Hello everyone! Well it's another week here at Muse in the Fog, and I am delighted to start your week off with a guest post from Sarah Bower, author of the newly released Sins of the House of Borgia. I know many of us are excited about the upcoming Showtime series, The Borgias, so what better way to add to all the excitement than with this guest post and, of course, her intriguing novel! I now give you Sarah Bower:
"When we think about the Renaissance, the first thing most of us think of is the unique flowering of the arts that took place in Italy and Northern Europe. The political and economic conditions that made it possible probably don’t occur to us till some way down the line. Artists, however, need patrons and patrons tend to be those who wield political and economic clout. It is Pope Sixtus IV who gave his name to the Sistine Chapel, not Michelangelo, and Cardinal Ippolito d’Este (the son, incidentally, of Lucrezia Borgia) who takes the credit for the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, not his architect or garden designer. Leonardo made his day to day living as a party planner for the Duke of Milan and military engineer for Cesare Borgia, among other things.
Cesare Borgia and his father, Rodrigo, who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492, are in many ways archetypes of Italian Renaissance power, although their family came originally from a small town called Xativa, near Valencia, in Spain. They competed for the control of small city states, of which fifteenth century Italy was a patchwork, by political bargaining, force of arms and, when necessary, by simply murdering the opposition. They weren’t alone in this. The Borgias were one of several successful families, of whom perhaps the best known example is the Medici, who exploited the decimation of traditional social structures left by the Black Death in the previous century to grab power, influence and wealth for themselves.
The Borgias were not, when one looks closely at the historical record, any more or less corrupt, venal or violent than most other powerful families of their age, but their reputation is far more lurid. I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, they were foreigners. Pope Alexander’s uncle, Alonso de Borja, first came to Italy in 1444, and himself became Pope Calixtus III eleven years later. Even though Alexander’s famous children, Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia and Jofre, were born in Italy and had an Italian mother, they always spoke Catalan among themselves – much to the frustration of a number of legates and ambassadors who reported being forced to stand around blank faced while the Borgia clan prattled away to one another in their unintelligible patois. This is one reason why their success was particularly resented and why rumours arose of demonic powers and barbarous practices at the Vatican. As we all know, the concept of the foreigner brings out strong prejudices.
Secondly, their rise and fall were meteoric. Less than fifty years after the election of Calixtus III, they had sunk into obscurity. Alexander was dead. Cesare’s state had disintegrated and he himself was in prison in Spain awaiting trial for the murder of his brother, Juan, a murder he almost certainly didn’t commit. Only Lucrezia still had a secure foothold in Italy, but because she was the wife of the Duke of Ferrara, not because she was a Borgia. She survived by reinventing herself. The brevity of their time at the top has the effect of placing their careers under a historical microscope; we can examine their every act minutely because there were relatively few of them. Both the crimes they committed and those which have been placed at their door because it was convenient to blame the foreigner, the other, are magnified by being condensed into such a short space of time.
So, I would suggest the Borgias were no more corrupted by power than the next Renaissance dynasty. They lived in an age when human life was cheap and survival a desperate struggle, threatened everywhere by disease, violence and superstition. Perhaps, had they, like the Medici, been great patrons of the arts, posterity would have come to see them as part of Renaissance enlightenment rather than an illustration of its dark underbelly. Alexander and Cesare were charismatic and brilliant, Lucrezia charming and accomplished and, in the end, a shrewder operator than any of the men in her family.
And anyway, what do we want from our history? In the immortal words of Harry Lime, ‘in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’ "
Thank you, Sarah, for taking the time to present us with this fascinating guest post!
Keep an eye out for my upcoming review of Sins of the House of Borgia and international giveaway, later this week!
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