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The Borgias

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The name Borgia is synonymous with the corruption, nepotism, and greed that were rife in Renaissance Italy. The powerful, voracious Rodrigo Borgia, better known to history as Pope Alexander VI, was the central figure of the dynasty. Two of his seven papal offspring also rose to power and fame - Lucrezia Borgia, his daughter, whose husband was famously murdered by her brother, and that brother, Cesare, who served as the model for Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince. Notorious for seizing power, wealth, land, and titles through bribery, marriage, and murder, the dynasty's dramatic rise from its Spanish roots to its occupation of the highest position in Renaissance society forms a gripping tale. Erudite, witty, and always insightful, Hibbert removes the layers of myth around the Borgia family and creates a portrait alive with his superb sense of character and place.

313 pages, Kindle Edition

First published October 6, 2008

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About the author

Christopher Hibbert

169 books257 followers
Christopher Hibbert, MC, FRSL, FRGS (5 March 1924 - 21 December 2008) was an English writer, historian and biographer. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of many books, including Disraeli, Edward VII, George IV, The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, and Cavaliers and Roundheads.

Described by Professor Sir John Plumb as "a writer of the highest ability and in the New Statesman as "a pearl of biographers," he established himself as a leading popular historian/biographer whose works reflected meticulous scholarship.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 250 reviews
Profile Image for Kalliope.
691 reviews22 followers
January 24, 2017

I picked up this book not because I wanted to learn more about the scandals, the violence, the corruption enveloping the popular image of the family of Pope Alexander VI. For that one can watch the very entertaining TV production with Jeremy Irons in the role of the Pope. I was more interested in the marginal aspects, such as the family’s origins, the Pope’s patronage of the arts, and what happened to Alexander’s children well after he had died.

Alexander, Rodrigo Borgia (Borja in his original language) was not the first Pope in his family. His uncle Alfonso had been Calixtus III. Alfonso had struck gold when the King of Aragon, his namesake Alfonso V the Great, and for whom he was acting as Secretary, conquered the Kingdom of Naples. As a reward for helping in the return of the Papacy to Rome from Avignon, which finally solved the Papal Schism, he was given the Bishopric in his town of origin, Valencia. From there he then moved to Naples and later to Rome.

Nepotism was a common sport and Alfonso made cardinals two of his nephews. Our Alexander Rodrigo was one of them. During his post as Cardinal the later Pope Sixtus IV sent him on a political mission to Spain; he had to solve the awkward situation of the Spanish Kings who had married illegally. Ironically, this Sixtus--a Della Rovere who had been involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici and who also liked to take care of his nephews--, was the uncle of Alexander’s greatest enemy, Giuliano della Rovere who later became Julius II.

These men of the Church liked art. Expensive art. In particular, both Della Roveres were great patrons. The first started the Sixtine chapel (hence its name), and his nephew finished it. When Alexander Rodrigo, came to Spain he brought some artists in his retinue, effectively introducing Italian Renaissance art into the country. Up till then it was the Flemish art that was patronised in Spain.

Very recently, in 2004 the restoration of the Baroque frescoes began in the apse in the Cathedral of Valencia. To everybody’s surprise they found another set of frescoes under the baroque paintings. These were the Musician Angels painted by the artists that had come with Alexander Rodrigo.

Hibbert does not talk about this. But he does talk of the patronage that Alexander exerted during his papacy. Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo were active in Rome at that time. But it was the painter Pinturicchio that Alexander favoured. The discovery of the Domus Aurea, Nero’s villa, around 1480 had a huge impact on the artists working in Rome. What Pinturicchio saw in Nero’s mansion is felt in the lavish decoration of the Borgia Apartments.

Both the Jeremy Irons TV- series and this book rely a great deal on Johannes Burchard, the Secretary and Master of Ceremonies during Alexander’s papacy. Burchard left copious Diaries. While reading this book, I welcomed whenever he is mentioned or quoted. It is not easy to control one’s skepticism when dealing with this family. Direct sources are invaluable. And shifting the attention away from the limelight to the margins may also offer more authenticity.

And that is also why I was astonished to find, about two weeks ago, the following marble stone on the floor in front of a church in Viana, in Navarre. Alexander’s eldest son, Cesare Borgia, applauded by Machiavelli and vilified by posterity (Julius II?), had been made prisoner in Italy by the Spanish kings. Cesare managed to escape and join his brother in law Jean III, King of Navarre, when this still independent kingdom was under the D’albert dinasty, and help him in the civil war that was ravaging his domains. But one night Cesare was ambushed and killed.

