The Banquet of Chestnuts: A Perverse Pastime at the House of Borgia?

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The Banquet of Chestnuts: A Perverse Pastime at the House of Borgia?

On October 30, 1501, the most decadence of festivals occurred in the papal palace of Cardinal Cesare Borgia. A party that his own father, Pope Alexand

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On October 30, 1501, the most decadence of festivals occurred in the papal palace of Cardinal Cesare Borgia. A party that his own father, Pope Alexander VI, not only attended but participated in. The Banquet of Chestnuts was rumored to contain decadent food and wine, invigorating music and dance, and an unending orgy with Rome’s most exclusive courtesans known as the  “Cortigiana.”

It is said that all clergy were required to enjoy indulgences and participate in the pope’s fetish for male virility in sexual ejaculative prowess. This sinful part took place the day before All Hallows (Halloween), which was a sanctified holiday dedicated to the dead. 

This night in October 1501 became the most infamous party known as the Banquet of Chestnuts, due to the acts of the dancing courtesans picking up the chestnuts thrown on the floor by the eagerly perverse attending clergymen. And it’s a decadent party that is still gossiped about today!

A black and white view of Roman decadence. And the Banquet of Chestnuts is still said to be the most decadent event ever, although only two accounts of the party exist. (Erica Guilane-Nachez /  Adobe Stock )

The Banquet of Chestnuts: Gossip That Has Lasted to This Day

The Banquet of Chestnuts was so notorious that scholars, writers, and bloggers to this day gossip about it as if it happened in the current era. Since this one event,  the Catholic Church  now collaborates with historians to disprove the debaucherously infamous party since it represents the hypocrisy and sacrilege to everything the Church stands for. 

What makes this banquet most fascinating is that it defines  the Borgia family , what all believed they stood for, and their nepotic hold over the papal church. However, a more detailed examination of this event reveals that most of the accounts are based on one diary entry written by the banquet’s master of ceremonies Liber Notarum Johann Burchard, a man who was considered no friend of the Borgias.

Whether this event was as scandalous as many scholars have made it out to be, or whether this is nothing more than an example of slander against the Borgias is continually debated. A closer look can help us separate fact from fiction. 

The Papal Palace in Rome was the setting of what was “apparently” the most sinful party ever, hosted by the super powerful House of Borgia. ( Andressa / Adobe Stock)

The House of Borgia

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the  House of Borgia , a prominent noble family from  Aragon, Spain , became intertwined in the political affairs of the church. Their notoriety increased along with their popularity when Alfons de Borja was elected pope and renamed Pope Callixtus III (ruled 1455-1458). It wasn’t until 1492 that Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia became Pope Alexander VI. However, his reign, though only 11 years, was the most infamous of any Borgia.

Pope Alexander VI  was considered one of the most corrupt popes in all of Catholic history. His name was associated with  incest, adultery, bribery, and  murder. In the House of Borgia’s rise to the papal office, several other families, such as the Medici and Sforza families, became sudden enemies of the Borgias.

Alexander VI was also known for selling official positions within the Church and securing power and wealth only for the House of Borgia. This reason, above all else, was why the House of Borgia also had enemies within the church.

With such hate built from prominent families and high-ranking officials of the church, there was a strong motive for scholars to portray the House of Borgia as  decadent and sinful

A creepy view of Rome on All Hallows eve or Halloween. Which was the night after the Banquet of Chestnuts event. ( scaliger / Adobe Stock)

Did Burchard Slander the Borgias?

The Banquet of Chestnuts is referenced as the most famous example of what was wrong with the Borgia family. 

Most accounts of this event came from the diary entry of the banquet’s master of ceremonies, Johann Burchard, who attended the banquet and was a witness to what happened that night. In his diary entry, Burchard mentioned that fifty honest courtesans were present. They acted as dancers, entertainers, conversationalists, and servers. But as the night continued, according to Burchard, their garments fell away with each passing hour until they were completely nude.

Once their clothes were off, the games with  chestnuts began. Burchard detailed how eager clergymen would throw chestnuts on the floor for the naked courtesans to acquire. They would crawl on their arms and knees and pick up the chestnuts in their mouths. Then the sexual contests would begin where clergymen would have to endure in sexual intercourse. Whoever lasted the longest was considered the winner.

Burchard’s accounts are very vivid. However, his entries are also strongly contested due to his well-known dislike of Pope Alexander VI, a Borgia. Because of Burchard’s bias, many historians have discounted his writings regarding the Banquet of Chestnuts even though this single party became the most notorious banquet of all medieval history. 

The Banquet of Chestnuts took place the night before “All Hallows” festival ( Halloween) and this could have been a reason why the Banquet of Chestnuts was portrayed the way it was.

The importance of the All Hallows festival in medieval Europe is strongly tied to Celtic and  pagan festivals . These festivals gained in popularity with other cultures and eventually were incorporated into the Christian calendar. On October 31, people were expected to feast in celebration of the Christian saints, commemorate dead loved ones of the past, offer flowers and rituals within graveyards, and celebrate both for those who are alive and those who are dead. 

As writer Carlyn Beccia mentions, the All Hallows festival was a certified church holiday that carried ties to the dead. In medieval Rome, cadavers were dressed in the best garments their living relatives could afford and placed on display. People would dress up as both spirits and saints to signify the unity of the living and the dead, and farmers and craftsmen alike would celebrate the end of a productive and bountiful year providing no end of excess to all who attended. In many ways, the celebration of life, abundance, and joy was significant to the hardships faced  during the Medieval era .

The All Hallows festivals in Rome would also be where the rich and wealthy would compete for the most luxurious of parties, exclusive to those who were well connected. As the commoners masqueraded in the streets, the wealthy held the largest of events where performers, courtesans, and entertainers would stage elaborate shows around tables overflowing with food and wine.

As Pope Alexander VI hoped to gain further favor with the church, he may have felt that the Borgia celebrations should be the very best of all. Perhaps the Banquet of Chestnuts was symbolic of all these rituals since it contained both a grand feast for all, as well as an appreciation for life and all of its vices.

A famous portrait of Cesare Borgia by an unknown artist (likely Bartolomeo Veneto). Cesare was the head host at the Banquet of Chestnuts. Perhaps the event was reported as being notorious and sinful, by one person, to slander the rising power of the Borgias? (After Bartolomeo Veneto /  Public domain

Conclusions . . .

Whichever the case, the diary entries by Burchard have often been dismissed as the writings of a bitter foe to the Borgias. Since October 31, 1501, as Beccia writes, historians have continued to debate whether the scandalous orgies of the Banquet of Chestnuts were indeed accurate or an exaggeration by a resentful Burchard.

In Becchia’s essay, she provides another source that places Burchard’s description into question. The Italian condottiere Silvio Savelli also attended the banquet, yet in a letter he wrote, Savelli only mentioned that the courtesans dined with the Borgias and their guests without any mention of sexual sin. If anything, Savelli went on to mention that the courtesans were great conversationalists who greeted guests with “a most shocking sight.” What that sight was, alas, will be forever lost to history and hearsay. 

Top image: The decadence of Rome, as depicted in Thomas Couture’s famous painting, is still celebrated today in film and literature. And no event was reported as more scandalous than the Banquet of Chestnuts in 1501, held the night before Halloween.                Source: Thomas Couture /  Public domain

By B.B. Wagner

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