Review | The Borgias: Power and Depravity in Renaissance Italy – Paul Strathern

About the Book

The glorious and infamous history of the Borgia family—a world of saints, corrupt popes, and depraved princes and poisoners—set against the golden age of the Italian Renaissance.

The Borgia family have become a byword for evil. Corruption, incest, ruthless megalomania, avarice and vicious cruelty—all have been associated with their name. And yet, paradoxically, this family lived when the Renaissance was coming into its full flowering in Italy. Examples of infamy flourished alongside some of the finest art produced in western history.           

This is but one of several paradoxes associated with the Borgia family. For the family which produced corrupt popes, depraved princes and poisoners, would also produce a saint. These paradoxes which so characterize the Borgias have seldom been examined in great detail. Previously history has tended to condemn, or attempt in part to exonerate, this remarkable family. Yet in order to understand the Borgias, much more is needed than evidence for and against. The Borgias must be related to their time, together with the world which enabled them to flourish. Within this context the Renaissance itself takes on a very different aspect. Was the corruption part of the creation, or vice versa? Would one have been possible without the other?           

In this way, the Borgia too represent the greatest aspirations of the Renaissance. Condemning the Borgia is as futile as attempting to exonerate them. Their leadership and their depravity must both be taken into account, for it would appear that they are both part of the same picture. In the nineteenth century the German philosopher Nietzsche would outline his theory of the Will to Power. In the ensuing century this idea would be hijacked by the Fascists and put into ruthless practice. The Borgia were no Fascists, nor were they thinkers of the calibre of Nietzsche: yet it is arguable that they united both the idea and the practice of the Will to Power some four centuries prior to Nietzsche’s conception of this guiding human principle. Telling the story of the Borgias becomes both an illustration and an exemplary analysis of the strengths and flaws of this  evolutionary idea.

The primitive psychological forces which first played out in the amphitheaters of ancient Greece: hubris, incest, murder, the bitter rivalries and entanglements of doomed families, the treacheries of political power, the twists of fate – they are all here. Along with the final, tragic downfall. All these elements are played out in full in the glorious and infamous history of the Borgia family.

400 pages (kindle) 
Published on August 6, 2019
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This book was a library loan.

I’m a big fan of reading about depravity. I get a huge kick out of seeing how weird powerful people are/were, and seriously, what better place to really examine that dynamic than with the infamous Borgia family? 

Honestly, there isn’t much that is new here. The Borgias have been studied and endlessly written about since Cesere was killing his way across Europe, and the 60 year old Pope Alexander VI was enjoying time with his teenaged mistress. That being said, if you enjoy reading about really uh… unforgettable people, you really can’t go wrong with this family, regardless if you’re already well-versed in all things Borgia, or if you’re new to this family and all its drama. 

Paul Strathern is a Somerset Maugham Prize-Winning novelist, who has a particular interest in history. His writing, in this book, showcases his talent as an author. At times, this book reads more like a novel than the nonfiction biography of a family. It was incredibly immersive and very easy to just sit back and enjoy. And, while I do say in the previous paragraph that there isn’t a whole lot new here, it is, perhaps, Strathern’s particular focus on this family that presents a lot of the events in a new light. 

The book starts out with a bit of family history, discussing the town of Borja, in Spain, the family hails from, and what took them from that region, to Italy. Furthermore, there is some elaboration given as to the popes of the time, and how the Borgia family, specifically Rodrigo, managed to insinuate himself in the heart of the Catholic Church. Now, let me be clear here. I basically know next to nothing about Catholicism. I’ve been to a boatload of cathedrals in Europe, and I know the pope is a dude in Rome who wears impressive hats, but that’s seriously just about it, so this part of the book really intrigued me (and the vignettes of previous popes was also one of the most interesting and memorable parts of the book). I guess I’d never really paid much attention to the popes Rodrigo served before he became Alexander VI.

Specifically, I had no idea how the depravity so many associate with Alexander VI was, by no means, unique to him. At the time, the handful of popes before him seemed no better or worse than he was. Nepotism, in fact, seems like something the popes in that day and age really specialized in. So, why then did the Borgias carry such infamy regarding debauchery while the others did not? 

