Over the summer I have had the great opportunity to get some reading done on topics that I don’t have enough time to read about during the rest of the busy year. One of my favourite reading topics tends to be history of various kinds, and in this case I have indulged myself by reading about one of the most controversial and sordid periods of the the Papacy: the rule of the Borgias.
In this narrative history of the period, Christopher Hibbert writes concerning the rise and ultimate fall of the family, stretching from the machinations of Rodrigo Borgia as a Cardinal in the 1450s, including the siring of his four children, to his assumed bribed election into the papacy, throughout his rule as Pope Alexander VI; including the legitimatising of his children and the various political and personal relationships therein. Then finally to his downfall in later life, and the eventual crumbling of his empire; with the book finishing after the death of Lucrezia in 1519.
This history of the period reads easily and flows well, guiding the reader through all the twists and turns of the debased state of the church and Rome in the 15th century; and the twists and turns are many. The multitude of strange deaths and stabbed bodies floating through the Tiber, various illegitimate offspring, and the infamous Ballet of the Chestnuts, all serve to illuminate the details surrounding the Borgia family. However, at the same time the intrigue in these twists and turns are ultimately the history’s downfall, with many historical details and contemporary events being glossed over as they did not appear to have as much relevance to the direct family story.
Events such as the trial of Jan Hus, the conflict with Girolamo Savonrola, and the associated papal denunciations and calls for reform of the papacy are summarily dealt with in a matter of pages, despite these events contributing to the initiation of the reformation and having a much interaction with the papacy than the author appears to give credit for. In contrast entire chapters are dedicated to the political machinations of the family, with extravagant detail concerning various parades and procession consuming many pages. This contrast of the level of detail paints an awkwardly lopsided picture of the Borgia family, one which rarely deals with any events outside of France, Italy and Spain; despite the high degree of historical interaction with Germany and the rest of Europe at the time.
Despite these limitations it is still an enjoyable read, and the picture which is painted is detailed and vibrant, even if incomplete. With some extra ancillary reading, and a bit of cross referencing of dates and major events this history of the papacy in the 15th century still provides a valuable background to the tumultuous events surrounding the church in the 16th century with the Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Rating: Three and a half freshly stabbed bodies floating down the Tiber.