The Borgias – Fact vs. Fiction

From: TELLING IT LIKE IT REALLY IS – THE BORGIAS ON SCREEN AND ON THE PAGE by Sarah Dunant

This week Blood & Beauty is published in America and Canada. Yeah! The cover is different from Britain (I love them both, but it seems different cultures have different tastes), but the words – bar a few north American spellings – are exactly the same.

Blood and BeautyBlood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant - US Cover

So maybe this is the moment to talk about The Borgias, since I know from conversations via Twitter and e-mail that many of you have watched the TV series (I think it has been more of a hit in America than Britain) with varying degrees of passionate response.

I’ll put my marker down fast.  I was researching my novel when news of the series came through and I made a decision not to watch any of it while I was writing.  Novelists exist in a strange, porous limbo when they are inside a book and access to other people’s ideas and images can infiltrate and infect (for good and for bad). My aim, to separate the truth from all the slur and insult when it came to this most colourful but most slandered of renaissance families, meant that I had my hands full anyway, sifting through reams of diplomatic chit-chat and intrigue to trace how the drip-drip of gossip can burn like acid into history to become established fact. So, it was only when the manuscript was finished that I switched on the television.

What a sumptuous spectacle met my eyes. The settings, the colour, the costumes, the light through stained glass, the weight of velvets, the swish of the silks across tiled floors; visually this was a feast.  It actually felt like the past. (No small achievement when too often TV cleans things up).  And there was much to recognise in the early episodes. How this Spanish family, interlopers in a city, church and country dominated by Italian families, were forced to take on all comers in their quest to create a new dynasty. No room for kicking back here: the experience of watching smart people thinking on their feet as plots and threats of invasion encircled like planes buzzing around King Kong at the top of the Empire State, was genuinely exhilarating.

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But – and here come the ‘buts’  (committed fans can choose to stop reading now)  – The Borgias is not history.  From beginning to end it skewers facts, confuses dates, changes people and places, repeats slanders, adds things that didn’t happen and takes out much that did.  Some things are small.  Machiavelli was not the amanuensis to the ruler of Florence in 1494, or indeed ever.  Others are larger.  Juan Borgia did not lead an army against the French, nor did he besiege the city of Forli (even more problematic since by then he’d been dead for years) and Lucrezia’s husband was never made to demonstrate his manhood with lusty prostitutes in front of the Vatican College of Cardinals.  And some just made up altogether.  The Turkish hostage, Prince Djem, was in real life neither cute nor lovable, did not have a dalliance with Lucrezia, and was not killed, when, where or by whom they say.  I won’t bother you with the real history, because while it’s interesting – especially Djem – you’d have to forgo the sight of some rippling bodies to appreciate it.

And that, of course, is part of the problem. Big budget costume drama is fashioned in 50 minute bursts and comes with its own rules.  At least one big star is needed for finance, there must be heartthrobs, male and female, lots of violence, battles, personal vendettas with ideally a bit of torture and lashings and lashings of sex.  No sweat you might think.  The Borgias tick most of these boxes anyway: they certainly weren’t squeamish about violence and they didn’t mind hopping into the sack whenever possible.  You can have all of that and still make it history.  Except that over three series the inevitable repetitions – particularly of the sex – means that it all has to be spiced up a bit.  So young Lucrezia must have a husband who rapes her, Rodrigo must indulge in a threesome with a transvestite woman painter (did anyone in their right mind really believe that could happen?!).  And finally of course, because it is the most irresistible bit of gossip, Lucrezia must sleep with her own brother.

All these – what shall we call them? – “embellishments” come from treating the Borgias as if they were prime time soap opera characters rather than real people.  But the fact is, they were real people.  It was their actual personalities, strengths and weaknesses that made up the huge drama of their lives, and it seems to me that anyone who cares about history at all has a responsibility to try and get them right.  Or at least not wilfully wrong.

This is where my temperature starts to rise.  Jeremy Irons is a star actor with huge presence and ageing good looks, but, oh – how loudly can I shout this? – Rodrigo Borgia he is not. It’s a bit like casting Danny de Vito in Julius Caesar as a “lean and hungry… dangerous” Cassius.  Jeremy’s Iron’s Pope is a lugubrious, enervated figure mixing sentiment and petulance with bursts of cold rage.  In contrast, the real Rodrigo had an ebullience and explosive energy matched only by the size and corpulence of his body.  It doesn’t mean he wasn’t capable of being a thug, but, like a twenty-five stone Tony Soprano (oh now there is the actor who could have done it, may he rest in glorious peace) he was clearly a surprisingly engaging one. All the first hand reports say as much.  So now imagine that gross old man getting into bed with a teenage mistress.  Morally and aesthetically it could turn a modern stomach.  Welcome to real history.  And welcome to the place where the words can work better than the camera: where you can paint a scene where gradually discomfort, outrage and sly delight collide for an audience in ways they could never expect.

