You couldn’t make up the Borgias. After Giuliano della Rovere – the man who would become Pope Julius II, the great warrior Pope who commissioned the Sistine Chapel ceiling from Michelangelo – finally took the chair of St Peter in 1503, he said, “I will not occupy a room the Borgias have dwelt in … I will send their bodies back to Spain, where they belong.”
When Rodrigo Borgia was elected as Alexander VI he couldn’t restrain himself. Rather than wait for the announcement “habemus papam” (“we have a Pope”) he cried in some extremity of delight, “I am the Pope! I am the Pope!” And he succeeded in dragging the name of the papacy, which has had its ups and downs since St Peter, to a nadir it has not experienced before or since. He was accused of having had a child by his daughter Lucrezia – a charge that is almost certainly untrue, but he was the sort of chap to whom such remarks clung. There is little doubt that the most famous and deadly of his sons, Cesare Borgia, murdered brother Juan and had his body thrown in the Tiber.
The myth of Renaissance Italy provided the Elizabethans and Jacobeans with their most sinister and glamorous image of unspeakable malignity, which reached some sort of zenith in the plays of Webster. You can see how the Borgias fuelled the collective imagination and made possible The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. It didn’t help that Anglo-Saxon culture identified Niccolò Machiavelli with “Old Nick”, an avatar of the Devil himself, largely because of the devastating amoralism in his masterwork The Prince, which used Cesare Borgia as its prototype. Towards the end of The Borgias, Paul Strathern tells us The Prince was cherished by Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler and Saddam Hussein: a mixed bag of self-propelling born-to-rulers, but it makes you think.
The Prince was the man who governed by virtù and rode the winds of fortuna as a horseman rides a stallion. Cesare Borgia, this matinee idol of a monster who was also appointed a cardinal of the church, had been corrupted so young. He dealt in a virtue that had been degraded to the status of power and luck as his preordained destiny.
The Borgias treated the offices of the church as though they were merely worldly assets. In that sense the family, by a principle of parody, effected a secularisation that all the humanism in the world could not achieve.
They were creatures of their times, of course. Paul Strathern’s rather basic, rat-a-tat history, which is a bit like a pop-up version of one of Peter Ackroyd’s narrative histories, reminds us of how Sigismondo Malatesta, one-time commander of the papal forces, had publicly sodomised a 15-year-old bishop while his army cheered.
No wonder Savonarola – that grim friar with his “bonfire of the vanities” and his promulgation of a kind of throwback Catholic fundamentalism – had raged against the corruption of the world. He saw “the sword of the Lord” suspended above the earth, predicting a new lord of nemesis and a coming scourge.
Savonarola declared that Alexander VI – who for a long time was the lover of Giulia Farnese, known as the Pope’s concubine – was not even a Christian and what he represented far exceeded the limits of iniquity. The Pope could not directly lay hands on the friar but ensured he was burned at the stake in Florence in 1498. Did he have any virtues then, this supremely greedy and self-aggrandising opportunist at the court of God? Well, Guicciardini, one of the inventors of modern history, and no lover of the Borgias, said that Alexander VI “combined rare prudence and vigilance, mature reflection, marvellous power of persuasion, skill and capacity for the conduct of the most difficult affairs”.
It’s one of the odd features of this rather low-rent history of the Borgias that – as with Coppola’s Godfather films, to compare small things with great – there are moments of surprising poignancy even in the lives of this crew who (to use a phrase of Webster’s) were “rotten, and rotting others”.
So, in the words of the papal master of ceremonies Johann Burchard, there is the description of the Pope’s response to the death of his son: “When the Pope heard that the Duke [Juan Borgia] was dead and thrown into the river like dung he fell into a paroxysm of grief, and such was the anguish and bitterness in his heart that he locked himself away in his room and wailed with abandon.” And when Lucrezia Borgia – who seems to have done little to justify her infamy – is overcome with grief at the death of her brother Cesare, she says, simply and terribly, “The more I turn to God, the more he turns away from me.”
It’s fascinating, too – in fact, perhaps it’s the primary fascination of this racketing yarn of a family history – to hear Machiavelli speak with growing pessimism about his Prince being on the skids. We pass from the high point of “The Duke’s actions are accompanied by a unique good fortune, as well as a superhuman daring and confidence that he can achieve whatever he wants” to “It looks as if little by little Borgia is sinking into his grave.” Cesare Borgia confesses at one point that he had always imagined he would be able to cope with the death of his father, the Pope, not realising he himself would be so close to death.
The power fails. The luck goes. Bizarrely, the doomed Cesare Borgia – who always, as Machiavelli said, kept his own counsel, so that his strategy was an eternal secret – thought he could make a deal with his old enemy Julius II, who, needless to say, betrayed him. It seems Borgia was ruthless and murderous in trying to get his way, but efficient, even temperate, once he was the rider of fortune.
It’s worth remembering that the ultimate English echo of Machiavelli is not the semi-comical one of Richard III but that desolate thane to whom the hags of fortune say “all hail” – Macbeth.
The Borgias is a bit of historical hackwork illuminated by graphic incident and resonant quotation. The impulse behind this book seems simply to tell stories about a scandalous family: there is more hard knowledge and better prose in the entries on the key players in the famous 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Atlantic, 400pp, $49.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 17, 2019 as "Paul Strathern, The Borgias". Subscribe here.