Cesare’s sister, Lucrezia, is another personality that suffers from the Borgia myth. It both magnifies and hides her. In Hibbert’s account I learnt more about her later phase in life, when she married Alfonso d’Este and became the Duchess of Ferrara. Much more level headed, she however engaged in affairs with the veiled consent of her husband. Her relationships with Francesco Gonzaga, the Marques of Mantua, and with the humanist poet Petro Bembo, takes the reader back to the magnificent Mantua court, where the painter Mantegna left masterpieces such as the Camera degli Sposi. Serendipitously, as I was reading about the Mantua court, a photograph of one of Mantegna’s great paintings commissioned by the Marques to celebrate his victory over the invading French, the Virgin della Vittoria was sent to me via WhatsApp by a friend from the Louvre, where the painting is now housed. There one can see Francesco kneeling on the left.

One more character who moves in the margins in the story of this family is that of the Saint Francisco de Borja. He was the great grandson of Alexander, and the grandson of Juan, supposedly assassinated by Cesare. Francisco belonged to the Court of the Empress Isabel, the wife of Charles V. She was famous for her beauty. When she died he was so struck that he became a deep believer and entered the Jesuit order. He was canonized in the 17thC.

But that is yet another legend.

Profile Image for Jaidee.
582 reviews1,114 followers
November 14, 2018
3 "Phillipa Gregory would be darn proud" stars !!

Mr. Hibbert wrote an extremely entertaining and "tongue in cheek" history book about the life of the most notorious of the Borgias focusing on Pope Alexander VI and his children Cesare and Lucrezia. He did an admirable job of getting across to the general reader a huge amount of information on this most corrupt and ruthless family where other famous people such as Machiavelli and Michelangelo play small but important roles. The book is always interesting, intriguing and often decadent and titillating.

However and a big however....this is not historical fiction nor a television mini-series. This is a time where there was huge poverty amidst great wealth and where the majority of people led miserable and difficult lives. I am not sure that carnage, gang rape, incest, torture, pestilence and sacrilege should be presented in such a fashion. To me it seems to minimize the emotional impact of the huge amounts of suffering this family caused to so many thousands of people. I doubt that we would find it acceptable to present more recent historical events in this fashion.

Although I learned an awful lot and want to learn so much more about this family I am not sure I appreciated this topic being presented like a better episode of the Kardashians.
Profile Image for Bruno Bouchet.
Author 15 books8 followers
June 17, 2009
This book should really be called Renaissance Mules and the Fabrics they Carried as the author seems far more interesting in describing in detail how many mules loaded up with how many yards of brocade, silks and cloth of gold schlepped across the Apennines for sundry weddings and festivities. I suppose accurate history does depend on the contemporary documents available and the writers of the Borgias time might be the ones obsessed with fabrics, public parades and the costumes of the 300 page boys attending but Hibbert shares their obsession. My irritation with the constant talk of fabrics was familiar. As I looked through Hibbert’s other books I noted he had written one on the Medici - I read that and found the constant descriptions of clothing got in the way. For all the fascinating aspects of the Borgias and their fleeting rise to power, I didn’t really get much sense of them from this book. The time scale on the cover 1431-1519 is a bit misleading as he whips through to the 1490’s in a few pages. In the end I found myself thinking more about the mules than the Borgias. Hibbert describes how Lucrezia took 200 mules loaded with gifts and clothes to her wedding amongst other vast mule trains in the book. What happened when you turned up at your destination with 200 mules? Where did they go? How many people were crossing the country with hundreds of mules? Were there fields and fields of mules munching tonnes and tonnes of hay. How did they feed them en route? Who bred them all? Were there mule millionaires? It was hard to concentrate on Pope Alexender VI, Cesare and their nefarious doings with so much braying in the background.
Profile Image for Jon Nakapalau.
4,930 reviews685 followers
October 16, 2016
Without going into particulars it is shocking how Cesare made a career of stacking the dead bodies of anyone who got in his way and using their cadavers as steps to his next position of power. The whole time it seems as if it never occurred to him what would happen once the families he had offended decided to seek vengeance. A cautionary tale that still has relevance in this age of globalization.
Profile Image for Sandra Deaconu.
667 reviews103 followers
November 10, 2021
Din punctul meu de vedere, a fost o lectură destul de anevoioasă, întrucât eu nu sunt prea interesată de faptele istorice din perspectivă tehnică. Da, istoria se repetă, dar nu se repetă un război, un armistițiu sau o căsătorie încheiată de dragul diplomației. Se repetă caracterele oamenilor, alegerile lor, motivațiile și strategiile. Ploaia abundentă de date, citate, trimiteri spre alți istorici care spun același lucru, doar că reformulat, și detalii despre câți ducați cheltuia Cesare pentru armată ori femei, despre numărul soldaților sau ce sărbătoare era când a fost încununat nu știu cine mi-au îngreunat interesul și l-am târât anevoie mai departe, spre latura umană a istoriei, cea care mă interesează pe mine. În 1493, Rodrigo Borgia l-a făcut pe Cesare cardinal, când acesta avea doar 18 ani, doar așa, pentru că putea. Secole mai târziu, găsim aceeași procedură. Doar alegeți la nimereală un politician! Apoi gândiți-vă unde plasează asta moralitatea oamenilor pe scara evoluției!

