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Giovanni Borgia, 2nd Duke of Gandía

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Giovanni Borgia
Duke of Gandía
Alleged portrait of Giovanni Borgia
PredecessorPier Luigi Borgia
SuccessorJuan de Borja y Enríquez
Other titlesCaptain General of the Church, Gonfalonier of the Church
Bornc. 1476
Died14 June 1497(1497-06-14) (aged 20–21)
BuriedSanta Maria del Popolo, Borgia Chapel
Noble familyBorgia
Spouse(s)María Enríquez de Luna
IssueJuan de Borja y Enríquez, 3rd Duke of Gandía
Isabel de Borja y Enríquez
FatherPope Alexander VI
MotherVannozza dei Cattanei

Giovanni Borgia, 2nd Duke of Gandía (Spanish: Juan de Borja; Catalan: Joan de Borja; c. 1476 – 14 June 1497) was the second child of Pope Alexander VI and Vannozza dei Cattanei and a member of the House of Borgia. He was the brother of Cesare, Gioffre, and Lucrezia Borgia. Giovanni Borgia was the pope's favourite son, and Alexander VI granted him important positions and honours. He was murdered in Rome on 14 June 1497. The case remained unsolved and is still considered one of the most notorious scandals of the Borgia era.

Early life[edit]

Portrait of Pope Alexander VI

Giovanni Borgia was born in Rome around 1476 to then-cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and his mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei.[1] He was the second son of the couple, after the firstborn Cesare.[2] No exact birth dates are known for him and his brother, and Giovanni was long thought to be the couple's eldest son, but modern research agrees that he must have been younger than Cesare.[3] Cesare and Giovanni were brought up together in a house provided by their father, probably supervised by his confidant, Adriana de Mila. An instrument of 29 January 1483, removed the guardianship of Giovanni from his mother's family and gave it to his older half-brother, Pier Luigi and another relative, Otto Borgia.

Pier Luigi died in 1488 and by his will, Giovanni succeeded him as the 2nd Duke of Gandía. A marriage contract was written in 1488 for Giovanni and María Enríquez de Luna, who had been betrothed to Pier Luigi. María Enríquez was the first cousin of King Ferdinand II of Aragon who granted the Dukedom of Gandía to the Borgias. Because the groom was only twelve years old, the wedding was postponed. The situation changed four years later when Rodrigo Borgia became pope. A political alliance between the Crown of Aragon and the papacy made the long-planned union more urgent for both sides.

Years in Spain[edit]

Gothic main entrance of the Ducal Palace in Gandía with the Borgia coat-of-arms

In August 1493, Alexander VI sent his seventeen-year-old son to Spain equipped with a large amount of textiles, jewels, silver and portable goods. "He left Rome loaded with loot and was expected to return next year to make more," wrote the ambassador from Mantua, Giovanni Lucido Cattanei.[4] The illegitimate son of the pope was received with great ceremony by the Catholic Monarchs in the Royal Palace of Barcelona. The wedding was celebrated at the end of September 1493.

Alexander hoped that his son would receive large estates in the recently conquered Kingdom of Granada and become an important figure at the Spanish court. However, the Catholic Monarchs did not heap any favours on the duke who spent most of his time aimlessly in Barcelona. Queen Isabella was particularly annoyed that the pope was so focused on the promotion of his children, and refused to provide any assistance in this regard. But the pope was relentless in this pursuit: he managed to get the new King of Naples, Alfonso II to grant the fiefdom of Tricarico and the counties of Carinola, Claramonte and Lauria, worth 12,000 ducats a year, to Giovanni on the occasion of his coronation in May 1494. Soon the Italian campaign of Charles VIII of France made these Neapolitan estates unavailable for the Borgias.

The Duke of Gandía spent three years in Spain. He kept a court of 130 noblemen and their entourage and expanded his duchy with purchases although the pope was worried about his reckless spending. The young man was already homesick in 1494, and wrote letters to his father and Cesare to send ships to take him back to Rome. At this point, Giovanni Borgia was effectively a pawn in the hands of the Catholic Monarchs as his presence in Spain guaranteed the alliance between the House of Aragon and the papacy against the French. At the time he wrote to his brother: "Each day seems like a year to me in the delay of those ships which His Holiness has written in recent days he will send soon."[5]

Although initially there were rumours, to the great dismay of the pope, that his marriage with María Enríquez was not consummated, they later had two children. The firstborn was Juan de Borja y Enríquez (the 3rd Duke of Gandía and father of Saint Francis Borgia) who was born on 10 November 1494. Their daughter, Isabel de Borja y Enríquez was born in Gandía on 15 January 1497, seven months after Giovanni's departure to Rome; she grew up to be abbess of Santa Clara in Gandía with the name Francisca de Jesús.[6]

