One of my favorite things is to read a historical novel and then follow up with non-fiction on the same topic. The novel pulls me in, and the nonfiction fills in the gaps. If I were a history teacher, this is how I would engage my students. So here we have a novel on the Borgias by Sarah Dunant, and then a nonfiction treatment of the family by G.J. Meyer, whose book The Tudors I absolutely loved. See blog post here.
Blood and Beauty opens with the election of Rodrigo Borgia to the papacy. Instead of a modest acceptance of the election results, he exults in his new office, sort of like an over-the-top Oscar winner. He immediately begins planning and plotting, insisting his son Cesare become a cardinal even though he will have to do a lot of plotting to pull that off, and building family alliances through his daughter Lucrezia and sons Juan and Jofré. There is lots of political finagling and positioning, interspersed with sessions in bed with his mistress, Giulia Farnese, who is the beautiful blond wife of his nephew! There is much about the political situation of Europe at the time, and the careful balancing of power between France, Spain, and the various principalities that made up 16th-century Italy. Great stuff. If you have the vague notion of the Borgias as this evil, conniving family, with Lucrezia as an incestuous poisoner and Cesare as equally evil (he was the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince, after all), you will be pleasantly surprised by this more sensitive treatment of a very human family, especially the portrayal of Lucrezia. Interested in learning about the Renaissance? This novel is a good way to start.
Until you read G.J. Meyer’s The Borgias. And realize that all that Borgia hype is just anti-Catholic propaganda! I was very surprised by this. Apparently a few scholars have dug deeper and discovered that 1) Rodrigo Borgia did not father Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Jofré, they were his sister’s kids 2) nepotism was normal in those days and if they weren’t his kids it’s not exactly nepotism, 3) they didn’t poison anybody, 4) they didn’t commit incest, 5) Cesare did not kill Juan….and so on. Most importantly, the rise of anti-Catholicism which led to Martin Luther and the Reformation meant that there were writers who had an agenda: blackening the Catholic church in order to justify the Reformation. Why the Borgias, specifically? For one, the pope who succeeded Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) was one Giuliano Della Rovere (Pope Julius II) , who was beaten out for the papacy twice, once by a man to whom Borgia was close, then Borgia himself. He hated Rodrigo Borgia. So when he finally got on the hot seat, he was intent on discrediting his predecessor. In fact, he tortured known Borgia associates hoping to extract “damaging material.” Nothing came up but no matter; rumours were good enough and Julius would reward those who provided such fictions. There’s a lot of this in history (i.e. Tudor propaganda vigorously disseminated in order to make Henry VII feel secure, which is why Shakespeare portrayed Richard III as a villainous hunchback; it was the kind of thing that pleased a Tudor monarch), you’d think we’d have learned by now. When writers seeking to advance the cause of the Reformation needed colourful stories to illustrate the corruption of the Catholic church, they easily found all this Julius-promoted scandal and didn’t really question their sources. G.J. Meyer, on the other hand, is very clear about his sources, so I’m inclined to believe this version. He points out that most of the scurrilous stories about the Borgias were written by people who weren’t even alive during the Borgias’ lifetimes. The stories began once the Borgias were dead and the next Pope, a real hater, wanted dirt. When it comes to supposedly-incriminating Vatican documents, he points out that Vatican documents were often forged, and the Borgia-scandal Vatican documents are not even good forgeries. He maps out where Rodrigo Borgia was when the children attributed to him were born, and it’s clear that it was geographically impossible for him to impregnate Vannozza when he was in Spain and she was in Italy. Lots more of that, and it becomes very clear that the Borgias were an interesting Renaissance family, but that’s about it. Although when you look at his achievements, Rodrigo Borgia was a very good Pope! Rather boring, actually! So if you’re enjoying the HBO series The Borgias, just remember to take it with a grain of salt. It’s about as truthful as The Tudors series was.
As a history of the Renaissance, The Borgias is a great book and improves vastly one’s understanding of the political landscape of Italy and Europe. There are many explanatory chapters interspersed with the narrative that deal with the rise of ambassadorships in Europe (started in Italy!), the emergence of global exploration as a powerful mechanism by which a country might rise to prominence (Portugal), and similar Renaissance-related topics which enhance one’s understanding of the narrative.
I’m loving G.J. Meyer’s work and can’t wait to get into another of his books, A World Undone, which is about the First World War.
(please excuse some clunky prose; I’m WAAAAY behind on blog posts and am trying to get it all done before the Christmas rush starts so I’m not editing very carefully)