The Borgias: The Hidden History by G. J Meyer

I found the Borgias fascinating long before it was fashionable to do so–I refer of course to the current Borgia mania fueled by Showtime’s mini-series, which, incidentally, I haven’t seen. G.J Meyer’s book The Borgias: The Hidden History is a highly readable revisionist look at one of the most notoriously rotten families in history–we’ve heard the stories of the orgies, the incest and the poisonings, and Meyer’s fascinating book takes an intense, fascinating look at the Borgias while arguing that they weren’t so bad after all….

Author G. J. Meyer (The Tudors) begins by saying that “this is not the book I set out to write,” and that his research led to an “entirely new understanding of who the Borgias were.” Meyer makes a strong argument for his case stating that the Borgia “myth” is largely built on “the acceptance as true … of accusations of the darkest kind” made by “discredited” historians and Borgia enemies. It’s an interesting premise, and while Meyer makes a cogent argument, there were times that the pendulum swung too far towards an image make-over. More of that later.

The BorgiasIn spite of a few problems I had with Meyer’s thesis, I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s richly detailed and reads very well. In my limited knowledge of the Borgias, I knew only of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and his infamous illegitimate children which included Cesare and Lucrezia. The book takes us back farther into Borgia history with Alonso Borgia, the “dark-horse candidate,” elected as pope Calixtus III more or less because he was so elderly and not expected to hold the office for too long. This, of course, opened the door to Borgia power. The book delves deeply into Alonso’s career–including his long, significant employment as Alfonso V’s secretary. This background information is invaluable as it illustrates Alonso’s intelligence and diplomacy, but we also see the weaved network of friendships, wars, and obligations that became so critical in matters of succession–specifically just who was the heir to the throne of Naples. Alonso’s reign as pope was complicated by a constant threat from the Turks even as he tried to “regain control” of the Papal states. With the Orsini and the Colonna families as bitter enemies, Alonso’s goal of uniting the Papal states was not easy. Alonso understood that alliances were of paramount importance, and so it’s with this Borgia, we see Rodrigo begin to rise in power within the church. According to Meyer, Alonso/Calixtus III’s approach to regaining control of the papal states was “novel” as other popes had simply thrown in their support with either the Orsini or the Colonna against whichever clan was left out of favour.

The result was an endlessly repeating pattern in which, as pope succeeded pope, the fortunes of the Orsini and the Colonna became like two pistons in a reciprocating machine, with one side up whenever the other side was down.

I had always known that these were wild times, of course, but the book brings those times to life with relevant details:

In Rome itself, disorder and danger became chronic, the Orsini turning the parts of the city that they controlled into killing zones. They showed no reluctance to shut down the highways leading to the city’s gates and so cut off its supplies of food, fuel, and other essentials whenever it served their purposes to do so.

Nepotism, according to the author, was the modus operandi of the times–not something that just the Borgias were ‘guilty’ of, and that makes perfect sense, so it comes as no surprise to see Alonso’s nephew, Rodrigo climbing to the top of the church hierarchy, and it’s with Rodrigo that Meyer first addresses the “accusations of greed.”  Meyer argues that while Rodrigo’s wealth rose to “stunning levels,” this was absorbed by his growing expenses and responsibilities. Rodrigo eventually became pope after being passed over several times, and the book details the various election processes. One delightful scene recounts how one cardinal “stationed himself in the latrine,” ambushing other cardinals as he desperately lobbied for votes.

Close to the 40% mark of the book (on my kindle edition), Cesare and Lucretia finally appear–but not as Rodrigo’s illegitimate children but rather as his grand-niece and grand-nephew. The author presents his arguments for this complete with scholarly backup, and after all these years, who knows the truth? I’m not about to argue with Meyer’s research or his scholasticism–I’ll leave that for the experts. My biggest issue with the image makeover of the Borgias came in the details regarding some of the scandals, rumours and gossip. Clearly the wickedness of the Borgias became legendary as the years passed, and there’s no argument from this reader that some of the stories are grossly exaggerated. However, and here’s one instance–at one point, there’s a discussion of a letter dated August 10 to the papal court regarding Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who was ill, and the letter includes the line “the physician who saw him first says that he has little hope for him, principally because he had, shortly before, not slept alone in bed.” The author notes that this was “interpreted as meaning that Rodrigo had been indulging in sexual adventures” and was dying as a result.

As for the cardinal’s not sleeping alone, as recently as the nineteenth century it was not uncommon even for men of importance to share beds, and it may very well have been necessary for senior members of the pope’s entourage to do so in the grossly overcrowded conditions of Ancona that summer.

The author is an apologist for the Borgias and at times provides a weak defense of this notorious family. We don’t know, for example, and we will never know, who was in Rodrigo’s bed when the physician showed up, but to argue that it was another member of the pope’s entourage is belaboring the point. The question of whether or not Rodrigo kept his vows of celibacy seemed petty, but then of course, this later leads into the argument that all of Rodrigo’s mistresses weren’t his mistresses after all. There are many points the author makes that seem very valid when questioning some of the more outlandish accusations against the family, but at other times, the defense of the Borgias goes a little too far with the result that they seem vastly morally superior when weighed against their contemporaries. On the other hand, the depiction of many other vile characters, including Ferdinand I of Naples and the impressively vengeful, strong-willed Caterina Sforza did a great deal more towards convincing me of the relative ‘normalcy’ of the Borgias than some of the claims of their total innocence. By detailing the actions of the Borgias in the context of their turbulent troubled times, in effect, this is revisionist in itself, and niggling over some of the details which really cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt one way or another seems unnecessary.

That complaint aside, The Borgias really is a wonderful book, very readable, and a book in which many characters come to life and are not just faded images in century-old portraits.  These were incredible people living in incredible times. The author clearly loves his subject and it shows in every line, every explanation of time and place. The book includes a family tree, maps and a timeline.

Review copy

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10 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

10 responses to “The Borgias: The Hidden History by G. J Meyer

  1. Though very interested in history I know very little of the Borgias. I have also not seen the television show. Based upon your commentary they were an interesting bunch. I do want to learn more. The Renaissance was in many way a wild time!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Brian. Based on some of your reading history, I’d say that this is a book you could get your teeth into. Yes, these were wild times. At one point there’s a description of a pope who was run out of town.

    BTW, I tried to leave a comment on your blog the other day and couldn’t for some reason.

  3. I’ve always thought going back to basics and doing solid context-setting is a much stronger defence of any historical figure than an impassioned defence. Anachronism is the greatest crime a biographer can commit!

    • The author obviously feels passionately about his subject and you can feel his excitement when he argues his case. The problem is that he is utterly convinced about the questions of parentage, and he runs with his theories. I wasn’t convinced, and we will never know the truth.

  4. Very interesting. It’s a family I’ve always found fascinating as well but, like you, haven’t seen the mini-series.
    I’m not so sure I like the approach of this biographer. I only know so little that I might read another biography first but this one sounds like a valid secon opinion, so to speak.

  5. I must be interesting to read just for the picture of the times coming to life.
    Does he describe the city too?

    • No too much: it’s much more about the people and there will be these essays embedded in the text packed full of information. As I said I didn’t agree with him on everything but this really is a wonderful book.

  6. gts

    My confusion arises from Meyer’s earlier book, The Tudors, in which he calls Alexander VI “monstrous” and “vile” and says “What is called the Renaissance papacy will stink in the nostrils of history to the end”. Will the real Rodrigo Borgia please stand up

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