O lectură diluată cu informații inutile și aglomerată de detalii care o fac să arate mai degrabă a manual de istorie, nu a biografie, în care veți găsi unele dintre cele mai cunoscute personaje ale istoriei, plasate în context politic, social și cultural. Recenzia aici: https://bit.ly/3kn97eg.
Profile Image for Sean.
320 reviews14 followers
February 28, 2020
Solid chronological history with no fancy bells and whistles. If you happen to have watched The Borgias on Showtime, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how much you already know, and you may find yourself reading everyone's name in a dramatic British accent.

Lacking sufficient chronological context on either end -- there's a bit, but it feels rushed and you won't walk away with much information about the Renaissance papacy or the geopolitics of Italian city-states generally.

The sex wasn't a surprise, but the amount of violence was shocking. Cesare, Alexander VI's son, was a bit of a sociopath.
Profile Image for Dan Lutts.
Author 3 books96 followers
November 22, 2019
The Italian Renaissance marked a high point for the arts but a low point for the papacy. And the papacy of Rodrigo Borgia, who ruled as Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), marked its lowest point. Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias and Their Enemies tells you all—and even more— you should know about Rodrigo and his infamous children who helped make life in Renaissance Italy so “colorful.”

Rodrigo comes off as a complex man who mixes religion with greed, lust for power, and violence against anyone who opposes him. His son Cesare, of course, is willful, crafty, cruel, blood thirsty, and violent but has a soft spot for his sister, Lucrezia. His other sons—Jofrè and Jaun—were almost as bad. Lucrezia, though, was quite a surprising woman. She was well educated and ran the Vatican when her father was away but was used as pawn in her father’s and Cesare’s lust for power.

The Renaissance is one of my favorite periods. I spent a lot of time on it when I taught Advanced Placement Modern European History in high school. Hibbert’s book contained a lot of information I didn’t know. Perhaps too much information. He lists so many names that it’s difficult to keep them straight and goes off on minor tangents that detract from the main theme of the book. But he highlights the political intrigues, violence, pageantry, extravagance, and religious hypocrisy that make the Renaissance so fascinating to us today.

One thing I found interesting. Hibbert mentions some of the characters who are in Kate Quinn’s two Renaissance novels, The Serpent and the Pearl and The Lion and the Rose. These include Rodrigo Borgia and his children and Rodrigo’s mistress, Giulia Farnese. If I had it to do over again, I’d read The Borgias and Their Enemies before I read the novels to give myself more of a grounding in the period, which would help me appreciate the novels and Quinn’s solid research more.
Profile Image for C.W..
Author 17 books2,306 followers
March 26, 2012
This is a marvelous, concise account of the Borgias' rise to power and the foibles and intrigues that destroyed them. Well researched and easily accessible, it's highly recommended for those who want to learn more about this infamous papal dynasty and their era.
Profile Image for Lois .
1,762 reviews466 followers
October 14, 2021
This is interesting and unnecessarily wordy.
Hibbert more or less focuses on the drama and kinda ignores the impact this particular Pope had on world history.
Rodrigo Borgia as Pope negotiates what becomes the Treaty of Tordesillas. This Treaty divides the Americas & parts of West Africa as 'belonging' to Castile & Portugal.
This leads to the mass genocide of the Indigenous inhabitants of the Americas and the transatlantic slave trade for West Africa.
Gonna have to mention this and it's importance.
Profile Image for Julie .
4,029 reviews58.9k followers
November 10, 2011
Very interesting. I would like to read up on more of this time period. This stuff is super juicy. It was hard to believe some of that actually took place.
Profile Image for Mike.
1,115 reviews152 followers
March 26, 2022
The title is a bit misleading, there is very little indepth coverage of the Borgias until Rodrigo becomes Alexander VI. But there are early indications that the future pope is a very competent person. I didn’t realize Rodrigo was 62 when he rises to the top-always thought he was younger. But he was still on top of his game and, despite his many flaws, a dangerous man:

This is the age where the “New World” is discovered and the European diseases will spread with terrible effects. But the New World sends something back. Maybe not as dangerous but still an affliction to some:

If you have to go, this is probably not a bad way:

Alexander VI brings order to a chaotic Rome but big events bring out the worst in people. The Pope needs money and declaring a “jubilee” in 1500 means many visitors seeking absolution and spending money. Money brings out those who want that money and, if caught, have to expect serious consequences:

There are many Borgia’s who are despicable but Lucrezia, in this book, comes across as a very competent and admirable woman in the age. She is a “prize” to be used by Alexander VI in furtherance of his need for allies in the days’ power struggles. Her marriage (3rd husband) is a scene that must have been incredible:

3 Stars for a decent book, excellent author.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,009 followers
December 2, 2016
I have to confess that my interest in the Borgia family comes from playing the Assassin’s Creed games — I love knowing what has been cleverly included in the games, where things diverge, etc. So I knew both that the Borgias were a pretty colourful family, and that Assassin’s Creed probably emphasised that, and was definitely biased against them (other than in acknowledging Rodrigo Borgia’s cleverness, I can’t think of anything else positive about him or Cesare in the games).

