Book Review: The Borgias
By G. J. Meyer
Random House, 2013
“There is nothing, apparently, that somebody somewhere won’t write about the Borgias,” G. J. Meyer laments at the end of his incredible tour de force new book on history’s most infamous family, and he’s certainly right: stories of rape, murder, adultery, incest, and even cannibalism have attached themselves to the Borgias for centuries, infiltrating their way not only into quickie popular treatments but also allegedly serious historical inquiries. The process hardly needed an infusion of new energy, but it got one anyway in the form of Showtime’s hit series “The Borgias,” which features Jeremy Irons in full camp as Rodrigo Borgia (aka Pope Alexander VI), the great Colm Feore as Rodrigo’s implacable enemy Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere (aka the future Pope Julius II), the luscious Holliday Grainger as Rodrigo’s temptress daughter Lucrezia, and the even-more-luscious Francois Arnaud as Rodrigo’s ruthless son Cesare. The series positively revels in all the most lurid gossip that’s ever been hinted about its famous family, and although Meyer calmly dismisses it on the assumption that it was never intended to be anything but fantasy, it’s easy to suspect the show has caused him more than a few frustrating hours.
It’s certainly made more difficult a job that was already nearly impossible: clearing the loaded scales of four centuries and making a studied attempt to assess the Borgias with historical objectivity.
It’s been tried before, of course, and Meyer (the author of two previous excellent histories, one of the Tudors and one of World War I) is generous to such earlier strivers as Sarah Bradford’s Lucrezia Borgia or Michael Mallett’s The Borgias. But precedents for the kind of full-dress revisionist history he pulls off so magnificently in this volume are almost nonexistent – and as he long-sufferingly points out, that shouldn’t be the case. Everybody loves a good story, but the calm light of modern Renaissance studies should long ago have trained itself on what the historical records actually tell us about the Borgias. Meyer builds a rock-solid case while the whole time stressing that it shouldn’t need to be done at all – and he good-naturedly challenges all dissenters because he knows that he case he’s built is almost completely unassailable. This book has been badly needed for four hundred years.
Meyer takes every opportunity to turn down the temperature and look levelly at his subject matter; his sheer self-possession is mesmerizing after so many sensationalistic Borgia books repeating stories of license and debauchery. He takes the family as people first, and although he’s willing to speculate based on simple human nature, he never lets his readers become comfortable with speculation:
It would hardly be surprising, taking into account the general level of clerical discipline in the generations before the Council of Trent and his own immense vitality and joie de vivre, if Rodrigo Borgia had a full and varied sex life. One might be justified in thinking it improbable that he did not.
None of this changes the fact, or licenses us to ignore the fact, that there is no convincing evidence that he ever had anything of the kind.
The aforementioned lurid tales talk of how happy and “ready for enjoyment” Rodrigo was right up until his death, and they cite such joviality – in the face of all his numberless sins – as proof of a completely debased mind. Again and again, Meyer contends that there’s an equally simple counter-explanation:
This aspect of the puzzle would disappear if Alexander could be shown to have been utterly cynical, without belief in the creed he professed and therefore exempt from any sense of sinfulness. He is often, even usually, depicted in exactly that way, bu such an interpretation of his character is unquestionably false. He was a believer and a devout one, displaying particular devotion to the Virgin Mary and unqualified so far as we know in his acceptance of the teachings of the Church he led. It is at least possible that, while believing in damnation (he would be a remarkable fifteenth century European if he did not), he was not “dark with fear and gloom” for the simple reason that he was hopeful of escaping it and saw reason to be so.
And if so, then why all the dark tales in the first place? Again, there’s a disarmingly simple explanation:
These stories appeared when they did in part because there was a voracious one-man market for them: Alexander’s successor Julius II, Giuliano della Rovere, who had been blocked by the Borgias from winning the papal throne first in 1492 and again in September 1503 and who had spent most of the intervening years in seethingly bitter exile.
In Meyer’s version of events – which is entirely, magisterially convincing – the animus of Pope Julius was sufficient to keep the Borgia name under a cloud long enough for the Protestant Reformation to hit full swing and need for its own reasons exemplars of Catholic wickedness and duplicity – and draft the Borgias all over again. All of which might be predictable psychology but which is deplorable history, and all of which this “hidden” history so bravely wants to replace with the same straightforward analysis historians bring to all other subjects. Meyer has written a book that will change the way you think about the Borgias (Showtime or no Showtime), and more importantly, he’s written a book that will change the way you think about history-writing itself. The Borgias: The Hidden History can’t be recommended strongly enough, on both counts.