I have been waiting about a year since Showtime first announced The Borgias during final season of The Tudors. It’s finally here, and premiered last night. Don’t worry if you missed it; the premiere will be repeated (and repeated) on the various Showtime properties. So check the schedule.
My first college history class was History of the Italian Renaissance. It stands many years later as one of my favorite classes (and I wasn’t anywhere close to being a history major). The Renaissance period has always held for me a huge fascination’ it’s easy to romanticize it despite its violence, virulent anti-Semitism (The Inquisition) and greed. Who can in the distance of centuries resist the glorious velvets, tapestries, lutes and luthiers, poets, and painters. It is the era of discovery and great art; it is the age of da Vinci and Michelangelo. But it’s also the age of Machiavelli’s prince.
As far as the Showtime series, who can resist the velvety growl of Jeremy Irons voice? And who better to play the series central character Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI?
Rodrigo is the patriarch of what Showtime calls the “original crime family.” The family built its power upon manipulation, relentless ambition and cruelty. And the Borgias defined “Machiavellian” quite literally starring in Machiavelli’s quintessential work on politics The Prince. The Borgias were, much later, Mario Puzo’s inspiration for The Godfather its Corleone family. Set in an era of ruthlessness and power consolidation, the Borgias like the Corleones were simply more adept at the game than everyone else.
In episode one, Rodrigo buys his way into the papacy in 1492 after Pope Innocent dies. Before his death, Innocent admonishes the salivating Cardinals seeking “St. Peter’s Throne” to cleanse it of greed and lechery.
Unlike the other Cardinals vying for the pope’s mitre, Rodrigo was a Spaniard, not Italian, and therefore had very little respect. Almost immediately, the offended and envious Cardinals conspire first to assassinate him, and failing that, depose him.
But with the help of son Cesare, a bishop destined to be a cardinal himself, he turns the would-be assassin into a double agent now working for the Borgias. And, as they say, “revenge is best served cold.” Borgia revenge is often served up cold as a corpse. Realizing that he will be ever at battle in defending his position, Rodrigo (now Pope Alexander VI) elevates 13 new cardinals, stacking the deck in his favor.
Irons bring his immense charisma to the role of Rodrigo, mitigating the iciness and ruthlessness with an underlying (nearly invisible, actually) sense that the papacy is much more spiritually signficant than he thought it might be. You feel the weight on his shoulders, which is surprising in the man you might assume is the most cold blooded and cynical of clerics.
He seems truly horrified when lives are taken in defense of his power, and even compassionate listening to the confession of a young woman who has committed the sin of self-abortion. (On the other hand, his kindness to her leads to her becoming Rodrigo’s secret mistress.)
The cast of The Borgias is first rate, and joining Irons are Francois Arnaud as Cesare Borgia, David Oakes (Pillars of the Earth), and Holliday Grainger as the notorious Lucretia: Rodrigo’s children. Joanne Whalley (Reilly, Ace of Spies, Scarlett) plays his long-time mistress Vanozza, mother to his children. Renown British actor Derek Jacobi guest stars as the envious and vindictive Cardinal Orsini and Simon McBurny (Last King of Scotland; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2) puts in a beautifully understated performance as an expert in church law.
Academy Award-winning director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) wears many hats in this nine-episode series. He is not only creator and executive producer, but he also wrote each episode of season one, directing the first two. The photgraphy is as rich as a Renaissance tapestry with deep, jeweled colors, which offset the white and gold of the papal vestments. The music adds nicely to the drama, interweaving early Western music with more modern scoring.
I’m certain there will be treachery and debuachery aplenty as the series goes on in this first season, leaving little to the imagination and adding to understanding that the Vatican of then little resembles the relative serenity of the modern seat of the Catholicism. I am, as I said, no historian, so I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of the series, but I look forward to following the exploits of the colorful, but very dangerous family.
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