Look Out, It's Cesare Borgia!
One of the Renaissance's more notorious political figures, Cesare Borgia (the Duke of Valencia) lived from 1476 to 1507. Born out of wedlock, he was actually the son of Pope Alexander VI. Initially, Borgia set out on the path to become a cleric, but he wound up as the Archbishop of Valencia (modern-day Spain) while his father was traveling down the road to papacy. Supposedly one of his father's favorites, Borgia probably used his family connections to obtain several of his official positions. He spent much of his life fighting for different city-states.
In 1498, Borgia did an about-face, changing his unruly ways after taking on the role of general of the Church. Because he was the illegitimate son of a priest, he had a hard time finding a suitable royal bride, so he spent much of the following year traveling, promoting his career, and dealing with various responsibilities. He also led the efforts to unite the fighting Italian city-states.
Hard Times for the Warlord
By the early 1500s, Borgia owned land all over Italy, at least part of which he had taken by force. He was quite a character—in between the murdering and the stealing, somehow he found time to be crowned Duke of Romagna for a period. As his power grew, so did his enemies. When his father died of illness in 1503, Cesare tried to obtain a religious position in Italy, but it all went downhill from there. His power slowly waned, his lands were overtaken, and his castles fell into his enemies’ hands. Borgia was imprisoned on several different occasions and, in a fitting end to a life of crime, he was killed while attempting to take over a castle in 1507.
Needless to say, Cesare Borgia's infamy guaranteed him a place in history. Renaissance writer and philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) may even have based The Prince, his political examination of the monarchy of the day, on the life of Borgia. It is also possible that Machiavelli's work was more parody than praise; in any event, Borgia's contemporary influence was enormous and undeniable.
So how did this ruthless character relate to Renaissance master painter Leonardo da Vinci? For starters, Leonardo traveled with Cesare Borgia in the early 1500s. As a military engineer and architect, Leonardo was put to work designing war machines. By this time, Leonardo had worked for the Duke of Milan for many years, but when his former patron, Duke Sforza, was driven out of Rome, Leonardo had to look for work, and the military experience Leonardo gained while working under the duke helped him to secure the position with Borgia's army.
Even bad guys like art! Like so many religious and political figures of the day, Borgia was a patron of the arts, and having Leonardo da Vinci in hiscompany was another feather in his cap. Leonardo ended up staying with Cesare Borgia until his return to Milan in 1506.