The Borgias: The Hidden History

G.J. Meyer

PUBLISHED 04.02.2013

04.13.2018 – 04.27.2018

GENRE Nonfiction


The Cesare Borgia Defense Squad

I want to start this by saying something about me, since I think it’ll explain why this became a long, long treatise:

I love the Borgias. I love The Borgias, the Showtime show, I love Borgia, the Netflix show, and I love the Borgias, the family. (I love The Godfather too, which some have said is based on the Borgias.) I love the Italian Renaissance (backstabbing! Art! So much cruelty, juxtaposed with so much beauty!), and I am a cynic, for many reasons, about the Catholic Church. That said, I’m not an expert. What I know comes from a combination of art history classes in college, a lifelong love of Leonardo da Vinci,* museum visits, highly sensationalized television shows, two trips to Italy (Rome included both times, with the hands-on history lesson that comes with that), and lots of Wikipedia.

So I like to think this gives me a healthy understanding of, but also a healthy malleability in the theories surrounding the Borgias. I know some, but not all, and I know that. I certainly know quite a bit more than I did before this book. Meyer packs this full of information – using background sections to explain aspects of the Renaissance that could fill an entire book, but are summarized concisely so they’re not confusing. And regarding the family at hand, I found many of Meyer’s arguments convincing! He presents many of them clearly and with solid sources – or at least solid reasons to discredit opposing sources – and ties them together with the known historical facts cohesively. 

And yet even so, I found myself rolling my eyes on occasion at this author’s devoted defensiveness of Rodrigo Borgia. Things like making the argument that while he could have broken his chastity vows, he also might not have because there’s no record strains credulity. Hemight not have ever gotten a paper cut either, or maybe he never stepped in dog shit, if there’s no explicit record from some ambassador on the subject, but we can deduce using common sense and knowledge of the mores and facts about his peers and his environment that any of those three things are possible – maybe even probable. There is a difference between setting the record straight and proposing that Rodrigo Borgia could have actually been some kind of saint. 

Especially because the same naïveté and defensiveness isn’t applied equally to Cesare Borgia. I totally believe that Cesare was all the things Meyer says he was: ruthless at times, arrogant, cunning, manipulative, selfish, ambitious. (In fact, not sure anyone would disagree.) Considering Rodrigo’s incredible and continued successes and the force of his personality Meyer references repeatedly, I find it hard to believe Cesare constantly just plowed over Rodrigo’s wishes by sheer force of his corrupted personality alone. Considering how little is ever known about Cesare’s intentions, this feels like a bold claim. Meyer even notes offhandedly at some point that Rodrigo may actually have encouraged or at least supported some of Cesare’s efforts because they benefited the family. Um, yeah! Why treat that as an afterthought? Why give a massive benefit of the doubt to one person and distinctly withhold it from the other?

I don’t want to come off the Cesare defense squad here. He’s my favorite Borgia, because of all the traits I listed above, but I don’t think he deserves any more forgiveness than Meyer grants him. If I’m protective of anyone, it’s Lucrezia, for whom Meyer absolves of many of her purported sins, but it’s worth mentioning that she’s very much a background character. For someone who apparently became a black widow, a mythic femme fatale, this book underserved her. Of course, given the era, the men were more instrumental in politics, but she was intimately involved in many of the scandals that plague the Borgia myth, and perhaps one of the tropes Meyer should have directlyaddressed was female passivity – Isabella d’Este, Isabella of Spain, Caterina Sforza, Beatrice whatserface are all proof of women holding and using power. Lucrezia is one of the central figures of the family he’s writing about, and I would have liked to see the rumors about her picked apart as equally as her brother and uncle, rather than in a few quick pages in the “Aftermath.”

I’m not the author so I can’t be sure, but I think the reason they were mostly backgrounded was because those scandals were explicitly personal rather than political. For such a pulpy and juicy drama he’s trying to disabuse, Meyer often falls into a dry recitation of events. And even for someone who loves politics like myself, there’s so muchpolitics going on that it gets boring without any kind of story. Look – the nature of the Italian Renaissance means that even the most dispassionate list of events contains twists, turns, betrayal, backstabbing, and “scheming and counterscheming” (as Meyer says in his background chapter on ambassadors, quickly becoming my favorite phrase after “hellscape of gossip”). 

