Forget everything you think you know about the most infamous family of the Italian Renaissance-here in every colorful detail is the real story of the Borgias and their indelible, tumultuous world, written by the gifted author of the acclaimed A World Undone and The Tudors and timed to coincide with the upcoming new season of the celebrated Showtime series, The Borgias.
Meet Rodrigo Borgia-Pope Alexander VI; Cesare Borgia-the reputed model for Machiavelli's The Prince; Lucrezia; and Juan-the members of one of the most notorious families in European history. Epic in scope and set against the beautifully rendered backdrop of Renaissance Italy, The Borgias is a thrilling new depiction of these celebrated personalities and an era unsurpassed in beauty, terror, and intrigue.
G. J. Meyer is a former Woodrow Wilson Fellow with an M.A. in English literature from the University of Minnesota, a onetime journalist, and holder of Harvard University’s Neiman Fellowship in Journalism. He has taught at colleges and universities in Des Moines, St. Louis, and New York. His books include A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, Executive Blues, and The Memphis Murders, winner of an Edgar Award for nonfiction from the Mystery Writers of America. He lives in Goring-on-Thames, England. (source)
I become depressed when I don’t finish a book. I wonder what’s wrong with me. Is it me or is it the book? I don’t like criticizing books, and I want to be fair. The only way I can think of being fair is by explaining what happened as I read this book. At the start I was pleased, happy, viewed the book positively. As I reached the 40 percent mark, I was no longer happy. I wasn’t learning a thing anymore. My head was a blur, and nothing was sticking. I was wasting my time. I decided to quit.
The book begins with the death of Pope Nicholas V in 1455. In eight days, a new pope had to be chosen by ten of the fifteen cardinals. Two years previously, the Ottoman Army under the command of Sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople—the Byzantine Empire and the Byzantine Church fell. That Nicholas V had not the foresight to alert European powers to the danger the Turks posed proved to be his largest failing.
With the fall of the Byzantine Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church separated from each other. Christianity came in this way to be split into three branches, the Roman Catholic Church being the largest. The Ottoman Turks, Muslim by faith, were a grave, imminent threat to them all.
The papacy, those presiding over the central government of the Roman Catholic Church, had first to choose the next pope. That he was to be Roman, or at least Italian, was a given—the papacy, adamant to retain power in Rome, had left Avignon in 1377 where it had been seated for sixty seven years. The cardinals in Rome had to find a compromise candidate that would also satisfy two powerful clans—the Italian Orsini and Colonna families.
The choice was Alonso Borgia. He came to be Pope Callixtus III. In 1455, he was seventy six years old and in declining health. Ironically, these two factors and that he was not seen as a threat to the other cardinals, were strong points in his favor. He was respected, benignly passive and a statesman without political affiliations. Nor was he mired in scandal. He had been born in Valencia, lived currently in Rome and had been the secretary and principal counselor of King Alfonso V (i.e. King of Naples, Aragon, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica). Alonso Borgia was a strong supporter of church unity and believed this could be attained only through a strong pope. The pope’s authority must be supreme.
The book goes on to cover the other Borgias, the influential and less important ones too. After 40 percent I had gotten as far as Rodrigo Borgia, one of Alonso Borgia's three nephews. He became a pope too.
Background information is collected into sections specifically titled as such. Every time you hear the word “background”, you know you will be given information that fills in and clarifies events recently spoken of. These sections are clear. It is in the long portions between the “background” sections that confusion arises—here, a multitude of names and unnecessary details make my head spin.
The author´s mission is to show that the Borgias’ bad reputation is not based on fact. He takes particular rumors and shows why that which is said is probably not true. Unfortunately, neither veracity nor falsity can be conclusively proven.
This book is not just about the Borgias. It is just as much about a long string of popes, other leading powers of the day and about Sultan Mehmed II. It is about the papacy and the schism of Christianity. It is about renaissance Italy in general. The book’s title is misleading.
I am not saying the book is bad. It is just not for me! If I decide not to finish a book, I give it one star.
Enn Reitel reads the audiobook. The tempo and the pacing is good. Most of the words I could easily distinguish. A couple of words gave me trouble. I think in these few cases it was the Italian accent that confused me. You need the Italian accent for the numerous Italian names. The narration I have given three stars.
Nothing satisfies a hunger for intrigue, sexual excess, violence, and outright craziness than a dose of Church history and especially its history during the Renaissance. This book, while certainly sating my hunger, also delivered an unexpected surprise. The surprise? The Borgias were nothing like we were lead to believe by popular history and drama. What this book leads me to believe is that this author deals with his subject in a way never before attempted. He searched for proof of the facts and found it lacking. He also reviewed the sources of previously believed truths and found them clearly incredible. The Borgias' greatest sin seems to have been that they were Spanish and not Italian and they had the audacity to occupy the Vatican. They aggravated this sin by upsetting the accepted regimes of several Italian families that ruled many of the cities of Italy as tyrants akin to Mafia godfathers but not nearly as "civilized". The fact that these cities were the rightful property of the Papacy and these families had no legal claim to them wasn't significant when the claiming party wasn't an Italian but an intelligent Spaniard. The stories of incest, Papal children, mistresses, poisonings, and murders were, for the greater part, the creation of the enemies of the Borgias. Of course chief among these enemies was the man who would eventually succeed Rodrigo Borgia as pope and become Julius II, the pope of Sistine Chapel fame. This book sets the record straight and provides an entertaining review of Italian and Church history during the late 15th and early 16th century and well worth a read.
If you're thinking this biography about the Borgias will be a titillating read, you might as well drop the book and go back to watching the Showtime series. If you want to read a fairly detailed history of this infamous family then this book is for you.
G.J. Meyer frequently states throughout his historical work that there is little to document the misdeeds that have so often been taken for fact about the Borgias. Though this is the opinion of the author he backs this up as much fact as can be proven. The Borgia took me several weeks to read. I think it took a third of the book to get to the time that Rodrigo Borgia becomes Pope Alexander. Though not an easy read for me, I did learn much about the family. The book begins with a traditional genealogy of The Borgias followed by an alternative one. These depictions of the Borgia family tree gives credence to the confusion about the parentage of the ten children accredited to Rodrigo de Borja. This means the key players, Lucrezia, Cesare, Juan and Jofre were not the Pope's children.
The author admits right from the start that this was not the book he set out to write. He felt that if he dug deeply he would be able to flesh out all the tales of murder, incest, poisoning and other horrors that are the legend of the Borgias and tell it in an entertaining way. After much research the story he tells might surprise you and bring new respect to a family plagued by myth.
One question I always had while watching the tv series was where were Ferdinand and Isabella? This was answered. I learned about the importance of The College of Cardinals and how it came to be. I read a great deal about Rome, Naples, Milan, Venice, Spain and France, their kings, statesmen and warlords fighting for land and power. This is a simplistic summary of the depth of knowledge provided here.
Even though a timeline was provided I took lots of notes to keep it all straight. There is an extensive bibliography, and index, notes and some pictures. Pope Alexander was just one interesting figure in the history of the papal states. At this time I think I've had my fill of the Borgias but may go back one day to read a biography of Lucrezia.
This author is the most vainglorious man I've yet run across! He runs across ONE historian, not even contemporary, and runs with whatever cockamamie theory he may support. It was absolutely ridiculous. I was close to suffering palpitations listening to this ludicrous mess of stuff. How could he possibly find his suppositions supportable? I'm stupefied. I returned this purchase.
2017 Lenten nonfiction Buddy Reading Challenge book #35
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, whereas Meyer elides evidence (such as the dates of Vanozza's marriages, and the comment by the King of Naples that he didn't want to give his daughter to the Pope's son who was a cardinal) that didn't fit his argument that her children were not Rodrigo's children. I'm therefore unconvinced by his main thesis.
