Just How Accurate is that Historical Drama? The Borgias

Renaissance Italy was by our standards extraordinary cruel, violent, and cynical.

 I thoroughly enjoyed Neil Jordan’s The Borgias, especially Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander and Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia. This isn’t a period I know much about, and so it was instructive in the general history of the time and place, if not the details.

But how well does it really reflect the time period?  To answer that question, I turned to Anthony R. Wildman, author of The Diplomat of Florence, a novel of Machiavelli.  Machiavelli’s life intersected with the Borgias, and like most people, I knew little about him except his reputation and that he wrote a book called The Prince. So when I had a chance to review Wildman’s novel for Helen Hollick’s historical fiction website Discovering Diamonds, I jumped at it. 

Here’s what Tony Wildman had to say about The Borgias:

In 2011 the world was treated to not one but two versions of the story of the Borgia family presented in the form of a TV series. Probably the most famous and immediately recognisable was the Showcase series, which starred Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, pope Alexander VI. It certainly had the superior budget, was lavish and beautiful looking, and fulfilled the key criteria of being an entertaining retelling of the story.

But for my money, the lesser known French-German-Czech version called Borgia: Faith and Fear was more interesting, and marginally more historically accurate (though that should not be the prime criteria for judging what is, after all, a work of fiction). Where Showtime gave us a version that was consistent with modern sensibilities, the European series felt much more historical.

Renaissance Italy was by our standards extraordinary cruel, violent, and cynical. Assassination, whether by the knife or poison, was a routine tool of statecraft; power was everything, and those who possessed it could do the most outrageous things with impunity; supposedly celibate cardinals and popes had mistresses and children who they openly acknowledged and used for the extension of their own power; political alliances were abandoned without a moment’s regret; and women were for the most part powerless chattels who had no expectation of ever being allowed to choose their own husband. In this world, the Borgias were perhaps a little more extreme than their rivals and enemies, but only a little more; indeed, much of their reputation for depravity was manufactured by their successors in power, who were themselves just as guilty of the sins of simony and treachery. And that is where Borgia: Faith and Fear is more faithful to the times.

In the American series, we are invited to be shocked at the way the Borgias behave, mostly by means of setting up the Borgias’ principal enemy, cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, as a ‘good guy’ who is constantly outraged by the behaviour of his nemesis. But in the European version, we are spared any of that moralising, and the bad behaviour (some of it very bad) is presented almost without comment. As a result, you feel as though you are watching real, actual 15th century people, and that is quite a trick for anyone to pull off, on the screen or on paper.

You can check out Anthony Wildman’s books on his website. Many thanks to Tony for this article!

Author: marianlthorpe

Not content with two careers as a research scientist and an educator, Marian L Thorpe decided to go back to what she’d always wanted to do and be a writer. Author of the alternative world medieval series Empire’s Legacy, Marian also has published short stories and poetry. Her life-long interest in Roman and post-Roman European history informs her novels, while her avocations of landscape archaeology and birding provide background to her settings. As well as writing and editing professionally, Marian oversees Arboretum Press, a small publishing imprint run as a collective. Marian is currently writing Empire's Heir, the sixth title in the Empire's Legacy series.

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