I bring you a review of a book that deals with two pretty controversial (and as the title says, ‘vilified’) historical figures of the Italian Renaissance.
Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family by Samantha Morris
Myths and rumour have shrouded the Borgia family for centuries – tales of incest, intrigue and murder have been told of them since they themselves walked the hallways of the Apostolic Palace. In particular, vicious rumour and slanderous tales have stuck to the names of two members of the infamous Borgia family – Cesare and Lucrezia, brother and sister of history’s most notorious family. But how much of it is true, and how much of it is simply rumour aimed to blacken the name of the Borgia family? In the first ever biography solely on the Borgia siblings, Samantha Morris tells the true story of these two fascinating individuals from their early lives, through their years living amongst the halls of the Vatican in Rome until their ultimate untimely deaths. Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia begins in the bustling metropolis of Rome with the siblings ultimately being used in the dynastic plans of their father, a man who would become Pope, and takes the reader through the separate, yet fascinatingly intertwined, lives of the notorious siblings. One tale, that of Cesare, ends on the battlefield of Navarre, whilst the other ends in the ducal court of Ferrara. Both Cesare and Lucrezia led lives full of intrigue and danger, lives which would attract the worst sort of rumour begun by their enemies. Drawing on both primary and secondary sources Morris brings the true story of the Borgia siblings, so often made out to be evil incarnate in other forms of media, to audiences both new to the history of the Italian Renaissance and old.
About the author:
Samantha Morris studied archaeology at the University of Winchester where her interest in the history of the Italian Renaissance began. Since graduating University, her interest in the Borgia family has grown to such an extent that she is always looking for new information on the subject as well as fighting against the age-old rumours that haunt them. Her first published book is Cesare Borgia in a Nutshell, a brief biography which aims to dispel the myths surrounding a key member of the Borgia family. She runs the popular Borgia website https://theborgiabull.com/
I thank Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me a hardback early copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.
I have long been fascinated by the Borgias, (Borja). Partly, I guess, because they were a Spanish family (dynasty?); partly, because the legend surrounding them (Pope Alexander VI and his even more infamous children, Cesare and Lucrezia) is so full of colour and extreme and criminal behaviours, that they sound much bigger than life, characters that if we came across them in a work of fiction we’d say they were too unbelievable. Writers of extreme thrillers and horror would have to push their creative buttons to the maximum come up with characters such as those.
I’d always wondered how much of what was said about them was true, and of that, how many of those behaviours were unusual or unexpected in the period. XV century Europe was not a particularly peaceful and enlightened place, and being powerful and rich conferred a lot more license to the individuals than it does nowadays (not that these days it is something to be ignored either, as we all know, but the social differences were abysmal at the time). When I saw Morris’s book, I couldn’t resist, and she does a great job of answering many of my doubts and trying to be as comprehensive and fair as possible when studying the lives and reputations of those two historical figures.
Morris starts (after the acknowledgements) by an introduction where she explains her interest and her reasons for writing this book, a labour of love, as she has studied the period, written other books, and keeps a regular blog about the Italian Renaissance, and the Borgias in particular. She explains that there is plenty of misinformation and rumours that have been shared and repeated, both in academic/historical sources, and also in popular literature and entertainment, and she is at pains to put this right.
She follows a chronological order in telling the lives of the Borgias, starting with a chapter on the background family history, and she then dedicates the rest of the book to the close family, focusing on the interaction of the father with his sons and daughter, but mostly on the lives of the two siblings, Cesare and Lucrezia.
The author does a great job of explaining the sources of her information, always distinguishing rumour (even when this rumour came from the era when the events took place) from fact, as far as the available sources allow. She also provides a good insight into the usual social behaviour of the era and the political struggles between the different actors, all trying their best to push their interests and ally themselves with whomever might best serve those at any given time. Betrayal is rife, allies changed at the drop of a hat, and there was much envy and prejudice against the Borgia family, as they were outsiders who had quickly risen to power in Italy, as Morris points out.
That does not mean that Pope Alexander or Cesare were harmless individuals. They schemed, they fought, and they killed, for sure, although perhaps not to the extent they were credited with, and probably not to a degree that differed from others in similar circumstances at that time. Machiavelli didn’t focus on Cesare Borgia in his book The Prince for nothing, that much is evident. Yet, in addition to his most cruel and atrocious behaviours, his reputation seems to have been darkened further by allegations and accusations unfounded and unproven. And yet, these have survived to this day.
The Lucrezia Borgia we discover in these pages is a woman who was manipulated and used by her father (and brother, to a lesser extent) as a way of gaining more influence and power (when she was very young, as was the norm at the time), who had little saying on the matter, and who later had to endure illness, traumatic losses, continuous pregnancies, miscarriages, and absent husbands, while looking after territories and properties she was left in charge of. It seems she was beloved by the inhabitants, she was good at defending the interests of her husband and the people of Ferrara, and she was pious and a fervent Catholic. She seems to have been close to her brother, but the rumours of incest seem unwarranted, and she was ill treated by her husbands, often seeking refuge in convents. The author often quotes letters and documents written by the protagonists, and I must admit I like the sound of Lucrezia, and although Cezare wasn’t a “nice and good” person by any stretch of the imagination, I can see why somebody like Machiavelli would have taken him as a subject of study. Boring, he was not.
The book also includes illustrations, a solid bibliography, and detailed notes, although this should not put people off, as the writing style is accessible, and people without specialised historical knowledge of the era will have no problem reading it. The author also talks about the depictions of the Borgias in popular culture and includes recommendations about the best and most historically accurate documentaries, movies, series, books, and novels, and this will prove very useful to those of us who want to learn more, but don’t want to waste our time with poorly sourced materials.
As I am not an expert on the subject, I cannot compare this book with others published before, but I found it a good entry point for people interested in finding out if the Borgias’ reputation is warranted, and to read about that fascinating period of history. It is a balanced account of the biography of these two figures, and I recommend it to readers who want to go beyond the titillation and excess that has surrounded their reputation.
Thanks to Rosie and to the author, for enlightening me about this family, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and above all, keep reading, and keep safe!