Jeremy Irons as Alexander VI in The Borgias.
May 6, 2013

The Borgias

In his Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius recommends that we meditate upon someone who has gone to hell through the commission of one mortal sin. Well, the problem with that is that we don't know, as a matter of faith, of anyone who has actually gone to hell. The Church proclaims that someone is a saint, and it is my understanding that it is a matter of faith that the person is in Heaven. However, while we may believe that Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Richard Nixon is in hell, we don't know it with any certainty. So when I tried the exercises I was sort of stumped. I picked on Alexander VI though because he had a reputation as a thoroughly bad pope. He was reputed to have had an orgy at which prostitutes picked up chestnuts using their nether regions, and he was reputed to have poisoned his opponents, and committed incest with his daughter, Lucrezia. So he was a right jolly old sinner, and ripe for hell.

There's a fairly decent movie, Prince of Foxes, with Orson Welles as Cesare Borgia, and Mario Puzo wrote a novel about the Borgias. More recently there's a series on Showtime about the Borgias with Jeremy Irons as Alexander VI and Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia.

The television show uses every story about the iniquity of the Borgias, except perhaps for Lucrezia being an expert poisoner, and assumes that they are all true. G. J. Meyer on the other hand has written a revisionist history of the time in which he contends that Alexander, far from being a bad pope destined to join other bad popes in one of the deeper circles of a Dantean hell, was actually not such a bad guy after all. In the process he deals with a number of issues that were relevant then, and remain relevant.

On the Turkish treatment of women in the Sultan's harem:

" "Infidelity was made impossible for these women by another famous feature of the sultan’s Topkapi palace: a harem guard force made up of black African slaves who, because their sexual organs had been removed, could not cuckold the monarch. Because Islamic law forbade castration, the Turks purchased these eunuchs as children from such places as Ethiopia, Abyssinia, and Sudan, where slave traders were happy to perform the necessary alterations."*

*Meyer, G.J. (2013-04-02). The Borgias: The Hidden History (Kindle Locations 696-699). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

" On a disarmed citizenry:
"Typically, upon seizing power a new tyrant would disarm the citizenry. This was not as unpopular a measure as one might suppose; random bloodshed stopped as swords and daggers disappeared, so that the change was not greatly deplored. Still, the need to maintain order and defend against invaders remained, and even leaders as supposedly enlightened as the Medici found it advisable to suppress dissent. The tyrants needed soldiers to do such work but, being usurpers, most found it impossible to trust the people they ruled."*

*Meyer, G.J. (2013-04-02). The Borgias: The Hidden History (Kindle Locations 2598-2602). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

" On Savonarola and his puritan excesses:

"This is the Savonarola who, back home in Florence, will soon be condemning even the most innocuous forms of petty gambling, not only immodest but costly dress, even racing. Who will be organizing the boys of Florence into vigilante gangs that bring to mind the Red Guards of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, sending them out to disrupt card games, confiscate musical instruments and diversions as innocent as magnifying glasses, and either attack or report whatever forbidden amusement they find. In time he will be advocating the death penalty for anyone who supports tyranny— which means anyone foolish enough to speak favorably of the Medici— and the stoning and burying alive of anyone found guilty of sodomy (for which the penalty had previously been a fine of fifty ducats). The carnival preceding Lent will be cleansed of drinking and revelry, becoming instead an occasion for Savonarola’s famous Bonfires of the Vanities— his public burning of great heaps of clothing, books, jewelry, games, and works of art deemed unacceptable. A visiting Venetian merchant will offer 22,000 ducats for the treasures laid on one of Savonarola’s pyres and will be scornfully refused."

*Meyer, G.J. (2013-04-02). The Borgias: The Hidden History (Kindle Locations 3956-3964). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

" He also denies Rodrigo the paternity of Lucrezia and Cesare:

"That although it long ago became impossible to establish the truth beyond possibility of doubt, it appears that Cesare and his siblings were not— indeed almost could not have been— the children of Rodrigo Borgia."*

*Meyer, G.J. (2013-04-02). The Borgias: The Hidden History (Kindle Locations 4022-4024). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

" Meyer points out that there is no evidence for Rodrigo (Alexander VI) having fathered any children. There is no contemporary mention of his children in correspondence or documents created by people who knew him. He also points out that much of the Borgia story was created by Alexander's enemies. He points out, correctly I think, that Renaissance letters were more flowery, and more effusive than we're used to now. When Alexander writes something like "Beloved daughter," he is not necessarily saying that the recipient is his daughter, merely that he regards her with fatherly affection. A recent literary example is Ernest Hemingway. He was popularly referred to as "Papa," and I believe he would refer to at least some of the women in his life as "daughter." No one, to my knowledge, ever accused Hemingway of incestuous relations with Marlene Dietrich. So why should a pope ("papa," or father) not refer to a woman as "daughter?"

Meyer also dismisses numerous accusations of poisoning, and attributes them to illnesses such as typhoid or malaria. Now I have no first hand experience with poison, either as a victim or as a poisoner, but I believe that arsenic can take a long time to kill. (Based on the Wikipedia article on Arsenic poisoning it appears that it is possible to have chronic arsenic poisoning for a considerable period. I did not see, in a quick perusal, any indication as to how long it takes.) It should be kept in mind though that typhoid is the result of drinking water that has been contaminated by the feces of infected people, and that in an era of no plumbing it was an all too frequent occurrence, and that malaria is the result of mosquito infested swamps.

Unfortunately, even if Meyer is right in all of his assertions, the fact remains that the incestuous pope, and the naughty brother/sister combo of Cesare and Lucrezia is a bit more interesting, and more fun than the hard working, devout pope that Meyer contends Alexander is. So while he may be right, I think I'll stick with the evil but fun Borgias.

I'll be on travel for a bit, so the next thing might be some poems by the Earl of Rochester, or a book about the post-mortem fates of various famous corpses.