And away we go: the start of yet another season of Showtime’s The Borgias. Another wild ride through Never-Never Land.
This newest round of episodes opened on Sunday night with us viewers in agonies of suspense (or so the producers have been hoping) because of how season two closed. When we left him last year, the evil Rodrigo Borgia, who bears a startling resemblance to Jeremy Irons in drag and has been living in the Vatican under the name Pope Alexander VI, was on the verge of shuffling off his mortal coil. Not because, in the manner of J. R. Ewing, he had been shot. No, the successes of the past must not be copied too closely, and Alexander is after all a Borgia, which means that this is the fifteenth century and small arms have not yet been invented. The pope’s medical difficulties stem from his having swallowed some poisoned wine. The outlook is scary indeed (or so the producers hope).
But wait! In the nick of time Alexander’s daughter Lucrezia, who we now learn has been studying the occult when not engaged in her noble crusades to reform the international church and bring justice and mercy to the poor of Rome, comes forward with a remedy unknown to the physicians of her (or for that matter any other) time. Like a younger and distractingly luscious version of MacBeth’s witches, she sets up a kind of Renaissance-era Weber barbecue pit in the papal bedchamber. And, almost as quickly as you can say Holy Smoke, brews up a concoction that soon has the old boy back on his feet and plotting new kinds of skullduggery.
Exciting stuff. Or so the producers hope; you can judge that for yourself. Interesting stuff in any case – interesting and amusing, especially where factual accuracy is concerned. Because in the whole colorful history of the Borgias, nothing of the kind ever happened. Nobody ever poisoned Pope Alexander, and so far as we know nobody ever tried to poison him. There is no reason — perhaps it is advisable to repeat with emphasis that there is absolutely no reason — to suspect Lucrezia of ever trying to poison or otherwise harm, much less murder, a single living soul. Do check it out, please. It’s not that hard. The truth about these matters is available in every respectable biography of Alexander, Lucrezia or Cesare Borgia published in the past hundred years.
The question of how and where The Borgias diverges from the historical record is unusually challenging, and not just because writer-producer Neil Jordan twists the facts. Creators of costume dramas have always played fast and loose with the facts and always will; you’d have to be a newcomer to Planet Earth to be shocked or even surprised. At the end of season two, Jordan had Cesare torturing Friar Savonarola of Florence. And admitting to his dear old dad the pontiff that he was himself responsible for the murder of his brother Juan. None of this ever happened, either, but so what? Though in fact Cesare probably never laid eyes on Savonarola, and certainly never had him tortured and had nothing to do with his ending up burnt at the stake, and though you’d be hard-pressed to find a historian who thinks Cesare even probably guilty of having Juan killed, again so what? Such fiddling with the truth is standard operating procedure — it’s how showbiz works. Anybody who complains had better be prepared to be laughed at as a dessicated old pedant.
No, what has set The Borgias apart from the start is that Jordan — clever lad that he is — is less inclined to merely tweak the facts, or even grossly distort them, than to send them back to the library basement and replace them wholesale with the products of his own imagination. He’s truly in a class by himself in this regard, and in a way quite admirable; Shakespeare’s history plays, by comparison, read like the work of an obsessively scrupulous scholar. Take the business of Lucrezia becoming an ecclesiastical reformer and a kind of pioneer social worker; it would be no more ludicrous to show her taking up hammer and chisel and carving Michelangelo’s David. Ditto for the scenes in which she and the pope’s mistresses, no less, undertake to purge the Church of its corruptions (could anything be sillier?)
Ditto for the scene where Cesare disembowels Lucrezia’s first husband...and the bit where Lucrezia rides forth to intercept the king of France and save Rome from destruction...and Juan’s failed seige of Caterina Sforza’s castle....
Et cetera almost infinitum. There are way too many examples to be listed here. What they have in common is that none of them ever happened, period.
Which is not to say that Jordan is not a great showman, or that, on his own terms, he is doing a single thing wrong. He’s on record as saying that accuracy is not his bag; his thing is entertainment. He’s said also that “history is for the textbooks.” Anyone interested in the true story of the Borgias would be wise to take him at his word.
G. J. Meyer is a former Woodrow Wilson Fellow with an M.A. in English literature from the University of Minnesota, a onetime journalist, and holder of Harvard University’s Neiman Fellowship in Journalism. He has taught at colleges and universities in Des Moines, St. Louis, and New York. His books include A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, Executive Blues, and The Memphis Murders, winner of an Edgar Award for nonfiction from the Mystery Writers of America. In 2011 he published The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty. His most recent Book, The Borgias: The hidden history is on sale Now and can be Purchased at Amazon. He lives in Goring-on-Thames, England.