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!

Marco Polo & Kublai Khan: Two Views

Hands down, these were the most authentic Mongols we’ve seen on screen from the US.

In my monthly newsletter, News from the Empire, I’ve started a new section on historical dramas and books that complement them. I’ll be reposting those to my blog occasionally. This is the first.

I watch a lot of historical dramas, although ‘historical’ should often be taken with a grain of salt. (Or a bag of salt, in some cases.) Right now we’re watching Marco Polo on Netflix, and I’m finding it – regardless of its poor reviews – both entertaining and beautiful. Partly this is because I was in Mongolia in 2019, and while the show is filmed in Kazakhstan, the terrain is nearly identical, the horses actually look like the thousands of Mongolian steppe horses we saw, and I slept in a ger (yurt) camp for 5 nights. (We were in the Altai mountains, looking for – and finding – a snow leopard.) So it’s very familiar in terms of landscape, which is always my anchor. 

Some companion reading from the Mongol viewpoint can be found in Bryn Hammond’s books. A good place to start would be with Against Walls, described by the Asian Review of Books as ‘Total and instant immersion… thoroughly compelling and powerful.’ 

Here is what Bryn answered when I asked her what she thought of Marco Polo:

I think John Fusco’s Marco Polo on Netflix had an odd reception. It seemed to me audiences weren’t ready for these Mongols. I watched in frustration as reviewers who had little exposure to Mongol history suspected historical license and didn’t see the truths the series told. Scholars of the Mongols didn’t necessarily like it either, because of its fictional strategies.

It got a few big things right. It presented real Mongol culture. It acknowledged the freedoms and political agency of Mongol women. It did justice to the cosmopolitan court of Khubilai Khan. Hands down, these were the most authentic Mongols we’ve seen on screen from the US.

Khubilai – performed with human substance by Benedict Wong – perhaps should have been the titular character. As seen in the series, he staffed a poly-ethnic government, in resistance to pressures to become fully Confucian. He was a conscious innovator in the old world of China. For example, he introduced a universal script, Phagspa. It didn’t outlive its sponsor, but nevertheless was a great experiment in change. Imagine if the script to write all languages, functional and effective as it was, had been more easily accepted, instead of rejected by conservatives.

There are different ways to understand ‘accuracy’ in historical fiction. I have my own creed by which to write my novels, in that I treat my origin text, the Secret History of the Mongols, as sacred, nothing to be changed or omitted if it’s in there. But the Secret History is as much a work of art as of history-writing. So, I try to be true to Mongol artistry, as well as Mongol self-portrayal. Is that the same as ‘history’? Yes and no. History’s a slippery animal.

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