Still, this book made them feel rather dry and lifeless, and not because they were actually any less turbulent and power hungry than the Assassin’s Creed games depict. Instead, it’s Hibbert’s style that kills it: rather than analysis, he presents lists of facts. It’s not even that his prose is boring, because it’s perfectly clear and easy to follow. It’s just that lack of analysis, and even a certain impartiality — I have to confess that when a historian writes a pop-history book about a particular figure or family, I want to feel their bias coming through, their interest in the subject. I know I’m fickle, since I do turn my nose up at some books which do too much guessing about what so-and-so was thinking of feeling, but there it is. I don’t just read for the information: I do also want to be entertained. The Borgias rather failed on that, for me.

Originally posted here.
159 reviews3 followers
January 30, 2010
This book attempts to cover almost 100 years of Renaissance Italian history in 336 pages. Don't expect detail. Still, it does a surprisingly good job. You don't get depth of character. The various atrocities committed primarily by Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and his son Cesare are so numerous and covered so quickly that they lack the shock value they rightly deserve. These shortcomings are a consequence merely of the length of the volume. It is well researched, well presented and, rather notably for a work about this family, emotionally detached. It is not the equal of Sarah Bradford's biography of Lucrezia, Duchesse de Ferrara. It does, however, do what it does quite well.

Oh, and if you have any illusions that a Renaissance Pope was anything other than a strangely chosen European King; this book will disabuse you. One thing that this book does particularly well is convey the image that this Pope's children were treated as Princes and Princesses of a major European power.
Profile Image for Dawn.
1,257 reviews74 followers
April 19, 2015
The author gives a great overview of the Borgia’s rise and fall in this book. It mainly focuses on Pope Alexander VI and his children Caesar and Lucrezia. The early years are skimmed through as a set up for the famous members of the family and the minor players are often only described in relation to the three main characters.
An in depth look at the entire family and era it is not, but it is well worth the read; especially as a start to a more comprehensive look into the family and/or time period.
Profile Image for Aaron.
1,691 reviews45 followers
May 4, 2011
I picked this up after I started watching the new Showtime series The Borgias, which I find myself really enjoying. I was really curious to see how much dramatic liberty with the historical figures and events were being taken. The only thing I really remembered about the Borgias was a comment from my European history teacher in high school who said that one of them was a Pope, who had an affair with his son and his daughter. There are so many things wrong with that statement, not even taking into account the large EWWW factor.

The Borgia's were a Spanish family who found a great deal of influence in Italy largely because of their ties to the church. With that said, very few of them could actually be considered holy. Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia is really the first of the family to have a major influence, though is uncle Alfonso was the first to become Pope as Calixtus III. He proved to be one of those elderly Popes who served only a very brief amount of time before dying so his influence was limited.

Rodrigo, on the other hand, was able to use the papacy to start unifying Italy and to provide his children with a great deal of power, influence, and money. His influence started when he served under a number of Popes as their vice chancellor. That helped maneuver him into an important position where, after a very controversial vote allegedly influenced by a number of bribes, he was chosen to be Pope in 1492. He chose to serve under the name of Alexander VI.

He was not alone among the cardinals to have children, but he was unique in that he recognized all five of them. As a holy man who had taken the collar, he should have lived a celibate life. The result was that his children, who were all born to the same mother (Vonezza), would be considered bastards. With that said, his recognition allowed them to gain a surprising level of importance on the Italian peninsula and in France.

Most folks have heard of his son Cesare, who also served for a time as a cardinal, before leaving the cloth to become quite the military leader. He was so successful, that Machiavelli studied him and his actions in order to produce The Prince, one of the most important works discussing leadership in the form of the monarch. Along the way, Cesare had not trouble killing those who got in his way ... enemies, friends, and family were all equal targets if it served his purpose.

His sister, Lucrezia, can probably be considered to be the best of the bunch. While rumors swirled around her when she was younger in regard to her relationships, such as the one mentioned by my teacher, she did eventually settled down as the Duchess of of Ferrara. She was well-loved by her people (and her husband) and strongly supported the arts.

The other three siblings (all brothers) are also explored. While they played important roles in the family's rise to power through marriage and battle, individually they contributed little. Juan, who was quite the warlord and don juan, ended up back in Spain, where his descendants continued to have influence for generations. Jofe married into one of the most important families in Italy (the Sforzas), creating an important tie, but accomplished little else besides providing his family a claim on that land before dying young.

All-in-all, I thought this was a pretty strong presentation of the people and events surrounding the Borgias. Hibbert clearly makes an attempt to provide an impartial presentation of what is considered to be the world's first crime family. It is hard not to be judgmental since they were often on the bad side of ethics with their decisions relating to power, sex, and violence.

