The Borgias, a family of Spanish origin, dominated the Italian scene at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries CE.
What catches the eye in Piazza San Pietro in Vicoli is a narrow staircase that leads into a mysterious passageway right under an old ordinary-looking building. We now descend into the alley to discover the obscure history hidden in this place.
This tunnel (via San Francesco da Paola) is known as the “Borgia staircase”, but also as “Vicus Sceleratus” (evil alley), and to explain the origin of this last obscure Latin name, we need to go back in time to the ages of the seven kings of Rome.
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 at 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.
The history of this alley never ceases to amaze and scandalise.
The ivy-covered building visible just above the staircase, initially owned by the Cesarini and Cattanei families, is known as Palazzo Borgia. It was the residence of Giovanna Cattanei, also known as Vannozza, Courtier and Mistress of Pope Alexander VI Borgia (Rodrigo Borgia), from whom she had his four illegitimate children: Giovanni, Cesare, Goffredo and Lucrezia.
It is said that the Pope often visited this palace from the papal residences of Castel Sant’Angelo and the Vatican, and more specifically, that he conceived his four infamous children here. From an early age, the four were Rodrigo’s protégés, supported and favoured by blatant acts of nepotism, which enabled them to climb the ranks of society through nominations and awards. This burden caused anything but a simple life.
The palace’s rooms were also the site of many parties organised by Vannozza, a perfect place for intrigues and plots. It is undoubtedly a destination that still causes a stir, a building that represents the stay of the Borgia family in Rome, and a symbol of sophisticated courtly life, animated by power games that could decide the fate of empires and dynasties.