The Borgias by Paul Strathern

The Borgias: Power and Depravity in Renaissance Italy
by Paul Strathern
Pegasus Books, 2019

The Borgias: Power and Depravity in Renaissance Italy by Paul Strathern Pegasus Books, 2019

Renaissance Italy possessed its fair share of knaves, knights, and holy hucksters. But perhaps no other fame and fortune-seeking family of the late 15th and early 16th centuries so embodied the creativity and decadence of the age as the Borgias. Paul Strathern, a polymath author of prize-winning fiction and several works of history, brings his narrative verve to bear on this notorious family in The Borgias. For the uninitiated, it is a fantastic introduction to the Spanish family who came within a whisker of achieving a chokehold over the Italian peninsula in the early 1500s. 

Strathern is a Somerset Maugham Prize-winning novelist with several history titles under his belt focusing on the era and the people he captures so vividly in The Borgias. His most recent book, The Medici: Power, Money, and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance and an earlier title, The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped, are a perfect launch pad into a deeper and more detailed study of the Borgia family and their place within the Renaissance. 

The Borgia family hailed from the Spanish town of Borja in the Kingdom of Aragon, about 150 miles west of Barcelona and came to prominence with the election of Cardinal Alfonso Borgia as pope in 1455. Taking the papal name of Callixtus III, he was the first Spanish pope of the Roman Catholic Church and felt the resentment of the xenophobic aristocratic families who ruled the city states of Italy during this time, such as the Orsini and the Colonna. The epithet of “Catalan” would be used again for the second Borgia to ascend the papal throne, Rodrigo Borgia, Callixtus III’s nephew. 

Nepotism was rife in Rome, and Callixtus III did all in his power to further the fortunes of his family. He appointed Rodrigo as cardinal in 1455. It was a testament to Rodrigo’s political acumen, savvy, and trustworthiness that the following year his uncle made him Vice-Chancellor of the Church at the age of 26. As Strathern points out, “this was one of the most prestigious posts … but it was also one of the most powerful.” At this heady young age, Rodrigo was put in charge of the day-to-day affairs of the papal government, the Curia. It would be his position for the next four popes who followed Callixtus III and provided Cardinal Rodrigo decades of invaluable experience in the art of power and politicking, all of which eventually led to the highest ring on his climb to power: his election as Pope Alexander VI in 1492. 

By all accounts, Rodrigo was not a pious or theologically minded man. Nor were the men who preceded him in the papal line. Indeed, some of the most entertaining passages in the book are Strathern’s chiaroscuro-like portraits of Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV, and Innocent VIII. All were saddled with issues rampant in Renaissance Italy: a plethora of illegitimate and unclaimed children, sexual excesses and debauchery, and a penchant for corruption. Indeed, the venal quest for virtù e fortuna (coined by Machiavelli), or power and luck, were the two animating forces for many of 15th century popes, but it would be an emblematic motto for Alexander VI and his progeny. 

Most of the book details Alexander VI’s plans to bring the more independent Italian city-states under papal authority and to claim the Romagna as part of the Papal Territory. It’s also a portrait of a semi-dysfunctional family in the ways Alexander VI used his children as tools—and wielded as weapons—to achieve his legendary goals. The choice of “Alexander” as a papal name gave away Rodrigo Borgia’s “fantastic ambitions” as pope. He desired a “united Italy: a return to the glories of Ancient Rome, ruled over by a hereditary Borgia ‘Prince.’” When his favorite mistress, Vanozza de Cattanei, delivered a second son in 1475, he was christened Cesare. It was an apt name for the “prince-in-waiting,” in whose future success in war and politics Alexander VI placed so much hope. Alexander VI’s bold plans for Italy and the Borgia name ended just shy of the mark, but the impact the Borgias made on Renaissance Italy was attested to by their contemporaries, as well as posterity. Machiavelli, Da Vinci, and others rubbed shoulders with Cesare and came to appreciate the virtù e fortuna he embodied. Indeed, Machiavelli’s The Prince takes many lessons from Cesare’s life as a model for how to be an effective and feared leader.

Alexander VI’s other notorious child was his beloved and beautiful daughter, Lucrezia. She was the apple of her father’s eye, strong-willed, capable, and rabidly loyal to her family. The close attachments the Borgias held for one another, specifically among Alexander VI and Cesare for Lucrezia, set many tongues wagging in the hot, dusty streets and alleys of Italy. Strathern doesn’t waste ink exploring these seamier claims. Rather, he believes the rumors of Borgia incest (father-daughter and brother-sister) were most likely exaggerations based on a distrust of the “Catalan” clan among envious aristocratic Italian families. While it is true the Borgias had a more libertine and naturalistic view of sex, the author doesn’t believe it should always lead to the most salacious conclusions. In the case of Cesare and Lucrezia, he does concede the rumors of incest may spring from a kernel of truth based upon their noted affection and jealousy but is not conclusive evidence there was ever a sexual component to their mutual devotion. After all, both pursued their separate love interests, were married (Lucrezia many times), and had romantic affairs of various intensity. It remains likely these rumors will continue to titillate and cause debate among Borgia historians for years to come, but Strathern is admirably quiet and leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

For those new to the history of Renaissance Italy, and the Borgias in particular, Strathern’s book is a perfectly paced and highly readable telling of one ambitious and ruthless family. Seen within the overarching history of internecine disputes, land grabs, and power plays among the squabbling city-states and aristocratic families of 15th and 16th century Italy, the Borgias may be distinct—but they are a distinction without much of a difference. As Strathern puts it, “all one can state—dispassionately—is that they were often better than they appeared … and … on occasion they could be far worse.” The Borgias knew how to “go big or go home” in their gamble for power, and this delightful read delivers a payoff for the reader—if not for the Borgias.

Peggy Kurkowski is a copywriter living in Denver, Colorado