However, the background chapters in this book are brilliant and absolutely worth reading -- the best accounts of the papal conclaves before 1492 I've ever read, and generally all the background bits are great. So I have very mixed feelings about this book -- if it didn't espouse its lunatic premise to tightly I'd recommend it over most of the other Borgia bios out there.
(I mean the bodies are still there. They could do DNA tests if there were any need. And Meyer doesn't even stick to it on the infans Romanus, he says everyone agreed he was Lucretia's brother... gah.)
Edited to add: I have now found two separate pieces of evidence that directly disprove Meyer's main thesis and most especially his statement that no contemporary accused Alexander of being the father of those children. One is a letter in which the Duke of Urbino's spy, talking about the parentage of Julia's daughter Laura says that she's as much Rodrigo's daughter as Lucrezia is, and the other is Maffei's 1506 encyclopedia saying casually (about Savonarola) that Rodrigo sent "his son Cesare" "post haec Alexander pontifex cupidus filio Caesari" I mean, come on, pull the other one Meyer. This would have been such a good book otherwise.
The most fascinating element of G. J. Meyer’s The Borgias: The Hidden History is not the Borgias themselves and their escapades. People everywhere know of the Borgia name and have heard at least one element of their notorious reputation. What is so fascinating is the fact that Mr. Meyer takes every commonly-held “fact” and belief about the first unofficial Mafia family and completely negates it all. His proof for his unique and solitary opinion is in the significant absence of any direct confirmations or observations from Borgia contemporaries, and he disdains popular sources for not only having an anti-Borgia intent but also because these sources never actually came into direct contact with family members. His argument is a convincing one, especially in this day and age of rapid-fire media in which it is all too easy to distort headlines and fan the spark of gossip. According to Mr. Meyer, one family’s notoriety exists solely because of anecdotes written by warlords known to have hated detested the family and its rise to power or by others so far removed from the family as to have made it impossible for them to witness anything. Yet for years, in the absence of direct witnesses and insider knowledge, the family’s reputation was allowed to tarnish. It makes for compelling evidence, even as it flies in the face of everything that has ever previously been written about this infamous family.
If Mr. Meyer is to be believed, the Borgia family and their reputation fell prey to the adage that history is written by the victors. Thanks to vicious propaganda during their lives and especially after their deaths, the Borgia family has long since been believed to have been one of the most vicious, greedy, power-hunger, and debauched family to ever live. However, The Borgias attempts to undo the damage done by their rivals after the Borgia downfall and does so methodically as well as plausibly. Mr. Meyer not only thoroughly explains the mess that was Renaissance Italy, with its myriad city-states and constantly conspiring warlords, he slowly and deliberately presents the reasons why so many other historians before him were wrong. His arguments are sound enough to not only make sense but to raise significant doubt as to the supposed truth behind Cesare and Lucrezia’s paternity, Rodrigo’s womanizing, the family’s grab for power, as well as every other unsavory rumor/factoid often told about the family.
One small caveat to this detailed and intense novel is that its careful explanations of Renaissance Italy, its politics, its war-like culture, and the major power brokers of the time can make for somewhat tedious reading. Every chapter begins with an explanation of sorts, devoted to one point in time or one element of life in Italy in the late 1400s. It is these explanations, or deviations from Mr. Meyer’s main points, that tend to drag the most. Not strictly necessary for the understanding of his theory, they do help with recognizing some of the Borgia contemporaries and challenges they faced as a family. At the same time, they bog down the narrative to the point where some readers might be so inclined as to succumb to the boredom and set aside the book.
It takes a lot of courage to not only question the status quo but to vehemently argue against it. In The Borgias, Mr. Meyer does just that. He must be commended for not only finding the courage to do so but also because he does it so convincingly. While there is no doubt as to with whom Mr. Meyer’s sympathies lie, he still manages to present his findings in a way that negates any hint of bias. The Borgias is a well-paced, deliberately wrought, and careful challenge to long-held beliefs and assumptions about one of the most powerful families in Italy’s past. Even though there is no definitive method by which to discern the truth about the Borgia family, Mr. Meyer’s scouring and use of all information related to the family makes it difficult to dismiss his arguments. In other words, thanks to Mr. Meyer’s and his The Borgias: The Hidden History, one will never look at this family in the same light again.
I am far from ignorant about Italian political and cultural history, but I confess to accepting the 500 years of assumptions characterizing the Borgias as the epitome of every conceivable evil. (And I admit to thoroughly enjoying the historically inaccurate Showtime series starring Jeremy Irons.) G. J. Meyer turns this popular history on its head by examining the historical evidence with painstaking and mind-boggling research of sources. He provides insight, not only into the individuals themselves, but also the contextual labyrinth of the 15th century and its norms as well as the motivations for fabricating or distorting the reputation of the family. It is not by any means an affirmative apologia for the Borgias but rather a factual exposure of false testimony where it exists and an acknowledgment of interpretations where no definitive answers are possible. I found it absorbing and almost impossible to put down.
I will repeat my one quibble with Meyer's histories: the lack of superscript or subscript in the text indicating a source note. I don't know if this is an editorial decision or that of the author, but I find it really irritating.
Anyone who knows me personally, or at least via my reviews over the past few years, knows that I have an especially large soft spot for the Italian Renaissance. I’ve been drawn to the period ever since I started actively reading about history for pleasure, instead of just as part of the school curriculum, and the interest has remained even when my interest in other parts of history, like, say, ancient Egypt, waxed and waned according to various events in my life and shifts in personal interest.
However, the Italian Renaissance is a broad subject, and it’s nearly impossible to read up on everything about it currently available. I’m also not interested in absolutely everything about it: some parts are mildly interesting, but I’m not about to delve deeply into them. However, a few specific corners do interest me, and one of those corners—perhaps the largest of them—is the history of the (in?)famous Borgia family. In fact, they are my primary point of interest in the Italian Renaissance, and currently most of the reading I do about the period, whether in fiction or nonfiction, is connected to learning all I can about that particular family.
Over the course of history a lot of ink has been spilled about the Borgia family, most of it very unflattering. They have been held up as an example of the decadence of the Roman Catholic Church during the Renaissance, as well as examples of how deep depravity can go when it is supported by great power and great wealth. It is said of the Borgias that they committed every possible crime under the sun, murder and incest being at the very top of the list. They have been accused of scheming to bring all of Italy under their control, not to protect it from external enemies, but to support their bottomless greed for power and money. What the Borgias wanted, the Borgias got—no matter the cost, and no matter the method.
But of all the things ever said and ever written about the Borgias, how much of it is actually true? How much of it can be supported by documentary evidence? Just as importantly, who has been saying and writing all these things about the Borgias that persist even today, and why did they say and write what they did? And why is most of it being swallowed wholesale?
Those are the questions G.J. Meyer seeks to answer in The Borgias: The Hidden History. Touted as a revisionist history of the Borgias, Meyer sifts through most of what is currently known about the Borgias, and asks: how much of this is true? In doing so, he offers a view of Renaissance Italy’s most notorious family that challenges all the currently-held beliefs about them, offering a portrait that strips away hundreds of years of rumour and gossip in the hopes of painting, if not a better picture, then at least a fairer one.
Meyer is not the first person to think that the way the Borgias have been portrayed is not exactly fair. Several writers, both in fiction and nonfiction, have attempted to figure out whether or not the Borgias really deserve the reputation history has given them. Meyer, however, attempts to do nothing less than completely overhaul the Borgia reputation, particularly Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI. In The Borgias: The Hidden History, Meyer chooses to focus mostly on him, following his progress from protege to his uncle Alonso Borgia, who would rise to become Pope Calixtus III, thus giving Rodrigo the step he needed towards an extremely successful career in the Vatican that would culminate with Rodrigo becoming pope.