Captain General of the Church[edit]

The Orsini Castle in Bracciano that Giovanni Borgia besieged unsuccessfully in 1496

The Duke of Gandía was finally able to return to Italy 1496 after the French army retreated. He arrived in Rome on 10 August without his pregnant wife and his two-year-old son who remained in Spain. He was received in Rome with great pomp and ceremony. All the cardinals, led by his brother, were waiting for him on the Campus Martius, as well as the ambassadors, the Roman nobles and the officials. On 26 October he was invested in St. Peter's Basilica with the titles of Captain General and Gonfalonier of the Church.[7]

The pope had great plans for his favourite son: entrusted him with the campaign against the powerful Orsini family who controlled a large part of the Roman Campagna and had sided with the French against Alexander VI in the previous years. The twenty-year-old duke was completely inexperienced as a commander, therefore he was joined by a more knowledgeable condottiero, Guidobaldo da Montefeltro. They were initially successful, forcing several Orsini strongholds to surrender advancing north from Rome to Lake Bracciano. But the strong castle of Bracciano was able to withstand the siege of the papal forces, and the troops suffered much from the winter weather and the rain. Montefeltro was wounded, and the leadership of the campaign devolved mainly on Giovanni. The defendants insulted him by sending a donkey to his camp with a sign around its neck reading:

Lassatime andar per la mia via, che vado ambasador al ducha di Chandia

Let me pass because I am an ambassador to the Duke of Gandía

— cited by Marino Sanudo

There was even a rude personal message stuck under the animal's tail.[8]

On 24 January 1497, the Borgia army was severely defeated at Soriano when the two captains tried to fight the Orsini relief army led by Vitellozzo Vitelli and Carlo Orsini in the open field. Montefeltro was captured but Giovanni Borgia managed to escape with only minor injuries to his face.[9]

Disputation of St. Catherine by Pinturicchio in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican. The mounted male figure on the far right may be a depiction of Giovanni Borgia.[1]

At the Battle of Soriano "the men of the Church succumbed with great dishonor and loss", as Burchard put it in his diary; some five hundred soldiers were killed and many more were wounded, the Orsini captured all the cannons and scattered the papal forces. They quickly advanced to the walls of Rome and recaptured their lost strongholds. The pope now had no choice but to sign a peace treaty with his enemies in February 1497.

His next military endeavour was more successful: he took part in the recapture of Ostia which was still held by forces loyal to the French. The campaign was led by Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, an experienced Spanish general, and ended quickly with the surrender of the garrison on 9 March 1497. A few days later Córdoba held a victory parade in Rome, where he was accompanied by the Duke of Gandía and his brother-in-law, Giovanni Sforza. But Córdoba seems to have resented the favouritism shown towards the duke because on 19 March he refused to accept a blessed palm branch during the celebration of Palm Sunday in the chapel of the Apostolic Palace after Giovanni Borgia had received one. It was a surprising rebuke from an ally of the Borgias.

Despite losing the war against the Orsini, the pope still tried to carve out a principality in Italy for his son. For this, he marked out territories that had belonged to the Patrimony of Saint Peter for centuries. On 7 June a secret consistory was held, in which the Duchy of Benevento and the cities of Terracina and Pontecorvo were granted to the Duke of Gandía and his legitimate descendants. Out of the cardinals present, only Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini raised his voice against the alienation of the lands of the papacy.[10] Jerónimo Zurita claimed that the Spanish ambassador also objected and warned the pope that his plan was unacceptable.[11]

The pope's persistent efforts to promote his son ultimately created a dangerous situation: Giovanni became the primary target of hostility against the Borgias. Seven days after the consistory, he was dead.


Miracle of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Knight of Cologne attributed to Miguel Esteve. Allegedly the painting was commissioned by the widow of Giovanni Borgia, and shows the murder of his husband by his brother, Cesare.

Giovanni Borgia was murdered on the night of 14 June 1497 in Rome. According to Burchard he was last seen alive when he left the home of his mother, Donna Vannozza who lived near the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli. After the dinner, his brother, Cesare urged him to return to the Papal Palace but as they approached the Palace of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, the duke told his brother that he was going to find entertainment somewhere, and dismissed his retinue. He took only his valet and a masked man whose identity was unknown but who had been visiting Giovanni several times in the month before his death. The duke rode to the Square of the Jews where he ordered the servant to wait for him until eight o'clock, and if he had not appeared until then, return to the palace. Then he rode off with the masked man behind him on the back of his mule.