At times, it can be difficult to follow the who's who of Italian politics. There are a large number of influential families involved, particularly in light of the fact that the yet-to-be-unified nation was made up of a number of smaller statelets, each with its own king, duke, or other form of leader. Having a master list of major players would have proven extremely helpful. The same could have been said of the benefits of including a family tree for the Borgias as well as similar genealogies of some of the other families playing a major role in the history of events included in the book. Their exclusion does not prevent the book from being interesting or being understandable, but they would have been helpful and eased access to the information.
Profile Image for Louise.
1,649 reviews290 followers
April 27, 2013
For the general reader, Italian history is difficult. British history, like American history, is about one country tied by one language. While these histories have religious and political strife they are very unlike the situation where city states and a religious superstructure vie for power. The many narratives and subnarratives, inclusive of the monumental art created at this time, make it hard for the general reader. A focused work like this is most appreciated.

I particularly liked that Hibbert brings us to Rodrigo Borgia within 10 pages. (I put down The Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi because she was not yet born after the first 70 pages.) Another quality I liked was that the quotes from primary sources are translated using modern English.

The content is striking. It's hard not to marvel at how bad the Borgias were and how much they got away with. The Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, is 2 popes away from the Medici heir whose reign will have to deal with Martin Luther and his theses. It is clear that the Protestant movement was not the result of (only) Leo X, but found its roots in the extreme corruption, violence and perversion of faith in the Borgia period.

Another thing that is striking is the serenity and virtue ascribed to Lucretia, who seems to be unaware of the murderous qualities of her family, particularly Cesare. How can this child, most likely a product of incest by father and brother, twice a widow (once perhaps at the hand of her brother) and married off against her will and later a mother who burried children be the accepting, spirited and gracious person history records? Perhaps a forensic psychologist will someday read the records and explain Lucretia's true essence. She "takes to her bed" many times in stress, perhaps this is a clue.

The common people were vulnerable to terrorism from within and without. I exect most of the victims, who lost if not their life - their lives, in the wars and plots knew little of why their towns were being attacked. Whole towns, of presumably Christian people, were killed, maimed, raped and/or looted by the army of the Pope.

I highly recommend this book for the general reader. The material is interesting and well presented.
Profile Image for Mike.
229 reviews14 followers
January 26, 2012
As with any well-written and diligently researched history book, one of the first things the reader notices about Christopher Hibbert's 'The Borgias' is the amount of subtle myth-busting that is done. In the course of this work, Hibbert manages to guide us through the lesser known points of early Renaissance Europe whilst simultaneously chipping away at rumour and gossip. Lucrezia Borgia was, so popular history would have us believe, some fully-fledged harlot (she was actually renowned in her own time even by her enemies as being a skilled politician and a graceful and caring woman). HBO, amongst others, would have it that her father, Rodrigo, was a power-crazed maniac who brought the Church to its knees (he had, in fact, inherited a weak and divided organisation prone to running off to set up court at Avignon, and left it firmly in Rome). An obvious assumption is that the Borgia family is so fascinating because of its historical importance (with the death of Lucrezia - ie. within two generations of prevalence - the bloodline was as good as lost).

All this Hibbert tells us as Europe's awakening washes over his reader, and by the end, though glad to have seen the end of Rodrigo's eldest son Cesare, it is easy to pity the fallen Borgias.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
405 reviews21 followers
September 21, 2015
They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover - I didn't do that, and I'm happy for it! (but more on that a bit later)

This is a good book on pope Alexander VI and his children (mostly Cesare and Lucrezia) - a Renaissance pope who acted much a secular leader would have done at the time. The Borgia name has gone done in history as something quite extraordinary evil and violent, and while they can't really be called nice people (at all - though most of them had their brighter moments too), they were not THAT different from other contemporary families in that place and time. Money, sex, and murder were quite common ingredients in Renaissance Italy. The book draws much on contemporary accounts and sources - but tries to avoid believing in every rumour going around (which is most likely a wise decision - you wouldn't do that now with famous people and gossip, why do that about historical figures?).

But the cover... I bought the Swedish edition (it was what I happened to come across - though I generally prefer reading English books in English) and I would like to point out there is nothing wrong whatsoever with the Swedish translation. The Swedish cover on the other hand... Firstly, they have gone with this picture - that looks like the cover of a trashy historical novel! Secondly they have rewritten the title (!) to "Borgia - Berättelsen om en ondskefull familj" which would translate as "Borgia - The story of an evil family"! That's wrong on so many levels! And thirdly the text on the back of the book is obviously written by someone who has seen the TV-series (and is referencing to it in the actual text), but missed a few details about what is actually written in the book - like claiming that the poor Lucretzia Borgia got help from her brother Cesare to murder her husband (and I know there are theories that says so, and Cesare was most likely involved in the murder, but the book puts no blame at all on Lucretiza but instead stresses the point of how loving she was of a man who both her father and brother wanted her to get rid off)! And then in the next paragraph it says how the author removes many of the myths surrounding the family. That he does. The package here doesn't help his cause.

