Borgia (2011) and the Black Myth of the Borgia Family, Reviewed by Jennifer
The chronicle of the Borgia family reads like fiction: the crimes they are supposedly responsible sound unbelievable. Salacious details of the misdeeds of the Borgia, which was one of the rich and powerful Renaissance families that the Italian peninsula with an iron fist (and often admittedly amoral methods), has stuck throughout history, capturing the popular imagination. The family reached the height of its power with the ascent of Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1508) into the papacy as Pope Alexander the VI in 1492. The pope had four illegitimate children at the time of his ascendancy, each notorious in their own right. Cesare Borgia, his second son, was a key inspiration for Machiavelli’s political philosophy. Lucrezia Borgia, his sister, was rumored to have had incestuous relationships with various members of her family. Giovanni (also known as Juan) was rumored to have been murdered by his brother, Goffredo, after sleeping with Sancia, Goffredo’s wife. These accusations against the Borgia involve exceptionally immoral crimes: even for the flexible moral standards of the Italian Renaissance, incest and fratricide were extreme. Each misdeed – real or supposed – was gleefully spread with zeal by enemies of the family and/or detailed with near-voyeuristic pleasure from the public, until a black myth shrouding the Borgia rendered the very name of the family synonymous with libertinism and nepotism.
The 2011 Canal+ show Borgia, which shows the family’s ascent from 1492 (the year Rodrigo was elected as pope) to 1507 (the year of Cesare’s death) neither swerves straight into this ‘black legend of the Borgia’, nor attempts to apologize for or paper over the actions of the family. In their depiction, the Borgia are neither depraved villains, nor tragically misunderstood victims of an unfair but durable smear-campaign conducted by their enemies. Instead, the show unflinchingly depicts the shortcomings and sins of the Borgia, but always in context with the reason and circumstance behind the characters’ actions. If there is gore or brutality in the crime, the show depicts it with gratuitously, but also spends generous amounts of screen time prefacing each crime with a sympathetic survey of why the character might have acted the way they did. In doing so, the show tries to explain the seemingly irrational behaviour of its historical characters as reasoned. Its goal, as a piece of history, seems to be to explain the decisions and actions of the Borgia as reasonable.
The general direction the show takes throughout the series corroborates this analysis: from the first season to its third and last, the character development of Cesare Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia can best be described as innocence becoming tainted and compromised by forces outside their control. Lucrezia is depicted in Season 1 as a conflicted woman struggling with the frustrations of being forced to marry into political alliances, and seeking to find refuge in religious faith. After committing some pretty major crimes throughout the way (the most extreme of which we will discuss in greater detail shortly), and learning from her mistakes, we see Lucrezia, by Season 3, as a confident, devout, and secure woman. Cesare, on the other hand, begins as a student thrust into the clergy by his father, with little say in the matter. He is stifled, ambitious, and tremendously talented. He is, however, tragically suppressed by his father and unable to fulfill his ambitions and use his talents in the most effective way possible. Being suppressed, in turn, has a tremendously adverse effect on his psychology. Cesare become ruthless because his circumstances make it impossible for him to play by the rules and fulfill his dreams.
A specific example of how Borgia takes an explanatory, sympathetic view of its character’s crimes can be found in the season finale of Season 1, The Serpent Rises. The episode deals with Cesare Borgia’s investigation of his brother Juan’s death. Cesare struggles greatly in his investigation, dealing with the possibility that he himself may have been responsible for his brother’s death – he had been drunk the night his brother was killed, and does not remember parts of his night. The memory of the night that remained intact seems, troublingly, to implicate him: Cesare continuously has flashbacks to a drunken brawl with his brother that evening. It is not that Juan didn’t deserve his fate – the entire season which precedes this climax shows the opposite. Juan is depicted as having very few redeeming qualities: he is a swaggering poseur, inflated by hubris and entitlement. He is an abusive husband, who kills his own wife to save his reputation. He kills his older brother, Pedro Luis, just to get ahead in his career; he also attempts to kill Cesare, his younger brother, to escape culpability for his earlier fratricide. He tries to rape Lucrezia, his younger sister, then chastises her for refusing to forgive him. Despite all this, Cesare struggles greatly with the untimely demise of his brother. In painstakingly depicting Cesare’s struggle with his conscience, the show shows that Cesare, for all his flaws, has a moral conscience and a desire to do what is right. Cesare is not unscrupulous. According to the show, he has simply been confronted with very difficult circumstances, and those circumstances made him into the man Machiavelli describes in The Prince.
Another interesting feature about the show is that it uses devices familiar to modern audiences to make sense of the struggles faced by the Borgia. The choice of accents is one example of how the show uses anachronisms to make a greater point about the historical subjects it deals with. Rodrigo Borgia’s status as an outsider – a Spaniard – to the Italians is reflected through his American accent. Among a sea of a European accents, Rodrigo’s American twang sounds abrasive and unstudied: he sounds like he just does not fit in. Indeed, his outsider status is reaffirmed over and over again through the voices of Italian characters in Italian accents. Cardinals continuously use the fact that Rodrigo is a Spaniard to deride him throughout the series. Whenever defeated by Rodrigo’s political machinations, some Cardinal or another yells, “That Catalan!” in a thick Italian accent. This willingness to use anachronisms to make a point about the experience of a historical character more familiar to modern audiences suggests that the show wants to tie in the experiences of a man who lived six centuries ago to the experiences of audiences in the twenty-first century. Some human experiences, the show implies, are universal. Through furthermore showing that despite his outsider status, Rodrigo is triumphant, the show fits the historical experience of Rodrigo into a trope more familiar to modern audiences: that of the underdog winning, despite the cards being stacked against him.
The greatest failing of this show, however, is that it fills in the silences of history with no acknowledgement of ambiguity. When dealing with questions which have become impossible to answer conclusively, the show decides to present a conclusive answer. For instance, the question of who is responsible for the murder of Juan Borgia is an open one: though there have been speculations about who was responsible, there is no evidence which points to a clear answer. The show gives an answer: his sister, Lucrezia, was responsible. Juan had wandered into her room after a confrontation with Cesare, and had confessed all his crimes to his sister. Lucrezia, in turn, had acted as a judge, doling out his punishment. Again, the show depicts Lucrezia’s decision as reasoned: the show argues that Juan truly deserved to be punished for his despicable crimes, and Lucrezia’s actions were understandable – even noble. Her fratricide is shown as fitting punishment for Juan’s own fratricide. However, the choice to depict these actions without hesitation and without historical evidence could be seen as irresponsible.
Borgia deals with a difficult historical subject: sthe Borgia family is shrouded in rumour and legend. The show does a great job of making sure the historical subjects and their choices, however immoral they may seem, are understandable, firmly situating characters’ actions within the circumstance and moral context of both the Italian Renaissance and the Borgia family’s particular struggles as outsiders. However, it does not deal with the historical silences, however, in a completely responsible way. It depicts events that have not been proved, and cannot be proved, unflinchingly.