However, this approach gives short shrift to some of the most pervasive Borgia rumors. Proving convincingly that Lucrezia was not Rodrigo’s daughter is valuable, but the rumors of her relationship with Cesare? Relatively, remarkably untouched! (Especially, I’d say, since he references a TV show multiple times in the book – whether it be the Showtime or the Netflix show, both Go There.) He mentions in extreme passing that Lucrezia may have been the one person Cesare truly loved, because of his trip to her after her miscarriage. Interesting, love it, but it comes up so late, and then is barely elaborated on. Do we have other incidents that show this? Do letters exist to bolster that relationship, if only to make the reader care a little more? For that matter, is there proof that his relationship with Rodrigo, for whom he stayed in the Church for longer than he wished, was loveless?

I say this because if you’re inclined to look for the more salacious explanations of some of the great Borgia mysteries (as I fully admit I am; my love of gossip and drama trumps logic every time), ties among family isn’t a far leap. Meyer even says that Rodrigo becomes obsessed with propelling the kids to success – that loyalty could have gone both ways, and I think there’s a solid argument to be made that many of Cesare’s actions could be explained by a truly emotional loyalty to his family.** (You could make the same argument cynically of course, as any action for the sake of the Borgia name would benefit him too – after all, Louis & Spain’s twin reluctances to go against Cesare are in large part to not anger Rome and the Vatican as well.) Since Cesare was such an enigma, it seems like quite the possibility to dismiss out of hand.

Essentially, all Meyer’s logic and facts are strong, but his narrative is weak; this is one of the understandable pitfalls of dense nonfiction, of course. It’s hard to disprove his arguments, or even poke too many holes in the ones I don’t mention here, but simultaneously hard to feel like you too want to come to the Borgias’ defense when he invests them with so little personality besides broad strokes (for example, “unfairly maligned,” which seems to be his consistent appraisal of Rodrigo, is not a personality trait but a judgment made with hindsight). It unfortunately leaves a non-expert reader like myself to fill in the blanks from my far less accurate previous knowledge (aka, the television that Meyer would like to disprove). Credit where’s it’s certainly due: as I said, I learned a lot, and making a clear, accurate narrative of the Italian Renaissance seems like a nearly impossible task (I was amazed at how easy Meyer made it to keep the tangled web of Italian families straight!). I doubt a semester on the Italian Wars could have given me too much more knowledge than this book managed to squeeze into 400-odd pages. 

There’s a threshold thing going on here: I was never going to hate the book even if he argued that, I don’t know, Cesare never existed, because I love politics and scandal in any arena, and this book has it in spades. I was always going to like the book a decent amount because he delves into one of my favorite families of all time, in great detail and with an eye for justice. I was always going to be grading this book on a curve. (Despite this incredibly long essay, I’d give this a 6/10 – give 👏 us 👏 ten 👏 star 👏 ratings 👏) And I did like it even beyond those basic givens! It may have felt like a textbook, but it sure was an effective one, and of course, his cause really is admirable. There are other groups who might deserve examination of their accepted histories more (any country that was colonized and thought of as barbarians, for example), but inspecting any part of history for the sake of true accuracy, rather than rumors propelled by xenophobia is a crucial task I wish was practiced more. I simply wish Meyer had not only scrubbed some of the slate clean, but filled it in with a richer portrait of what the family, rather than their surroundings, might have been.

*Leonardo is mentioned a couple times as a painter, but it’s never mentioned that Cesare employed him for a while, or that he and Machiavelli planned to move the Arno. Likely because it doesn’t really have any bearing on the story – an instance of narrative streamlining, which is actually good! – but a big name to leave out nonetheless. 

**A sidenote of my own on the unsolved mystery of Juan Borgia: he was sleeping around, cuckolding his brother, and making a bad name for himself as a general and representative of the family. Would Cesare have wanted such behavior to continue? It would make it harder for Lucrezia to find a secure marriage (which would especially have interested him if she was indeed the only person he loved), and harder for him to achieve his long term goals. In a culture where people murdered their brothers with some frequency, could Cesare not have done something totally in character – which is to say, something aggressive, something radical, something unpredictable, something in the interests of his family name and himself – and removed the Juan problem from the picture? (I’ll die on the hill of #cesarekilledjuan.) just saying.