Even religious figures needed to blow off steam every now and again, especially during the bloated, indulgent period of 16th-century Rome. Held firmly in place by the influence of the notorious Borgia family, the great Renaissance city was subject to much of what Pope Alexander VI and his second son Cesare did. Prone to self-indulgent excess, the Borgias epitomized the corruption and blatant debauchery of the period by throwing lavish social events for the privileged set with a rather discerning guest list. One such occasion arose the night of October 30, 1501, when a huge banquet was organized in the Papal Palace including both nobility and senior officials of the Catholic Church—but it also included prostitutes, nude entertainment, and all-night sex games.
The infamous party later became known as the Banquet of the Chestnuts and has gone down in history as one of the raciest nights in medieval history—and that’s saying something. Although widely disputed, the feast was legitimized by a first-hand written account and shed considerable light on the morality of the papal office, particularly the negativity surrounding the Borgia rule. Salacious though it was, this notorious feast did more than just entertain—it illuminated the duplicitous and flawed nature of religious authority and reminded the masses that even highly moral men touched by God need to get down sometimes.
The infamous banquet was thrown in honor of the season and hosted by Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare Borgia who made sure the food was delectable and the wine plentiful. Held in the official residence of the Pope himself—the Apostolic Palace with over 1,000 rooms—the invitation was extended only to his inner circle. The banquet table overflowed with roasted meats, dried fruit, and all sorts of sweet delicacies, as servants bustled around the room filling wine glasses in quick succession. Fifty of Rome’s finest prostitutes had been included in the guest list, and the air was buzzing with sexual tension as the candles burned low and the last dishes were cleared.
The servants removed the candelabras from the table and placed them on the floor, introducing the next chapter in the evening’s activities. Among the many guests, the hired courtesans began to dance seductively and undress while chestnuts were strewn around the floor. The burning flames illuminated the wide eyes and delighted grins of the watching guests as the women began crawling around on all fours, picking up the chestnuts with their nether regions, sometimes two at a time. At an hour when the pope should have been at prayer, he was likely pouring himself a fresh glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and enjoying the show with his two of his favorite children, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia.
It wasn’t long before the dinner guests got involved, throwing down barrettes, brooches, and even gloves for the dancers to pick up. Those with more ambition decided to burn off dinner by getting down and dirty with their choice of courtesan, quickly turning the shindig into a scene that would make Caligula proud. Prizes were soon announced for anyone (including cardinals and priests) with the most ejaculations, and tunics of silk and other fineries were handed out to the winners by the Pope himself.
Of course, Vatican historians have worked hard through the years to disprove this lurid account of a papal orgy, claiming those details were fabricated by enemies of the church. But titillating as it may be, the Banquet of Chestnuts in not a story easily dismissed by history. Pope Alexander VI was widely regarded as one of the controversial religious figures of the Renaissance period, while his surname Borgia has become synonymous with scandal, nepotism, and incest.
The late October date played a major part in the nature of the feast, as All Hallows was a sanctified church holiday with ties to the dead and the season of plenty. It was an otherworldly time when charnel houses were opened, cadavers were dressed in finery and displayed, and farmers celebrated the end of a productive year. Larders were full, wood was chopped, and people were prepared for pleasure and the promise of abundance. As the leaves turned red and the night became chillier, the season of winter began in medieval Rome where masquerading, performances, and processions of all kinds were embraced. The success of this holiday time depended greatly on the actions of the aristocrats and papal authority who were expected to set the tone for revelry and upcoming festivals. Although most Catholics probably predicted a church festival, the Borgias (in their typical fashion) offered up an evening above and beyond anything anyone expected. One thing was for sure, the season was getting off to a hell of a start.
Even though the Banquet of Chestnuts has been called the most infamous fête in Europe, its historical telling varies between sources. Nonetheless, there is a first-hand account of the feast preserved in a Latin diary called Liber Notarum by Protonotary Apostolic and Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard who wrote about the evening in his personal diary. Sandwiched in between a visit to Civita Castellana and a fight involving some donkeys, Burchard’s passage on the feast describes a scene none too flattering to the Pope who apparently did not leave when the party took a turn. According to him, the pope was known to greatly admire male virility and often measured a man’s machismo through his sexual prowess.
