As a historical reclamation project, the Borgia family of 15th Century Italy is a mighty tall order. There is Rodrigo, also known as Alexander VI, the pope widely credited with having led Vatican orgies attended by one or both of his alleged mistresses. There is Cesare, the syphlitic cardinal who resigned from that position to general an army and slaughtered his enemies in numerous unique ways. There is Lucrezia, understood to have been one of the great poisoners as well as a lecherous temptress. And there is Juan the rogue – at least there was until somebody (Cesare?) killed him.
It’s a lot easier to wrap a TV series around the exploits of these characters – which Showtime has done for three years now – than a biography setting out to restore the family image. So let’s begin by giving G.J. Meyer credit for initiative.
The essence of Meyer’s case is that the Borgias largely have been consigned to historical hell due to the animosity held by their enemies, notably Giuliano Della Rovere, who succeeded Rodrigo to the papal throne as Julius II in 1503. As Meyer sees it, the actual evidence against the Borgias is largely speculative and unpersuasive. He views the Borgias as dynamic leaders, and while conceding that Cesare had very bloody hands, he finds the brief against Rodrigo especially unconvincing.
“Everyone knows or thinks he knows that Alexander was devoid of moral principles, and that his story is laced with murder, list that did not stop at incest, and unbridled greed,” Meyer writes. The only unasked question, he asserts, is whether any of it is true. To Meyer, Alexander is at worst “one of history’s puzzles…a believer and a devout one, cheerful and happy,” not provably villainous and possibly not villainous at all. He sees the pope as “the sole champion of unity and of unqualified opposition to incursions” within fragmented Italy by Charles II, king of France, and other outsiders.
Meyer concedes that Alexander was not without weaknesses, among them nepotism. It was he who named Cesare to the cardinalite – a position which at the time carried with it specified riches – when Cesare was yet in his early 20s but perfectly ill-suited by temperament to the profession. The only defense for that tendency was the clannishness of Italian life at the time. In a land divided into numerous competing city-states, even a pope needed to have a close coterie of confidants he could confide in with full confidence. That often meant relatives.
Meyer intersperses his text with a series of short background chapters designed to enlighten those many of us who are unfamiliar with Renaissance Rome with how things actually operated then. These do have a tendency to disturb the flow of the narrative: one tends to move suddenly from Cesare’s battle plan into a discussion of Renaissance superstition.
On balance, however, they are useful.
At the end of the day, of course, the question is the extent to which one should revise one’s own perception of a powerful family. I do not believe even Meyer would contend that he disproves most of the allegations long held against the Borgias; his purpose is more to raise doubt than to fully exonerate. In that context, the book at minimum reminds us to question everything, even long-held assumptions we have tended to take on faith.
Personally, there has always been to me a roguish sort of charm to the Borgia story, and in a sense I think the world might be less entertained if the assorted legends were actually proven to be false and Alexander were viewed solely as a serious, involved and devout pope.
In the end, Meyer’s great achievement might be to raise that idea to the level of possibility.
Bill Felber is executive editor of The Mercury and a Manhattan resident.