The Borgias Could Use a Better Advocate – A Review of The Borgias: The Hidden History by G.J. Meyer

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Anyone who knows me personally, or at least via my reviews over the past few years, knows that I have an especially large soft spot for the Italian Renaissance. I’ve been drawn to the period ever since I started actively reading about history for pleasure, instead of just as part of the school curriculum, and the interest has remained even when my interest in other parts of history, like, say, ancient Egypt, waxed and waned according to various events in my life and shifts in personal interest.

However, the Italian Renaissance is a broad subject, and it’s nearly impossible to read up on everything about it currently available. I’m also not interested in absolutely everything about it: some parts are mildly interesting, but I’m not about to delve deeply into them. However, a few specific corners do interest me, and one of those corners—perhaps the largest of them—is the history of the (in?)famous Borgia family. In fact, they are my primary point of interest in the Italian Renaissance, and currently most of the reading I do about the period, whether in fiction or nonfiction, is connected to learning all I can about that particular family.

Over the course of history a lot of ink has been spilled about the Borgia family, most of it very unflattering. They have been held up as an example of the decadence of the Roman Catholic Church during the Renaissance, as well as examples of how deep depravity can go when it is supported by great power and great wealth. It is said of the Borgias that they committed every possible crime under the sun, murder and incest being at the very top of the list. They have been accused of scheming to bring all of Italy under their control, not to protect it from external enemies, but to support their bottomless greed for power and money. What the Borgias wanted, the Borgias got—no matter the cost, and no matter the method.

But of all the things ever said and ever written about the Borgias, how much of it is actually true? How much of it can be supported by documentary evidence? Just as importantly, who has been saying and writing all these things about the Borgias that persist even today, and why did they say and write what they did? And why is most of it being swallowed wholesale?

Those are the questions G.J. Meyer seeks to answer in The Borgias: The Hidden History. Touted as a revisionist history of the Borgias, Meyer sifts through most of what is currently known about the Borgias, and asks: how much of this is true? In doing so, he offers a view of Renaissance Italy’s most notorious family that challenges all the currently-held beliefs about them, offering a portrait that strips away hundreds of years of rumour and gossip in the hopes of painting, if not a better picture, then at least a fairer one.

Meyer is not the first person to think that the way the Borgias have been portrayed is not exactly fair. Several writers, both in fiction and nonfiction, have attempted to figure out whether or not the Borgias really deserve the reputation history has given them. Meyer, however, attempts to do nothing less than completely overhaul the Borgia reputation, particularly Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI. In The Borgias: The Hidden History, Meyer chooses to focus mostly on him, following his progress from protege to his uncle Alonso Borgia, who would rise to become Pope Calixtus III, thus giving Rodrigo the step he needed towards an extremely successful career in the Vatican that would culminate with Rodrigo becoming pope.

While following Rodrigo’s progress from his rise to his death, Meyer insists that he was not the greedy, corrupt creature that later history would make him out to be. Instead, Meyer portrays him as a hardworking man, extremely likeable, cheerful of spirit, and generous of heart—enough that he would willingly ignore the slander that was hurled his way: slander that would later form the basis for the undeserved blackening of his character at the hands of his greatest rival, Giuliano della Rovere, later Pope Julius II. If he had one flaw, it was that he was willing to go to great lengths—too great—in order to advance his family’s stature in the world.

What Meyer is saying is nothing less than that, contrary to popular belief, Rodrigo was a good man and a good pope: one who, despite his flaws, was miles better as a man and as head of the Church than some of his other predecessors, and even some of his successors—and that made me raise my eyebrow. While I’m willing to accept that Rodrigo was not as bad as history portrayed him to be, I don’t quite buy into Meyer’s version of him, either. It rather feels like he’s trying to paint a halo around Rodrigo, a saintly aura that I’m not quite sure if Rodrigo actually deserves. I think this is Meyer making assertions based on pure inference, with only a very thin amount of documentation to back it up.

But the greatest revelation that Meyer makes in this book is that Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Joffre, Rodrigo’s four famous children, are not his children at all. He asserts that they are, in fact, the children of his brother, Pedro Luis, and that they were primarily raised in Spain until their father’s death, whereupon their mother (whose identity, Meyer claims, cannot really be confirmed) brought them to Rome, where they could enjoy the protection and patronage of their uncle Rodrigo. Meyer claims that the complicated and extremely tangled Borgia family tree, to say nothing of the confusing nature of Spanish naming conventions and surname usage, has contributed to a complete and utter misunderstanding of the origins of the Borgia children. While Meyer does point to some interesting references that means this could be true, I also rather feel that it’s a part of his attempt to completely whitewash Rodrigo’s reputation: after all, if he wasn’t the father of those four particular Borgia, then he can’t have been Vanozza’s (whoever she was) patron, and therefore can’t have broken the Church’s rule of celibacy for the clergy. As I’ve said, I find this rather hard to swallow.

