Banquet of Chestnuts  

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"Burchard tells us how, for the amusement of Cesare, of the Pope, and of Lucrezia, these fifty courtesans were set to dance after supper with the servants and some others who were present, dressed at first and afterwards not so. He draws for us a picture of those fifty women on all fours, in all their plastic nudity, striving for the chestnuts flung to them in that chamber of the Apostolic Palace by Christ’s Vicar--an old man of seventy--by his son and his daughter." --The Life of Cesare Borgia (1912) by Rafael Sabatini, on the Banquet of Chestnuts

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The Banquet of Chestnuts, known more properly as the Ballet of Chestnuts, refers to a fête in Rome, and particularly to a supper held in the Palazzo Apostolico by Don Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI on October 30, 1501. An account of the banquet is preserved in a Latin diary by Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard (it is entitled Liber Notarum). The passage has been described as "enough to make even the most committed and diehard Roman Catholic agree that the church was in a pretty poor state at the time of the Protestant Reformation." It has been noted that the crimes of Rodrigo Borgia are similar in nature to those of other Renaissance princes, with the one exception being his position in the Church. As French historian Joseph de Maistre said in his work Du Pape, "The latter are forgiven nothing, because everything is expected from them, wherefore the vices lightly passed over in a Louis XIV become most offensive and scandalous in an Alexander VI."


The banquet was given in Cesare's apartments in the Palazzo Apostolico. Fifty prostitutes or courtesans were in attendance for the entertainment of the banquet guests. After the food was eaten, lamp stands holding lighted candles were placed on the floor and chestnuts strewn about. The clothes of the courtesans were auctioned; then the prostitutes and the guests crawled naked among the lamp stands to pick up the chestnuts. Immediately following the spectacle, members of the clergy and other party guests together engaged with the prostitutes in sexual activity. According to Burchard, "prizes were offered--silken doublets, pairs of shoes, hats and other garments--for those men who were most successful with the prostitutes".

According to William Manchester, "Servants kept score of each man's orgasms, for the pope greatly admired virility and measured a man's machismo by his ejaculative capacity." Another source (Wiegand) states that Pope Alexander VI was actually there and himself suggested the scorekeeping method. Manchester also refers to the use of sex toys; Burchard, however, makes no reference to this in his account of the banquet.

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