While following Rodrigo’s progress from his rise to his death, Meyer insists that he was not the greedy, corrupt creature that later history would make him out to be. Instead, Meyer portrays him as a hardworking man, extremely likeable, cheerful of spirit, and generous of heart—enough that he would willingly ignore the slander that was hurled his way: slander that would later form the basis for the undeserved blackening of his character at the hands of his greatest rival, Giuliano della Rovere, later Pope Julius II. If he had one flaw, it was that he was willing to go to great lengths—too great—in order to advance his family’s stature in the world.
What Meyer is saying is nothing less than that, contrary to popular belief, Rodrigo was a good man and a good pope: one who, despite his flaws, was miles better as a man and as head of the Church than some of his other predecessors, and even some of his successors—and that made me raise my eyebrow. While I’m willing to accept that Rodrigo was not as bad as history portrayed him to be, I don’t quite buy into Meyer’s version of him, either. It rather feels like he’s trying to paint a halo around Rodrigo, a saintly aura that I’m not quite sure if Rodrigo actually deserves. I think this is Meyer making assertions based on pure inference, with only a very thin amount of documentation to back it up.
But the greatest revelation that Meyer makes in this book is that Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Joffre, Rodrigo’s four famous children, are not his children at all. He asserts that they are, in fact, the children of his brother, Pedro Luis, and that they were primarily raised in Spain until their father’s death, whereupon their mother (whose identity, Meyer claims, cannot really be confirmed) brought them to Rome, where they could enjoy the protection and patronage of their uncle Rodrigo. Meyer claims that the complicated and extremely tangled Borgia family tree, to say nothing of the confusing nature of Spanish naming conventions and surname usage, has contributed to a complete and utter misunderstanding of the origins of the Borgia children. While Meyer does point to some interesting references that means this could be true, I also rather feel that it’s a part of his attempt to completely whitewash Rodrigo’s reputation: after all, if he wasn’t the father of those four particular Borgia, then he can’t have been Vanozza’s (whoever she was) patron, and therefore can’t have broken the Church’s rule of celibacy for the clergy. As I’ve said, I find this rather hard to swallow.
All of the above is, of course, interesting to me, not least because I also hold the belief that history has given the Borgias a raw deal. I’ve read the accounts by Sabatini, Dumas, and some of the more recent material, as well as novels, and I really do believe that they aren’t as evil as they are sometimes portrayed to be. I’m especially suspicious of the incest accusation: not because I don’t believe it could have happened, particularly between Cesare and Lucrezia, but because accusations of sexual deviancy were so commonplace in the Italian Renaissance that I feel any charge of incest should be taken with a grain of salt.
In that sense, Meyer does manage a rather fine job of it, stripping away the blacker stories that have accrued to the Borgia name over the centuries, as well as insisting that more researchers should try and really look at what the Borgias were actually like instead of just swallowing previous history wholesale. He encourages active questioning of the Borgia myth, pointing out, quite rightfully, that one should not simply accept what has been written about them at face value, not least because so much of what makes up their story was made up almost out of whole cloth by their enemies.
However, I think it’s also clear that Meyer doesn’t precisely practice what he preaches in the above. He’s quite happy to be critical of anything and everything that’s ever been said about the Borgias, but it’s easy to note that he doesn’t quite do the same for other historical figures, especially with women who are not Borgia or involved with the Borgias. For instance, early in the book he talks about the Theophylacti family, using them as an example of how previous occupants of the papal throne could sometimes be more corrupt than the Borgias. As an example of how depraved they were, he holds up a woman named Marozia as an example, citing her as lover to two popes and ancestor of a few more, whom Meyer paints as equally depraved (interesting to note that he states one of those popes was homosexual, implying that homosexuality was part of the depravity). Later on in the book he quite literally throws Caterina Sforza under a bus, again citing her sexual appetite as one of the reasons for her downfall. That the Borgia reputation was blackened primarily because of accusations of sexual deviancy, and that he’s done his best to repudiate those accusations, doesn’t appear to stop Meyer from making similar accusations of women who might not necessarily deserve those accusations—women other biographers and historians have either already cleared of such accusations, or whose reputations have already been reframed in a fairer light based on solid documentary evidence (as has been the case with Caterina Sforza).
I’m also not very happy with Meyer’s decision not to use footnotes. He makes it clear, at the end of the book, that his decision not to use footnotes was to ensure the continuous flow of the narrative, but I think that was already broken when he decided to include “Background” chapters in between the chapters tackling the history of the Borgias directly. The footnotes would, at least, have helped in identifying which source or sources he was referring to when making any kind of assertion, but the lack of footnotes makes it difficult to confirm whether or not what he’s saying is a conclusion he’s come to on his own, or something that he inferred based on a separate document.
All of this makes me skeptical, to say the least. While I’m happy that someone has tried to treat the Borgias fairly, I’m not entirely pleased with the way Meyer’s gone about it. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt: in writing that book Cooney was extremely careful to note when she was making claims based on actual fact, or on mere personal speculation, and had the footnotes to back everything up. While some readers have (rather rightly, I have to say) stated that Cooney’s writing is dry and the narrative flow of her book is not as smooth as might be wished, I would have to say that she, at least, takes this business of academic responsibility seriously. While it might be argued that Meyer’s book is a piece of popular history, not an academic treatise, I would like to argue that despite being popular history Meyer still has a responsibility to his readers to inform them regarding his sources, and whether or not what he’s putting down on paper is based on fact, or on personal speculation--and not direct them to call his publisher to put said readers in contact with him if they have any further questions.
Overall, The Borgias: The Hidden History is a fascinating read, but I’m not entirely sure if it should be classified as nonfiction. Though Meyer makes a fine attempt at cleaning up the Borgia family’s blackened reputation, and pushes for fresh inquiry into their history instead of just accepting what has already been said, he does so in a way that makes me wonder whether he ought to be writing a novel instead of historical nonfiction. He makes a great many claims and assertions that he says are based on documentary evidence, but it’s hard to figure out which documents those are, especially because of the complete absence of footnotes and a rather thin bibliography. It also doesn’t help that Meyer isn’t afraid to blacken the reputations of other people who are not Borgia or friendly to the Borgias, nor is he afraid to throw women under a bus if it suits his purposes. All of this makes it very difficult to wholeheartedly accept all of Meyer’s claims, and makes me think that the Borgias deserve a far more reputable advocate.
It's a good thing that this book was on my tablet, because I wanted it dead. I would listen to it and mutter..."I can not wait to tell people how much I hate you..."
I gave it two stars instead of the one it got in my head because there is some good historical information. And my hate/rage for this book shouldn't dissuade you from reading it if that's what you want to do. I wouldn't do it again, but I'm not you, I don't know your life.
Meyer's big WIN in this book is that he asserts that Lucrezia and Cesare weren't pope Alex VI's biological kids. To which I say, "who cares."
Nepotism and utilizing papal resources to fund a relative is generally frowned upon no matter the relationship between the parties. Yes, does it make it OMIGOD-salacious if the pope had tons of kids. Yeah, it's good gossip fodder, but if they weren't his kids, he certainly wasn't above treating them like they were. In his quest to show all the hidden evidence, Meyer berates previous scholars for ... well, essentially not being as smart as he is. Later he cites these same sources when they support them. So if you agree with Meyer, you are brilliant, if you don't, you are a toad-sucking moron. And the good news--you get to be both.
At one point, he cites a book that he found in the British library that is worn and crumbly. Obviously, it's been untouched--um...what?
However there was one moment that I decided that had this book been in paper form I would have stomped on it with hate and rage. Catherine Sforza, Countess of Forli, was captured by Cesare Borgia after a long siege. Most people agree that he kept her prisoner and probably raped her repeatedly. According to Meyer though, it's just as likely she took him as a lover. His evidence--Catherine Sforza had had as many lovers as husbands.