When the duke did not return to the palace on the next morning, which was Thursday, 15th of June, his trusted servants became uneasy and one of them carried to the Pope the news of the late expedition of the duke and Cesare and the vain watch for the return of the former. The Pope was much disturbed by the news, but tried to persuade himself that the duke was enjoying himself somewhere with a girl and was embarrassed for that reason at leaving her house in broad daylight, and he clung to the hope that he might return at any rate in the evening. When this hope was not fulfilled, the Pope was stricken with deadly terror.[12]

Alexander ordered a search for his son and a witness was found, a Slavonian timber dealer named Georgio who made a statement that led to the discovery of Giovanni's body. He had been lying in his boat on the Tiber on the night of the murder to guard his wood and watched as five men had thrown a corpse into the river next to the fountain at the Hospital of Saint Jerome, where refuse was usually disposed of.

The banks of the Tiber in Rome with barges by Willem van Nieulandt (c. 1602-05)

At about two o'clock in the morning two men came out of a lane by the hospital on to the public road along the river. They looked about cautiously to see whether any one was passing and when they did not see anybody they disappeared again in the lane. After a little while two others came out of the lane, looked about in the same way and made a sign to their companions when they discovered nobody. Thereupon a rider appeared on a white horse who had a corpse behind him with the head and arms hanging down on one side and the legs on the other and supported on both sides by the two men who had first appeared. The procession advanced to the place where the refuse is thrown into the river. At the bank they came to a halt and turned the horse with its tail to the river. Then they lifted the corpse, one holding it by its hands and arms, the other by the legs and feet, dragged it down from the horse and cast it with all their strength into the river. To the question of the rider if it was safely in, they answered, 'Yes, Sir!' Then the rider cast another look at the river and, seeing the cloak of the corpse floating on the water, asked his companions what that black thing was floating there. They answered, 'the cloak,' whereupon he threw stones at the garment to make it sink to the bottom. Then all five, including the other two who had kept watch and now rejoined the rider and his two companions, departed and took their way together through another lane that leads to the Hospital of St. James.[13]

When asked why he had not reported the murder the witness replied: "In my day I have seen as many as a hundred corpses thrown into the river at that place on different nights without anybody troubling himself about it, and so I attached no further importance to the circumstance".[14]

Fishermen and boatmen were summoned to drag the river; on 16 June, Giovanni's body was recovered from the Tiber.

It was just before vespers when they found the duke still fully clad, with his stockings, shoes, waistcoat and cloak, and in his belt there was his purse with thirty ducats. He had nine wounds, one in the neck through the throat, the other eight in the head, body and legs.[15]

Giovanni Borgia's only attendant, the servant who was left behind waiting, was also slain, so there were no known witnesses. After the murder, the grief-stricken Pope locked himself in his chambers and wept bitterly for hours. He did not eat and sleep until the next Sunday.


The corpse of the duke was first brought to Castel Sant'Angelo, then on the same evening, it was transferred to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, preceded by 120 torchbearers and many prelates and servants. It was laid upon a bier with great pomp and ceremony, and later he was buried in the vault.

Vannozza dei Cattanei obtained permission in 1500 to acquire the first chapel to the right of the high altar as the burial place for her family including her second and third husbands and the deceased sons of the pope, Pier Luigi and Giovanni Borgia. The richly decorated Borgia Chapel was demolished in 1658 when the basilica was rebuilt in Baroque style, and the tombs were lost except the tombstone of Vanozza, rediscovered in 1947.[16]


As the killers were never identified, there are several theories about the perpetrators and motives:

  • Most suspicions at the time centred on Giovanni's brother, Cesare Borgia.[17][18] A personal rivalry existed between them and, with Giovanni's death, Cesare was finally allowed to leave the Church as he wished, taking his dead brother's place as a man-at-arms. Giovanni's wife was also convinced of Cesare's guilt and tried, in vain, to have her brother-in-law tried. One salient fact is that the Pope despite his immense grief over Giovanni's death closed the investigation after a week indicating that Alexander knew or suspected the killer was a member of his own family.
  • To date, historical consensus generally indicates the Orsinis as the culprits in revenge for the death of Virginio Orsini at the beginning of the year in a Neapolitan prison. The head of this ancient Roman family was hostile to the Pope, and Alexander planned to give his confiscated possessions to his own sons (the murder was committed in the quarter where many of their people lived, and the mule of the victim was found there).
  • Others claimed the killer was his younger brother, Gioffre Borgia who murdered him due to Giovanni's relationship with his wife, Sancha.
  • The killer was Antonio Maria della Mirandola, the father of a young girl, whose house was located near the Tiber. Shortly before his death, Giovanni mentioned that he dishonoured the daughter of one of the representatives of the ancient Roman family.

