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The Borgias – A Gentle Tale of Renaissance Family Values

September 20, 2011

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m something of a history nut. So if I’m not dipping into the inexhaustible well of history books, I’m always on the lookout for films and TV series that reflect my historical interests.

While Hollywood seems convinced that the way to riches is via an endless series of “action” movies, which I refer to in a previous post as crash-bang-wallop, British producers have evolved a successful genre of their own that I would describe as slash-clang-thank-you-mam. In this genre historical settings become a convenient vehicle for sex, intrigue and elaborate acts of violence.

Rome was the first of the genre. It was set in the terminal years of the Roman Republic, when Julius Caesar was battling with Pompey for supremacy in the crumbling oligarchy that preceded the emperors. I enjoyed it because it was reasonably faithful to the history, and struck a balance between political intrigue, the coupling of the great and the good and the murder and mayhem committed by the low life of Rome. The acting was better-than-average, and the sets were gorgeous – bling-strewn in the palaces and splendidly seedy in the backstreets.

Then came Spartacus. I lost interest after an episode or three. Muscle-bound gladiators, plenty of intrigue, vague historical references, but mainly fight scenes and sex – both desired and delivered – in which a group of Roman wives lust after the gladiators like ladies at an Ann Summers party.  Coupled with a pretty awful script that made capable actors like John Hannah, who played the gladiator owner and chief pimp, seem pedestrian. I gave up after the wife of the house arranged a naked parade of the gladiators for the benefit of a simpering ingénue, who proceeded to select as her partner in lust a strapping Gaul, largely because of the length of his appendage. Disgusted by her prejudice against Thracians, I switched off.

Now we have the Borgias. A renaissance Sopranos, in which a well-connected gangster of Spanish origin intrigues his way to the papacy. I had to watch the Borgias for two reasons. First, because I’m currently ploughing through The Popes – a History by John Julius Norwich, also the author of a monumental history of Byzantium, another of my obsessions. Second, because one of my favourite actors, Jeremy Irons, is in the title role as the godfather, also known as the Holy Father – Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI.

It’s unfortunate in a way that I was reading Norwich’s book when the series began. I already knew from the portraits of the Borgia pope that Alexander was monstrously fat, with bulbous lips and a nose like a hog’s back. Not an apt description of Jeremy Irons’s physical make-up. But leaving aside such quibbles, Irons is a treat.

Drawing from Brando’s melancholy sneer in the original Godfather, and Raul Julia’s satanic sentimentality as Gomez in the Addams Family movies, with a dash of Vincent Price as Dr Phibes, Irons uses his trademark clipped delivery and dark brown intonation to great effect. A weary prelate with occasional twinges of conscience, Alexander and his consigliore son Cesare, whom he makes an archbishop in his teens and a cardinal in his twenties, proceed to plot, poison and garrotte their way to Borgia domination of Italy and beyond. He sells his children into dynastic marriages, and does his utmost to bring down his rival for the papacy, Cardinal Della Rovere, later to become the even more appalling Pope Julius II.

Cesare is a murderous lecher typical of his time – a very secular cardinal who later leaves the church to carve out the family’s dominions. The main “love” interests thus far are the Pope’s mistress, Giulia Farnese, and his daughter Lucrezia, whom Alexander sells to Giovanni Sforza, a prominent member of another  influential clan. Sforza treats the sweet Lucrezia brutally on her wedding night, and so provides the hardening she needs to emerge in the Michael Corleone role.

The supporting cast are all relatively unknown, apart from Derek Jacobi and Steven Berkoff. Jacobi appears in the first episode as a bitter old cardinal outraged at Alexander’s  election tactics – and the new pope’s failure to give him a lucrative sinecure. Sadly but unsurprisingly, he becomes the first casualty of the new pope’s regime, and expires in front of His Holiness at his own dinner party in a spectacular poisoning. Berkoff appears as the choleric monk Savonarola, who inflicts a reign of terror on the Florentines, as he rants at the evil ways of the Medicis and the other merchants of the city, and burns his way through idolaters with his fundamentalist zeal. He also meets his end in due course via Borgia machination, naturally.

We’re currently two thirds of our way through the series, as Alexander fights to pre-empt Della Rovere’s attempts to bring the French army into Italy to depose him.

As is typical of the genre, the sets and costumes are superb – tights, tresses and renaissance streets in abundance. The opening sequence shows animated close-ups from paintings of the time – men in  varying stages of violent dispatch, and serene beauties in their silken dresses. The quirky theme music is by Trevor Morris, who also wrote the music for The Tudors, another series in the historical  sex’n’swords genre.

The director and scriptwriter is the esteemed Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, of Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire fame, so I guess it’s cool to be a Borgias fan even if all you’re really into  is renaissance rutting and sneaky slaughter.

For me, the series is well worth watching if only for the performance of Jeremy Irons, who is moving through middle age with great aplomb.

And I can’t wait to see how Jordan handles the Pope’s demise. Wikipedia has an excellent thumbnail of Alexander VI, and quotes John Burchard, a key papal official and contemporary diarist, as describing

“how the Pope’s mouth foamed like a kettle over a fire and how the body began to swell so much that it became as wide as it was long. The Venetian ambassador reported that Rodrigo Borgia’s body was “the ugliest, most monstrous and horrible dead body that was ever seen, without any form or likeness of humanity.” Finally the body began to release sulphurous gases from every orifice. Burchard records that he had to jump on the body to jam it into the undersized coffin and covered it with an old carpet, the only surviving furnishing in the room.”

A bit rich even for 2011 TV viewers, I fancy.

From → Books, History, Media, Religion

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