(Excuse all the exclamation marks)
Profile Image for Mayar El Mahdy.
1,568 reviews1 follower
November 26, 2020
I've been trying -and failing- to find an entertaining history book to read. I like history but I want a good narrative.

Hibbert has an amazing voice that really makes you enjoy the story, even though it isn't as scandalous or salacious as it is normally depicted.

Can't wait to read more by him.
Profile Image for Marta.
997 reviews101 followers
March 17, 2019
The time of the Borgias is one of history’s most excessive, scandalous and colorful epiodes. Alexander VI was a greedy, ruthless, lecherous, murderous pope, whose ambition for his beloved chidren, Cesare and Lucrezia, knew no bounds. Murder, poison, excessive pomp, debauchery, orgies, bribery, selling of bishoprics and everything else, mark his reign. Personalities larger than life rule, unrestrained, immortalized by Machiavelli, served by the greatest artists of the reneissance - Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Tintoretto, Fra Angelico paint the background of their lives.

Yet Hibbert somehow manages to make this extraordinary period into a series of events only. The personalities do not really emerge, nor does a real story, other than what happened after what. While the era is exciting, Hibbert’s writing is only mediocre.

I have picked this up because it was available on audio on Overdrive. It was just okay.
Profile Image for Kara.
Author 23 books73 followers
December 9, 2015

Well researched, clearly written, well presented, sources cited, and a subject simply that oozes with scandal. In short, the perfect history book.

Hibbert starts a few generations before Rodrigo Borgia came to power, to establish just how bad Rome was in the 14th century. It was bad. Like, post-apocalyptic bad. When people talk about how great the Renaissance was, a lot of us forget part of the reason it was so great was because it was in direct contrast to the poverty-ruin-plagues-wars of the proceeding centuries. But Hibbert lays it out, and then shows how a lot of the popes in the 15th century, as corrupt and lavish as they all tended to be, were also all actively working to rebuild the city of Rome back to something of a shadow if its former glory.

We follow Rodrigo Borgia as he uncle, also pope, gives him a push up the ecclesiastical ladder at the start of his career after he greased some palms to rush through the “required” religious education.

Rodrigo Borgia seems to have been a work hard / play hard kind of guy as he had a great ecclesiastical career, made tons of money, had a string of intense relationships, and still found time to be an involved parent, micro-managing his children’s marriages and careers.

These are all awful people, considering how high the body count gets, but SUCH fascinating reading!
Profile Image for Grace.
324 reviews
February 28, 2021
The Borgias is an in-depth book about the infamous Italian family. Beginning with the rise of Rodrigo Borgia (later Pope Alexander VI) who brought the family name of Borgia its prominence in Italy. He fathered many children, most notably Cesare and Lucrezia who are written about extensively.

The Borgias is an interesting book which taught me much about this period of time in Italy. I felt at times the historical narrative was over-dramatised, but on the whole a great read.
Profile Image for Susan Liston.
1,312 reviews36 followers
March 30, 2022
This is short and easy to read, and it's interesting to do so while watching the Showtime TV series. I did bog down a bit here and there but I blame my lack of knowledge of the intricacies of the history of Italy. I have to read more than one book more than one time to get it all to sink and stay straight. For a starter book, it's fine. (there is, as one reviewer pointed out, a LOT about how many mules it took to carry this and that here and there. I don't imagine I'll try to commit any of that to memory.)
Profile Image for Elizabeth Sulzby.
579 reviews135 followers
August 19, 2013
I hadn't thought this book would add much to my knowledge but it's actually quite good. His accounting of the history leading up to the Borgia papacy is detailed without being boring. Within the accounts during the papacy he uses a number of original sources, including the notes of his "Master of Ceremony" Johannes Burchard. Some other original sources are near-contemporaneous. In his end notes he separates original and secondary sources as well as some other related newer sources. Hibbert is a celebrated historian but he has written many books to a general well-read audience. Reading this book has helped me trust writers such as Sarah Bradford with more reason.

One section bothered me. It is the Jubilee Year (which was created in the middle ages, not a tradition from the early church) and the Pope has ordered the opening of the gate through Jesus entered Jerusalem and not even the workmen who open it are allowed to go through it. The pope is first, along with his closest people for this occasion. Then there are tales of pilgrims also seeing the manger in which Jesus was born, etc. Hibbert doesn't insert "reputedly" or "allegedly" although I am sure he, as a historian, doesn't believe these are the actual historical entities. However, he writes as if he is a christian so perhaps he does. It's odd.

Hibbert gives the full story of Lucrezia in terms of the rumors about incest, etc., but gives much more space to the real history of what she did in life. That includes being governor of Spoleto, running the Vatican in her father's absence, and becoming an administrator in Ferrara in her husband's absence and also in her own rights. Her love of dance, painting, and poetry from her youth transform in her time in Ferrara as bringing the arts to court there. He details all her children, including miscarriages although he does not dwell much on her life as a mother. (Hibbert does accept the story that her first child was a son by Pedro Calderon.) He also documents her piety, her support of the nuns, and her stays in those nunneries.

