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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories