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The Borgias: Power and Fortune by Paul Strathern, review: sex, violence and clichéd writing

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(L-r) Cesare Borgia, Lucrezia Borgia, Pope Alexander VI and a young man, in A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia by John Collier (1893)
(L-r) Cesare Borgia, Lucrezia Borgia, Pope Alexander VI and a young man, in A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia by John Collier (1893)

The Renaissance began in 1492, they say, when Christopher Columbus encountered America and Lucrezia Borgia’s father, Rodrigo, was made Pope Alexander VI. During the 11-year Borgia papacy, until 1503, Rome was turned into the powerhouse of Italy, rife with family preferment and intrigue. Ironically, the most notorious family in Italian history was Spanish, Rodrigo having been born Roderic de Borja, in the territories of Aragon.

Lucrezia was a mere child when her father was elected to supreme office, but with her ethereal blonde looks she became a symbol of the new, sexually confident Renaissance woman. Surrounded by poets and artists, she was a smart administrator of her third (and last) husband the Duke of Ferrara’s realm.

Lord Byron, for one, was so captivated by the idea of Lucrezia that, in 1816, he stole a lock of her hair from a cabinet in the Ambrosiana library in Milan. Byron had been moved almost to tears by Lucrezia’s 16-year correspondence with the Venetian scholar-poet and future cardinal, Pietro Bembo. “The prettiest love letters in the world,” he gushed. What Alfonso d’Este made of his wife’s affair with Bembo is uncertain, but in Borgia-era Italy, a man destined for the cardinalate could also be a known adulterer. Even Popes were frequently lovers and fathers: Pope Alexander VI had eight known children.

Bembo is exalted as the perfect gentleman in Castiglione’s 1528 The Book of the Courtier, that great Renaissance treatise on how to get on in the world. To a degree, Lucrezia shared in Castiglione’s courtly ideals of modesty, kindness and grace of deportment, but her intellectual aspirations were hampered by child-bearing. She bore Alfonso d’Este no fewer than 10 sons (only five of whom survived infancy). By the time she was 22, the “pope’s daughter” had been married three times to serve papal agendas.

Pope Alexander VI (of whom Machiavelli wrote approvingly that he “never did or thought of anything but deceiving people”) displayed a Godfather-like ruthlessness and slyly watchful ambition for his children. Having bribed his way to the Apostolic throne, he made Lucrezia and his oldest son Cesare pawns in the Great Game between Spain and France that was fought out on Italian soil.

Cesare Borgia, painted by Altobello Melone Credit: Getty

In the tenebrous world of Renaissance Rome, a young man needed contacts in alti luoghi (high places) to survive. Cesare Borgia was thus made a cardinal while still in his teens, but he was never a very holy pastor. In The Borgias: Power and Fortune, Paul Strathern paints Cesare as the Renaissance equivalent of a power-hungry, Rolex-wearing, Savile Row-suited man about town, who bent, bludgeoned or strangled people to his will. His motto was Aut Caesar aut nihil, “Either Caesar or nothing”.

In 1499, in a typical Borgia alliance of political and papal convenience, Cesare was married to the wealthy French noblewoman Charlotte d’Albret. With troops provided by the French king Louis XII, Cesare launched a campaign of siege and assassination to bring the north of Italy under his father’s control, and quickly conquered the duchies of Romagna, Umbria and Emilia.

Machiavelli, impressed, used Cesare as the model for The Prince, as Strathern reminds us. A prince must either be like the “fox or lion” (and thus avoid entrapment), Machiavelli advised. However, Machiavelli’s true opinion of Cesare Borgia is not easy to fathom because the Tuscan thinker-diplomat was at times an ironist, who kept his views hidden when it suited his politics.

Alexander VI, meanwhile, destroyed the power of Rome’s all-powerful Orsini and Colonna families (they each had an eye on the papacy) and consolidated his ties with the self-styled “Catholic Monarchs” King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Diplomatic bonds with Catholic Spain were important to the Borgias, given their origins. (Alexander VI’s uncle, Alonso de Borja, was Callixtus III, the first Spanish pope of the Roman Catholic Church.) In deference to his Spanish ancestry, Cesare staged bullfights in Rome in front of St Peter’s, and put a red bull rampant on the Borgia coat of arms. He conversed with his family in Catalan, not Italian.

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto (c1530), traditionally thought to be Lucrezia Borgia

Unsurprisingly, Alexander VI tolerated the Spanish Inquisition and the sadistic Dominican friar Tomás de Torquemada as its Grand Inquisitor. The regime over which the Borgia pope presided was, by any standards, an atrocious display of human intolerance and state violence. With sophistical arguments and sly propositions, it stifled the spirit of independent thought as exemplified by the Renaissance.

In vivid if cliché-ridden prose (“to all intents and purposes”, “like a bolt from the blue”), Strathern considers the House of Borgia’s reputation for cruelty more generally. Cesare’s preferred method of strangling was in the “Spanish style” – with a loop of lyre string – and he reportedly used convicted felons for crossbow target practice. He may even have killed his own brother, the “incompetent braggart” Juan Borgia, who was found floating belly-up in the Tiber in 1497.

Atop all this were the rumours of his incestuous relations with Lucrezia. Cesare’s jealousy and dislike of his sister’s male friends was well-known. The rumours reached a pitch in the summer of 1500, when Lucrezia’s dearly loved second husband, Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie, was found strangled in Rome in his own bed.

On his father’s death in 1503 from malaria (or perhaps from arsenic poisoning: the jury is still out), Cesare effectively became a hereditary pope, but his power was compromised severely following the election to St Peter’s of the “Warrior Pope” Julius II, who had been Alexander VI’s bitter enemy. Weakened by syphilis, Cesare took himself to Navarre in Spain where, on March 11 1507, he was stabbed to death and stripped of his jewels and fine clothes by a group of rogue knights.

By the time his sister Lucrezia died of puerperal fever 12 years later, in 1519, the Borgia dynasty was moribund. Lucrezia’s second son by Alfonso d’Este, Ippolito II d’Este, nevertheless built the wondrously eccentric Villa d’Este in Tivoli, due east of Rome. As a fellow of some discernment, he had his chamber pots fashioned from crystal and wore Spanish gloves scented with ambergris, a sweet-smelling sperm whale secretion. He had all the money and connections necessary to become a cardinal, and in 1539, two decades after his mother’s death at the age of only 39, he was made Cardinal of Ferrara. It was very much the Borgia way of doing things.

As a history, The Borgias offers a vivid insight into the hothouse world of papal politics in the tumultuous years before the Reformation. Nevertheless, it struggles to make any significant contribution to its subject.

Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, spent 20 years working on a novel about the Borgias, The Family, which confirmed them as the great dynasty of the debauched and the depraved. Strathern’s book, a synthesis of numerous other modern sources, is similarly glutted with stabbings, poisonings, slaughters wholesale and retail, treacheries, sinister omens, rapes, orgies and the inevitable sprinkling of misspelt Italian place names (“Spoletto” for Spoleto).

Strathern is also not the first historian of Renaissance Italy to exonerate Lucrezia from charges of unrelieved sexual depravity and violence. Lucrezia may have enjoyed the thrill of extramarital love with Pietro Bembo and other suitors, but adultery was commonplace among Renaissance grandes dames. If anything, she was prey to her family’s machinations and manoeuvrings for power, and not (or not only) the Renaissance “black widow” of legend. Certainly, she was a saint compared to Cesare, the baddest of the Borgias’ very bad.

The Borgias: Power and Fortune is published by Atlantic at £25. To order your copy for £20, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop