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Banquet of Chestnuts

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The Banquet of Chestnuts (sometimes Ballet of Chestnuts, Festival of Chestnuts, or Joust of Whores) was a supper purportedly held at the Papal Palace in Rome and hosted by former Cardinal Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI, on 31 October 1501.

Burchard's account[edit]

An account of the banquet appears in the Liber Notarum of Johann Burchard, the Protonotary Apostolic and Master of Ceremonies. This diary, a primary source on the life of Alexander VI, was preserved in the Vatican Secret Archive; it became available to researchers in the mid-19th century when Pope Leo XIII opened the archive, although Leo expressed specific reluctance to allow general access to a document which might harm the reputation of Alexander VI.[1]

According to Burchard, the banquet was given in Cesare Borgia's apartments in the Palazzo Apostolico. Fifty prostitutes or courtesans were in attendance for the entertainment of the banquet guests. Burchard describes the scene as follows:[2]

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",[3] 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 Lucrezia 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.


Both contemporary and modern authors have questioned the accuracy of Burchard's account.[4] Two independent contemporary sources confirm that a social event occurred on the date given by Burchard, but give fewer details of the festivities.[5][6]

Vatican researcher Peter de Roo, in his five-volume history of Alexander VI, speculates that the passage may be a later interpolation in Burchard's memoirs, arguing that the Pope could not be capable of such "truly bestial" behavior.[7] Other historians, however, have criticized de Roo's biography, describing it as "a vast apologetic work in which much useful material is often almost undetectable under the coat of white-wash"[8] and as uncritically accepting all praise and rejecting all criticism of Alexander VI.[9]

Alexander Lee notes that "The so-called 'Banquet of the Chestnuts'… is, for example, attested only in Burchard's memoirs, and not only was intrinsically implausible, but also was dismissed as such by many contemporaries."[10] Henry A. Brann, a Catholic priest and historian, argues that "courtesans" is an improper translation of a word better understood as "courtiers", and that references to "nudity" merely describe "a throwing off of the outer robes."[11]

Defending the historicity of the account, Giles Milton argues that the Liber Notarum is "a deeply serious work", Burchard is generally a reliable source not prone to exaggerations, and that the events described are not out of character for Alexander VI, known for fathering the most illegitimate children of any pope.[12]

In popular culture[edit]

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."[13] 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."[14]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ DeSilva, Jennifer Mara (11 October 2019). The Borgia Family: Rumor and Representation. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-429-56030-9.
  2. ^ Burchard, Johann (1921), Glaser, F.L. (ed.), Pope Alexander VI and His Court: Extracts from the Latin Diary of Johannes Burchardus, New York: N.L. Brown, pp. 154–55, fifty honest prostitutes
  3. ^ Burchard, Johann (1885), Johannis Burchardi Argentinensis capelle pontificie sacrorum rituum magistri diarium, sive Rerum urbanarum commentarii (1483-1506), vol. 3, Paris, p. 167, 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.{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  4. ^ Licence, Amy (2023). The Sixteenth Century in 100 Women. Pen & Sword History. pp. 7–9. ISBN 978-1-39908-382-9.
  5. ^ Robins, Mikey (5 August 2020). Reprehensible: Polite Histories of Bad Behaviour. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-76085-300-6.
  6. ^ Morris, Samantha (28 December 2020). Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother & Sister of History's Most Vilified Family. Pen and Sword History. ISBN 978-1-5267-2441-0.
  7. ^ de Roo, Peter (1924). Material for a History of Pope Alexander VI, His Relatives and His Time. Vol. 5. Bruges, Desclée, De Brouwer. pp. 195–197.
  8. ^ Passmore, N. W. (July 1970). "Review of Book: The Borgias". The Downside Review. 88 (292): 321–323. doi:10.1177/001258067008829215. ISSN 0012-5806. Retrieved 5 December 2023.
  9. ^ Church, Frederic C. (1925). "Review of Material for a History of Pope Alexander VI., his Relatives and his Time". The American Historical Review. 31 (1): 117–120. doi:10.2307/1904513. hdl:2027/mdp.39015013144061. ISSN 0002-8762. JSTOR 1904513. Retrieved 5 December 2023.
  10. ^ Lee, Alexander (1 October 2013), "Were the Borgias Really So Bad?", History Today.
  11. ^ "The Borgia Myth", Catholic World, vol. 44, New York: Paulist Fathers, The Catholic Publication Society, p. 13, 1886, 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.
  12. ^ Milton, Giles (November 2016). When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank: History's Unknown Chapters. Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-250-07875-9.
  13. ^ Manchester, William (1992). A World Lit Only by Fire. Boston, New York & London: Little, Brown and Company. pp. 79–80. ISBN 0-316-54556-2.
  14. ^ Adams, Jeremy duQuesnay (January 1995). "Review of William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire". Speculum. 70 (1): 173–74. doi:10.2307/2864746. JSTOR 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