I was enjoying Showtime’s The Borgias until I discovered a prior German-French production (available on Netflix) that was produced only two years earlier and already took the world outside the USA by storm. This is the show that actually inspired the current Borgia revival, having been sold in 85 countries.
Yes, Showtime has slightly higher production values, more men in the battle scenes, and a slightly better cast in some, but not all, roles; but the best script award clearly goes to Tom Fontana’s crew, who present something much closer to the historical record. And Fontana also does a better job of capturing the unique Vatican styles of the period.
Alexandre Dumas was one of the first to realize money could be made exploiting rumors about the once powerful Borgia family. Murder, incest and simony always top the lists of sins, even though the Borgias produced two well-respected Popes in their lifetimes, although today, that reign is portrayed as the most corrupt in history? This is a joke! Eventually, the Borgias lost their long struggle with the Medici and other powerful Italian families (a coalition they’d been able to forge because they were Spanish, not Italian, so they represented an impartial referee for the various factions). So history has been written by their enemies, and not their friends, and the Borgias have slowly transformed over time into evil Frankenstein monsters they probably never were.
I suggest you divert away from the Showtime series and check out the more intellectually stimulating version on Netflix. And you’ll only have to get used to one minor flaw: John Doman (The Wire) does an admirable job portraying the cunning and complex Pope Alexander VI, but he plays this role with his American accent, a mistake, especially considering the rest of the cast is European and speaking in English, so Doman’s Americanisms stand out. Doman may not have the training of Jeremy Irons, but he is powerful and believable in the role, I just wish there was a trace of a Spanish accent for some reason.
A recent revisionist history of the Borgias by G.J. Meyer concludes the sordid tales of incest and murder were likely invented by rivals to discredit the Borgias and most of these stories didn’t even appear until decades after the deaths of the principles involved, like the rumor Cesare killed his brother Juan.
Like 50 percent of all priests (then and now), the Borgias were not celibate and produced illegitimate offspring, most of whom were granted legitimacy by various Papal decrees, yet they still carried the mark of “bastard” and “outsider.” They were Spanish living in Italy, so no insult was too low not to be hurled in their direction as long as it was behind the back and under the breath.
In fact, Alexander VI was remembered during his lifetime as a great communicator and facilitator of unification and commerce. Showtime projects a somewhat bumbling Alexander receiving the idea of selling indulgences from an ambitious Cardinal, when, in fact, that corrupt practice began hundreds of years before Alexander’s arrival at the Vatican. Alexander did not invent corruption, nor was he anything close to being its worst offender. He is portrayed as buying his way into becoming Pope, when, in fact, any Cardinal seeking that position at that time in history would have had to make promises to fellow Cardinals to get elected.
I also prefer the European production for its portrayal of Catholic rites and rituals, which I really enjoy studying since I’m not Catholic. I don’t follow dogma from any religion, but I enjoy learning the theatrics of their rituals because I believe all spirituality is composed of the same magic. When threatening excommunication, Cesare cites “bell, book and candle” as the primary tools in that ceremony (as they are in many pagan ceremonies). And make no mistake, excommunication is a ceremony that surfs the dark side and the Catholics developed many over the centuries.
When Alexander VI married his 12-year-old daughter to a Sforza, he kept this newly minted couple inside the Vatican and forbade them to fornicate. This issue is not addressed in the Showtime series, but according to most theories today, Alexander did this because the marriage was intended to hold the Sforza family loyal to his shaky alliance. But since he did not trust the Sforzas to remain friendly, he kept his young daughter chaste so he could nullify the marriage should the Sforza’s side against him, which they eventually did, of course. Instead, in the Showtime series, the daughter is shipped off to be tortured and abused. I appreciate historical drama so much more when it preserves some shred of accuracy, which Showtime obviously does not.
Of course, among the many crimes hurled at Alexander VI was his supposed Jewish heritage. Considering he had royal European genes from many dynasties stretching back for many generations, this claim is the most laughable of all. And yet, you’ll find this charge trumpeted on Alexander VI’s wikipedia page as if it must be true. The charge exists no doubt only because he treated Jews in Rome much better than his Italian cousins. After his death, the Jews were herded into a ghetto and their real mistreatment in Rome recommenced. But the Borgias had earlier devised a scheme to keep the Jews in Rome protected by baptising them all and claiming they were no longer Jews.
The stories of incest began after the marriage was annulled and the Sforza’s claimed the reason Alexander forbade Lucrezia from having sex was not to annul the marriage but because he was having sex with her himself at the time. This does not seem credible without any supporting testimony from outside their clan, however, and was likely invented simply because of the immense power Lucrezia eventually achieved, as she presided over the College of Cardinals in his absence, which made her briefly one of the most powerful women in the world at the time. There’s no evidence she poisoned, murdered or slept with any members of her family, yet these tales continue to spin through the pages of history. At least in the European version, Lucrezia’s character develops and matures, while in the Showtime version, she just grows more evil. I think we are missing the boat on what should be Lucrezia’s true legacy as a trail-blazing feminist who took a stand for women’s rights.