Early life and career
Born in 1468 at Canino, Latium (then part of the Papal States), Alessandro Farnese was the oldest son of Pier Luigi I Farnese, Signore di Montalto (1435–1487) and his wife Giovanna Caetani, a member of the Caetani family which had also produced Pope Boniface VIII. The Farnese family had prospered over the centuries but it was Alessandro’s ascendency to the papacy and his dedication to family interests which brought about the most significant increase in the family’s wealth and power.
Alessandro’s humanist education was at the University of Pisa and the court of Lorenzo de' Medici. Initially trained as an apostolic notary, he joined the Roman Curia in 1491 and in 1493 Pope Alexander VI appointed him Cardinal-Deacon of Santi Cosma e Damiano. Farnese’s sister, Giulia was reputedly a mistress of Alexander VI and might have been instrumental in securing this appointment for her brother. For this reason, he was sometimes mockingly referred to as the "Borgia brother-in-law," just as Giulia was mocked as "the Bride of Christ." More disparagingly he was referred to as "Cardinal Fregnese" (translated as Cardinal Cunt). As Bishop of Parma, he came under the influence of his vicar-general, Bartolomeo Guidiccioni. This led to the future pope breaking off the relationship with his mistress and committing himself to reform in his Parma diocese. Under Pope Clement VII (1523–34) he became Cardinal Bishop of Ostia and Dean of the College of Cardinals, and on the death of Clement VII in 1534, was elected as Pope Paul III.