In popular history, the Italian Renaissance is an enticing combination of the highest of high art with the lowest and most vicious dynastic politics imaginable: Michelangelo, Medicis and Machiavelli. In this lurid stew, no family—certainly no papal family, especially since there isn’t supposed to be any such thing—stands out like the Borgias. There’s the father, Rodrigo, better known as Pope Alexander VI (1492 to 1503), who rates an entire section in historian Russell Chamberlin’s 1969 classic, The Bad Popes; son Cesare, the very embodiment of what an amoral political leader should be, according to Niccolò Machiavelli’s classic of realpolitik, The Prince; and daughter Lucrezia, one of Western culture’s great black widow figures. Massive corruption, non-stop murder (mostly arsenic poisoning), incest, rape and literal fratricide: the Borgias don’t merely surpass a certain English royal family whose sex-and-blood mythology has recently made for a popular TV series, they outright neuter the Tudors. Naturally, they now have their own nine-hour miniseries, The Borgias.
Written and directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), whose scripts always contain some unusual sexuality, the Canada-Hungary-Ireland co-production debuts on Bravo! April 3 (and later in the spring on CTV). François Arnaud makes for a smouldering Cesare, and Jeremy Irons, looking both appropriately dissolute and slightly disconcerted at reaching his life’s goal, is a fine Rodrigo. (The other actor who perfectly looks his part is Colm Feore: the same grand inquisitor face that served him so well as Pierre Trudeau in the CBC biopic makes him look at home in a cardinal’s scarlet robes.) Lavishly filmed, fast-paced and witty—when one cardinal complains of the way Rodrigo ostentatiously displays his illegitimate family, another replies, “Let him who is without children cast the first stone”—The Borgias is a lot of fun to watch. It’s not bad history, either.
The Borgias were (probably) not as evil as reports made them. Modern historians can find no proof of the persistent claims that Lucrezia slept with her brother, or that Cesare killed his brother Juan, however much he wanted to leave the clergy and assume Juan’s post as leader of the papal armies. That’s a good thing for the series, which needs viewers to find something appealing about the characters. So, although foreshadowing (whether of reality or of future rumour it remains to be seen) is heavy in the first episodes—Cesare and Lucrezia are very close—they are nowhere near crossing brother and sister boundaries. And while good soldier Juan is rather thick-headed, he and Cesare seem to be getting along well. There’s even historical grounds for the series’ black-humoured tendency to whitewash Rodrigo.
He begins the ?rst episode as a crafty, thoroughly venal, but otherwise rather amiable paterfamilias, who buys enough votes from his fellow cardinals to become pope. Instead of simply having Irons deliver the historical address Rodrigo did give about cleaning up simony—the sale of church offices—a speech universally understood at the time as the purest cynical hypocrisy, this Rodrigo actually seems to have found God in his first it’s-lonely-at-the-top moment after his election. He really means it about the simony, and is serious too about adopting chastity—until, that is, he meets his now put-aside mistress’s far younger replacement. The pope is a lustful, not homicidal, sinner: it’s not Rodrigo who initiates the orgy of poisonings that follows, but the family’s equally corrupt Italian enemies, consumed with envy and xenophobic hatred for the Spanish Borgias.
Once Cesare thwarts a poison plot against Rodrigo—turning the arsenic back on the guilty cardinal, while sparing his father the grim details—the son’s murderous talents begin to shine. Soon the Borgias are well on their way to infamy, with the father weakly protesting at every step, although it’s his sexual messes that Cesare’s assassins clean up at dagger point. “We are better at the game” of climbing the greasy pole, Rodrigo plaintively tells Cesare, “but we draw the line at murder! Don’t we?” No, neither in history nor fiction, they don’t.