Review – The Borgias: Power and Fortune by Paul Strathern

The Borgias were a family of infamy, their name becoming a byword for sin, immorality, deceitfulness, and incest; a connotation that prevails to this day. Their legacy is a juxtaposition to the Italian Renaissance they existed within, an era which gave birth to the great minds of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael who reinvigorated Western Europe under the humanist tradition. The Borgias, in contrast to many critics, were merely an unwarranted mark on the Renaissance’s record of achievements. This view has hardly been ameliorated by pop culture, with relatively recent portrayals of the Borgias in media such as the Assassin’s Creed videogame series and The Borgias TV series reinforcing the family’s negative stereotype.

However, when one thinks of the Borgias, he is reminded of a particular quote, specifically from the 1949 film The Third Man. The film itself has nothing to do with The Borgias or even with Italy, having been set in post-war Vienna. But the quote (said by Orson Welles’s character Harry Lime) suggests a different, albeit cynical, judgement to what many of the Borgias’ critics would make:

“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

This quote itself is full of inaccuracies. For one, the Borgias, with its patriarch Rodrigo as Pope Alexander VI, had ruled the papacy for eleven years, not thirty. The papacy did not rule all of Italy, it was merely a contender amongst many Italian states that desired more territories or defences. Neither was Switzerland always a country of peace, having possessed one of the greatest militaries in Europe during the Borgias’ halycon days and providing many Swiss mercenaries to serve the Papal Guard. They didn’t even invent the cuckoo clock! Instead, it is a product that can be credited to the Germans for inventing.

But Harry Lime’s lack of historical discipline is not what constitutes the importance of his quote. What is significant about his statement is that he instead proposes that the Borgias were legitimate in their excessive and gross use of power whenever they could exercise it. It is not without reason after all that the enfant terrible of the Borgia household, Cesare, was praised in Niccolo Machiavelli’s magnum opus The Prince, which has gone on to become a cornerstone of political science. But this has only at the very least portrayed the Borgias as amoral when at their very best.

Each figure has characteristics that are not entirely indifferent to the epitome mafia family that the Corleone family in The Godfather novel and films represents. Rodrigo (or Pope Alexander VI), the head of the family that demands respect and power as pope from his cardinals through his use of nepotism and simony. Juan, the eldest and most favoured son, who’s vices and arrogance leads to his early demise that leaves him floating in the River Tiber. Cesare, the middle son driven by ambition and cruelty, who possibly murdered Juan so he could fulfil his desire to live up to his namesake of Julius Caesar and unite all of Italy as his father’s enforcer and military commander. Lucrezia, the only daughter and tool of Rodrigo’s political ambitions through strategical marriages and the prized possession of Cesare. And finally there is Jofré, the youngest, weakest and most obscure of the siblings produced by Borgia’s illegitimate partner Vannozza – his wife Sancia of Aragon having affairs with other men, including Cesare. It seems far from being coincidental that the author of The Godfather novel Mario Puzo also wrote a novel on the Borgia Family, his last in fact.

Their lives were hardly ones of sainthood, despite their position within the papacy suggesting otherwise. The common narrative of the Borgias is that they were a unique evil, one that stood in stark contrast to those within the papacy and with Renaissance Europe as a whole. But was it really though?

Paul Strathern’s biography of the family, The Borgias: Power and Fortune, suggests otherwise. Whilst it is certainly no apology for how the Borgias lived their lives and conducted their power, it breaks the façade of the Renaissance being entirely one of productivity. It also provides a useful backstory on the Borgia’s ascent to power, including Rodrigo’s uncle Alfonso de Borja (‘Borja’ being the Borgias’ original Spanish name) papacy as Callixtus III to Rodrigo’s slow but clever rise to the papacy. It is here where Strathern begins his book, showing the unorthodoxy of the family when Rodrigo boasted “I am Pope, I am Pope!” rather simply proclaiming the traditional “volo” (Latin for “if this is what you wish”) that most Popes do. Even before then did Rodrigo engage in fisticuffs with his arch-rival Giuliano della Rovere, who would also later become Pope under the name Julius II.

The limited uniqueness of the Borgias’ corruption is shown by Strathern’s description of Alexander VI’s predecessors, who were hardly saints themselves. Out of all of them analysed by Strathern, ranging from Martin V to Innocent VIII, it seems Rodrigo’s uncle Callixtus III was the most incorruptible. He was disgusted by his predecessor Nicholas V’s profligate use of papal funds, exclaiming – “see how the treasures of the Church have been wasted!” – when he saw the 70,432 florins that Nicholas V had incurred in debt. Whilst Callixtus III was not beyond nepotism, having appointed his nephew Rodrigo as vice-chancellor (the Pope’s second-in-command) and Rodrigo’s older brother Pedro Luis as Captain-General of the Papal Guards, he was nevertheless an ascetic pope. This was a stark contrast to one of his successors Paul II, who reputedly died “after an immoderate feasting on melons” exacerbated by “the excessive effect of being sodomized by one of his favourite boys”. It goes to show that extreme double standards had existed long before Rodrigo would become Pope Alexander VI.

