Your RDA of Irony

The Borgia Bunch

Showtime, the television network that presented a scrawny, brunet Henry VIII, is planning a series on “The Borgias”. If you are not familiar with the notorious Renaissance family, imagine the Brady Bunch in the 15th century except that Dad is a syphilitic Pope and the children are sociopaths.  (In this case, both Mrs. Brady and Alice are the mothers of the brood.)  It is the kind of heartwarming family story that has such appeal on cable television. 

Of course, the historical sex and violence won’t be ample enough for Showtime, so expect a little–actually an avalanche–of additions.  No doubt the cable Pope Alexander VI will have a passionate affair with Joan of Arc.  (It is possible since he was 4 months old when she died, and he might have been very precocious.)    Queen Isabella of Castille probably will have nude scenes, too–with Lucretia!  You are also likely to see that Gutenberg was a pornographer.  (Leonardo must have invented the video camera 500 years sooner than we realized.) And yes, Leonardo will be in the series; he really was the Borgia’s handyman.  I predict that he will be hitting on Martin Luther.  Have I left anyone out of this menage a thousand?  Don’t worry.  Anyone in Europe within 100 years of the 15th century can be part of the orgy! 

At least the casting is not a scandal.  I am relieved to say that the Pope and his boy Cesare will not be played by Jerry and Ben Stiller.  His most dubious Holiness will be portrayed by Jeremy Irons.  Irons has a sly, chilly persona and sepulchral voice that makes him one of the best villains on the screen today.  I can see him ensnared in plots and relishing his betrayals of less clever men.  Just for his performance, I will start to watch the series.  Perhaps the gratuitous nudity won’t be too much of a bore.

And now for the lecture….Alexander VI certainly is the most notorious Pope, but he was far from the worst.  In the tenth and eleventh centuries, many of the Popes were just Roman gangsters.  During the Dark Ages, it was difficult to distinguish nobles from criminals (We have the same problem with today’s MBAs), and bandit bands would vie for the Papacy.  Get your man on the throne and you’ve got control of Rome property and the relics racket.  One family/gang–the counts of Tusculum–held the Papacy for nearly a century.  A member of the dynasty murdered his predecessor.  Another attempted to sell the Papacy.  John XII–who became Pope at the age of 18–was killed by a justifiably enraged husband.  (Some forms of communion are unacceptable.)

So, why aren’t they the “stars” of a Showtime series?  They were unintentionally discreet, the advantage of obscurity.  However vile they were, who knew other than their Roman neighbors?  In the tenth and early eleventh centuries, the Pope just wasn’t that important.  By the time of Alexander VI, however, the Papacy was far significant than just Tiber property and the relics racket.  And thanks to Gutenberg, there now was a mass media that fed the public appetite for news and gossip.  Even if only one person in your village was literate, everyone else wanted to hear what he was reading.  Alexander VI was never less than interesting.

Furthermore, however scandalous he was, Alexander VI was not incompetent.  Unlike his Medici acquaintance and eventual successor Leo X, the Borgia Pope would not have ignored Professor Luther.  On the contrary, any dispute would have been quickly–if sadly–resolved.  “Young professor dies of food poisoning while falling out of a bell tower–twice.”  Of course, with a Borgia as Pope, Luther’s idea of Reformation might have been to limited to conducting Church bingo night in German rather than Latin.

And there is one more thing to be said in Alexander VI’s favor.  If he didn’t take religion seriously, he also wasn’t a bigot.  When Ferdinand and Isabella demonstrated their idea of Christian virtue by expelling Jews from Spain, Alexander offered the refugees sanctuary in Rome.  He wasn’t providing charity but if they could afford Italy they were welcome and protected.  Compare that to Pius XII, and remind me which of the two is a candidate for sainthood.

p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day:

  1. Wimple says:

    Hi Eugene.
    Two of my favorite books are “The Bad Popes” and “Pope Joan.” I’ll give the Showtime series a try, but they’re on notice (I dropped them over Henry).

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      I also enjoyed “The Bad Popes”, a book recommended to me by a frequent correspondent here (and fellow Jeopardy relic) Leah.

      Like you, I will give “The Borgias” an indulgence (Sorry, wrong corrupt Pope) because I like Jeremy Irons. Let’s see if I can sit through one episode.

      You know who made a mesmerizing Cesare Borgia? Orson Welles in “The Prince of Foxes”. Of course, he is the villain–with only Tyrone Power standing in Cesare’s way to conquer Italy. I do recommend the film.


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