The Borgias

By G. J. Meyer

The evil that men do oft lives after them, and in the most extreme cases may blacken a name for centuries. Then again, becoming a byword for wickedness might also be a big part of what makes a name last for centuries in the first place, as witness the Borgias, a family whose real and purported misadventures have, in our own time, become material for a sensational TV series and even given them a starring role in a violent videogame (Assassin’s Creed).

In this new, frankly revisionist family portrait, G. J. Meyer sets out to set the record (as he sees it) straight, and seeks to vigorously challenge the “black myth” of the Borgias. This myth is the result of what Meyer calls the “Borgia problem”: the way that “wildly outlandish accusations accepted as true generation after generation . . . when taken together add up to one of the most gloriously lurid stories in all of history.” But like a lot of gloriously lurid stories, the Borgia story, as we popularly have it, is false.

Anyone who has been able to tear themselves away from the pop culture Borgias for a minute and done a bit of reading in the history of the Italian renaissance will already be aware that much of the black myth has already been challenged. Cesare Borgia’s connection to his brother Juan’s death is usually treated as a matter for speculation, not as certainty, and I don’t think many historians today still believe Roderigo Borgia (later Pope Alexander VI) had incestuous relations with his daughter Lucrezia.

Meyer, however, wants to take things further. He argues that Lucrezia wasn’t Alexander’s daughter at all, that in fact Alexander had no children of his own (the famous siblings were great-nephews and -nieces). And his revision doesn’t end there. In modern parlance what we have here is a massive exercise in political “spin.” The Borgias, we learn, weren’t mad, bad, or dangerous to know. They’ve just been misunderstood.

Instead of being a decadent and corrupt pope, Alexander is shown to be a capable administrator doing a difficult job at an impossible time: in summary (and note the qualifiers, which are typical of spin style), someone who “can seem, in some ways, an almost heroic figure.” Cesare Borgia was a hard case to be sure, but his leaving the church to pursue secular power (in a particularly ruthless fashion) “is as plausibly interpreted as testament to his integrity as to anything else,” while his rapid rise is taken as “proof of his immense gifts.”

As for Lucrezia, she is simply rendered as “a pattern of womanly virtue.”

The accuracy of all this is, of course, impossible to say. There are few absolute moral truths to be gleaned from a study of the past, and there aren’t many events that we can perfectly reconstruct, even with the aid of multiple eyewitness sources (often the least reliable accounts available). For example, I don’t believe that Cesare Borgia ever cut the head off a bull with a single stroke of his sword, but that’s just because I don’t think anyone can do this: it’s physically impossible (though the story is recounted without question in most Borgia histories). It’s this sifting, selection, and questioning of the “facts” that makes history an art.

Meyer’s particular brand of art employs a number of different techniques. Throughout the book his emphasis in fashioning this new history of the Borgias is on accentuating the positive and diminishing the negative. Take the (in)famous story of the “chestnut banquet,” a sort of orgy that Alexander was said to have presided over. One of the best-known set-pieces of the black myth, you’ll blink if you miss it here (it gets a single sentence on page 324, where it is dismissed as just one example of “vicious gossip” against the Borgias). This despite the fact that the story comes to us from Johannes Burchard, the Vatican’s master of ceremonies during Alexander’s reign and a source with much to say about the Borgias, not all of it flattering. But Burchard, a prominent figure in other histories not just for his diaries but for the role he played in some events, is only mentioned once in Meyer’s entire text. One starts to wonder about Meyer’s use of sources at times like this. Most of the sources he cites are secondary, which raises questions about how much original research was done. An appendix makes passing reference to “suspect editions and faulty translations” of Burchard’s diaries, but these judgments are attributed to an earlier researcher.

Another technique Meyer leans on quite a bit is moral relativism. Were the Borgias saints? Maybe not, but just look at who they were up against! Giuliano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II) is first introduced to us as a “ruffian” and “arrogant lout.” Caterina Sforza is “violent, ruthless, and capable of almost insane cruelty.” As for the gang of Romagna chieftans liquidated by Cesare at the Senigallia massacre . . . well! We know that Vitellozzo Vitelli (a perfectly useful tool of Cesare’s at one time, which is to be kept in mind) was “something very like a homicidal psychopath.” The rest are referenced as that “viper’s tangle”: an “assortment of sociopaths and psychopaths famous not just for ruthlessness, not just for a readiness to torture and murder the innocent, but for a willingness to betray their own blood.” Cesare was doing the world, and the (in this reporting) thankful citizens of the Romagna a favour by getting rid of them.

This isn’t to say that these judgments are wrong, only to note how things have been weighted. If there’s any reason at all to question something bad in the record about the Borgias, Meyer will have none of it. But everybody else is tarred with the blackest brush to hand. For example, the evidence that Giovanni Maria Visconti (a “depraved monster”) actually took “delight” in “watching his dogs tear apart the bodies of living men” does not come to us from any objective, unimpeachable source. We can’t know for sure if he ever did such a thing. The people who said these things about him had every reason to cast him in as wicked a light as possible. But it’s a great story (“gloriously lurid,” we might say), and is retailed here without question.

Finally, there are the evasive qualifications the Meyer is forced to employ. I’ve already thrown out a couple of these, and they can be found everywhere. Cesare Borgia’s sack of Urbino, to give another example, is usually regarded as an underhanded act against an innocent and well-liked duke, Guidobaldo Montefeltro. And so it is necessary to muddy the waters here: “The conquest of Urbino was, depending on one’s point of view, either a stroke of tactical brilliance or the cynical betrayal of a blameless duke. Possibly it was both, but it is less than certain that Guidobaldo was entirely innocent.”

To which one can only say, Yes, it is less than certain. But most history writing is concerned with things that are less than certain, and almost all of it depends “on one’s point of view.” But it’s just as wrong to rely only on the favourable testimony of people who liked the Borgias and reject that of their enemies as it is to take the opposite approach. As a result of Meyer’s need to overcompensate for the black myth what we get here is less a “hidden history” than an alternative one. Most history is written with some kind of agenda, and all of it has its hidden elements. Why they remain hidden is just another question we have to take into consideration when evaluating the record. No doubt some of the Borgia myth is the product of our fascination with salacious tales. But who knows if even worse things are now lost to us? Cesare Borgia, an arrogant and status-conscious fellow to put it mildly, didn’t take kindly to gossip about himself or his family, and I suspect there was a chilling effect on such stories during his lifetime anyway.

All history is hidden to us, at least to some extent. Meyer is an author I really enjoy reading (he’s written two previous books of popular history, on the First World War and the Tudors), but The Borgias highlights the limitations of his, and more generally the, art.

Review first published online April 8, 2013.