Early career and family
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."
As a young cleric, Alessandro lived a notably dissolute life, taking a mistress, Silvia Ruffini, and having three sons and two daughters with her, including Pier Luigi II Farnese, whom he created Duke of Parma, as well as Ranuccio Farnese and Costanza Farnese. Another epithet leveled at him was "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.
The elevation to the cardinalate of his grandsons, Alessandro Farnese, aged fourteen, and Guido Ascanio Sforza, aged sixteen, displeased the reform party and drew a protest from the emperor, but this was forgiven when, shortly after, he introduced into the Sacred College Reginald Pole, Gasparo Contarini, Jacopo Sadoleto, and Giovanni Pietro Caraffa, who became Pope Paul IV.