Banquet of Chestnuts
The Banquet of Chestnuts, known more properly as the Ballet of Chestnuts, refers to a fête in Rome, and particularly to a supper purportedly held in the Papal Palace by former Cardinal Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI on 30 October 1501. An account of the banquet is preserved in a Latin diary by Protonotary Apostolic and Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard (it is titled Liber Notarum), but its accuracy is disputed.
According to Burchard, the banquet was given in Cesare's apartments in the Palazzo Apostolico. Fifty prostitutes or courtesans were in attendance for the entertainment of the banquet guests. Burchard describes the scene in his Diary:
On the evening of the last day of October, 1501, Cesare Borgia arranged a banquet in his chambers in the Vatican with "fifty honest prostitutes", called courtesans, who danced after dinner with the attendants and others who were present, at first in their garments, then naked. After dinner the candelabra with the burning candles were taken from the tables and placed on the floor, and chestnuts were strewn around, which the naked courtesans picked up, creeping on hands and knees between the chandeliers, while the Pope, Cesare, and his sister Lucretia looked on. Finally, prizes were announced for those who could perform the act most often with the courtesans, such as tunics of silk, shoes, barrets, and other things.
Alexander Lee notes that, "The so-called "Banquet of the Chestnuts" ...is, for example, attested only in Burchard's memoirs, and is not only intrinsically implausible, but was also dismissed as such by many contemporaries.
De Roo interpretation
Vatican researcher Right Reverend Monsignor Peter de Roo (1839–1926), rejected the story of the "fifty courtesans" as described in Louis Thuasne's edition of Burchard's diary (vol. 3). While granting that Cesare Borgia may have indeed given a feast at the Vatican, de Roo attempts, through exhaustive research, to refute the notion that the Borgias—certainly not the pope—could have possibly participated in "a scene truly bestial" such as Burchard describes, on grounds that it would be inconsistent with:
- Alexander VI's essentially decent but much maligned character
- Burchard's otherwise "decent ways" of writing
- The majority consensus of writers at the time, who either questioned the story, or rejected it as outright falsehood.
De Roo believes that a more credible explanation for the alleged "orgy" is a later interpolation of events by those hostile to Alexander:
To support the interpolated story, the enemies of pope Alexander VI bring forth of late other writers of the time. So does Thuasne produce Matarazzo, or the Chronicle ascribed to him. But Matarazzo essentially alters the tale, taking away its greatest odium, when he replaces Burchard's courtesans and valets with ladies and gentlemen of the court. Thuasne also quotes Francis Pepi, who writes that it was Cesar de Borgia, not the Pontiff, who invited low harlots, and who cuts away the most abominable details, by saying that they passed the night in dancing and laughing, and by leaving out the presence of Lucretia de Borgia. The anonymous letter to Silvio Savelli is also mentioned to prop the report of Burchard's diary. This letter, however, states only that the courtesans were invited to eat at the palace and offered a most shocking sight. It notices no further particulars nor the presence of any of the Borgias.
In popular culture
William Manchester's book A World Lit Only by Fire, embellishes the story: "Servants kept score of each man's orgasms, for the pope greatly admired virility and measured a man's machismo by his ejaculative capacity....After everyone was exhausted, His Holiness distributed prizes..."  Professional historians, however, have dismissed or ignored the book because of its numerous factual errors and its dependence on interpretations that have not been accepted by experts since the 1930s at the latest. In a review for Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy of America, Jeremy duQuesnay Adams remarked that Manchester’s work contained "some of the most gratuitous errors of fact and eccentricities of judgment this reviewer has read (or heard) in quite some time."
The banquet is depicted in episode 4 of season 3 of the Showtime TV series The Borgias. In the show, the Banquet is shown to be a trap to blackmail otherwise disloyal members of the College of Cardinals, and is officiated by Giulia Farnese, and witnessed by Burchard who chronicles the debaucheries of the Cardinals while hidden behind a screen. None of the Borgia family are seen to be present, and loyal Cardinals such as Cardinal Farnese are warned not to accept the invitation. In the series, the event takes place in c. 1499.
- Johann Burchard, Pope Alexander VI and His Court: Extracts from the Latin Diary of Johannes Burchardus, 1921, F.L. Glaser, ed., New York, N.L. Brown, pp. 154-155.
- "quinquaginta, meretrices honestae" or "quinquaginta, meretrices honeste." Latin text in Louis Thuasne's (1854-1940) version of Burchards' Diary : "In sero fecerunt cenam cum duce Valentinense in camera sua, in palatio apostolico, quinquaginta meretrices honeste cortegiane nuncupate, que post cenam coreaverunt cum servitoribus et aliis ibidem existentibus, primo in vestibus suis, denique nude. Post cenam posita fuerunt candelabra communia mense in candelis ardentibus per terram, et projecte ante candelabra per terram castanee quas meretrices ipse super manibus et pedibus; unde, candelabra pertranseuntes, colligebant, Papa, duce et D. Lucretia sorore sua presentibus et aspicientibus. Tandem exposita dona ultima, diploides de serico, paria caligarum; bireta, et alia pro illis qui pluries dictas meretrices carnaliter agnoscerent; que fuerunt ibidem in aula publice carnaliter tractate arbitrio praesentium, dona distributa victoribus." Johannis Burchardi Argentinensis capelle pontificie sacrorum rituum magistri diarium, sive Rerum urbanarum commentarii (1483-1506), 1885, Paris, vol. 3, p. 167. 