Yep. According to Meyer, the fact that Catherine chose to enter into relationships after her first and second husbands' deaths (usually marrying the lover later) is evidence that she would probably willing sleep with the guy who had just laid siege to her property, traded with the French army to take her prisoner, lied to her, and stole her land. I know I would--except I wouldn't. To cite her prior lovers ("she had as many lovers as husbands"--she had three husbands) that she chose WILLINGLY as even a side note to why maybe Cesare didn't rape her while she was imprisoned for two years and accused of trying to poison the Pope is insulting.
Meyers is exceptionally proud that Pope Alexander VI might not be the jerk that history makes him out to be. I agree. Most of the stories of the Borgia's strain credulity to the breaking point. I think it's perfectly reasonable to think Pope Alex wasn't a horrible guy. But this book spends more time on Meyer congratulating himself for figuring out how nice a guy Pope Alex was, then actually convincing me that Pope Alex was a nice guy. And the defense that Pope Alex's later crimes were actually because he was under the influence of Cesare Borgia doesn't actually make him that nice a guy.
I told a history professor friend of mine that I was reading a book on the Borgias and she rightfully asserted there is no good book on the Borgias. Rumor and history and scandal have made that family more mythical than factual. They exist more in our heads than they ever existed in reality.
It's fair to say that the Borgias were not the poisoners, incest-loving whank jobs that their enemies claimed. I didn't need to read this book to figure it out.
And there lies the final criticism--in the end, I simply didn't need to read this book.
Not a fast read, to be sure. And not riveting, either. This book provides, not only a chronological history of the Borgias, but alternates with chapters providing historical background and other contextual information. But being more focused on the general chronology of the Borgias, with little in the way of discussion of what documentation is available for many of his conclusions, is what made this book a bit of a job to finish.
A distinct lack of any footnotes reduced the visual clutter, and the author addresses that issue near the end of the book (and offers to provide the details upon a reader contacting the publisher), but there are definitely points where the reader might like to know more about the information provided or the conclusions drawn. The author refers to some of the sources throughout the book, some curiously interesting and seemingly unplumbed. As well, there is a section at the end "Examining Old Assumptions" which discusses some of the sources and their conclusions, but he does not address, for example, WHY Jacob Burckhardt's memoirs are suspect. Therefore, one thing that would have been very helpful is to have had a chapter focused on the primary and secondary sources and their actual degree of significance.
Over all, the tone is relatively circumspect and seems to strive to avoid too much in the way of projection and supposition, however, when lapses occur (as in chapter 10 about Pope Sixtus IV) the contrast in tone is jarring, with phrases and descriptions bandied about without documentation or those needed footnotes. It would seem that Sixtus was not treated with the same degree of circumspection and speculation, as to motive, that Alexander received.
The overall tone, does suggest that some Borgia instances/events could well have been played down by the author at times. Some of his points are valid though, and would have been strengthened with more in-depth discussion.
What inclines me to the author's perspective is what is missing in contemporary documentation during Alexander's reign as pope: the type of gossip that would have existed if he had been raising a myriad of illegitimate offspring and the use of that type of ammunition by Savornella, or by others during attempts to depose Alexander. Like other historical figures who have been maligned after their deaths for reasons both personal and political, it is highly likely that the Borgias, particularly Alexander w.r.t. his family, were just as prone to hubris, bad judgement, greed and nepotism as many famed historical figures whose reputations are far more malignant than their actual lives were.
That being said, this book indicates that more scholarship into the existing contemporary documentation would be warranted, and might provide a bit more confirmation to the claims made or instances downplayed in this book.
Before going into the book, I was well aware of the stories about the Borgia family. I've been interested in their history for years and have always been an ardent Lucrezia defender, having decided early on that the stories of her being a murderer, a poisoner, the most dangerous woman in Italy were utterly false. However, I've never doubted any of the stories about the rest of her family; after all, they've been repeated, over and over ad nauseum, for centuries, ever since Pope Alexander VI took the papal throne. So any book that claims to shed new light on an old story is of immediate interest to me. And, boy, was I blown away by this book! I will never be able to watch the Showtime original series The Borgias or read any other book (fiction or not) which features the Borgias the same way again.
In alternating chapters, Meyer tells the story of the Borgia family from their beginnings, when the very first Borja came out of Spain and made it good in Italy, interspersed with the history of the times, the places, and the people involved with this ever-changing pageantry. Yes, that's right, the Borgias or, as they're more properly known, the Borja-Lanzol family, were Spaniards, going part of the way to explain the wealth of stories about them. After all, foreigners, any foreigners, in Rome were treated as suspect. Therefore anything said about the Borgias, whether it concerned adultery, incest, fratricide, espionage, murder, or anything in between, was easily believed and easily exaggerated. However, as Meyer very rationally and thoroughly points out, most if not all of these tales are not only false, there's no way they could've ever been true. When all the misconceptions are cleared up, what we get is a new, fresh take on the history of the Borgias, one which illuminates their (yes) faults, but also their virtues, of which they did have a few. The end result is quite refreshing.
Meyer is not the first apologist (a word, Meyer points out, that doesn't mean that one is apologizing for someone's actions but is instead defending a position) to try and clear up the Borgia history. The first book to do so was written by the Italian Andrea Leonetti in an 1880 work entitled Papa Alessandro VI, in which Leonetti brought up the question of whether the opinion the world had held of Alexander for nearly four hundred years might, in fact, be wrong. Sadly, though the book drew some praise, it was never translated from the Italian and sank into oblivion. The next to try was Peter De Roo. In 1924 he published his massive Materials for A History of Pope Alexander VI, His Relatives and His Times, five volumes of documents found in archives across Europe, from Spain to Vienna, as well as in a number of Italian depositories, gathered over 30 years. Exhaustive in its scope, De Roo's work lays out conclusions which are completely at odds with nearly every aspect of the Borgia myth. Though some historians have referenced De Roo, those references are often rare, brief, and oblique, with De Roo's work often only noted, never commented upon. Sadly, De Roo never got to use his Materials to write a definitive biography of Alexander as he died less than two years after Materials was published. Then came Orestes Ferrara's The Borgia Pope in 1942, published first in Italian and then in English. As with its predecessors, it's been largely ignored and certainly had no impact on the immutable Borgia myth.
Despite the wealth of evidence proving the opposite of nearly every story told about the Borgias, why, then, do people keep repeating the same old tales? Simply put, the world likes their Borgias to be nasty, despicable, and rotten to the core, able to keep company with Caligula, Nero, Erzebet Bathory, Hitler, and others in the Cabal of Evil. No one wants to hear the truth when the lies are so much more entertaining and exciting.
Written in a scholarly yet still approachable voice, The Borgias: The Hidden History explodes the myth of the Borgias and should set the world on fire. Whether it will or not, whether it will be embraced and hailed or rejected and ridiculed, remains to be seen. For those who are unfamiliar with the Borgia family, or have gotten all they know from the TV show, this is the book of all books to read in order to clear up any misconceptions. Actually, it doesn't matter how familiar you are with the Borgia family, this is still the book of all books to read, if you're willing to look at an old story with new eyes.
Hmm...it turns out many of the book's readers are like me in which a) we can speed read a history book (e.g. normally read 200 pages in a short period of time and still manage to recall key facts) and b) thought this book was going to be about the Borgia family. Meyer fooled us all with his sections on about various psychopathic tendencies in other prominent Italian families, deteriorating political relations between Rome and Constantinople, and his need to track down every potential source and bring it up in his narrative (albeit without putting in footnotes or in text citations so the reader can see his source). Never have a read a book that made the one of the most interesting and most controversial families in the Renaissance period sound like mere bit players. For example, it took the author nearly 200 pages in before he reveals that Rodrigo (Pope Alexander XI) was likely not the father of Cesare, Juan, Lucretia and Jofre. What??? Meyer explains that Rodrigo could not have been in two places at the same time, namely he was in Spain during the years in which the children were conceived and born in Italy. He then glosses over this revelation and continues his dry narrative of subsequent events and actions taken by Alexander and Cesare. One gets the impression that if your book is going to be about the Borgias, this family secret should be revealed in the first chapter or so and if true, help to explain how familial ties were strengthen regardless of actual blood lines.
