As I type this, 115 cardinals of the Catholic Church are trooping into the Sistine Chapel to begin that most holy of voting procedures: the conclave which will result in a new pope. I’m not Catholic, but I still find myself inordinately excited. I’ve spent the last year researching another papal conclave: the conclave of 1492, in which the characters of my next book The Serpent and the Pearl: a novel of the Borgias have a great deal at stake.

The conclave of 1492 was the first to be held in the Sistine Chapel, a tradition that continued afterward to this day. The chapel hadn’t yet been painted by Michelangelo–a certain Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who sat in several papal conclaves over the course of his career, might well have stared vengefully at the ceiling and thought to himself, “Ok, if I ever win one of these things, I’m putting some decent paintings in here.” Della Rovere was one of several cardinals who probably considered himself papabile, which roughly translates to “pope-able.” Papal conclaves were held in strictest secrecy, but you could generally tell who thought they had a shot at the papal throne by seeing which cardinals had their palaces cleaned out beforehand: Roman tradition during the Renaissance dictated that any new Pope promptly had his palace sacked by a celebratory mob (the reasoning being that the guy didn’t need a private residence anymore, since he was moving into the Vatican). That’s one tradition that has fallen away over the centuries, but it was highly appreciated by the bettors and bookies of the Renaissance, who touted the odds on the next pope according to which cardinals had all their best belongings carted away pre-Conclave, just in case things swung their way. Cardinal della Rovere had his hopes up for the conclave of 1492, and so did his arch-enemy, a certain affable Spanish cardinal named Rodrigo Borgia.

Modern conclaves have streamlined the voting process for efficiency: votes can be held up to four times per day, as opposed to the Renaissance when conclaves could last for weeks. (There was one conclave which supposedly lasted several years, and the cardinals were finally restricted to bread and water to hurry them along. When even that didn’t work, the roof was removed from their voting room. A few showers of rain later, a pope was chosen with remarkable speed.)

But in 1492 as in today’s conclave, a two-thirds majority was required. Also identical in process is the expulsion of outsiders, the ceremonial locking of the doors, and the oath of silence. Vegas has nothing on the Vatican: on pain of excommunication, what happens at the Conclave stays at the Conclave. Voting ballots are still hand-written (you don’t want to put in computers to tabulate this vote; wouldn’t it be embarrassing if Anonymous posted “Dude, I hacked the Vatican!” on Facebook?) And both today and in 1492, fierce jockeying occurs behind the scenes as cardinals angle for Christendom’s ultimate prize.

The conclave of 1492 was notorious for the bribery that went on among these supposed men of God. If you think the clergy today has a bad reputation, the cardinals of the Renaissance had them outdone by miles. There were only twenty-three present in the Sistine Chapel that summer day in 1492 (travel distances being what they were, cardinals didn’t tend to make flying visits from France or England as they do today), and all twenty-three were known less as men of God than as princes of the church: worldly men who ate and drank like kings, made merry with women, slept in luxurious palaces, promoted their families, sponsored great art, and lived it up. The poster child for this system was Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, an unabashed sensualist who played proud papa to at least four notorious illegitimate children–and at the time of the conclave, was head over heels in love with a gorgeous eighteen-year-old blonde by the name of Giulia Farnese. In my version in The Serpent and the Pearl, Rodrigo is more distracted during the conclave than he should be, tabulating possible votes with one half of his mind as the other half wonders if he can make Giulia his mistress. Not a good time for a man of God to be distracted, but Rodrigo Borgia always made time for love.

When he wasn’t dreamily doodling Giulia’s profile on his ballot, Cardinal Borgia made other arrangements. Four mule-loads of silver and the office of Vice-Chancellor reportedly went to Cardinal Ascanio Sforza in return for his papal vote; fortified towns and bishoprics and revenues were handed out like party favors among the other cardinals in exchange for their support. Cardinal della Rovere must have been very tight-lipped indeed during the four votes that followed: with every cast of the ballots, his enemy’s star rose. The first three sets of ballots were burned ceremoniously, releasing the black smoke above the Vatican roof that to this day symbolizes to the watching crowd outside that yet another vote has been unsuccessful. On the sixth day of the 1492 conclave, a hot summer day in early August, the crowd saw white smoke: a pope had been elected.

In Rodrigo Borgia’s day, tradition had it that the newly elected pope demurred modestly when offered the papacy, then formally accepted before taking his oath and making his first public appearance. Supposedly Rodrigo Borgia was too excited for modesty, and just let out an exultant yell of “I AM POPE!” This tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Rodrigo Borgia.

After accepting his title, the new Pope goes at once to change into his papal vestments (several sizes are usually laid out, then as now, since no one knows what size man will be climbing into those vestments). He then goes out to give his first official blessing to the crowd outside, announced officially by his chosen papal name. The official announcement, unchanged through the centuries, is Habemus Papam, or “We have a pope.” The assembled crowd of 1492 heard the words “We have for Pope, Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia of Valencia.” To the surprise of no one who knew the man, he had chosen the name of a conqueror rather than a saint.

After the blessing, preparations are always made to crown the new Pope in an official ceremony, but everyone has a few days to prepare first. The new Pope Alexander would have had time to go home, celebrate with his exultant sons Cesare and Juan and Joffre, and tell his daughter Lucrezia about the splendid marriage plans he arranged for her as part of the bribe to Cardinal Sforza. The new Pope would also have made time to kiss the golden-haired Giulia Farnese–whom, to the scandal of all Rome, he refused to give up after taking the papal throne. And the new Pope probably would have heard the scurrilous epigram that soon made its way through Rome after the election: “Alexander sells the Keys, the Altar, Christ Himself–he has a right to, for he bought them.” Rodrigo Borgia never minded trash-talking; he probably roared with laughter. Besides, it was true: the conclave of 1492 became famous as one of the worst examples of bribery and simony in conclave history. When Cardinal della Rovere finally became Pope Julius II two conclaves later, he passed stringent anti-bribery laws for future conclaves (in between bullying Michelangelo about that Sistine Chapel ceiling).

The papal conclave of 2013 is already famous: it’s the first time since the Middle Ages, long before Rodrigo Borgia or any of his colleagues were born, that a conclave has been held on a pope’s resignation rather than his death. Who knows if it will be famous for any other reasons? All we can do is wait and watch for that plume of white smoke.

Habemus Papam.