All of the above is, of course, interesting to me, not least because I also hold the belief that history has given the Borgias a raw deal. I’ve read the accounts by Sabatini, Dumas, and some of the more recent material, as well as novels, and I really do believe that they aren’t as evil as they are sometimes portrayed to be. I’m especially suspicious of the incest accusation: not because I don’t believe it could have happened, particularly between Cesare and Lucrezia, but because accusations of sexual deviancy were so commonplace in the Italian Renaissance that I feel any charge of incest should be taken with a grain of salt.

In that sense, Meyer does manage a rather fine job of it, stripping away the blacker stories that have accrued to the Borgia name over the centuries, as well as insisting that more researchers should try and really look at what the Borgias were actually like instead of just swallowing previous history wholesale. He encourages active questioning of the Borgia myth, pointing out, quite rightfully, that one should not simply accept what has been written about them at face value, not least because so much of what makes up their story was made up almost out of whole cloth by their enemies.

However, I think it’s also clear that Meyer doesn’t precisely practice what he preaches in the above. He’s quite happy to be critical of anything and everything that’s ever been said about the Borgias, but it’s easy to note that he doesn’t quite do the same for other historical figures, especially with women who are not Borgia or involved with the Borgias. For instance, early in the book he talks about the Theophylacti family, using them as an example of how previous occupants of the papal throne could sometimes be more corrupt than the Borgias. As an example of how depraved they were, he holds up a woman named Marozia as an example, citing her as lover to two popes and ancestor of a few more, whom Meyer paints as equally depraved (interesting to note that he states one of those popes was homosexual, implying that homosexuality was part of the depravity). Later on in the book he quite literally throws Caterina Sforza under a bus, again citing her sexual appetite as one of the reasons for her downfall. That the Borgia reputation was blackened primarily because of accusations of sexual deviancy, and that he’s done his best to repudiate those accusations, doesn’t appear to stop Meyer from making similar accusations of women who might not necessarily deserve those accusations—women other biographers and historians have either already cleared of such accusations, or whose reputations have already been reframed in a fairer light based on solid documentary evidence (as has been the case with Caterina Sforza).

I’m also not very happy with Meyer’s decision not to use footnotes. He makes it clear, at the end of the book, that his decision not to use footnotes was to ensure the continuous flow of the narrative, but I think that was already broken when he decided to include “Background” chapters in between the chapters tackling the history of the Borgias directly. The footnotes would, at least, have helped in identifying which source or sources he was referring to when making any kind of assertion, but the lack of footnotes makes it difficult to confirm whether or not what he’s saying is a conclusion he’s come to on his own, or something that he inferred based on a separate document.

All of this makes me skeptical, to say the least. While I’m happy that someone has tried to treat the Borgias fairly, I’m not entirely pleased with the way Meyer’s gone about it. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt: in writing that book Cooney was extremely careful to note when she was making claims based on actual fact, or on mere personal speculation, and had the footnotes to back everything up. While some readers have (rather rightly, I have to say) stated that Cooney’s writing is dry and the narrative flow of her book is not as smooth as might be wished, I would have to say that she, at least, takes this business of academic responsibility seriously. While it might be argued that Meyer’s book is a piece of popular history, not an academic treatise, I would like to argue that despite being popular history Meyer still has a responsibility to his readers to inform them regarding his sources, and whether or not what he’s putting down on paper is based on fact, or on personal speculation—and not direct them to call his publisher to put said readers in contact with him if they have any further questions.

Overall, The Borgias: The Hidden History is a fascinating read, but I’m not entirely sure if it should be classified as nonfiction. Though Meyer makes a fine attempt at cleaning up the Borgia family’s blackened reputation, and pushes for fresh inquiry into their history instead of just accepting what has already been said, he does so in a way that makes me wonder whether he ought to be writing a novel instead of historical nonfiction. He makes a great many claims and assertions that he says are based on documentary evidence, but it’s hard to figure out which documents those are, especially because of the complete absence of footnotes and a rather thin bibliography. It also doesn’t help that Meyer isn’t afraid to blacken the reputations of other people who are not Borgia or friendly to the Borgias, nor is he afraid to throw women under a bus if it suits his purposes. All of this makes it very difficult to wholeheartedly accept all of Meyer’s claims, and makes me think that the Borgias deserve a far more reputable advocate.

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