Hibbert deals with Cesere's last years in more detail than any other writer that I have run into yet, even Sarah Bradford. Most writers make it seem as if Cesare immediately lost all his holdings and influence. He also deals with the onset of the French pox, syphillis, in more detail than others I have read, including documents about his personal physician experimenting with different treatments. He also dealt with the phases of the disease better than any other writer that I have followed.

During the end of Cesare's life, Hibbert describes Julius II (Guiliano della Rovere) has a fighting pope. I had not known about this part of his reign. I knew he was as manipulative a pope as Alexander VI but did not know he led armies, set up the Swiss Guards, and saw himself as a mounted fighting pope, sword in hand. Folks who've been disturbed by Showtown's abrupt ending of the show The Borgias could learn much from this book.
Profile Image for Angie.
325 reviews10 followers
April 22, 2012
Hibbert's familial biography of the Borgias was surprisingly interesting; but I've realized, thinking back to past books of history I've relished, that I love the breezy style with which British authors often approach such large subjects: you are swept away by the force of the writing; and, if you are like me, are willing to let go the notion you would remember the name of every personage mentioned, let alone know who they were. I was captivated by page fifteen, if I recall.

What Hibbert subtly manages to bring into focus is the pageantry of the times, and how it clashed with the ugly actions (see below) of Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia, in particular. Hibbert refuses to let the reader believe that anything written during Lucrezia's youth was indeed true of her. Again, he does this with delicacy, pointing to the difference in propaganda and sensationalism (yes, they existed in the 15th century) and the actual record.

In fact, the book's main "characters," so to speak, are the Borgia pere and fils, Cesare and Juan, those men who wielded power and misused it. We are left with no doubt as to how they achieved their status and rank (in the sons' case, by the mandates or bullying of the father.) Much of what they did is reprehensible and vile.

My only connection to this time period is reading about the authors of the period, in light connection to studies of 16th century English and French literature. That was a long time ago, but I did summon it up, as I did about 5 months ago when, stuck home with a stomach bug, I watched the first season of a European television series entitled simply "Borgia." The first season covers the first year or two of Rodrigo Borgia (the father of Cesare and Lucrezia)'s accession to the papacy. (He became pope Alexander VI, known for dividing the Western world between Portugal and Spain, and for continuing to allow the selling of indulgences, cardinalships, etc., that led to the Reformation.) I don't recommend the television show to anyone put off by violence, nudity, lewd sexual conduct or references and scenes of homicide, incest, torture, and rape. But the creators sum up the spirit of the times quite well.

One truth that the television show does convey, that Hibbert only has time to hint, is that the Borgias simply were perhaps more openly ruthless than their ruthless contemporaries, not more so, and never sui generis. Hibbert has quotes some contemporaries who mention the fearlessness with which they acted, and their willingness to barter and bribe at will, for what they desired.

I'm sure, friends, that you will see me occasionally read books about this period; and for any history, you bet that I will know be looking for the shorter books by English authors who write as if they have been doing it since they were old enough to pick up a pen.

Profile Image for Rob Atkinson.
218 reviews14 followers
May 4, 2013
A rather straightforward and unsensational history of one of history's most scandalous families, this work provides a good if basic overview of the careers of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and his children, particularly Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. The infamous reputations of the former two are largely confirmed, with devious deal-making, murder, theft, simony and licentiousness aplenty. Nevertheless, the Borgia Pope did prove a wily navigator of the tricky terrain of Italian politics, successfully maintaining the Church's lands and power amidst the dangerous military tug of war between France/Milan and Spanish-ruled Naples. And after his son Cesare left his nepotistic position of Cardinal, he proved to be something of a military genius, bringing the family's enemies to heel and briefly establishing one of Italy's greatest domains in the Duchy of the Romagna, of which he was made Duke. The chief surprise here is Hibbert's account of Lucrezia, who comes across much more sympathetically than I might have expected, based on her reputation. There is no hint of her being complicit in any poisonings, and her worst crime -- putting aside the unsubstantiated rumors of incest with her brothers, and even her father the Pope(!) -- seems to have been her sexual affairs and a resulting child out of wedlock, evidently fathered by one of the Pope's grooms. Otherwise, she seems very much the model Renaissance woman, intelligent, well-educated and capable, both gracious and graceful, and quite beautiful besides. Such were her talents that she would govern in the stead of her father the Pope when he was absent from Rome, and would later do likewise for her last husband, the Duke of Ferrara. This portrayal is a bit hard to reconcile with the 'Lucrezia Borgia' of legend, and I wonder if Donizetti's opera (with which I'm admittedly unfamiliar) did for her reputation what Shakespeare's "Richard III" did, creating a legendary monster of its subject, perhaps unfairly.

