by G. J. Meyer
Of all the families associated with the papal throne, the Borgias are the most notorious. Rodrigo Borgia was a legendary womanizer who bought the highest office in the Roman Catholic Church and then used his position to gain wealth and kingdoms for his illegitimate children. Cesare Borgia was a ruthless warrior who would stop at nothing to gain power; his sister Lucrezia was a beautiful woman who knew her way around poison bottles. These two children – only the most prominent of the many bastards produced by Pope Alexander VI – were incestuous lovers; in a jealous rage, Cesare killed one of his sister’s husbands.
Or so the legends go.
In this new history of the Borgia family, G. J. Meyer attempts to separate fact from myth and discover who these Borgias really were. His research, including a forgotten archive of documents assembled in the early 20th century by Peter de Roo, discounts many of the legends about Pope Alexander VI and his family. Meyer discounts many of history’s most controversial claims, writing that contrary to popular belief, Rodrigo Borgia was not nearly as wealthy as stories claim, Lucrezia and Cesare were not his children, and while he used his position to elevate his family, to do so was the norm for popes of the age, making him no more nepotistic than his predecessors or successors. The family’s poor reputation was promoted by their enemies, especially the feudal lords displaced by Alexander and Cesare’s efforts to restore control over the Papal States. The book is divided into four sections: Alonso (the first Borgia pope), Rodrigo, Alexander, and Cesare.
Meyer’s account of the family is really different from any I’ve ever read before. In a way, it was quite boring, since every salacious and juicy bit of gossip was dismissed as fabrication by jealous rivals or misunderstandings by historians. I mean, I am all for truth in history, but part of me wants the Borgias to be incorrigibly evil, because it makes such a good story. I am willing to be convinced that many of the outrageous claims are false – it never made sense to me that Lucrecia could be a poison master, or that she was the lover of both her brother and her father. But I’m also not certain that the extreme rehabilitation attempted by Meyer is possible.
Meyer claims that Rodrigo Borgia, rather than being a womanizer with 4-9 bastard children, was simply a good-natured, loving uncle who cared very deeply for his nieces and nephews. Not only did he not father any children, he was true to his vows of chastity, because if it cannot be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had mistresses, there must be nothing to those rumors at all. I’m simply unconvinced.
I do appreciate the attention Meyer draws to the many good things Pope Alexander VI achieved during his reign. He did exercise diplomacy carefully to avoid war, and he did much to help unite the Italian peninsula. His early reforms within the church and his introduction of many new cardinals were controversial, but in the long run they were beneficial to the church. Meyer also describes the career of the first Borgia pope, Callixtus III, and the four popes that separate him from Alexander VI. I appreciated this context, because it helped illustrate just how typical Alexander was in the way that he handed out positions to family and friends. So little is known about Alexander’s early life that learning about his predecessors introduced the environment in which he was learning his trade.
Little “mini-chapters” introduce random topics to help bring more political or social context to readers unfamiliar with Italian history. One might explain the role of Milan and Ludovico Sforza in Italian politics or the difficulties of Venice as they wrestled to hold back the Turks. They’re really helpful.
This is an interesting spin on Borgia history, and definitely worth a read. Meyer’s writing style is very easy and humorous, so you don’t have to be a Renaissance scholar to keep up. If you’ve been watching The Borgias, you should definitely read this book – it’s a nice counterbalance to the glamorous excesses of Showtime.
4 out of 5 stars
To read more about The Borgias: The Hidden History, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: The Burgermeister’s Daughter by Steve Ozment
2011: The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
2010: The Town That Food Saved by Ben Hewitt
2009: Discussion Question: At What Point Do You Give Up on a Book?