A cursed staircase

A place veiled by the innocent appearance that hides blood and intrigue.
24 August, 2022

This ordinary-looking staircase (via San Francesco di Paola) is known as the "Borgia staircase ", but it is also known as "Vicus Sceleratus" (Wicked Alley). To explain the origin of such a dark name, we must momentarily leave the Borgia and step even further in the past at the time of the seven kings of Rome…

The legend

Once upon a time, in 535 BCE, Servius Tullius is the sixth king of Rome, and his daughter, Minor Tullia, is the bride of Lucius Tarquinius. The young couple is ambitious and grooms of power, so they manage to overthrow the king (Tullia's father) through a conspiracy movement and order his murder by the hands of assassins in the streets of Rome.

According to the Writer Ovid, Tullia, after celebrating her husband's victory, rides home towards Esquiline Hill. It was along this very alley (today’s staircase) that she found herself in front of her father's tortured and lifeless body. Taken from a wild impetus, she drove with her wagon over her father's body in a desperate act between fury and wickedness, staining her clothes from her father's blood. Just then, this path took the name of "Vicus Sceleratus" (wicked alley) to the horror of that event.

Tullia driving over her father's body - painting by Jean Bardin
Tullia driving over her father's body - painting by Jean Bardin

A cursed path

Returning to more “recent days”, the story of this unique alley does not cease to astonish and impress. The building covered by ivy right above the staircase, initially owned by two Rome’s powerful families, the Cesarini and Cattanei, according to the tradition, has a peculiar connection to a worldwide famous name: the Borgia.

Borgia Coat of Arms - particular detail is the bull, symbol of the family
Borgia Coat of Arms - particular detail is the bull, symbol of the family
It is, in fact, known as Palazzo Borgia since it was the residence of Giovanna Cattanei, also known as Vannozza, Cortigiana and "secret" lover of Pope Alessandro VI Borgia (Rodrigo Borgia). From her, the notorious Pope had the four illegitimate children: Giovanni, Cesare, Goffredo and Lucrezia.
Vannozza Cattanei
Rodrigo Borgia - Pope Alexander VI
The Borgia family in the popular tv series (Claudio Russeau, CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons)

It is said that the Pope often visited this building from the papal dwellings of Castel Sant'Angelo and the Vatican, and so in this mansion, they conceived the four children. Nevertheless, according to the gossip of the time, the palace rooms were also a place for many parties organised by Vannozza, a perfect place for intrigues and plots that still hover behind the name "Borgia". Rumours have it that here were whispered names, conspired poisonings and murders.

Today, despite its true or false dark connotation, this staircase is a unique place in Rome, worth a walk wondering about its very ancient past.

"Borgia staircase" - Via San Francesco da Paola
"Borgia staircase" - Via San Francesco da Paola

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