Friday, August 18, 2006

August 18

In his vivid and at times salacious diary, Johann Burchard of Strasburg records a most gruesome scene at the funeral of Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), whose innards -- scorched by the dreaded Roman fever -- almost literally melted on this date in 1503. After more than a week of intestinal bleeding and convulsive fevers, the pope’s skin began to peel off while his stomach distended horribly. After accepting last rites and confessing some of his many sins, the despairing Alexander expired. According to Burchard, Bishop of Orta and Master of Ceremonies to a succession of late 15th and early 16th century popes, Alexander’s was “the ugliest, most monstrous and horrible dead body that was ever seen, without any form or likeness of humanity.” Writing in his Liber Notarum, Burchard elaborates:
The face was very dark, the colour of a dirty rag or a mulberry, and was covered all over with bruise-coloured marks. The nose was swollen; the tongue had bent over in the mouth, completely double, and was pushing out the lips which were, themselves, swollen. The mouth was open and so ghastly that people who saw it said they had never seen anything like it before.

The rest of the body, quickly bloating with gas, doubled to an unmanageable size, and Burchard himself was compelled to swaddle the corpse in an old carpet and throw himself atop the bundle in a vain effort to wedge it into the undersized coffin. Only four prelates attended his funeral services. Loathed by his colleagues, Alexander VI -- whose venality and rakish morals were extraordinary even by the low standards of the Renaissance papacy -- was initially refused burial at St. Peter’s Basilica, and his remains were eventually expelled from the papal crypt and lie now in the Spanish national church of Santa Maria di Monserrato.

Whatever else we might say about the demise of Alexander IV, the manner of his passing would appear to be somewhat less than he actually deserved. Renowned as one of the worst popes ever, Alexander VI issued one of the three most significant papal bulls of the fifteenth century, each of which elaborated what became known as the “doctrine of discovery.” Building on the precedents of Dum diversas (which in authorized Portugal in 1452 to reduce African “unbelievers” to slavery) and Romanus pontifex (which commanded the Catholic nations to invade and dominate new lands, wresting them from Saracens, pagans, and other “enemies of Christ”), Inter caetera effectively “donated” the Western Hemisphere to Spain in May 1493, extending papal blessings to the wholesale conquest of the Americas. As Alexander explained,
[w]e trust in Him from whom empires and governments and all good things proceed, that, should you, with the Lord's guidance, pursue this holy and praiseworthy undertaking, in a short while your hardships and endeavors will attain the most felicitous result, to the happiness and glory of all Christendom.

Two months ago, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues issued an appeal to Pope Benedict XVI to rescind all three pillars of the “doctrine of discovery,” including the Inter caetera of Alexander VI. Thus far, the Vatican has neither replied to the appeal nor acknowledged its receipt, in keeping with its traditional silence toward such requests from indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.