In popular culture[edit]

The murder occasioned the witty and cruel epigram by the contemporary Neapolitan poet and humanist, Jacopo Sannazaro on Pope Alexander VI.[19] The poem plays with the apostolic title of the pope as fisher of men alluding to the scandal when his son's body was dragged from the river:

Piscatorem hominum ne te non Sexte putemus / Piscaris natum retibus ecce tuum

Lest we do not think you are not a fisher of men, Sixth, you fish for your own son with nets

— Jacopo Sannazaro, Epigrammata

In most adaptations, Giovanni is referred to by his Spanish name, Juan. In Alexandre Dumas' Celebrated Crimes (1839), he is referred to as Francesco.[20]

In Mario Puzo's historical novel The Family, Giovanni Borgia's murder by his younger brother Geoffre is central to the drama and plot of the story.

In the 2010 animated short film, Assassin's Creed: Ascendance, a fictionalised version of Juan's death is depicted at the hand of Cesare Borgia, who hires a prostitute to murder him.

In the 2011 Showtime series, The Borgias, Juan is played by David Oakes and is killed by Cesare in the second season of the series, in "World of Wonders". In the 2011 French/German series, Borgia, Juan is played by French actor Stanley Weber. He is a main character in the first season and dies in that season's finale "The Serpent Rises". In this adaptation, he is the eldest child of Rodrigo and Vannozza, and his murder is perpetrated primarily by Lucrezia—with the help of her lover, Pedro Caldes. Both portrayals depict Juan as haughty, selfish, and cruel, with few redeeming features.

The CBBC television show Horrible Histories features a song portraying the Borgia family, with Ben Willbond as Giovanni Borgia.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Maxwell-Stuart, P.G.: Chronicle of the Popes. London, Thames and Hudson, 1997, page 158–159, ISBN 0-500-01798-0
  2. ^ William Harrison Woodward: Cesare Borgia: A Biography. London, Chapman and Hall, 1913, p. 26;
  3. ^ Evidence of this is provided by the tombstone of Vanozza dei Cattanei, rediscovered in 1947, in which Giovanni is named as the second-born, and a papal bull from 1493, in which Cesare is described as the elder.
  4. ^ Cited by Alessandro Luzio: Isabella d'Este e i Borgia. Archivio Storico Lombardo : Giornale della società storica lombarda (1914 set, Serie 5, Fascicolo 3), p. 481
  5. ^ Cited by José Sanchis y Sivera: Algunos documentos y cartas privadas que pertenecieron al segundo duque de Gandía, don Juan de Borja. Valencia, Imp. La Voz Valenciana, 1919. p. 111
  6. ^ María Enríquez de Luna, Diccionario Biográfico de la Real Academia de la Historia [1]
  7. ^ Joachim Brambach: Die Borgia: Faszination einer machtbesessenen Renaissance-Familie. Callwey, München 1988, p. 131.
  8. ^ The anecdote was recorded by Marino Sanudo in his Diaries, see I diarii di Marino Sanuto, Venice, F. Visentini, 1879, Vol. 1, p. 410
  9. ^ Bernardino Baldi: Delle vita e de'fatti di Guidobaldo I. da Montefeltro, Duca d'Urbino. Milan, Giovanni Silvestri, 1821, Vol. 1, 5th Book
  10. ^ Ludwig Freiherr von Pastor: The History of the Popes, Vol. 5, 1898, B. Herder,St. Louis, p. 493
  11. ^ Jerónimo Zurita: Historia del rey don Hernando el Catholico, Zaragoza, 1580, p. 124
  12. ^ Johannes Burchardus Diary pp.88-90
  13. ^ Johannes Burchardus Diary pp90-.91
  14. ^ Johannes Burchardus Diary p.91
  15. ^ Johannes Burchardus Diary p.92
  16. ^ Katherine Walsh: Päpstliche Kurie und Reformideologie am Beispiel von Santa Maria del Popolo in Rom, Archivum Historiae Pontificiae Vol. 20 (1982), p. 153
  17. ^ Christopher Hibbert: The Borgias and Their Enemies. Harcourt, Inc. 2008, p. 30
  18. ^ Sarah Bradford: Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times. London, 1976, p. 17
  19. ^ Iacobi Sannazarii opera omnia, Seb. Gryphium, Lugdunum, 1536, p. 159
  20. ^ Dumas, Alexandre (1839). Celebrated Crimes. Vol. 1 (1910 English ed.). New York: P. F. Collier. p. 48. Retrieved 15 May 2017.

External links[edit]

Preceded by Duke of Gandía
1491 - 1497
Succeeded by
Juan de Borja y Enríquez de Luna