If anything, this book is not going to appeal to fans of the TV series. Meyer has a very dry approach to storytelling and as previously mentioned, a way of making his main characters seem like the understudies in their own drama. I am sure this book will appeal to someone who will appreciate his narrative style a bit more than me, but for now, I think I may enjoy reading a university textbook on Renaissance Italy a lot more.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
This book has a completely different take on the Borgia family. Instead of agreeing with the accepted facts of this well known family, the author has dug a little deeper and come up with some believable theories. While even he admits that there will never be any way to prove his version or the universally believed version with definitiveness, he lays out his arguments in a very illuminating fashion. While it has never been a surprise that many of the stories about the Borgia family were circulated by their enemies and had no basis in truth, even the ones we have supposed to be true could possibly also be rumours. The author proposes that Cesare and Lucrezia were not his own children but his nephew and niece only. He makes convincing arguments against Lucrezia’s immoral and evil reputation and also submits that the Pope himself was not the depraved and sexual deviant that he was been portrayed as. I found this a convincing story of the Borgia family, while still full of power hungry individuals and suspicious actions, it tries to weed out the impossible and stick to the reasonable at the same time as detailing the history and practices of the era to bring many of the supposed terrible actions of the family into a different light.
This first 2/3rds of this book are actually more of a political history of the Papacy within a selected time frame rather than a biography of the House of Borgia.
G.J. Meyer is intent on showing that most of the lurid tales of the Borgia’s are not actually proven, but are stories created by their enemies and repeated over time. Meyer does not always succeed in debunking these stories with empirical evidence and often resorts to arguments based on circumstantial probabilities and then stating that certain accusations were “not likely.”
Meyer does succeed in proving that Rodrigo Borgia/Pope Alexander the VI’s “children” were not his own because he was not in Spain at the right times to conceive them. Instead, they were members of his family, probably nieces and nephews.
Another part of Meyer’s defense is that much of the nepotism of the Borgia’s was normal for Popes at the time. Several Popes made their nephews Cardinals and used the papacy to enrich family members.
This was not considered inappropriate or “corrupt.” Meyer also notes that Land Estates and Holy Offices came with revenue, and it was expected that the office holder would use of a portion of it for their own ends. This was not a designated amount or salary, but whatever the office holder wished.
The last 3rd of the book mainly focuses on Cesare. Even Meyer had to admit that Alexander VI systematically overindulged him and by the standards of the time.
This book is definitely an argument for judging historical figures in the context of their own times rather than ours.
To delve into history is to be thrown into the obscurity of Time.
It is evident in G.J. Meyer′s meticulous reconstruction of the decrepit House of Borgia how different it would stand from the contemporary viewpoint as seen through an unbiased logical abstraction teeming with circumstantial evidence from the events that shaped their lives versus the infamous House it came to regard in history filled with suspicions of many crimes, including adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning). This is not to say that Meyer′s own retelling is based only on hearsays as the deviousness of the Borgia story is known as a historical fact, but his version appears as a reinterpretation of the given truth by re-examining the several materials that somehow reached this certainty without much conclusive evidence to boot.
The De Borjias were plucked out from obscurity in Spain with the election of Alonso to the papacy in Italy, better known in history as Pope Callixto III, whose election to the highest ecclesiastical seat of the Roman Catholic Church can be attributed to his somewhat near death age considered by the dominant warring families in Rome as harmless to their interests. His short lived reign as pope sent an influx of De Borgias in Italy in search of their own slice of good fortune thereby changing their last name to its Italian counterpart of Borgia.
The unexpected preeminence of the Borgias in the ecclesiastical and political affairs in Rome as Spanish immigrants was regarded by the powerful Italian families with abhorrence, culminating even further during the reign of Rodrigo as Pope Alexander VI with his valiant conquering nephew, Cesare by his side and his political pawn of a niece, Lucrezia in a shroud of dark secrecy.
According to Meyer, the ruthlessness and treachery that go along with the name of Borgia maybe be attributed to the scandalmongers of the Italian Renaissance, whose malicious intention was to spread lies in utter contempt with purposely exaggerating the truth, which in the absence of materials to dispute had served their sole purpose of demeaning the legacy of the Borgias in history.
The whole text of the book is written in complete defiance of this notion of deviousness, which has become infallible without question in history as Meyer writes his dissertation with a logical perspective in an attempt to illuminate the truth by dissecting several historical manuscripts to elucidate what is written in accordance to its conduciveness from the actual events in the past as it basically appears as a disclosure in bringing about its discrepancies in a form of psychological evaluation of all the figures involved. This prudent undertaking of the writer is diluted with the oftentimes confusing array of information intertwined with the vivid description in its compressed form, the unstable state of Italian politics during the time of the Renaissance, which somehow swallowed up the personal histories of the Borgias as they are lost into the sea of other information surrounding them.
Unlike Meyer′s momentous book on The Tudors, the first half of which is the story of Henry VIII of England told in its most revealing and riveting form, his attempt to rectify the history of The Borgias in turn does not reach the same level of enthrallment as it appears more like the hurried narrative of the second part of the book as events and the people within Elizabeth′s circle of influence become more immense than her, overshadowing the countenance of her great figure. Similarly, this same predicament occurred in his narrative as Meyer incorporates his in depth revision of the Borgia history in an attempt to elucidate the fabrication involved in staining their reputation into the confusing array of circumstances that summarize the unstableness of the Italian city states, which are constantly at war as it appears as an intricate backdrop to the shadowy world of the Borgias, shading their infamous figures in the eventual mist of history. ☾☯
Despite a deep love for history, somehow I've managed to make it into my 40s without exploring the infamous Borgia clan. Perhaps the notorious debaucheries of the Caesars slaked my appetite for lurid tales of royal excess, but I had never had that much interest in the family that, according to legend, took the papacy into the uttermost depths of depravity during the Renaissance.
G.J. Meyer's take on the Borgias promised to be a fresh, sober analysis of the family and its actual conduct rather than a rehash of the popular Borgia myths, so it seemed like a great opportunity to see just who the Borgias were and why the name "Borgia" has become the embodiment of royalty running amok. Meyer, through solid scholarship and wonderful writing, defends his thesis admirably. The Borgia family emerges from these pages as a clan of ambitious, ruthless, family-first power-brokers, but it seems that just made them the first among equals among the powers of Italy, Spain, and France.
Meyer has a reasonably easy time with showing the inherent flaws in the Borgia Myth - which is (more or less) that the Borgias were sexually depraved, power mad murderers who would stop at nothing to win and, once victorious, would stop nothing to enjoy the fruits of victory - and the more rotten those fruits, the better. Rape, incest, pedophilia, gluttony, and torture were allegedly the delights of Borgias across Europe. By exposing the authors of these tales as frauds attempting to appease audiences who had good reason to hate the Borgias (rival families, the emerging Protestant faith desperate for tales of papal indulgences, etc.), Meyer does the Borgias a major service.
Meyer also goes to great lengths to show how bloodthirsty and, essentially, evil, many of the other Italian leaders were during the age of the Borgias. "Italy" as we now know it did not exist - the Italian peninsula was organized into a patchwork of small states, many of which were led by petty warlords whose only right to rule was the right of conquest. The Pope, in our modern age a purely spiritual leader, was a military force in Renaissance Italy. The Papal States had to be defended (and in some cases, re-won) by force of arms, and warlords from both within and outside Italy had little compunction against seizing papal lands by force. So it is that the Borgias, once they assume the papal throne, do battle with warlords as venal and bloodthirsty as any Mythical Borgia.
