Prince of Foxes (1949)



Director:   Henry King.

Starring:  Tyrone Power (Andrea Orsini), Orson Welles (Cesare Borgia), Wanda Hendrix (Camilla Verano), Marina Berti (Angela Borgia), Everett Sloane (Mario Belli), Katina Paxinou (Mona Constanza Zoppo), Felix Aylmer (Count Marc Antonio Verano).

(from the best-selling book by Samuel Shellabarger)

Cesare Borgia  plays politics with who his sister will marry


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

August 18, 1500.  Cesare Borgia attends the funeral of his sister Lucrezia's husband.  Cesare declares that there will be only one month of mourning for the deceased.  The reason for this is that Cesare wants to expand his holdings.  He explains that he has Pesaro, Rimini and Forli and they are on the road to Urbino, Bologna and Siena.  He wants all of Tuscany from coast to coast.  Then he dreams of Milan and Venice.  But the kingdom of Ferrara is blocking his progress.  Cesare schemes to walk into Ferrara through the bedroom (using his sister in a political advantageous marriage). 

Cesare plans for Lucrezia to marry Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara, son of the ruler Duke Ercole d'Este.  Therefore, he needs a "fox" to carry the news.  He picks Captain Andrea Orsini for the assignment.  Angela Borgia, Cesare's cousin, waits for Orsini.  Orsini goes to her and she tells him:  "I love you Andrea.  . . . I don't trust you.  You're too ambitious."  In Venice Orsini meets Madonna Camilla, who is married to Count Verano, the elderly ruler of Citta del Monte.  Orsini takes a gondola ride with Angela.  An assassin tries to kill him, but Orsini overpowers him.  The would-be assassin tells Orsini not to kill him because then he will never know who wants him dead.  So Orsini takes the man with him to his room.  He says that the Duke d'Este paid him in advance for the assassination.  He adds:  "You're not wanted in Ferrara."  Many do not want Lucrezia Borgia to marry Alfonso d'Este.  The assassin's name is Belli who acts only in his own interests and often serves as a double agent.  Orsini hires Belli as his assistant. 

On a trip Orsini stops at Crespino.  Belli tells Orsini that the farm house is the home of the widow Zoppo.  She is said to have lots of gold hidden on the farm; gold that she got from her bandit son.  Orsini goes to visit the widow, while Belli is told to wait for him.  It turns out that Orsisni is actually the son of the widow Zoppo.  His mother says that it has been six years that she has worried and waited for the return of her son.  And now she finds that he has taken a new name.  Orsini tells his mother that the one thing that he has learned in his travels is that the end justifies the means.  His mother does not approve of this and prays for her son.   This makes Orsini mad and he stops her.  He wants to give her some money but she says:  "I don't want your money."  (Unbeknownst to Orsini, Belli has been outside the farmhouse listening to the entire conversation between son and mother.)

Orsini and Belli go on to Ferrara.  There they meet Duke Ercole d'Este and his son Alfonso, the great cannon maker.  When the Duke meets the two men he tells his guards to arrest them.  Orsini explains that he is the emissary for Cesare Borgia and Cesare would not be happy if the Duke murdered his emissary.  The Duke concedes and then leaves.  Orsini proceeds to flatter the cannon-making skills of Alfonso.  Alfonso takes a liking to Orsini, who shows a portrait of Lucrezia to Alfonso.  Orsini says that Lucrezia has loved Alfonso from the moment he first saw him. 

Camilla and her husband visit Cesare Borgia who appoints Orsini to be their guide.  Cesare makes Orsini an ambassador to Citta del Monte.  Orsini tells Cesare that he will deliver Citta del Monte to him by spring.  Part of Orsini's job will be to get Camilla to love him.  (Meanwhile, Cesare employs Belli as a double agent to spy on Orsini.)  Orsini and Belli travel to Citta and attend a huge banquet given by the elderly man.  Camilla speaks with Orsini and tells him that she knows that Cesare has asked him to do something evil.  She urges Orsini not to betray her husband's hospitality.   The husband approaches the two and Camilla retires quickly.  He asks Orsini:  "You find my wife attractive, don't you?"    Orsini says he means no disrepect.  Count Verano tries to calm him:  "I don't think ill of you." 