But what differed from the Borgias compared to previous popes was one significant trait – ambition. This was one of the reasons why Strathern uses “Power and Fortune” as his book’s sub-title, a reference to Machiavelli’s concept of “Virtù e Fortuna” and this being a common theme for the Borgias. This is especially true for Cesare who Machiavelli greatly admired and knew personally, and Strathern constantly and wisely uses this narrative to describe Cesare’s successes and setbacks on the wheel of fortune. It also provides many anecdotes, from Cesare nearly drowning to death due to Caterina Sforza closing a moat gate on him, his illness with syphilis, the betrayal of his father’s second successor Julius II, to his daring escape from imprisonment in Spain and an eventual brutal death in the middle of its obscure countryside. Like father like son, Cesare inherited his father’s mastery of deceitfulness. His betrayal of the Orsini in Sinigaglia (who were later strangled by Cesare’s brutal lieutenant Miguel da Corella, who had a preference for the ‘Spanish method’ of strangulation) and his public bisection of his best and most immoral commander Ramiro de Lorqua in Cesena, were such displays of Cesare’s cunning.

Lucrezia is also explained by Strathern as a woman of great capability, having acted as a interim for the Pope’s duties whilst he was absent. But Strathern nevertheless shows more sympathy for Lucrezia when she was constantly under the watchful eye of Cesare, especially when it came to her love life. It was suspected that her mysterious child Giovanni Borgia was fathered by the Pope’s chamberlain Pedro Calderon (nicknamed ‘Perotto’), who was found stabbed to death in the Tiber, most likely Cesare’s doing. Cesare would later have Lucrezia’s second husband Alfonso of Aragon strangled in his recovery bed through de Corella’s Spanish method after a failed attempt on his life previously. Lucrezia would later marry Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, whose marriage would make her feel isolated and lonely, especially after Rodrigo’s and Cesare’s deaths. Despite her father’s manipulation of her as a political device and Cesare’s constant invasion of her privacy, Lucrezia nevertheless felt a strong sense of kinship towards her family, crying out her brother’s name upon hearing his death.

The accusations of incest amongst the family is also downplayed by Strathern, merely being a set of rumours or misassumptions to discredit the family’s kernel of power, especially when they had made many enemies such as the della Rovere, Orsini, and Colonna families (though Strathern does admit that Cesare most likely had a ‘unconscious incestuous relationship’ with Lucrezia). When considering that the Borgias existed five hundred years ago, the gift of being certain of this practice happening or not is very much absent. Strathern is constantly aware of this, especially when their most infamous members cease to walk on this earth, leaving such vitriolic accusations to become less questionable.

Whether one believes them or not, there is no doubt that the ‘asocial sociability’ Harry Lime’s quote suggests about the Borgias could indeed be true. The Borgias had a dream to unify Italy under a new Roman Empire. Its capital had long lost its halcyon days in the ancient era where it had enjoyed a population of one million undergoing rapid development. By the time Alfonso de Borja was donning his red cardinal attire over a millennia and a half later, it was a shadow of its former self, with a meagre population of twenty thousand people and a haven for thugs and bandits. With the Borgias expanding the papal territories and acquiring new sources of wealth (whether through simony or nepotism), it was slowly unifying Italy under a common authority, breaking the state of nature that was apparent between its duchies’ recurrent conflicts. Perhaps if the sudden deaths of Rodrigo and Cesare had not occurred, it could have been a vision come true despite their unpredictable wheel of fortune; a vision that preceded Garibaldi’s success of Italy’s unification over 300 years later. The Renaissance, with its archetypes such as Leonardo contributing to Cesare’s redevelopment projects in Romagna, may have proliferated due to the Borgias’ method in the madness to achieve such a vision.

Paul Strathern’s biography is therefore commendable in that it gives a nuanced account of the Borgia family’s history, from its rise to its downfall, its interesting anecdotes and tales of tragedy. Anyone who wants to learn more about the unorthodox family should read this biography. Despite their prominence many years ago, the name of the Borgia lives on. It is hopeful that this book will go on to serve as a pragmatic account of its name and those who had bear it, especially with the vagueness of what available material there is that describes their lives. Strathern nevertheless professionally wields it.

Featured image credit: “Cesare Borgia. – Painting by Altobello Melone.” by quapan is licensed under CC BY 2.0