If you’ve never heard of Cesare Borgia, you’ve still probably seen his face. Or perhaps you’ve read a book based on his character and his rise to power. That’s because he was the basis for Machiavelli’s The Prince, and according to some writers and scholars, his face was quite possibly also the model for some of the most well-known images of Jesus, including the one below.
But who was Cesare Borgia, really?
Borgia was the illegitimate son of Rodrigo Borgia, who would become Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei. He was born in Rome in 1475 or 1476, and his siblings included Lucrezia Borgia, Giovanni Borgia, and Gioffre Borgia. Although Cesare Borgia was a cardinal and the son of a pope, he was also part of a family that was infamous for its political machinations and hunger for power.
Cesare’s rise to power began early: He was made a bishop at age 15 and a cardinal at age 18. He was in his early 20s in 1498, when he resigned the cardinalcy and was made the prince of a papal state in northern Italy. However, when his father the Pope passed away in 1503, Cesare’s power crumbled. He was on friendly terms with the new pope, Pius III, but Pius III was only the pontiff for 26 days -- after which Giuliano Della Rovere, an enemy of Cesare’s, took the pontificate as Pope Julius II, and Borgia was overthrown in just a few months.
It was while Cesare was a prince that Niccolo Machiavelli (whose portrait is below) paid him a visit in 1502-3, during which Machiavelli observed that Cesare Borgia was a prime example of the problems that arise when a ruler acquires a principality due to the influence of another person: When the more powerful person loses that power, many times, so does the one who was set up to rule.
Machiavelli also observed (and even admired) Borgia’s ruthlessness, but Cesare’s penchant for court intrigue and violence didn’t overrule his good looks and high connections in the Church. As a result, there are many scholars and authors who believe that Cesare Borgia was the basis for some of the most famous paintings of Jesus. Alexandre Dumas, who wrote not only The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and many other novels but also a book about the Borgias as part of his Celebrated Crimes series, was a proponent of this theory.
So below is the real (non-Jesus-ified) Cesare Borgia. Think he looks like the portrait of Jesus? (We think he looks more like a Nirvana-era Krist Novoselic, but the resemblance is there.)
So there you have it: the guy who was a powerful crime family scion, illegitimate son of a pope, sometime teenage bishop and cardinal, and the inspiration for The Prince and the way we picture Jesus, all rolled into one. Not bad for a guy who only lived to see age 31.
The posts on this blog are conceived of and written by various members of a homeschooling family. We're lifetime learners who delight in finding odd bits of history, obscure practices that were once commonplace, and forgotten cultural icons tucked away in books and on the Internet.