One weakness of Meyer's book is that he is often content to rebuild the Borgia reputation by destroying their rivals'. After reading Meyers' book, if I found myself eating dinner with a descendant of a Sforza, for example, I'd quickly make my excuses and depart. It is a bit rich for Meyer to so staunchly defend the Borgias' honor while savaging their rivals as blood-soaked villains - while I'm not defending these warlords by any means, surely their reputations suffered from some of the same practices that created the Borgia Myth.
Another weakness appears to be the relative absence of Lucretia Borgia from the book, the vast majority of which focuses on the men of the Borgia family. Even I, relatively uninformed as I am, have heard of Lucretia Borgia. Meyer staunchly leaps to her defense late in the book, but she largely sits on the sidelines. Surely this legendary woman deserves a more thorough rehabilitation.
But "The Borgias" remains an enjoyable, extremely well-written piece of advocacy for a family that has suffered from the most vile slanders imaginable for a few centuries . . . so Meyer's occasional excesses can be forgiven. This is an important book for historians of the Renaissance and the papacy, but it's a bit too strident to become an Important Book for everyone.
In the midst of all the hoopla of THE OSCARS, I was happily ensconced in Renaissance Italy. Meyer takes you on this wild ride into one of the most prestigious and infamous families. It was a bit unbelievable that one family could have such power and wield this level of influence over the Vatican and by extension the rest of Europe. Before I launch away into full gushing mode and this review gets unruly…let’s break it down into numerical order.
1. Don’t be scared of Non-fiction
I know, this book isn’t what most of my audience reads. It’s is a non-fiction book…but that doesn’t automatically make it boring. This book is filled with history and secrets and it’s written very well. I was almost fooled at times into thinking this was a historical fiction book (you know the kinds by Phillippa Gregory that are your guilty pleasures). That’s how magically this story has been told by G.J. Meyer. Seriously, as a bonus you get to learn the true history of an insane family. Do you really need more before rushing to the book story? Ok here is more then.
2. Truth behind the Story
The main reason I picked up this book in the first place was that I didn’t know much about The Borgias. Going into this I knew they were a pretty powerful Italian family…yea not much right? This book just swooped in and blew my mind. Now the more I research about it…I’m learning all the different versions of their story. Was this retelling accurate? I am not sure…it is very well researched though. It is up to you to read it and learn and figure out how accurate the story really is.
I really don’t need to elaborate much further on this historical figure. I love the Tudors…and specifically am a huge fan of Anne Boleyn. My oh my, Lucrezia is really giving Anne a run for her money. She just takes this novel to a whole new level!
If you haven’t guessed already, I love this book and would want everyone to pick it up. I know, non-fiction may not be your slice of cake…but give this book a shot…it’s worth it. I swear it doesn't feel like non-fiction which is just mind-boggling to me still. Anyway, younger audiences may find this book a bit long. If you are like me and are curious about history and this particular Italian family, I suggest you check this book out.
Lastly, my humble thank you to the author, publisher, and Netgalley for providing me with an ARC to review.
All we ever seem to hear about the Borgia family are the perpetuated untruths established years ago. After reading a work of historical fiction (which portrays this family in typical notorious fashion), it was refreshing to read G.J. Meyer's work: The Borgias, which seeks to peel back the fiction and give the reader a more balanced perspective on this family.
Meyer begins by explaining the origins of the Borgia family's Spanish roots and how they led to the Vatican. Chapter by chapter, Meyer deftly unravels what is actually known about Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia), and the family members that were assumed to be his children.
If you watch the Showtime series or read historical novels about the Borgia family, themes of corruption, seduction, incest, murder and nepotism leap out at you. G.J. Meyer, however, claims that there is no evidence to show that these accusations are even remotely true.
In a nutshell, Meyer argues that most of the "dirt" about this family originated after the death of Pope Alexander VI by his enemies, and there were no historical documents during this lifetime that even mentioned the possibility of wrongdoing of the caliber that he is known for today.
The Borgias is a well-written, interesting work of non-fiction. I recommend to anyone who is curious to know a more truthful rendering of the Borgia family history.
One of the things I appreciate about t.v. shows on historical subjects is the curiosity they inspire. So, when Showtime's The Borgias made its debut two years ago, I watched it and wanted to know about these guys. This book provides the answers and attempts to set the record straight. Author Meyer examines the original source material and evaluates it. He finds much of what was written about the Borgias was done so by their enemies and is likely false, but this book is not a whitewash job. Murders which advantaged the family were committed and they took nepotism to new lows, that being no mean achievement in the 15th-century Papacy. Lucrezia Borgia was no vamp poisoner, however. At the end of most of the chapters is a small section giving background information on Renaissance Italy, such as on Milan, Florence, Naples, the Papacy, cardinals, and the families (early-day mobsters) that ruled much of Italy. Sometimes it's a little difficult to keep track of all these people, but that's because much of this will be new to the reader. For most readers this book will introduce much that is new to them about the Renaissance.
This is a pro-Borgia book. If you're looking for a straightforward and unbiased account of the political state of Italy in the last half of the fifteenth century, this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, you want to be told over and over again that the Borgia lads were not that bad, they were just misunderstood, then you'll really enjoy this. I love the taste of whitewash in the morning.
As a history fan myself, I completely understand getting caught up in your favorites and studying their lives to understand them or the ways they've been misrepresented. What I do not understand is the need to warp, rewrite, and outright deny historical sources to make your faves less reprehensible. My dear Mr. Meyer, it's okay to like people who are problematic. Especially if they've been dead five hundred years. Nobody cares.
But Meyer doesn't know that, and so he spends page after page trying to prove that the Borgias are the heroes all along. The burden of proof is on him, though, and sadly his arguments simply aren't convincing enough. Sure, I might believe that not all of the things about the Borgias are true. But he failed to convince me, for example, that Cesare and Lucrezia are not Alexander VI's children -- he simply doesn't have the evidence to prove his position. The historical record is silent on the virtues of the Borgias, and no matter how hard Meyer tries, he can't quite drown out the chorus of Borgia critics that echo down through history.
The lengths he is willing to go to are laughable. While Meyer is happy to explain away the sins of Alexander VI and Cesare with a bit of context or whitewash, he never extends the same logic to any other character. Thus the reader is expected to believe that every other person in this drama is either a psychopath, a simpleton, or a petty gossip out to get those good ol' Borgia boys.
Case in point: Everybody knows that Caterina Sforza was besieged by Cesare Borgia at Rivaldino; he bombarded her castle, raped her people and despoiled her lands. When the fortress fell, Caterina tried to kill herself by blowing up her powder magazine, but failed. After taking her prisoner, Cesare raped her and threw her in prison. Meyer relates all of these things in his book, first labeling Caterina a psychopath, then blaming Cesare's army for the attacks on civilians, and finally claiming that it's 'dubious' that Cesare raped Caterina. Instead he posits that it's just as likely that she came onto him, though he has no evidence of this and nothing to say that Caterina was known for that sort of behavior. A reader such as myself might point out that violence of that sort is exactly in keeping with what we know of Cesare's character, but Meyer wouldn't listen. Whenever the evidence of Borgia sin becomes too obvious to deny, he excuses Cesare's violence as mere political expediency. Sometimes you just gotta murder people, conquer cities that aren't yours, father a million bastards, and usurp control of the papacy in spite of abandoning the church, I guess. It happens to the best of us. Apparently.
This was disappointing, anyway, and I'm not sure I'd read more from the same author. Even if he wrote a defense of one of my favorite problematic people, I'm not sure his grasp of reality is strong enough to be relied upon in any case. I've read good and sensible defenses of Lucrezia Borgia before, so I'm willing to be converted. But Meyer tries too hard and has too little to back him. If he'd jettisoned Cesare and argued solely for Alexander and Lucrezia, I might have considered him capable of critical thought. But he doesn't, and he so proves that he he isn't. Sorry.
After some three (maybe slightly less) weeks of reading I finally finished The Borgias: The Hidden History by G.J. Meyer. Not being a regular reader of history or even non-fiction (which I hope to change in the future) I can’t really compare it to anything else I’ve read, and what is a review but a comparison to previous works be they better or worse. So I’ll just try to express my thoughts about it.
