly claiming that the groom was impotent. Alexander then married Lucrezia to a prince of Naples, who was murdered a few years later by a gang of thugs, supposedly because Borgia policy toward Naples had changed. She was then married to Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara, who agreed only after a combination of threats and bribes from Alexander. Happily for Lucrezia, she became loved and respected as the lady of Ferrara.
Alexander's most famous child was Cesare, his second son. Originally marked for a career in the church, Cesare became a cardinal in 1493 at the scandalously young age of 18. In 1497, his older brother Juan, his father's favorite, disappeared. His body, bearing nine stab wounds, was found floating in the Tiber river a few days later. Cesare was rumored to have arranged the murder. Whether or not he was responsible, the murder completely changed Cesare's situation. The next year, he renounced his cardinalate and went to France to give the new king, Louis XII, the marriage annulment he had requested from Alexander, getting in exchange a French princess for a bride and the help of the French armies to conquer the Romagna. This region was traditionally a part of the Papal States, but was not under firm control. In 1499, he began his conquests, and by 1501, he had been named Duke of Romagna by his father. In 1502, he conquered Urbino and Camerino, and a group of his allies, feeling threatened by his success, formed a conspiracy against him. They were unsuccessful, and Cesare, pretending forgiveness, invited them to a meeting at Senigallia, where he had all of them executed.
Cesare was at the height of his power in 1503 when Alexander suddenly died. Without his father's political influence and money, Cesare's resources dried up. Hated and feared by many in Rome for his ruthless tactics and his lust for power, he found himself without friends. The election of a sworn Borgia enemy, Giuliano della Rovere, as Pope Julius II, sealed Cesare's fate. Ferdinand of Spain, an ally of the new pope, had Cesare arrested and imprisoned in 1504, but in 1506 Cesare escaped to France, where he worked as a captain for his brother-in-law, the King of Navarre. He was killed in a minor battle in 1507.
The Borgia reputation for cunning, decadence, sensuality, and brutality was firmly based in reality, but malicious gossip and the popular imagination exaggerated it to fantastic proportions. For centuries, historians portrayed the Borgias as the grand villains of the Italian Renaissance. Cesare was believed to have murdered not only his brother and his rebellious captains, but also his sister's second husband and numerous others who either offended him or stood in his way. The Borgias were also believed to have been expert poisoners, and almost every unexplained death among their opponents was attributed to poison. Machiavelli's unqualified admiration for Cesare's methods reinforced both their reputations as diabolical figures.