Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Borgias (TV miniseries on Showtime)



Normally, my blog covers films.  However, since the miniseries The Borgias: The Original Crime Family (directed by Neil Jordon, Simon Cellan Jones, et al, written by Neil Jordon and Michael Hirst), about the papacy of Pope Alexander VI covers an very important and very scandalous period in Church history, I  thought to cover it here.  Note that since this is a _miniseries_, there is _no way_ that one can do anything but a preliminary review of it until the entire series is complete, because one simply can not know "what is coming." does offer a free "sneek peek" of the first episode. From that episode, a couple of things appear to be reasonably clear:

(1) From a strict technical "period piece" stand-point the series promises to be outstanding. Jeremy Irons plays Rodrigo Lanzo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI. He is a serious actor playing a serious role.

(2) There will be extensive nudity in the series. This nudity is fuzzed out in the "teaser episode" provided on’s website. However, that is a signal certainly that this series is _really_ "not for the kids." However, the subject matter – the Catholic Church in the truly most corrupt period of its history – is probably not for the kids either. It’s intended for the parents / adults. If the amount of nudity becomes ridiculous (a distinct possibility on cable...) then of course that will diminish the value of the whole series. Presently, this, and the larger question of whether the whole project has value, can not be determined until more of the series airs.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY - There will of course be legitimate concern about the historical accuracy of this series. Here I would say two things: (1) the makers of this series owe it to the public to be reasonably diligent providing a historically accurate portrayal of the times and (2) given the corruption of that period, there really wouldn’t be _much need_ to "make things up" that surpasses the historical record.

THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT - The Borgias: The Original Crime Family is about the Borgia family and the reign of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Lanzo Borgia) from 1492-1503.

The wikipedia article on Alexander VI has him with 7 children by several women. Previously, I had learned that he had 9 children by 3-4 mistresses and possibly another 2 children by another 1-2 mistresses.

Additionally, he married off (and annulled marriages of) his daughter Lucrecia several times, each time to promote a "balance of power" among the warring states of the Italian peninsula.

When I heard this in the seminary, I told the professor teaching the history course covering this period that for the first time I understood what Henry VIII was trying to do in England only a few decades later. Henry VIII too was arguably acting in the best interest of his realm trying desperately to get a healthy male heir to prevent another "War of the Roses" over succession that took place a 100 years beforehand.

Henry VIII would have certainly known of the scandals that Alexander VI was party to in Italy before his birth and must have been frustrated saying to himself "Alexander VI annulled several marriages of _his own daughter_ to "promote peace" in Italy, I'm trying to do the same here in England."

Anyway, Alexander VI was certainly party to more than a few scandals, so I do hope that the film-makers don't feel the need to invent more than is already in the record.

LESSONS TO BE LEARNED FROM THE PERIOD OF ALEXANDER VI? Well, I suppose, (1) No matter how bad things may seem, it _can_ "always be worse" :-), and (2) with power comes corruption. If the Pope was a nobody then it'd be easy for him to be a saint. (Today, in fact, the Pope doesn’t have the secular power that he had before, and by all accounts this has made for better holier Popes). And it wasn't as if in the time of the Borgias, the Pope became corrupt only when he became Pope. To even be in the running AT THAT TIME required that he come from a powerful family. And the Borgias were NOT the only powerful/corrupt family in Rome. Remember, there was a reason that the Papacy was moved (arguably by the French king) to Avignon for about a century in the 1300s. Rome was a mess.

Anyway, a good place to follow the historical accuracy of the period will certainly be on wikipedia. It won't be perfect either, because the period in question is contentious and the PEOPLE DO MAKE FUNDAMENTAL LIFE DECISIONS based on what they come to believe about this time (and other times of scandal).

FOR MYSELF. I am a Catholic and a Catholic priest. I am so, even in spite of times like that of Alexander VI. And I am so because I honestly do believe that the people involved at that time _didn't know any better_ and I do have a healthy respect for the corrupting influence of power.

Where there is power there is temptation. And to be honest, despite the awfulness of that time, I'm not sure that any of us could have done much better. And yet society, _any society_ needs leadership, and yes, sometimes, that leadership is lousy. What makes it hard sometimes to get good leadership is precisely because power has "its perks," and many people will choose to seek to benefit from those perks rather than seek to use power for the benefit of the common good.

Anyway, this series could easily descend into a pit of darkness, pretentiousness and scandal itself, or it could actually serve as a means of illuminating one of the darkest, complex and yes most corrupt periods in Church (and indeed world) history. And for an episode or two, we’ll have to wait and see what the series will be / become.


Several weeks into the series (Apr 18), the series has continued to prove to be well done from a technical point of view _and_ reasonably accurate historically. Remember, that this is a dramatic series rather than a documentary series.  As such, there will be some artistic license taken by series' makers.  How much is of course the big question and how such dramatic licence will effect the over all trajectory of the story. 

For instance, it would be doubtful that a son of Alexander VI would have been as directly involved in the murder of an exiled Ottoman prince as portrayed in Episode 3 (to the point of first personally poisoning him at a "family get together" and then "finishing him off by personally smothering him with a pillow in the Ottoman prince's chambers after falling ill).  That Alexander VI would accept the Ottomon prince as an exile as a (paid) favor of the Ottoman Sultan of Constantinople is believable.  These kind of arrangements were certainly done all the time.  That Alexander VI would be offered an even higher price by the Ottoman Sultan to "dispose of" the pesky prince (and that Alexander VI would accept) is also believable. I'm positive that these kind of double dealings were also done.  But portraying Alexander VI's own sons to be so intimately involved in the Ottoman prince's murder after hamming up the Ottoman prince's relationship with the sons and Lucretia, Alexander VI's daughter, seems far more a dramatic device than something based on actual history. 

Perhaps the close relationship between the exiled Ottoman prince and the grown children of Alexander VI existed, and perhaps this _could be_ documented in a diary or in the memoirs of someone close to Alexander VI's family (in the memoirs of an aide or servant or in the the diary of one of Alexander VI's own children).  However, it's far easier to believe that the relationship between the Ottoman prince and the adult children of Alexander VI was played up in the series for dramatic effect. 

This example should give people a pretty good indication of how to follow/believe this series.  Some of the incidents are going to played up for dramatic effect.

Intelligent places to follow what other people think of the series are (1) on the discussion board for the series on the IMDb website (2) on the wikipedia website.

ADDENDUM (Nov 3, 2011) - Viewers could also consider the recent film Anonymous arguing the case that William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him.  In the film, Queen Elizabeth I of England is presented as someone who may have produced as many as three illegitimate children, two during her reign.  I'd find it next to impossible to believe a scandal of this sort could have been hidden (and three times).  After all, in Protestant Elizabethan England she was known as the "Virgin Queen," a title not she did not taken-on by accident but rather in attempt to replace lingering devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary among the common people of England with a new and patriotic devotion to her.  On the other hand, if true (or even close to true), such a possibility gives an indication of the hypocrisy/lifestyle of the upper classes across Europe at the time and perhaps put the Borgia family's excesses in context: the Borgia family may have been awful, but it was not really all that different from other powerful families at the time.

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1 comment:

  1. I thank the writer of this post. It seems as though he/she knows this period of history and it is very helpful to the viewer to get an honest and hopefully accurate view of this mini-series. As a viewer I am not so worried about the accuracy of the family as I am the military, French invasion, Spanish expulsion of Jews, etc. I do hope that this was all correctly portrayed. Thank you again.