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The story of the Borgias is full of challenges like that.  Take Cesare.  Bad guys don’t come any more fascinating than this.  The man is a sociopath: steel cold intelligence matched by a total lack of conscience or empathy, muted only by a dodgy affection towards his mother and sister.  He would be a gift to contemporary TV drama series that revel in complex, compromised characters  (think Homeland or Breaking Bad). But costume drama demands handsome heartthrobs.  So this Cesare must be filled with conflict, must fall in love with a woman who then becomes a nun (great opportunity for steamy stuff) to prove that we know his heart beats like other men’s, until eventually that same beating heart will take him into the final taboo of sleeping with his beloved sister.

On the tick box of sexual excitement we have reached the highest rung.  Does it matter that it isn’t true?  I don’t know.  If I were to tell you that President Obama was actually a Muslim, a possible terrorist sleeper in the white house, would that matter?  Of course.  So how come getting it right in the past is so less important than the present?  That comparison with Obama works for another reason.  The slander was the work of his political enemies.  Put that level of poison into context and tells you a lot about the state of American politics and culture at this moment.  It’s the same with the past.  In the cauldron of renaissance Italian politics the stakes were very high and when the Borgias failed, their enemies wrote the history.  That doesn’t mean that all the stories about them aren’t true.  Far from it.  They were a brutal, corrupt family.  But they lived in brutal and corrupt times and then, as now, mud thrown has a tendency to stick.

Take that one rumour.  Incest.  Here’s how it develops.  When Lucrezia’s first husband, Giovanni Sforza – once ally now enemy – was forced by the Pope to agree to an annulment on grounds of non-consummation he took out his indignation in vitriol.  “I have known her an infinity of times,” he spat out to anyone who would listen, “and the Pope, her father, only wants her back for himself.”  Like all gossip, once said, it cannot be unsaid.  Like a virus it spread from one diplomatic purse to another and so the idea of the family that slays together also lays together was born.  By the end of the year, Lucrezia was known to be Rome’s greatest whore, sleeping with both father and brother, accused of giving birth to an illegitimate child and on her way into history as a woman capable of every depravity from incest to poison and murder.  Why bother with the truth when the slander is so delicious?

But let’s turn the question on its head.  Why bother with slander when the truth is more unexpected?  And after years of research I know that the life and journey of Lucrezia Borgia is a great deal more subtle, intriguing, sad and satisfying than anything you might have heard to date.

Of course no one can get it  “right.”  Not even historians can do that, and in places there are genuine gaps.  We still don’t know who killed Juan Borgia?  The Borgiashave one version.  I have my own.  Fair enough.  In the end everyone has to work by their own rules.  Mine are simple: if the facts are known then I follow them.  Not least because they throw you all manner of curve balls and bizarre turns of fate much more original than anything you might make up.  As Cesare Borgia moves like a comet through the sky, who would predict that he would fall prey to a new devastating sexual disease that will eventually start to play with his mind as well as his body?  This sexual plague, not yet named as syphilis, erupts out of war-torn Naples and sweeps across Europe like some harbinger of the apocalypse, bringing agony, disfigurement and shame and acting as a perfect mirror to the hypocrisy and debauchery of the times.  And for Cesare himself, it so marks out inner corruption through the pock-marks on his once flawless handsome face that he takes to wearing a mask.  Who would have a heartthrob when you can have a masked sociopath?

Having spent fifteen years writing novels set in this wild, rich period of European history I have come to learn that the more you get the history right, the richer the imaginative rewards.  The story of the Borgias is a perfect case in point.  The energy that gave the renaissance its creativity and beauty also fuelled huge corruption and brutality. Spin and scandal stalked the land long before tabloids or Twitter got hold and history was written fast by the victors. As family ambition races against the ticking clock of an ever-fatter old man sitting on the Papal throne while the vultures gather ready to savage the corpses, all you need to do is tell is like it is to keep your audience on the edge of their seats.

Perhaps the answer is for TV series to stick to sorcery with the swords and therefore avoid the word history altogether (Game of Thrones, with its echoes of War of the Roses, is making a killing with this strategy).  Otherwise, we could employ one of those disclaimers that come at the end of so many movies:  “Any resemblance to real life characters, living or dead, is purely co-incidental.”  That way we would we know that whatever else we’re getting is novel.

Of course I have my own axe to grind here: getting the history and the story to meld together is what I live for.  Why not watch the series and then read the novel?  Even if you come out still loving the sensation, at least you will have an alternative reality to help you make up your mind.  And we can always talk about it afterwards.  Leave your thoughts here and the conversation can start.

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