- According to Catholic World magazine, the Latin "nude" in Burchard's Diary might be better translated to mean only partially clothed: "Matarazzo (Arch. Stor. Ital., t. xvi, p. 189) says that the dance was performed by ladies and gentlemen of the court - cortigiane, improperly translated in this case ‘courtesans’. The nudity does not mean absolute nudity, but a throwing off of the outer robes. The Florentine orator Francis Pepi says they were courtiers, not ‘courtesans,’ who danced." The Borgia Myth, Catholic World, 1886, Paulist Fathers, The Catholic Publication Society, New York, vol. 44, p. 13. 
- Lee, Alexander. "Were the Borgias Really So Bad?", History Today, 1 October 2013
- "After all the witnesses have been heard, there seems to remain the possibility of a feast given by Cesar de Borgia, at his private apartments in the Vatican palace, to some ladies and gentlemen of his court; a feast transformed into an immoral monstrosity, as the colored rumor of it spread farther and farther. Before it had attained all its viciousness, the rumor reached Bologna, where it was picked up by the compiler of Matarazzo's chronicle, who declares that he believes it, because, he says, my vouchers are not only the people of Rome but of all Italy. This remark, Gregorovius sensibly observes, reveals the true source of the scandalous tale to be the talk of the common people. Matarazzo is of no authority, he adds; and who shall ever believe that Lucretia, the newly married bride of Alfonso of Este, whom she was on the point of joining in Ferrara, was a willing spectator of the disgraceful scene." Monsignor Peter de Roo (1924), Material for a History of Pope Alexander VI, His Relatives and His Time, 5 vols.), Bruges, Desclée, De Brouwer, vol. 5, p. 196.  HathiTrust has no preview, but does allow basic searches to find frequency and page number of specific words and phrases for all five volumes.
- In 5 volumes totaling nearly 3 thousand pages, and including many unpublished documents,* Msgr. de Roo labors to defend his thesis that pope Alexander, far from being a monster of vice (as he has so often been portrayed) was, on the contrary, "a man of good moral character and an excellent Pope." Material, vol. 1, preface, xi.  
* "[Peter de Roo] must have devoted to his task many years of research among the Vatican archives and elsewhere. As he tells us himself in a characteristic passage: "We continued our search after facts and proofs from country to country, and spared neither labour nor money in order to thoroughly investigate who was Alexander VI., of what he had been accused, and especially what he had done." Whether all this toil has been profitably expended is a matter upon which opinions are likely to differ. But we must in any case do Mgr. de Roo the justice of admitting that he has succeeded in compiling from original and often unpublished sources a much more copious record of the pontiff's creditable activities than has ever been presented to the world before." -- Pope Alexander VI and His Latest Biographer, in The Month, April, 1925, Volume 145, p. 289.
- "It is evident that Burchard was not an eyewitness of the orgy, and nowhere does he, in his long diary, write such foul matter, nowhere does he, even from hearsay, report any occurrence apt to injure the good reputation of any of the Borgias. How could he here suddenly descend from his accustomed decent ways to the lowest rank of a filthy writer, how could he describe a scene calculated to ruin the character of all the Borgias at once? Burchard is certainly not himself on this occasion. It is no wonder, therefore, if every modern historian either denies or discusses the genuineness of this Diary's passage." de Roo, Material, vol. 5, p. 195. 
- De Roo writes: While "Pastor believes it and the whole outrageous story as found in Burchard's diary, to be a counterpart of the pretended carousal in Siena, which we have proved to amount to nothing and to be a slanderous forgery.... [he nevertheless] acknowledges the whole affair to be probably exaggerated. Nay, Thuasne himself admits that many historians, little suspected of partiality towards Alexander VI, have refused to believe the tale, 'l'historiette', on account of the scandalous immorality which it supposes - and for other reasons. Gregorovius, the bitter enemy of pope Alexander VI and of all popes, strongly rejects the scandal of the fifty courtesans, and calls it a fib and a worthless anecdote." Material, vol. 5, pp.196-197. 
- de Roo, Material, vol. 5, pp. 195-196. 
- Manchester, William (1992). A World Lit Only by Fire. Boston, New York and London: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-54556-2. pp. 79-80.
- Adams, Jeremy duQuesnay (January 1995). "Review of William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire". Speculum. 70 (1): 173–74. doi:10.2307/2864746.
- John (Johann) Burchard, Pope Alexander VI and his Court: extracts from the Latin diary of the Papal Master of Ceremonies, 1484–1506; ed. F. L. Glaser, New York, 1921
- Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly. New York: Knopf, 1984; p. 106 ISBN 0-394-52777-1; another issue has ISBN 0-349-13365-4
- Burgo Partridge, A History of Orgies, Bonanza Books, 1960, p. 106