Were the Borgias as bad as we have always thought?

Popular portrayals have always depicted the world of the Borgias as being full of murderers, sadists and moral degenerates - but was it really so bad?

Could the real-life Borgias possibly have been as wicked as the world has always believed? 

Well . . . Yes and no.  Like most questions about history, this one turns out to be a good deal more complicated than it appears to be at first glance.

Perhaps the best way to approach it is to open it up - turn it into a bigger, broader question:

Could the world of the Borgias, the world of the Italian Renaissance, possibly have been as violent and dangerous as the Showtime TV series suggests?

Immediately the picture gets clearer. And we can answer the question without hesitation. Yes, the Italy of the Borgias, of Leonardo and Michelangelo and Machiavelli, really was like that. The Showtime series (which is now released as a complete box-set) underplays, if anything, the reality with which it deals. The Borgias lived in a lawless world, one in which might made right, the people at the top were free to make their own rules, and they rarely hesitated to do so. 

The paradox is that this same savage world, in which it was a rare ruling family that had no history of brother killing brother or son filling father, was also the setting for perhaps the most stunning eruption of artistic and intellectual brilliance ever seen. The roots of this paradox lay in the unique character of the Italy of the time, the things that set Italy apart from every other part of Europe. 

The first thing to be noted about the Italy of the fifteenth century is that, politically speaking, it did not exist. In place of the Italian nation of today there was a crazy quilt of autonomous city-states. The greatest of these were the kingdom of Naples in the south, the duchy of Milan in the north, the republics of Venice and Florence, and the Rome of the popes.  There were many others, some rich and powerful enough to be dangerous. 

Many of these states were under the heel of tyrant-warlords who had little or no lawful claim to their positions and power, and therefore lived under the threat of being overthrown – by their own jealous relatives, no less than by ambitious neighbors. The ruling houses were endlessly at war with one another and also with themselves.  It was a recipe for disaster, and a breeding ground for psychopaths. Many of the proudest family trees in Italy – even the royal family of Naples, and the Visconti and Sforza dukes of Milan – produced rich crops of murderers, sadists and moral degenerates.

Murder became almost routine, even among relatives. Betrayal had to be taken for granted not only in warfare, politics and diplomacy but also within the family. 

When one turns to the Borgias, things get interesting. It turns out that the Borgia clan, notorious around the world for fully five centuries now, was actually not only not more awful than the typical powerful family of its time but arguably a good deal less so..

There are two main reasons why the Borgias have had such a terrifying reputation for such a long time. The first starts with Pope Julius II, a flamboyant figure best known to history as “the warrior pope” and patron of Michelangelo. Julius, who succeeded the Borgia Alexander VI on the papal throne, had hated and resented him all his life. He devoted his reign to doing everything possible to blacken the names of the whole Borgia family, and had considerable success.

Then came the Reformation, and with it a hunger throughout Protestant northern Europe for conclusive evidence that the Roman church, and the papacy in particular, was inherently corrupt. The legend of the Borgias, already horrifying thanks to Julius II, was eagerly taken up and spread around the world.  In due course even the Catholic Church took it for granted that the Borgia pope and his relatives were a lost cause, impossible to defend.

And finally there are the many molehills of which mountains have been made.  There is no better example than the legend of Borgia incest. Lucrezia Borgia’s first husband, when forced by the Borgia pope and Cesare Borgia to declare himself impotent and thereby make possible the annulment of his marriage, complained bitterly that all this was being done because the pope wanted Lucrezia for himself. 

In fact there not a bit of truth to this: what Pope Alexander wanted was to free Lucrezia for a more politically useful marriage. But it became the seed from which the legend grew. 

It’s the same with many Borgia legends. 

History is funny that way.

The Borgias season 3 and complete 1-3 boxset are available on DVD now. Watch a behind the scenes video from the series:

The world of the Borgias was one of paradox: creative brilliance and violent murder side by side.
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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