Orsini and Belli check out the defenses from atop a precipice.  Count Verano sees the two men checking out the place and goes to talk with them.  He tells them how much he loves the place where they are standing.  (It occurs to Belli that they could just push the elderly man off the cliff to his death.)

Over the long winter Orsini occupies himself with painting portraits.  He paints Belli as Judas Iscariot.  Camilla asks Orsini if he might paint some of her ladies in waiting.  Orsini replies:  "Perhaps Madonna Camilla herself."  She responds by saying she will have to ask her husband. 

Orsini pays a visit to Count Verona.  He tells the ruler that he has no use for love.  Verona replies that it is better than "this deceitful and murderous game you are playing now."  He gives the o.k. for Orsini to paint his wife's portrait.  Belli tells Orsini the news that Cesare has moved on Capua, blood flows again in Faenza, Naples trembles and Florence sounds with alarms.  Camilla starts to sit for her portrait.  She gets impatient with the amount of time it takes to do a portrait and protests to Orsini.  He tells her that the portrait is finished.  She is amazed at the beautiful image she sees:  "Do I look like that?"  Orsini responds:  "As I see you."  Camilla is amazed at Orsini's new tone.  He actually speaks with some humility in his voice. She asks him what happened to him.  Orsini is frustrated with his life and says that everything is stale in his world.  He is thinking of making some serious changes. 

Spring arrives.  Orsini and Belli have fun at a huge spring celebration.  Cesare sends Orsini's rival Don Esteban to check on Orsini's progress.  Later Verano tells the news that Cesare will attack Camerino.  And Verano has to help feed the troops and supply Cesare with 1,000 troops.  Belli confronts Orsini to tell him that now the vacation is over:  "Give me your orders!"  Orsini asks him:  "Could you kill that old man?"  Belli says:  "Consider it done"  The assassin rushes off kill Count Verano.  Orsini rushes after Belli to stop him.  As Belli tries to sneak up on the Count, Orsini grabs Belli from behind and pulls him to the ground. 

Count Verano has decided not to supply any aide to Cesare.  He will fight him instead.  Orsini wants to help the Count and Belli is upset by the "betrayal" and says:  "I'm withdrawing from your service."  He claims that Orsini has betrayed Cesare and Belli himself.  He leaves. 

Orsini offers his sword to Count Verano as one more sword against Cesare Borgia.  Soon Orsini is in charge of the fortress's defenses.  He advises the Count that they take out some of their forces and attack Cesare's troops at their weakest point.  The Count and Orsini and their men leave the fortress.  Camilla gives both men a scarf to wear for good luck.  Verona and Orsini set up an ambush in the woods and attack some of the forces of Cesare.  In the battle Orsini and the men route Cesare's forces, but Verano himself goes down.  Back at the fortress Verona lies on his death bed.  He asks Orsini about the outcome of the battle.  They threw Cesare's men back to Fabriano.  The Count is very grateful.  He unites the hands of Orsini and Camilla saying:  "You both have been true to me . . Now be true to each other and the people."  Verona dies. 

Cesare strikes back with all his power.  Fire balls are launched into the fortress lighting fires everywhere.  Then the troops attack.  They bring ladders with them to climb the walls.  Orsini has hot oil poured onto many of the ladder climbers.  The retreat is sounded.

Camilla walks in her garden.  Orsini sees her from his position on the wall.  He goes to her to tell her that they have now held our for three months.  He adds that one more assault and the fortress is finished.  He urges Camilla to take the secret exit out of the fortress to escape.  But Camilla tells him that she cannot just sneak off. 

Three Borgia men, including Belli and Don Esteban, come to talk under a flag of truce.  They bring an offer that if the fortress surrenders, Cesare assures them that there will be no vengeance taken on the people and Camilla can remain.  But they must have the traitor Orsini.  They have until tomorrow morning to decide.  

The next morning Orsini turns himself over to Don Esteban as a prisoner.  As Esteban thinks about what punishment Orsini deserves, the prisoner says that if Cesare's men attack, they will enter a dead city.  He then convinces Esteban to write down the formal terms of surrender and sign them to give the besieged some assurance that the truce is not just a ruse. 

Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia arrive.  Camilla greets them.  She only asks for one thing from Cesare  -- the life of Orsini.  Cesare only says:  "I promise you'll be surprised."  At the banquet Cesare has Orsini brought in.  Camilla is shocked at his appearance.  He is in prison clothes and shackles.  Her eyes fill with tears.  Cesare then tells everyone that Orsini is an imposter.  He is of peasant birth and pretended to be a nobleman.  Then Orsini's mother is brought in to see her son.  She is also shocked and asks:  "Why has he been tortured?"  She calls Cesare and his people "high-born thieves and assassins."  Cesare has the woman dragged from the room.  He then tells everyone that Orsini will be placed in a cage on the castle tower.  Belli, however, has a different idea.  He says that with his own two thumbs he will gouge out Orsini's eyes.  Cesare agrees and Belli proceeds to his task.  He approaches Orsini but tells him to scream out.  Lucrezia is horrified and screams that this performance be stopped.  Belli shows a pair of eyes in his hands, but they are not those of Orsini. 

Orsini is back home with his mother recovering from his torture.  The now Captain Belli pays a visit.  Orsini's very grateful mother bows down to him.  He tells Orsini that Don Esteban has had Camilla thrown into a jail cell.  Together Orsini and Belli hatch a plot to get Camilla out of the castle.  They will arrange a rebellion.  But, says Orsini, Camilla must be out of the castle before they sound the bell for the rebellion. 

Belli gets into the castle and tells Orsini that the way is clear.  Orsini enters through the window.  He kills a man who spots him and then escapes through a secret door.  Orsini then kills a guard.  Don Esteban and some of his men find the first man killed by Orsini.  Belli is with them, since they don't know he is a double agent.  They want to ring the bell to alert their troops and Belli tries to dissuade them.  Meanwhile, Orsini gets Camilla out of her cell.  Then the bell rings.  Orsini tells Camilla:  "Something's gone wrong.  We must run for it!"   The bell ringing kicks off the rebellion.  Orsini and Camilla run into Don Esteban and there is a sword fight that Orsini wins.  But soon Orsini has to sword fight with Esteban's assistant.  Orsini is knocked down, but the assistant decides not to kill him.  He says that he has had enough of Cesare and his people.  The rebellion succeeds  Orsini says that Cesare Borgia must be stopped..    

Orsini marries Camilla. 


Pretty good movie but not for historians.  The film has a veneer of history.  There was a Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia of the future Italy and Cesare was trying to carve out an empire (but at the instigation of his father, the Pope) and he was ruthless.  And Lucrezia was used as a pawn in political marital games, but that's about it.  It's o.k. to invent a dashing character like Andrea Orsini, but not to make him 90 percent of the story.  Tyrone Power was o.k., as well as Everett Sloane as double agent Mario Belli.  Orson Welles did not have that much of a nuanced role, as the Borgias were mere background for the story of Orsini. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia


1475 (September) – Cesare Borgia was born the illegitimate son of Rodrigo Borgia (the future Pope Alexander VI) and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattani. He was the older brother of Lucrezia Borgia and brother to Juan Borgia.

His father, Rodrigo Borgia, was an important cardinal and nephew of Pope Calixtus III.

Rodrigo Borgia schemed to become pope in order to use his office to further his and his family’s self-interests. He trained his son Cesare for a career in the Church. In fact, Cesare’s entire career depended on his father’s patronage to others.

1492 – Rodrigo had himself elected Pope, Alexander VI. 

Columbus discovers the New World, although then he did not know it. 

The Kingdom of Granada (the last Muslim stronghold) was taken by the Spanish. 

1494  -- beginning of the Italian Wars between Italy and France. 

1497 – at age 22, Rodrigo had Cesare elevated to Cardinal.

Alexander VI favored Juan Borgia for improving the position of the Borgia family. The Pope made Juan captain general of the military forces of the papacy. Juan, however, was assassinated and Alexander VI had to substitute Cesare (that despite the fact that this conflicted with Cesare's vows).

His father sent Cesare to subdue the cities of Romagna in central Italy in order to create a new central Italian kingdom.

Leonardo da Vinci briefly employed Cesare as a military architect and engineer.

The Pope had his daughter Lucrezia marry Giovanni Sforza, member of that powerful Milanese family.

After a short while, the Pope and Cesare wanted Giovanni to divorce Lucrezia. Giovanni refused and accused Lucrezia of having incest with her father and brother. The Pope argued that the marriage was not valid because it had not been consummated. To sweeten the idea of divorce, the Pope offered Giovanni all of Lucrezia's dowry.

