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.
Photo: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem