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 they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism