The Borgias: the past is all death and debauchery
Television drama used to sex up history - but a new big-budget series about the Borgias, starring Jeremy Irons, doesn’t need to embellish reality, says William Langley
Affecting that familiar air of above-it-all, actorly bewilderment, Jeremy Irons wondered last week what sort of society we’ve become. After all, he complained, a chap can’t even pat a woman on the backside without it being misinterpreted.
“The assumption must be that all men are evil, and that they are always going to act according to the wickedness of their spirits, whenever they have free scope,” he complained. Oops, no, that was Niccolò Machiavelli, explaining the subtleties of statecraft in 15th-century Italy. What Jeremy actually said, in the course of plugging his lavish new TV series, The Borgias, was that political correctness, and the various prohibitions it imposes, are largely a result of there being “too many people in power with too little to do”.
It’s hard to deny that he has a point. Under the Borgias, a spot of groping behind the pilaster wasn’t just tolerated, but positively encouraged. At the same time, the number of people in power was kept to an absolute minimum – essentially, those with the surname Borgia – and while rioting and looting weren’t unknown, they tended to be kept in tight check by punishments that began with being burned alive in public and rose in severity thereafter.
The new series, largely created by the Irish director Neil Jordan, launched last night on Sky Atlantic, after a wildly successful run in the United States. It tells the story of Italy’s original crime family, and the decadent, corrupt but impressively efficient rule it established over Rome during the 15th century.
The Borgias had arrived from Spain, first in the ailing shape of Alfonso Borgia, who became Pope Callixtus III. Alfonso was an elderly, relatively benign former law professor, whose big achievement was the posthumous exoneration of Joan of Arc, and whose big mistake was to detect a glimmer of spirituality in his ambitious nephew Rodrigo.
By 1492, Rodrigo had bribed and schemed his way to the Papal Chair, becoming Pope Alexander VI. Almost immediately, his enemies began disappearing. Indeed, when Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, sought a true-life figure to base the character of Don Corleone upon, he didn’t have to look much further.
The new pontiff came to the job with an impressive string of mistresses and at least five children. Celibacy, as Rodrigo saw it, meant not marrying. Forgoing sex was a different matter entirely. His appetite for it was reputedly insatiable, and it was under his direction that the infamous “Chestnut Orgy” took place in 1501. According to contemporary accounts, handfuls of chestnuts were scattered on the marble floor of the papal apartments and 50 naked courtesans sent scrabbling after them. Then the male guests went after the courtesans. According to William Manchester in The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: “Servants kept score of each man’s orgasms, for the Pope greatly admired virility and measured a man’s machismo by his ejaculative capacity.”
Most prominent among Rodrigo’s children were his son Cesare and daughter Lucrezia. Both appear to have inherited their father’s mixture of charm, self-discipline and licentiousness, but although the beauteous Lucrezia has gone down in history as the ultimate femme fatale, it was Cesare – hideously disfigured by syphilis, and rarely seen in public without a mask – who took care of the real villainy.
As the Borgias tightened their grip on the city, seizing wealth and eliminating rivals, the Venetian ambassador wrote in alarm to his superiors: “Every night four or five men are discovered assassinated. Bishops, prelates and others, so that all Rome trembles for fear of being murdered.”
Machiavelli, the Florentine courtier and maestro of political intrigue, was impressed by what he saw. His famous treatise, The Prince, is, in many ways, a handbook to the art of Borgias behaving badly. “Any man who tries to be good all the time,” wrote Machiavelli, “is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence, a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.”
By the time of Rodrigo’s death in 1503, Borgia rule was weakening. The family’s enemies – those of them who survived – had learned their methods, and forged outside alliances to undermine the family’s rule. The new Pope, Julius III, had Cesare arrested, and although he escaped from prison, he was killed soon afterwards, aged 31. Lucrezia died painfully in childbirth 12 years later.
While all this makes for lively television, it does raise the question of whatever happened to what we quaintly used to call “costume drama” – a lush and soothing screenscape of stately homes, panting stallions and earnest chaps with beards saying: “His Lordship must be told.” It’s not certain that his Lordship would stand the shock of being told about the Borgias, and some viewers may be starting to feel the same way. Especially as the series follows the BBC’s The Tudors, starring Henry VIII as a sweat-bathed, codpiece-caressing sex maniac, who only emerges from his Hampton Court boudoir to dispatch people to the Tower. Or the Beeb’s equally sexed-up Rome, described as “I Claudius on Viagra”. Or Camelot, in which the real magic is how quickly the cast’s clothes disappear.
The Borgias is billed as being a qualitative cut above – and despite some carping from experts on the period, the series has been praised for its attention to detail. Giving his own penetrating historical analysis, Irons, 62, who plays Rodrigo, says: “Life was very different then, and very cheap. People wore swords and daggers and poison rings. It was tougher. It was a whole different ball game.”
And, of course, there was no political correctness, and you could happily slap those Renaissance ladies on the bustle without any fear of the Borgias’ Equality Monitoring Unit getting involved. Life, as Jeremy says, was very different.
* The Borgias is on Sky Atlantic ( skyatlantic.sky.com)