But did it really happen? Some say absolutely not—impossible! The Pope would never have participated in such an event. Religious historians say it would be inconsistent with his otherwise “decent ways” of writing and has been consistently questioned by the majority of experts. Hmmm, not exactly iron-clad. While it is agreed Cesare Borgia likely did hold a feast in the Vatican with some colorful characters, evidence suggesting it morphed into an all-night orgy is sparse and conflicting. Regardless, Burchard’s recollection of the party stands as a primary source on the subject with the strength to establish its veracity. Plus, um—he was there.
It comes as no surprise some religious historians have found the Banquet of Chestnuts to be nothing but a ruse to embarrass the Catholic Church and tarnish religious history. In 1925, well-known Vatican researcher Peter de Roo wrote a piece entitled Material for a History of Pope Alexander VI, His Relatives and His Time in which he painted the Pope as a devoted Italian patriot and a “tireless upholder of the best traditions of the papacy.” His undoubtedly thorough research found nothing incriminating on the question of the Banquet of Chestnuts, and he believed Burchard’s account was probably written by someone else who was making some unwieldy assumptions. The question of de Roo’s objectivity as a Vatican researcher was certainly an issue, but other historians have also had trouble legitimizing the notorious evening.
For those who dispute the Banquet of Chestnuts ever happened, it’s helpful to consider Pope Alexander VI’s personal life. Although supposedly dedicated to the Catholic Church, he did father at least five children out of wedlock with two different women, the second of whom was persuaded to abandon her husband once the Pope took office so she could move into an adjoining room in his palace. This simplified his clandestine visits to her bed and kept the public eye out of his way. Of course, the news of this illicit affair soon spread throughout Rome, and his mistress was labeled either the “Pope’s Whore” or the “Bride of Christ.”
With this level of personal drama and history, it certainly seems possible a man like Pope Alexander VI may have suffered from a weakness of the flesh. It wouldn’t be the first time. He had been elected to the papal office in a landscape of corruption of bribery that would come to epitomize his papacy. He suffered numerous scandals—including rumors he slept with his own daugther—and was accused of nepotism on many occasions. When the Florentine friar, Girolamo Savonarola, denounced the pope for his sinful way of life, the Pope was said to have laughed outright rather than argue. He seemed neither ashamed or concerned about his reputation because he was a man who lived on his own terms.
The House of Borgia was of Spanish origin and rose to prominence in the Catholic Church in the mid 15th century when Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. His rise to power was swift, as he was eternally focused on his family’s ambition and how to maximize his power. He used his daughter Lucrezia’s several marriages as a way to form alliances and conspired with his son Cesare to pay off his any rival who dared oppose him. His reign was characterized by opulent living, ruthless suppression of haters, greedy amassing of fortune, and an insatiable carnal appetite. However, it’s also worth pointing out Pope Alexander VI had a significant influence on the Age of Enlightenment, as his love of magnificence and splendor encouraged considerable advances in art and architecture during his reign.
The only person who overshadowed the licentiousness of the Pope was his oldest son, Cesare Borgia. Born around 1475, the young man was guided through the ranks by his father, who made sure he rose to prominence in Roman society. Although ordained as a bishop at the age of 15 and a cardinal at 18, Cesare’s penchant for women and violence led him to resign and pursue a military career, eventually becoming his father’s chief protector and strategist. In this role, he instigated a number of military conflicts in the name of papal authority and gathered the endless riches that would fund the regime’s well-known affluence. His brutality and amoral attitude were feared by many, and it was widely believed he had killed his older brother Giovanni and slept with his sister Lucrezia. There’s little doubt the historical figure of Cesare Borgia would have applauded an evening of debauchery and done his duty as an enthusiastic guest.