Let’s start at the beginning. Why did I pick up this book? The Showtime TV series made the Borgias a thing. I kind of wanted to watch them but never got to it, too busy doing nothing of importance. Never really knew that much about the Borgias, just that they were infamous, so when I saw the book I thought – why not?
After having finished it there are three things that I have to say about The Borgias. First, it is a book about rumours and slander. This book might be called apologetic but rather than a defence of the Borgia family it is an attempt to strip away myth from history, to cast away stories and be left with the truth. This is something that personally resonated with me. For some years I’ve been an avid follower gossip sites and blogs, a habit I’m now trying to curb because they often encourage the worst in me. It is not just the credulity that is often displayed by writers and commentators, but bad faith, the willingness to believe the worst about people. And that I believe to be against the Christian spirit.
This book is about that too, how much the Borgia myth comes from their opponents, how it is not supported by contemporary sources and yet was for a variety of political (Spain’s involvement in the Italian Wars) and religious (Protestantism) reasons widely believed. Or maybe it’s that people just like stories about how corrupt the government/church/celebrities/important people are.
Second, it’s a book about 15th century Italy. Now, when you pick up a book that’s titled The Borgias you kind of expect it to be about the family. But, somewhat surprisingly, it devotes a lot (I could almost say half, though that would be hyperbole) of its time to non-Borgia things. It does help in explaining the world in which they lived in so is not completely irrelevant. And since the author states multiple times how little is actually known about the Borgia family I can’t blame him for being distracted (if that’s the word) from his main goal.
Third, the cliff-hangers. My God, the cliff-hangers. One thing I detest with all my heart and all my might is when things, stories, anything ends with cliff-hangers. In a perfect world governed by me (because how else would it be perfect =D) they would be banned and the punishment would be most severe. This book, unfortunately, is guilty of them. Just as a chapter is about to end the last sentence then goes “But little did they know” or “Soon” or something like that just as you are about to close the book gives you a small peek of things to come. Now to be fair it does make you want to keep reading and keeps you on the edge of your seat, as they say. But on the other hand – DEATH TO CLIFF-HANGERS. This is supposed to be a serious book, Mr. Author.
So in conclusion The Borgias is about re-examining old assumptions and renaissance Italy. Haven’t read anything else about the subjects so I can’t say how accurate it is. But, if like me, you have an interest about history, especially the renaissance and early modern Europe, G.J. Meyer’s book might not be a bad start.
"Borgia Pope" is synonymous with every sin and corruption imaginable. The lurid stories have echoed through history of orgies in the Vatican, incest, fratricide, assassination by poison and strangulation, and of course nepotism, financial fraud, and ordinary war crimes. In The Borgias: The Hidden History G.J. Meyer does the most surprising thing, and offers a revisionist history of the Borgias that argues that Pope Alexander was an active church reformer, Cesare his nephew one of the great men of the age, and Lucrezia a perfect image of a Renaissance princess.
Meyer's basic thesis is that the lurid tales of the Borgias are baseless political slander, contemporary accounts written by their enemies and accepted as truth by the first generation of Italian historians, most of whom were not even born by the time the Borgias died. A convenient scapegoat for every excess of Renaissance Catholicism, the Borgias became a enduring symbol of evil, despite an utter lack of hard evidence for their gravest crimes. It's an interesting thesis, but at times I think Meyer leans too far to the other side, accepting uncritically every positive description of a Borgia, and De Roo's obscure geneaology which 'proves' that Cesare and Lucrezia couldn't have been Alexander's children. It's hard to argue that you're writing the only honest account of the Borgia, when you constantly call [some obscure Italian noble] a truly deprave sadist.
That said, Meyer has a real talent for making clear the tangled web of 15th century Italian politics, the evershifting alliances of the city-states, and the delicate balancing act of Rome between France and Italy. Whatever else they were, Pope Alexander and Cesare were players, and they nearly won, setting up Cesare as ruler of a unified Papal States, before an unlucky bout of malaria killed Alexander and upset Cesare's plans.
Clearly this week was a fine time to be reading and finishing a book about Popes and the underpinnings of Papal Renaissance history. As the events progressed to the election on the second ballot of Francis I on my television, I held in my hand a superb historical version of many of the same events and was able to learn much more about the history of the Papacy, other popes and the murky underside of at least that political scene vis-a vis politics of Rome.
Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI,had been a Cardinal for more than 40 years and he was not seeking, nor expecting this to happen. Cardinals elect Popes, as we have seen this week and a handful of Cardinals instead of over one hundred, would have had a much harder time doing their job. Rodrigo's had helped him on his rise through the military ranks and did not fail to support his rise to becoming Pope Alexander VI.
GJ Meyer's contention, which he clearly proved, was that the Borgias were no worse and for the most part were much better than other Renaissance Italian families. A partial explanation is that the Borgias were actually Spaniards in a time and place that that was looked down upon. They were a clan of ambitious power brokers but such was the power structure of the time in Italy, Spain and France, and they rose to the top.
A fitting companion to Meyer's treatises on the Tudors as the Popes were shaped political history in this period of time. The Borgias with their military and religious political supremacy operated like Warlords and took care of their own.
The author is a splendid writer and a superb researcher, the documents he utilized to prepare and defend his treatise were awe inspiring. I am grateful to him and to NetGalley for the opportunity to accompany the Borgia family on their hidden journey through history.
I actually really liked this book but it was soooooo dry. Considering the dynamics of pre-Renaissance Italy, the creative initiative poised to erupt, I found it, well, colorless. BUT it did strike me as a legitimate, fact based chronicle, siting specific eye witness accounts of the life and times of the Borgia Family. For example, did you know they are actually Spaniards who retained this cultural heritage throughout more than one hundred years that they habitated in Italy? There's lots and lots of fun facts in this book. Also a very effective tutorial on Papal Conclaves in 14th and 15th century Europe. It makes me cringe when thinking of the contemporary, popular series supposedly documenting the escapades of this family. Then again, I watched the ENTIRE SERIES of The Tudors, despite the factual misinformation. (hangs head in shame)
If you're at all interested in the late Middle Ages on approach to the Renaissance, this book is really quite good at providing insight into the political,social and religious issues of that time. I certainly felt a LOT more educated after reading it. Definitely hungry for more. Looking into books on the de Medicis right now. Open to suggestions! :)
I started the uncorrected proof I won in a goodreads giveaway in April and have had is classified as "currently reading" for the past eight months. It is time to admit I won't ever finish it. I did read about 1/3 thinking that any time now it would kick in for me, but that did not happen. I'm not sure if it is too academic or if G. J. Meyer just picked a topic that was too big for the general reader like myself. Meyer seems to have set out to prove that the Borgias were not quite as bad as portrayed by other historians and may well be right. In any case it was hard to care about any of them in the first 154 pages so I gave up.
This book was not as good as I'd hoped. Someone else might truly love it but there was too much speculation for me. To be fair, some, but not much, of the book was devoted to offering theories about Alexander VI's papacy and family that absolved him of the scurrilous behavior usually ascribed to him. It was a worthy effort and fairly convincing. But in placing this pope, Rodrigo Borgia, Alexander VI, in his time and in the political world of the Italian states and the Vatican G.J. Meyer repeats histories and explain changes too often. It is confusing.
Rather well written account of history's most notorious Renaissance family. A lot more detail in the family background and the politics of the day (both papal and civil). A nice addition to anyone's Borgia collection.