In my mind, a lot of it had to do with politics. Alexander VI had a driving desire to unite all of the papal states and have them ruled over by one hereditary Borgia prince. As you can imagine, a lot of people didn’t like that. Furthermore, the family was (gasp) Catalan, and not actually Italian, and that was a Very Big Deal to a lot of important people at that time. When Cesere was born, his name literally meant “Prince-in-Waiting” which really highlights the desire for a dynasty that Rodrigo was after. 

Cesare was notorious in the realm. Bloodthirsty and conniving, he was absolutely ruthless and was rumored to have orchestrated the murder of his own brother. Furthermore, it was Cesare who was rumored to have an illicit affair with his own sister. While Strathern doesn’t really waste time on this claim (largely, I think, because he doesn’t think much of it), he does acknowledge that the family—Rodrigo, Cesare, Lucretia—were very, very close and had different views of intimacy that may have raised eyebrows and set people talking. Furthermore, apparently Cesare and Lucretia had a bit of jealousy regarding each other and their intimacies with other people, probably just fueling the fires of that particular rumor. 

The other child, outside of Cesare, that everyone will associate with the Borgias is Lucretia, the beautiful and favorite daughter of Alexander VI. She was incredibly loyal to her family, and to the vision her father had for a united Italy, and spent most of her life in and out of marriages with families who would support her father’s vision for Italy, and her family’s ultimate goals. Smart, and crafty, she had her fingers in plenty of pies, and also seemed to be either loved or hated, as did most of her family. Her storied life, however, is quite impressive, considering the fact that she was a woman in the 1400’s, she seemed to test a lot of the roles for women at the time, and redefine exactly what women in power should be, and were, capable of.

The son that perhaps doesn’t get much limelight is Juan (there are other sons aside from Juan and Cesare as well, but really is it these three children that define the Borgias), who was murdered early on. Juan is not a son that ever gets spoken about much, likely because there just wasn’t a whole lot of time in the dynastic manipulations for him to get spoken about. What interested me about Juan, however, was how much his father loved him. I did not previously know of the sibling rivalry between Juan and Cesare, nor did I know that Juan’s death nearly destroyed Alexander VI, as he refused to eat and drink for several days, as he mourned the loss of his favorite child. 

(Side note: Cesare and his syphilis got me googling how syphilis was treated back in the 1400’s, when it first appeared in Europe, and I can never unsee that.)

Love them or hate them, the Borgia family is fascinating to read about. Machiavelli wrote The Prince based largely on Cesare Borgia’s life. Lucretia is still one of the most storied women out there. Juan, the favorite and fallen son is a tragic story that has been told time and again through the hands of playwriters and other authors. Alexander VI had his eyes set on dynasty, and spent his time as pope trying to not only seize those goals, but trying to promote the growth and development of the Catholic Church as a whole (despite the fact that he wasn’t terribly religious). While he may have been a letch, he also was instrumental in the Renaissance and was tolerable (more than many others) toward Jews, and other minority groups. He focused a lot on poverty, and he threw some incredible parties that are still talked about to this day. 

This is, perhaps, the strength of this book. There isn’t a whole lot new under the sun about the Borgia family, but Strathern does a great job at focusing on their juxtapositions. They were focused on empire, would do absolutely anything to further their family’s cause, and yet they were instrumental in the spread of the Renaissance. Alexander had a soft spot for the downtrodden. They helped a lot of people who had been looked over by many others in power. 

If you do not know a whole lot about this period, this is a great place to start. And even if you are quite familiar with this particular story, I do think Strathern’s focus in this book might cast some events in a new, interesting light. There is a lot here, from family feuds, to jealousies, to battles, to land grabs, the questionable treatment of prisoners, and so much more. The Borgias defined the times in which they lived, with all their ruthless power grabs, and their softer, often overlooked side as well. Love them or hate them, you can’t really get more dramatic than this. I think the author put it perfectly: “all one can state—dispassionately—is that they were often better than they appeared…and…on occasion they could be far worse.” 

5/5 stars


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