THE BORGIAS: THE HIDDEN HISTORY by G. J. Meyer

(Cesare Borgia)

One of the most fascinating families in history are the Borjas/Borgias; a family that produced a series of controversial characters from Pope Alexander VI, Cesare, and Lucrezia.  The story that encompasses the Spanish family that would dominate the Italian Renaissance is said to involve barbarity, rape, misinformation, political and religious machinations, and possibly incest.  The questions surrounding the family have baffled historians for centuries and it appears that much of their reputation can fall into the category of myths.  Historian, G. J. Meyer has taken on the task of unraveling these myths in his family biography, THE BORGIAS: THE HIDDEN HISTORY as he argues that the Borgia problem began in the early 16th century as Reformation propagandists depicted the papacy in less than positive terms and blamed the Borgias for every conceivable crime.  Meyer’s approach is to ask, “long neglected questions” and a refusal to accept judgements that appear to have little basis in fact, and when evidence is missing not to accept the “ugliest hypothetical explanation of a puzzling event.”  The author’s goal is clear, to try and “lift the Borgia story out of the realm of fable and turning it into history.”

The book is more than a family biography but more so a history of the Papacy focusing on the Holy See dating back to the 13th century and its development into a powerful pseudo monarchy and the opposition it wrought, i.e., the Babylonian Captivity, Avignon Papacy, Conciliar Movement, through the rise of Savonarola in the late 15th century.   Meyers main protagonist is Rodrigo Borgia as he slowly rose through the Vatican bureaucracy serving four Popes and finally assuming the Holy office as Alexander VI, and later in the narrative Cesare Borgia.  Meyer reviews the history of Renaissance Europe and the Papacy for the first quarter of the book pointing out the political dysfunction that existed in the Italian peninsula and its environs that existed before Alexander VI assumed the Papacy.  The groundwork for the corruption and power politics of the region is carefully played out focusing on Popes Callixtus III, Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV Innocent VIII along with the likes of the della Rovere, Orsini and Colonna families.  The use of nepotism, poisoning and other tools make the period known for its culture one of grief and blood.

Meyer does a workmanlike job of intertwining mini-history chapters in the narrative to explain certain issues and individuals in greater depth for the reader.  Chapters dealing with the evolution of the role of the College of Cardinals, the creation of the Papacy, the role of condottieri-mercenaries,  Cesare Borgia, and  the role of Portugal in the Age of Discovery are among the best.  Meyer develops a number of important themes throughout the work including the power struggle that existed between the Papacy and the College of Cardinals over limiting Papal power with the Conciliar Movement that was not that far in the rear view mirror for individuals who wanted to create their own power base.  Another important theme involves what historian Garret Mattingly refers to as “Renaissance Diplomacy” as the conduct of negotiations, warfare, and settlements is discussed in depth particularly marriage diplomacy, the ever shifting alliances that seemed to change almost on a daily basis in Italy, and the results that were fostered on the battlefield.  Particularly important is the role Rodrigo Borgia played in the unification of the Spanish monarchy under Ferdinand and Isabella, the French invasion of Italy led by a rather interesting character, Charles VIII in 1494, and how Florence, Venice, Milan, the Papal States, and Naples tried to repeatedly overturn any existing geo-strategic balance.

Pope Alexander VI
(Pope Alexander VI)

Meyer’s writing style is conducive to unraveling all of the machinations just mentioned.  He possesses a firm grasp of events and personalities and his narrative and analysis to not fall into the trap of repeating myths that have stood the test of time.  One of the areas that Meyer explores are the supposed children of Alexander VI, Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Jorge.  After delving deeply coming dynastic history, previous historical writings etc. Meyer concludes they were not Alexander’s children, but nephews and nieces.  According to Meyer their father was Alexander’s own nephew Guillen Ramon Lanzol de Borja. 

Meyer’s writing is effective as he focuses on the dynastic issues surrounding Naples which centers around Spanish, French, and other claims to the kingdom.  Meyer spends a great deal of time describing Charles VIII invasion of Italy whose main goal was the Neapolitan throne and removing Alexander VI concludes that the French monarch’s great adventure changed nothing and everything as Naples remained in possession of the House of Aragon and under the protection of Spain.  Florence remained a client of France.  Alexander was not deposed, and a council of the church was not convened.  Another strength of the narrative focuses on Friar Girolamo Savonarola who would eventually fail due to his narcissism and ego but until he did, he helped bring about the end of de Medici rule in Florence and was seen as a grave threat to Alexander VI.

lucrezia borgia
(Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia)

Meyer’s depiction of the shifting European/Italian balance of power is of major importance to the narrative as the Italian City-States, Spain, France and the Ottoman Empire all have their own agendas that affect each other either dynastically or the need for “raw power.”  The sections that deal with the Turkish threat to Italy and Europe in general are key.  Popes and monarchs called for crusades against Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II who threatened Venice, Milan and other areas of Italy and are treated carefully and enrich the story Meyer is trying to tell.

Meyer’s recapitulation of the succession to the French throne following the death Charles VIII is an important example that highlights dynastic dysfunction during the period.  It involves the assumption of the throne by Louis XII and the marriage diplomacy involving Louis XII who needed a divorce from Alexander so he could remarry and that of Cesare Borgia who had his eyes on a French princess and a group of properties who sought to exploit.  In the end Louis XII got his wish, but Cesare had to settle for a lesser woman!

(Nicolo Machiavelli)

It takes Meyer until the last fifty pages of the book to focus on Lucrezia Borgia and the rumors surrounding her reputation following her marriage annulment to Giovanni Sforza.  The rumors about her private proclivities be they sex, power, or corruption may or not be true according to Meyer which is emblematic of his approach to the many myths he tackles.  First, he states in no uncertain terms that a certain myth is false, presents arguments and material to support his view, then seems to back track and accept that it is hard to tell if the myth is false or not.  A useful example involves Alexander VI’s goal of marrying Lucrezia to the son of Duke Ercoled d’este of Ferrara.

Meyer ends his narrative by describing the final down fall of Cesare Borgia.  After spending chapters recounting how he became a dominant figure in Italian power politics and gaining substantial wealth and influence he recounts that the death of Alexander VI, his benefactor in 1503 signals the beginning of his downfall.  Once Alexander is gone it becomes a feeding frenzy by Cesare’s enemies to take back properties and states he has stolen and acquire his wealth.  He will eventually become a fugitive from his many enemies and will finally die in battle which Meyer argues was somewhat of a suicide as he realizes that he would have to spend the reminder of his life as a prisoner, particularly as Cardinal della Rovere who hated the Borgias finally assumed the Papacy as Julius II.

There is so much in the narrative in terms of dynasties and personalities the book requires a careful read and it would assist the reader if they had some knowledge of the period.  But taken as a whole is a useful effort, that is surprisingly readable, particularly for those who have watched the Showtime cable series, “The Borgias” which when compared to Meyer’s depiction does not hold a great deal of historical truth.  Meyer’s claims to have written the hidden history of the Borgias, but in reality, one must ask; has he changed much of what has been written before?

Portrait of Cesare Borgia “Le Duc Valentin” kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, formerly thought to be after a painting by Correggio, now often attributed to Dosso Dossi, 1517-1519.:

(Cesare Borgia)

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