I want to start this by saying something about me, since I think it’ll explain why this became a long, long treatise:
I love the Borgias. I love The Borgias, the Showtime show, I love Borgia, the Netflix show, and I love the Borgias, the family. (I love The Godfather too, which some have said is based on the Borgias.) I love the Italian Renaissance (backstabbing! Art! So much cruelty, juxtaposed with so much beauty!), and I am a cynic, for many reasons, about the Catholic Church. That said, I’m not an expert. What I know comes from a combination of art history classes in college, a lifelong love of Leonardo da Vinci,* museum visits, highly sensationalized television shows, two trips to Italy (Rome included both times, with the hands-on history lesson that comes with that), and lots of Wikipedia.
So I like to think this gives me a healthy understanding of, but also a healthy malleability in the theories surrounding the Borgias. I know some, but not all, and I know that. I certainly know quite a bit more than I did before this book. Meyer packs this full of information - using background sections to explain aspects of the Renaissance that could fill an entire book, but are summarized concisely so they’re not confusing. And regarding the family at hand, I found many of Meyer’s arguments convincing! He presents many of them clearly and with solid sources - or at least solid reasons to discredit opposing sources - and ties them together with the known historical facts cohesively.
And yet even so, I found myself rolling my eyes on occasion at this author’s devoted defensiveness of Rodrigo Borgia. Things like making the argument that while he could have broken his chastity vows, he also might not have because there’s no record strains credulity. He might not have ever gotten a paper cut either, or maybe he never stepped in dog shit, if there’s no explicit record from some ambassador on the subject, but we can deduce using common sense and knowledge of the mores and facts about his peers and his environment that any of those three things are possible - maybe even probable. There is a difference between setting the record straight and proposing that Rodrigo Borgia could have actually been some kind of saint.
Especially because the same naïveté and defensiveness isn’t applied equally to Cesare Borgia. I totally believe that Cesare was all the things Meyer says he was: ruthless at times, arrogant, cunning, manipulative, selfish, ambitious. (In fact, not sure anyone would disagree.) Considering Rodrigo’s incredible and continued successes and the force of his personality Meyer references repeatedly, I find it hard to believe Cesare constantly just plowed over Rodrigo’s wishes by sheer force of his corrupted personality alone. Considering how little is ever known about Cesare’s intentions, this feels like a bold claim. Meyer even notes offhandedly at some point that Rodrigo may actually have encouraged or at least supported some of Cesare’s efforts because they benefited the family. Um, yeah! Why treat that as an afterthought? Why give a massive benefit of the doubt to one person and distinctly withhold it from the other?
I don’t want to come off the Cesare defense squad here. He’s my favorite Borgia, because of all the traits I listed above, but I don’t think he deserves any more forgiveness than Meyer grants him. If I’m protective of anyone, it’s Lucrezia, for whom Meyer absolves of many of her purported sins, but it's worth mentioning that she's very much a background character. For someone who apparently became a black widow, a mythic femme fatale, this book underserved her. Of course, given the era, the men were more instrumental in politics, but she was intimately involved in many of the scandals that plague the Borgia myth, and perhaps one of the tropes Meyer should have directly addressed was female passivity - Isabella d'Este, Isabella of Spain, Caterina Sforza, Beatrice whatserface are all proof of women holding and using power. Lucrezia is one of the central figures of the family he's writing about, and I would have liked to see the rumors about her picked apart as equally as her brother and uncle, rather than in a few quick pages in the "Aftermath."
I'm not the author so I can't be sure, but I think the reason they were mostly backgrounded was because those scandals were explicitly personal rather than political. For such a pulpy and juicy drama he’s trying to disabuse, Meyer often falls into a dry recitation of events. And even for someone who loves politics like myself, there's so much politics going on that it gets boring without any kind of story. Look - the nature of the Italian Renaissance means that even the most dispassionate list of events contains twists, turns, betrayal, backstabbing, and “scheming and counterscheming” (as Meyer says in his background chapter on ambassadors, quickly becoming my favorite phrase after “hellscape of gossip”).
However, this approach gives short shrift to some of the most pervasive Borgia rumors. Proving convincingly that Lucrezia was not Rodrigo’s daughter is valuable, but the rumors of her relationship with Cesare? Relatively, remarkably untouched! (Especially, I’d say, since he references a TV show multiple times in the book - whether it be the Showtime or the Netflix show, both Go There.) He mentions in extreme passing that Lucrezia may have been the one person Cesare truly loved, because of his trip to her after her miscarriage. Interesting, love it, but it comes up so late, and then is barely elaborated on. Do we have other incidents that show this? Do letters exist to bolster that relationship, if only to make the reader care a little more? For that matter, is there proof that his relationship with Rodrigo, for whom he stayed in the Church for longer than he wished, was loveless?
I say this because if you’re inclined to look for the more salacious explanations of some of the great Borgia mysteries (as I fully admit I am; my love of gossip and drama trumps logic every time), ties among family isn't a far leap. Meyer even says that Rodrigo becomes obsessed with propelling the kids to success - that loyalty could have gone both ways, and I think there’s a solid argument to be made that many of Cesare’s actions could be explained by a truly emotional loyalty to his family.** (You could make the same argument cynically of course, as any action for the sake of the Borgia name would benefit him too - after all, Louis & Spain’s twin reluctances to go against Cesare are in large part to not anger Rome and the Vatican as well.) Since Cesare was such an enigma, it seems like quite the possibility to dismiss out of hand.
Essentially, all Meyer’s logic and facts are strong, but his narrative is weak; this is one of the understandable pitfalls of dense nonfiction, of course. It’s hard to disprove his arguments, or even poke too many holes in the ones I don't mention here, but simultaneously hard to feel like you too want to come to the Borgias’ defense when he invests them with so little personality besides broad strokes (for example, "unfairly maligned," which seems to be his consistent appraisal of Rodrigo, is not a personality trait but a judgment made with hindsight). It unfortunately leaves a non-expert reader like myself to fill in the blanks from my far less accurate previous knowledge (aka, the television that Meyer would like to disprove). Credit where's it's certainly due: as I said, I learned a lot, and making a clear, accurate narrative of the Italian Renaissance seems like a nearly impossible task (I was amazed at how easy Meyer made it to keep the tangled web of Italian families straight!). I doubt a semester on the Italian Wars could have given me too much more knowledge than this book managed to squeeze into 400-odd pages.
There’s a threshold thing going on here: I was never going to hate the book even if he argued that, I don’t know, Cesare never existed, because I love politics and scandal in any arena, and this book has it in spades. I was always going to like the book a decent amount because he delves into one of my favorite families of all time, in great detail and with an eye for justice. I was always going to be grading this book on a curve. (Despite this incredibly long essay, I'd give this a 6/10 - give 👏 us 👏 ten 👏 star 👏 ratings 👏) And I did like it even beyond those basic givens! It may have felt like a textbook, but it sure was an effective one, and of course, his cause really is admirable. There are other groups who might deserve examination of their accepted histories more (any country that was colonized and thought of as barbarians, for example), but inspecting any part of history for the sake of true accuracy, rather than rumors propelled by xenophobia is a crucial task I wish was practiced more. I simply wish Meyer had not only scrubbed some of the slate clean, but filled it in with a richer portrait of what the family, rather than their surroundings, might have been.
*Leonardo is mentioned a couple times as a painter, but it’s never mentioned that Cesare employed him for a while, or that he and Machiavelli planned to move the Arno. Likely because it doesn’t really have any bearing on the story - an instance of narrative streamlining, which is actually good! - but a big name to leave out nonetheless.
**A sidenote of my own on the unsolved mystery of Juan Borgia: he was sleeping around, cuckolding his brother, and making a bad name for himself as a general and representative of the family. Would Cesare have wanted such behavior to continue? It would make it harder for Lucrezia to find a secure marriage (which would especially have interested him if she was indeed the only person he loved), and harder for him to achieve his long term goals. In a culture where people murdered their brothers with some frequency, could Cesare not have done something totally in character - which is to say, something aggressive, something radical, something unpredictable, something in the interests of his family name and himself - and removed the Juan problem from the picture? (I’ll die on the hill of #cesarekilledjuan.) just saying.