The Borgias — a sordid tale of the Papacy

The Borgias Cover

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.3_half_bodies


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