The Borgias

The Borgias

Paul Strathern
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
This is a medium length book of some 341 pages, which opens up the intrigue and violence plus the corruption of the Medici period of Italian history and into a wider context of the Roman Catholic Church. The same wheeling and dealing then, is still seen today in both the political and business worlds, just maybe they are little more in the open.

The Borgias are family are known in particular, through previous television dramatisations regarding their activities for good or ill. The family tree shows that family actually ran the Catholic Church for a number of years through various generations. One does note the young age that many of them died either by the hand of others or due to disease and illness prevalent at the time, sometimes due to the treatments given.
This family originally from what we would now describe as Spain were well versed in the dubious arts of murder, blackmail and using family members through marriage to secure alliances with other monarchies, cities and regions but in dealing with the Borgias, they were never totally certain if they would either survive to a ripe old age or be murdered in the most heinous fashion. An invite to dinner with the Borgias was fraught with risk! As Catalans they were able to communicate between themselves in Catalan without the fear of eavesdroppers ascertaining what they were speaking of in their conversations. They brought many from Spain into the papal court much to the discomfiture of the French and Italian members of the church.

The author of this work has detailed the family in remarkable depth from Pope Callistus III who installed his nephew Rodrigo Borgia as Vice Chancellor serving four Pope’s for many years until he ascended the Papal throne as Alexander VI. During this period Rodrigo learnt many if not all the skills required to be Pope and he knew where the metaphorical bodies were buried. He acceded to the throne taking the name Alexander VI, He was as corrupt morally and venally as anybody of his time but was father to two very significant children in the history of 15th Century of what we call today: Italy. Alexander was a very astute politician and as devious and underhanded as any since and would use his children to his advantage when he required with or without their consent. He would promote people to high church rank for money, political patronage or advantage but also threaten them without any pang of conscience. Alexander would without hesitation use church monies or sequestrate money goods or lands to purchase friends or mercenaries to enforce his goal.

Cesare Borgia, a truly learned man who had very considerable charm and great ‘beauty’ but a very wide streak of personal narcissism, corruption and would unhesitatingly resort to murder to obtain what he wanted. He also had a deep relationship with his sister Lucrezia which some have intimated was incestuous. Cesare also contracted what was the called the ‘French’ disease which today we call Syphilis, which became widespread due to French troops bringing the disease into the Italian states. On many occasions Cesare angered his father by his actions but frequently they worked out in the end to the family’s advantage. Cesare under the tutelage of the King of France became a highly skilled military commander controlling the Papal forces and won numerous campaigns. His forces were a composite from many sources and their military discipline was none existent with rape, murder and looting more common than not in many places. Some cities were protected under the orders of Cesare from his forces by threat of execution to the soldiers. These forces for Alexander cost money and as previously shown the obtaining of that money was in many cases by threat.

Lucrezia was a woman of great physical beauty and of her time highly educated with an ability to be an able ruler in her lands. She in effect deputised for Alexander VI when he was out of Rome and in effect was an acting Pope and she actually made a very good job of it. She had many ‘affairs’ plus children who were either born alive some in secret, some stillborn. The illegitimate like some of other family members were legitimised by Alexander via secret ‘bulls’ or Papal instruction. She lived a licentious life as did her family and was married on numerous occasions, one of her husbands fleeing Rome when he displeased Cesare and one of her husbands being murdered on his orders.

In this tome we meet the devious Machiavelli who was used as a go between for the Borgia’s and some of their ‘enemies’ and his observations are well worth reading. Leonardo da Vinci was eventually employed as an engineer by Cesare more than once and as an engineer produced a map of a city by a system that is still used today plus numerous pieces of military equipment. As an artist, he was an outstanding chronicler of his time producing many many fine paintings. When he tired of painting he concentrated on engineering, bringing forward inventions well beyond his years.

The death of Alexander VI and near death of his son Cesare following a banquet with a ‘friend’ raised much suspicion that they had been a victim of one of the favourite Borgia methods of murder by poisoning, but subsequent analysis the cause of death is most likely to have been by malaria. Whilst Alexander died, his son survived albeit in a weakened state, and in great danger. But, in true Borgia fashion, he survived and with the help of his sister and the weakness of subsequent Popes rose again to be a force in Italian politics. That Cesare died due to happenstance rather than an a formal assassination attempt which removed one of the major influences of the period, who if he survived may have even acceded to the throne of Saint Peter in due course. Lucrezia also died at a young age having had numerous pregnancies leaving her increasingly weakened over the years but during her life like the rest of her family was also a mistress of intrigue and corruption.

The years of the Orsini, Medici and Borgia families are all intertwined, by intrigue, corrupt greed and bribery, then from the outside were the Kings of Naples, France and Spain plus the city states that made up Italy at the time and the ever present threat of invasion from the east by the Moors. This last problem tended to unite them all against a common enemy.

If you are student of this period this book is highly recommended and Paul Strathern has produced a book is both extremely detailed and in great depth about a family who had a profound effect on the city states of what we call today Italy. The work of Machiavelli ‘The Prince’ is based on his observations on who the arch political manipulator Cesare Borgia, an operator worked at playing all sides for his families and more importantly to his own personal advancement by a combination of wealth and power. The reason today why politicians are described as Machiavellian, not that Machiavelli was the intriguer but his observations of the Borgia family in action.

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