The Sforza family agreed to the idea of divorce and put pressure on Giovanni to agree. They threatened to withdraw their protection from him if he refused Alexander's offer. Giovanni gave in and signed a confession of impotence and the documents of annulment.

Lucrezia was actually pregnant when her marriage was annulled. It is believed that the father of the child was probably Alexander's messenger Perotto. (But the enemies of the Borgias claimed that the actual father was Cesare, her brother.)

1498 – the child, Giovanni Borgia (known to historians as the Roman Infante), was born in secret before Lucrezia's next marriage.

Lucrezia married the 17-year-old Alfonso V of Aragon. It was said that Lucrezia was very happy with the marriage. This fact infuriated the now jealous Cesare because he no longer received as much attention from his sister.

1499 – Lucrezia and Alfonso had one child, Rodrigo.

Cesare became ill with the French pox and it left scars on his face. Being self-conscious, he wore masks and dressed in black. This is said to have made Cesare even more jealous of Alfonso.

On a visit of Alfonso of Aragon in Rome, Cesare had his men attack the Prince. Alfonso’s men retaliated by shooting arrows at Cesare as he strolled in the garden. This infuriated Cesare, and he had his servant(s) strangle Alfonso while he was recovering. Lucrezia was broken-hearted.

There were also political reasons for eliminating Alfonso. The Pope and his son, Cesare, had allied with the king of France. The French king laid claim to the duchy of Naples that at the time was in the hands of Alfonso's family.

Cesare's father Alexander decided to and carve out for Cesare a state in northern Italy. (Allied with the France of Louis XII, Cesare took French troops to take Imola and Forli from Caterina Sforza. Then Giovanni Sforza was ousted from Pesaro; Pandolfo Malatesta from Rimini; and young Astorre III Manfredi from Faenza.  Later he would get Romagna and the lordship of Piombino.)

1501 – two papal bulls were issued, the first recognizing Giovanni Borgia as Cesare's child from an affair before his marriage and the second recognizing the child as the son of Alexander VI. Lucrezia's name is not mentioned in either, and rumors that she was his mother have never been proven.

The problem here is that there is no proof of the various scenarios dealing with the birth of Giovanni Borgia. There is evidence for each of the scenarios. For instance:

1502 – many presumed that Giovanni was Cesare's son. An item supporting this contention was that Giovanni became Duke of Camerino soon after Cesare conquered the place. This was considered reasonable because the title would be the natural inheritance of the Duke of Romagna's oldest son.

There is other evidence, however, that points to the possibility that the child belonged to Pope Alexander VI. After Alexander's death, Giovanni stayed with Lucrezia in Ferrara, where he was introduced as her half-brother.

Lucrezia married her third husband, Alphonso d'Este (Prince of Ferrara). She and her husband had children and Lucrezia was a respectable wife and mother. She was even able to survive the fall of the Borgia family following the death of her father Pope Alexander VI.

1503 – Cesare’s father died. Without papal patronage, Cesare’s own position was threatened. Pope Julius II had him seized and imprisoned.  The next head of the Catholic church was Julius II (served 1503-1513). 

1504 – Cesare was imprisoned in Spain.

1506 – Cesare escaped and joined his brother-in-law, King Jean d'Albret of Navarre.

1507 – at age 31, Cesare died at the siege of Viana. The famous, cynical political theorist, Niccolo Machiavelli, used many of Cesare’s exploits as examples in his book The Prince.

1507 – birth to Lucrezia of Ercole II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara.

1508 – birth to Lucrezia of Ippolito II d'Este (Archbishop of Milan and later Cardinal).

1512 (August) – Lucrezia’s son Rodrigo died at the age of thirteen.

She was a close friend to the poet Pietro Bembo.

1514 – birth to Lucrezia of Alessando d'Este (who died at two years of age).

1515 – birth of Leonora d'Este to Lucrezia. (She later became a nun.)

1516 – birth of Fransesco d'Este, Marchese di Massalombarda, to Lucrezia.

1516  --  death of Ferdinand II of Spain. 

1519 (June 24) – death of Lucrezia following a difficult pregnancy and birth of her daughter, Isabella Maria d'Este. (In total Lucrezia gave birth to eight children).



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