Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Borgias

Alexander VI goes to Hollywood...
Photo from Wikipedia Commons, Pinturicchio fresco.

On Easter Sunday, with cheeky timing, the first episode of season 2 of The Borgias, a lavish Showtime series starring Jeremy Irons, was broadcast in North America. I received a box set of the first series/season 1 for Christmas, and have been watching my way through it in recent weeks.

The infamous pontificate of the chubby and jolly Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), has long stood at the heart of my interests as a historian, ever since I studied the (now sadly defunct) Oxford final-year special subject on Renaissance Papal Rome. The questions about the 15C which most interested me when applying for graduate study are essentially the same ones which underpin my current research: what forces in the medieval church produced a pontificate of such celebrated seediness, sexual scandal and military brutality? How were the antics of the Borgia dynasty in Rome perceived further afield in Christendom, in kingdoms like Poland, and what effect did they have on the church and its development there?

For these reasons, I curl up on my sofa with a certain amount of curiosity, trepidation and relish to watch my Borgia DVDs. The series is of course sensationalised (but not much!), but I’ve not so far found it trashy, factually footloose or two-dimensional in the way that what little I could watch of The Tudors was. A lot of the characterisations, particularly of Alexander VI’s children, seem pretty spot-on. There is an earnest attempt to educate the audience in the intricate geopolitics of 15C Italy – whether it’s Rodrigo Borgia giving his youngest son a laboured geography lesson in front of a giant map, or the pope drawing a political diagram on his mistress’ thigh for her edification. In particular, the series’ writer Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), has stuck surprisingly close to the sources – a lot of the characters and events depicted in The Borgias seem to come straight from the pages of the diary of Johannes Burchard, our chief source for the court of Alexander VI, and Burchard himself is given various cameos. In the series’ presentation of the political and military history of Italy, there are various echoes of Francesco Guicciardini’s grand narrative of the period, the Storia d’Italia.

Watching the series has, perhaps because of its surprising historical fidelities, therefore felt slightly strange. Seeing on screen, with cinematic clarity, events which as a historian you have been visualising in your head for years feels like an act of necromancy – like watching spirits raised and speaking before your eyes. So much of what historians do is rooted in imagination (‘historical imagination’ is indeed one of the official criteria for Oxford undergraduate entry), that to have someone else do the imagining for you, on a multi-million dollar budget, is an unexpectedly unsettling experience.

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