The Borgias
Neil Jordan, 2011–2013

Tom Fontana, 2011–2014

I liked The Tudors a lot more than I was expecting to — I'd been led to believe that it was a televised romance novel with some historical trappings, but it turned out to be a surprisingly serious piece of pop history.  And since online recommendation engines tend not to be able to make connections beyond "If you liked Star Wars, then it's possible that you would enjoy The Empire Strikes Back", they kept telling me that if I liked a Showtime drama about Renaissance England, then it was possible that I would enjoy a Showtime drama about Renaissance Italy.  I'd heard of the series in question, The Borgias — there was a big poster for it at the bus stop in front of the Hot Shop around the time it premiered — but when I went looking for it this summer, I discovered that there were actually two series about the Borgias that bowed in 2011.  The other, Borgia, was produced by a consortium of European TV channels and distributed in the U.S. by Netflix.  I much preferred the Showtime version, but I read a very interesting article by Ada Palmer, a professor of Renaissance history at the University of Chicago who made a case for what Wikipedia describes as the "French-German-Czech-Italian" series, so let me address her article first.

Borgia, Prof. Palmer writes, is a more authentic depiction of its period than is The Borgias; while both series fall into the genre of Tudors-style sexed-up pop history, The Borgias actually waters down the reality of the Renaissance.  For instance, in The Borgias, as in real life, Rodrigo Borgia takes a mistress, Giulia Farnese, shortly after becoming Pope Alexander VI — then frets about the potential for scandal.  But only modern audiences would be scandalized by the notion of a pope taking a mistress, Prof. Palmer points out: during Alexander's reign, virtually every pope in memory had had lovers, and many had children.  Furthermore, in real life, Giulia Farnese was 18 years old to Alexander's 61; The Borgias ages her up to thirty to keep the audience from freaking out.  (Even Borgia makes her 22.)  At the time, of course, Giulia's age wasn't an issue, and by age 18 she had already been married for several years.  Turning from sex to violence, The Borgias has plenty of the latter, but Prof. Palmer contends that Borgia better captures the nature of Renaissance violence.  When a man catches his wife in bed with Juan Borgia, for instance, he doesn't beat her up to teach her a lesson — he just flat-out kills her with four blows of a thick wooden club.  When Cesare Borgia gets into fights, there's no steady escalation from insults to blows to weapons — he goes straight to chopping off body parts.  And while both series feature lots of torture, Borgia is the one that shows a public spectacle in which people are held upside down and laboriously sawed in half from their crotches down to their heads.  In sum, Prof. Palmer explains, "The Borgias toned it down: consistently throughout the series, everyone is simply less violent and corrupt than they actually historically, documentably were. Why would sex-&-violence Showtime tone things down? I think because they were afraid of alienating their audience with the sheer implausibility of what the Renaissance was actually like."

This is all very well observed, yet, for me at least, it's academic.  Borgia may well be truer to the period, but I found it close to unwatchable, in large part because of the performances.  I've talked before about the odd convention in U.S. media that upper-class British accents stand in for any foreign language.  Like, Julius Caesar sounds like he's delivering a report on the BBC, and we just automatically take that to mean that he's speaking Latin.  Most of the actors on The Borgias have British accents, which in this context means they're speaking Italian; the exceptions are the French characters — who speak with French accents, and whom we therefore take to be speaking either French-inflected Italian or just plain French, depending on the scene — and Cesare Borgia, who's played by a Canadian actor whose fake British accent frequently slips but whose slips don't signify anything.  It's a strange convention, but one that's sufficiently well established that for the most part it works just fine.  Then we have Borgia — in which Juan Borgia is the one with the thick French accent, not because he's French, but because the actor is.  Meanwhile, his sister Lucrezia is played by an ethnic Russian whose accent betrays her German upbringing, and his father is played by an American — the guy from the Home Depot commercials! — who sounds less like the pope of Rome than like a senator from Nebraska.  It's a disaster.  How can you lose yourself in a show in which several of the main actors are clearly struggling with the language — in which the emotional inflection of their dialogue is blunted by their non-idiomatic cadences?  And Home Depot Guy is the worst of all!  When he dutifully recites his contraction-free lines ("My dear Costa, why do you not see that I am your ally? I do understand that the past cannot be the future. I repeat: I will change the church — Rome, if elected — and in God's name!"), he doesn't sound for a moment like he's saying words that have popped into his head; he sounds like he's reading off cue cards, without necessarily even understanding the words.  Now, the fault doesn't lie entirely with Home Depot Guy — making that dialogue sound natural is a tall order, since it doesn't reflect the way people actually speak.  But compare his performance to that of Jeremy Irons, who plays the same role in The Borgias.  Irons totally hams it up, gulping down gallons of acting juice before quacking out his lines like he's trying out for a particularly irascible interpretation of the Penguin in the next Batman movie.  And yet it works!  Even though his lines are no more naturalistic than those in Borgia… he makes them sound like he thought them up!  It's the difference between a professional production and one that's decidedly more amateurish.

There are ways in which a dedication to authenticity can be a barrier to enjoyment.  For instance, it wasn't until I saw Borgia that I appreciated just how well lit The Borgias is.  That may well reflect deliberate choices by each production team; that is, it may be the case that the folks behind Borgia thought, well, the only way this room would have been lit in real life would have been through the windows, so yes, let's make it look as depressing as a classroom at four in the afternoon.  Let's make this night scene look murky, because when all you have is candlelight, murky is how things are going to look.  Meanwhile, it seems like the creative team on The Borgias had a different agenda:  Let's give this scene a gorgeous opalescent sheen!  Let's angle that backlight just right to perfectly limn that character's profile!  Me, I preferred looking at the pretty.  And on the content side, Borgia was the show that grated on me with historical howlers.  Prof. Palmer has a fascinating aside about how The Borgias falls down in its costuming, as it often dresses Lucrezia in pink and other light colors, which would never have happened during the Renaissance because light colors denoted poverty and someone of Lucrezia Borgia's status would only have worn the most vibrant colors.  I had no idea!  And yet Prof. Palmer says that this faux pas didn't actually bother her, because she recognized that the creators of The Borgias were trying to communicate with a modern audience, who would read Lucrezia's pink dress as a sign of innocence rather than of poverty.  I am not so generous.  When, in Borgia, a character in 1492 complains about people "who put sugar on shit and call it chocolate", I went "Gah!!": chocolate was a New World food, and wasn't known to Europeans until the 1520s!  And then it was consumed exclusively as a beverage for centuries!  At another point, again in Borgia, a character threatens to send someone to Tierra del Fuego — again, not known to Europeans until the 1520s!  I guess we all have our own senses of what's common knowledge and what's obscure, but to me, getting fashions slightly wrong is interesting trivia, while referring to chocolate before Columbus had even landed in the Americas is preposterous.  Borgia may be the more "serious" of the two series, but I couldn't take it very seriously after that.  It's not the reason I bailed, but it didn't help.

So, on to The Borgias, the series I actually did watch all the way through (though it was canceled before its planned final season).  The show's tagline is "The Original Crime Family", which dovetails with a point Prof. Margaret Anderson made in the European history course I audited a few years back: during the Renaissance, the primary locus of identity was not the individual, but the family.  If your second cousin killed a guy, you didn't get to tell that guy's brothers that, hey, you had nothing to do with it, and you never liked that cousin anyway.  It just didn't work that way.  Your family had wronged their family, and any member of your family, including you, was now a fair target.  To argue otherwise would be like saying, "Hey, it was only my hand that punched you in the face, so if you want revenge, the only part of me you're allowed to hit is my hand!"  Remembering this clarified the underpinnings of the story for me.  The series begins with Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia bribing his way into the papacy, which made him both the head of all of Western Christendom and also made him the sovereign of a chunk of territory in central Italy, the Papal States.  His goals are, first, to hold onto power, as he has both rivals in the Vatican plotting to assassinate him and foreign princes threatening to capture Rome, and second, to establish the Borgias for generations to come as one of the ruling families of Europe, on par with the Valois or the Habsburgs.  This latter goal was foreign to my way of thinking: who cares whether this or that duke born decades after your death happens to share your surname?  But if your surname is what you identify with — if you think of yourself not as "Rodrigo" or "Alexander" but as "Borgia" — then I guess it might make all the difference in the world.

So while it is a commonplace in shows like these for criminal patriarchs to insist to their families, "I'm doing all of this for you!!", the chief motivating force in The Borgias actually is nepotism more than a lust for personal power.  (Again, this isn't unique to the Borgia clan: a look at the actual history reveals an endless string of potentates leveraging their power to get cushy positions for their nephews.)  The bulk of Pope Alexander's largesse goes to three of his children, and the dynamics involved in that are what drive the plotlines.  For instance: Alexander expects that in exchange for his generosity, his children will do exactly as he says at all times, and they rebel.  He expects his dutiful son, Cesare, to follow precisely in his footsteps, naming him a cardinal and grooming him to eventually become pope; but Cesare wants the life his father has carved out for the dissolute son, Juan, who becomes part of the secular Spanish nobility while heading up the army of the Papal States.  Alexander also raises a lot of eyebrows by treating his daughter Lucrezia as the equal of her brothers; when he has to leave Rome on urgent business, it is Lucrezia he leaves in charge of the College of Cardinals — which seems to have actually happened in real life.  (One piece of history the show didn't get to before its cancellation was that Alexander also appointed Lucrezia to govern a number of cities, in her own name, before she'd even turned twenty.)  I was very impressed by Showtime's Lucrezia, who is pretty much the embodiment of a princess, for good and for ill: in the early episodes, she's a bright, innocent, affectionate, and exceedingly privileged little girl (which is quite an acting feat, as Holliday Grainger was a 22-year-old convincingly playing a 12-year-old); by the middle of the second season, she can sit on the throne of St. Peter, amused at the consternation of the cardinals but haughty enough to brook no question that she is where she belongs; and at the end of the series, covered in someone else's blood, she is not merely a princess but specifically a Borgia.  That ain't a bad character arc.

The Borgias does seem to take more liberties with history than The Tudors did, often building episodes around military gambits that, as best I can determine, were entirely made up by the screenwriters; that's cool by me, as these moments are among the highlights of the series.  But all in all, the recommendations engines did indeed do their usual thing: this show is very much in the same vein as its predecessor.  If nothing else, I have to tip my proverbial cap to a show whose most relatable character is Niccolò Machiavelli.

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