I picked this up after watching the first two seasons of Showtime's "The Borgias", curious to see how many of the teleplay's extraordinary events had a basis in fact. The answer is: apparently, not a great deal. The show plays very fast and loose with the chronology, invents many episodes altogether, substitutes one historical character for another or subsumes several into one, and while its portrayal of the principals is generally true to their character, it appears the scriptwriters feel free to invent much. It's a wildly entertaining soap opera set in a fascinating place and time, but don't mistake it for history. To a lesser degree, "The Tudors" was guilty of taking the same license.

For those interested in the true story, this is a good place to start.
Profile Image for Iset.
665 reviews474 followers
February 5, 2012
I noticed that there were a lot of mixed reviews for this book when I came to review it, some people saying that the book is an interesting, good introduction to the Borgias, others complaining that the book is boring and focuses on trivial detail whilst refraining from passing judgement on its eponymous subject. I think both camps are right about this one, and that has caused me to consider this book’s intended readership.

The book is a largely descriptive narrative of the rise and fall of the Borgias, drawing upon a selection of primary and secondary sources to present events in a fairly standard, chronological layout. The book does not delve into a critical examination of the sources themselves, or provide any analysis about the debates and controversies surrounding the Borgias. That said, I felt the writing style flowed and it was altogether an easy read.

In conclusion, I think potential readers need to consider whether this book is for them before picking it up. If you know little to nothing about the Borgias and want to expand your knowledge, fill in your gaps, and do so with a nice, straightforward read, this is indeed a good book for what you’ve got in mind. However, if your knowledge of the Borgias is a bit more extensive, and/or you’re more of a serious scholar or enquiring historian, this book won’t fit the bill because it won’t provide the in depth quality and analysis you’re looking for. So, my recommendation, consider what you want to use the book for before picking it up. It is a fairly good introduction to the Borgias, but that’s all it is.

6 out of 10. Not to say that this book is at all bad, but it has a limited scope and it seems to have been intended to be an introduction only to the topic.
Profile Image for Lyn (Readinghearts).
324 reviews15 followers
February 8, 2011
The Borgia family has always held an allure for me since I lived on a street named after them when I was a child. In addition, I was raised a Catholic, so the Popes are intriguing to me, especially those during the period where the church was more of a political entity. When I heard that Showtime was doing a show about this family this spring, I decided now was the time to do some background reading and get the real story about the family.

I had never read any books by Christopher Hibbert, but had heard from people in my history groups that he was a good read. I have to agree. Although this book is non-fiction, Hibbert has a very pleasing writing style. Couple that with the subject matter of the book, and you have a book that was not at all dry. These people make the modern day Organized Crime families and groups look like amateurs. Hibbert's book is filled with excellent descriptions and engrossing narratives interspersed with numerous quotes from written sources, many of which were alive at the time and knew the Borgias.

I found this book an excellent starting place for my delve into the lives and times of the Borgia family. Although Hibbert's coverage of Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare is extensive, his discussions about Lucrezia were few and far between, and he barely mentioned Jofre at all. I will look forward to doing more research to find out about them. All in all, though, this was an excellent read.
Profile Image for Jules.
128 reviews8 followers
June 23, 2011
The Borgias were seriously badass. The Pope is a fairly fat corrupt conniving dude who at least cares for his family very much and at least fixes the city up a bit (fittingly played by Jeremy Irons in the series), but his son Cesare is pretty much a mass-murdering fuckhead (unfittingly portrayed as a good and hot guy in the show - he's supposed to be covered in herpes rash), his daughter is cute and cunning in both versions. The real star is 'master of ceremonies' Johannes Burchard who is forced to meticulously describe all proceedings, from coronations to orgies. What a job!

My favorite part is where pope Borgia decides his illegitimate daughter Lucrezia's marriage isn't strategic enough, so he divorces the couple on grounds of impotence (the husband admits to this after some 'convincing'), that the marriage was never consummated (oh it was), and that the official papal exam had found Lucrezia was still a virgin (she was, at the time, 6 months pregnant with the child of her secret lover). And that's tame compared to the crazy shit. Now to start on the Borgias TV series with Jeremy Irons!
Profile Image for Alicia.
41 reviews2 followers
October 5, 2009
It's always fun to find a diamond in the clearance books section, especially hardcovers. If I'd had to pay full price for this book, I probably would not have bought it, but for $5 - sure why not.

This was a quite engrossing history of the rise and fall of the Borgia family - one of Italy's most powerful families during the early years of the Italian Renaissance. I found this book shortly after the series premiere of "Warehouse 13", so my interest in Lucrezia Borgia was already piqued. This book did not disappoint. Alliances, marriages, wars, affairs, celebrations, rumors and gossip - Mr. Hibbert covered them all with detail and a flair for the dramatic.

And then there's the syphilis. Oh God, the syphilis! Cesare had it, a number of the cardinals had it, a number of other rulers had it, the entire French army had it. Armies warred and raped their way across Italy and men of standing took to their beds whichever young women/girls they wanted, even if they had to kidnap them. With all the disease running rampant I am amazed that Western Civilization managed to survive.
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