Saturday, June 22, 2013

Book Review: GJ Meyer's "The Borgias: The Hidden History"

The Borgias are hot on TV right now, but according to G. J. Meyer, the characters portrayed on the small screen are even more a fiction than most of us realized. Turns out, the Borgias weren't half the villains many historians have thought they were.

 Meyer's book is more about Italian history, pre-Renaissance and during the Renaissance, than about anything else. The Catholic church figures prominently as a player on the Italian stage along with the mafia-like families who controlled many of the small city states.

The Borgias were Spaniards who made it good in the Catholic hierarchy when Alfons Borgia was chosen to serve as pope taking the name Calixtus III. The Cardinals chose him because he was an honest, able administrator, in poor health and seemed to have no ambition. Turns out, he did have ambition: retrieve the cities which were supposed to belong to the Vatican from the thugs who were running them and defeat the Turks before they over-ran Italy.

Calixtus III didn't get very far in achieving his objectives, though he struggled mightily and overcame obstacles that had defeated earlier popes. As was the policy of the day, he selected relatives to serve in the church and chose his nephew, Rodrigo Borgia, to serve as Vice Chancellor--an administrative post handling papal correspondence and the like.

Meyer describes Rodrigo as charming, cheerful, intelligent and good at his job--but could find no recorded evidence from his peers that he had ever broken his vow of celibacy or did anything, which at the time, would have been judged corrupt. Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI and made his nephew, Cesare Borgia a Cardinal and commander of the papal fortress in Rome. Cesare became one of the youngest Cardinals ever chosen and the first to resign from that position.

Cesare was considered the most handsome man in Italy and at one time the most feared (by the corrupt thugs running the city states) and best military commander of the time. He resigned his position as Cardinal, but retained command of the papal military forces. With his uncle's help and an alliance with the French king, attempted to depose the thugs that had been in charge of papal city states for generations. Most of the city states he conquered appreciated his just dealings after centuries of corruption and capricious viciousness. He was largely successful in unifying much of Italy and might have finally solidified that unity, but both he and Alexander VI fell ill with fever at the same time. The pope died and though Cesare recovered, he was a changed man who could no longer maintain his famous control over his emotions and make the surprising, but astute decisions that had characterized his career up to that time. Cesare's peers recorded that he had mistresses everywhere and suffered from syphilis, but unlike most commanders of the day, his soldiers were paid on time and the cities he conquered enjoyed more liberty and economic prosperity under his just rule.

Alexander VI showed an astonishing indifference to the negative gossip that circulated while he lived, seldom refuting any of it, yet those closest to him or those who had actual dealings with him found him to be affable, amiable, honest and devout. Italians had a natural dislike for any person of a different nationality having power in their country, thus, in the absence of personal contact, they tended to believe the worst about this Spanish pope. Not long after Alexander VI died, his primary rival and nemesis, a corrupt French Cardinal, became pope and corroborated the evil gossip as truth. He encouraged others to elaborate on the evil Borgia myth. And so, to this day, most people think the Borgias were libertines.

Meyer warns up front that his book covers a lot of territory very quickly and does not delve into much detail. He also admits that among the documents created while Alexander VI and Cesare lived, there is actually very little written about their personal lives. Their genealogy is confused because names were reused and a family branch, the Lonzols attached Borgia to their surname due to the prestige of being associated with a pope. Meyer presents an alternative genealogy which he supports with the extensive scholarship of a man who collected six or more volumes of Borgia documents and historical records but was never able to take the work to a cohesive finish--hence he has been ignored by most historians who find digging through the vast quantity of information quite vexing and tedious.

For a fast history of Italy and how the church played a role in the development of that nation, G. J. Meyer's book is an excellent source. It gives the reader a window into a different era, one that becomes increasingly alien, yet also terrifyingly familiar in our modern day. Fiction writers do well to study history as those who figure in it do the most astonishing and outrageous things. A student of history is a student of human nature and that is, after all, our primary subject matter.

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