When trying to determine the truth of the Banquet of Chestnuts, the setting is pretty key. After all, it didn’t just happen anywhere—it took place in arguably one of the most sacred buildings on earth. The Apostolic Palace in Vatican City, Rome where the party was allegedly held is still the official residence of the Pope and a building steeped in considerable history. It contains the Papal Apartments with private rooms and study, offices for the sovereign entity of the Catholic Church, the Raphael Rooms, the Borgia Apartment, and the famous Sistine Chapel. It is a serious building which makes the thought of a medieval orgy on the grounds even more startling. Walls throughout the palace have been decorated by some of the most impressive painters in Europe like Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Perhaps it is this setting of upstanding religious history that makes the story of Pope Alexander VI’s risqué gathering so hard to digest, and yet, what better place to find privacy among like-minded revelers?
Perhaps the truth of the night in question lies somewhere in the middle and is subject to the moral threshold of the society examining it. While Burchard’s account of the Banquet of Chestnuts may have been toned down by 19th and 20th-century translators who found the whole event too shocking to detail, the fête in question is an excellent example of history’s malleable nature and its ability to reflect the condition of the those telling the story. When William Manchester penned his book A World Lit Only by Fire just three years ago, he embellished the story with details of exhausted men slumped over the dinner table after fornicating their brains out all night. He also upped the ante by suggesting the courtesans used various medieval sex toys. Perhaps this new information appeared because Manchester himself felt the story needed a little more spice to whet the contemporary appetite, or possibly he just found a new interpretation of past works. Professional historians have largely dismissed his book because it contained some factual errors and relied too heavily on his personal views, both of which the journal of the Medieval Academy of America say contained “gratuitous eccentricities of judgment.”
As the centuries pass, the story of the Banquet only seems to get wilder with each new telling, all the while pressing the button of Catholic hypocrisy, both morally and socially. There was a time not so long ago when this view would have been received with great disdain and even fear, as it put into question the foundations that upheld a large section of human faith. Shaking the tree where religion lives is never easy on the soul, and this story of base behavior was disturbing because it hinted at the possibility that corruption outweighs goodness in most things—and that is a hard notion to live with. If you can’t trust those in power, those with moral authority, who can you trust? Suddenly, the ground is removed from beneath our feet, and history (along with humankind) becomes a bestial and comic convergence of events without meaning or value.
But it’s important to remember even if the Banquet of Chestnuts in all its glory were true, one’s faith in morality as a whole does not have to suffer. We—as voyeurs of the past—do not have to turn a blind eye and scoff at that which makes us uncomfortable. Part of history’s challenge asks us to look it dead in the eye and question how it changes what we know. Rather than letting the stories of Pope Alexander VI and his surly Borgia clan put a damper on God, let it be what it is—a reminder that people are still people with flaws, weaknesses, and undeniable passions, no matter how shiny the throne. In the case of religious figures, this is painfully true.
By placing humans in a strict moral framework with no room for human expression or weakness, we set them up for failure—just like God did with the tree of knowledge—because the expectation is unrealistic. Man absolutely, positively has to eat the apple because it is his destiny. Through the ages, civilization has consistently denied humans room to embrace their nature (a fact that has been painfully illustrated through recent scandals in the Catholic Church), and this has only led to feelings of shame, inadequacy, and fear. If Pope Alexander VI did, in fact, watch naked prostitutes slither around the dinner table, what does that really mean? Only that he is just a regular man of his time—fallible and full of ego. It is only when we try to elevate man in the name of religion that he becomes a buffoon and dark smudge on history.
For those who suspect Pope Alexander VI was guilty of licentiousness and duplicity, the vision of his death may seem apropos. He was a larger-than-life figure while he was alive, always aggrandizing the Borgia family during his papacy. When he died in 1503 at the age of 72, his body lay in state for many days. The August heat quickly took its toll on the remains, and according to an Italian theologian, “It was a revolting scene to look at that deformed, blackened corpse, prodigiously swelled, and exhaling an infectious smell; his lips and nose were covered with brown drivel, his mouth was opened very widely… therefore no fanatic or devotee dared to kiss his feet or hands, as custom would have required.” People often say we die as we lived, which in this case would suggest the Pope was more than a little rotten on the inside. Either way, it’s known he was one of the most sexually active religious figures in all of European history and had a dubious record as a moral man. It’s also known that one evening in late October, he threw one of the sexiest parties in history.
And the rest is history.