The popular myth of the Borgia family involves poison, incest, orgies and general tyranny. But beyond the Showtime version, how many of the tales are true? And if they aren’t true, where do they come from?
On In Our Time last month, Evelyn Welch, Christine Shaw and I tried to answer those questions. It was a tough job, with only forty-five minutes of radio time. The Borgia story is enormously complex and it was soon clear that we’d only be able to tell a small part of it.
The Borgias were trailed as ‘the most infamous family of the Italian Renaissance’. A radio programme about them was bound to be fun, but we didn’t want the myths to take over. So we had to balance the expectation that listeners would want to hear about the truth behind the more lurid claims with an effort to tell the other side of the family’s story.
In that other side of the story, for example, Rodrigo Borgia, the future Pope Alexander VI, was for over thirty years a talented and respected member of the College of Cardinals, responsible for the day-to-day running of papal government. And Lucrezia Borgia was an innovative entrepreneur responsible for a major land reclamation project near Ferrara.
But the Borgias are much more commonly associated with the dark side of the Italian Renaissance. Orson Welles, who had played Cesare Borgia in the 1949 film Prince of Foxes famously riffed in The Third Man: “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.” It’s notable that it was the Borgias he picked out to sum up the notion of Renaissance tyranny.
Though – as we discuss in the programme – there was a different quality to the Borgia papacy, and there are documented murders, many of the stories come from anti-papal polemic. First, followers of the Florentine preacher Girolamo Savonarola, a fierce critic of clerical abuses, spread tales of a pact between Pope Alexander VI and the Devil. Later, when Protestants began to talk about the Pope as the Anti-Christ, the existing stories of Alexander fed into their propaganda. In 1550 Francesco Negri of Bassano, an Italian Protestant, published a work that described Alexander’s pact, and later the same decade it spread to England.
You can read more about the origins of Borgia myths in J. N. Hillgarth’s article here (library log-in or subscription needed).
And you can listen to our programme here.