I have read books about Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander IV, and his family in the past. Each has portrayed the family as scheming, manipulative, and scandalous. One need not look far to see this perception of the family perpetuated through other materials at the library. G.J. Meyer's book, The Borgias: the hidden history, call these attitudes into question, especially when talking about Rodrigo and Lucrezia Borgia. The book focuses on three main members of the family: Alonzo (Pope Calixtus III), Rodrigo (Pope Alexander IV), and Cesare. Meyer conducted a lot of research for this book and believes the rumors started about the family were the result of political enemies hoping to tarnish the family reputation that were perpetuated as a result of historians that did not dig deeply enough into the stories to uncover the truth.
Alonzo was an obscure Spanish Cardinal before being unexpectedly elected Pope in 1455. This begins the ascension of the family to the upper ranks of Rome and the Church. Alonzo’s nephew, Rodrigo, moves with him to Rome, is appointed protonotary apostolic and, a year later, Cardinal. The book gives many details about Rodrigo’s life following Calixtus’ death as he continued to be one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church. Meyer works to debunk many of the myths about Rodrigo, especially the myth that he fathered a number of children with a longtime mistress named Vannozza. Meyer argues these children, which include Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, two renaissance figures greatly villainized in the centuries since they lived, were Rodrigo’s nieces and nephews. Meyer argues Rodrigo’s greatest weakness as a leader was his extreme nepotistic tendencies for these young Borgias, and though this is indisputable, there is no dependable proof that Rodrigo was their father.
The political situation in 15th and 16th century Italy was an every changing tapestry. Alliances were made and broken with ease, some seemingly changing with the moods of their young, spoiled, irrational rulers. The Papal States was a number of small city states in central Italy that were supposed to pay tribute to Rome and the pope but were, in reality, ruled by local warlords who had seized power of the cities and, generally, ruled over them with an iron fist. A serial headache of the Renaissance popes, the author does a good job keeping up with the ever shifting landscape of the Papal States, as well as the rest of the Italian peninsula and parts of Spain, France and Constantinople. Cesare, a military mastermind, aimed to reclaim these rebellious city states and carve out a kingdom for himself in the Romagna. The last section of the book details this quest. The thing I liked best about this book, besides that it challenged all that I thought I knew about Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia Borgia, was its “Background” sections between chapters. These sections allowed the author to distance the reader from the developing story of the Borgias to offer background information on different people, places and situations. These chapters unfailingly put the drama of the book’s characters in greater context. They were also very interesting (to one who is interested in learning more about Renaissance Italy). Meyer also concludes with a section titled “Examining Old Assumptions” that elaborates more on the characters of Rodrigo and Lucrezia bringing up things he was unable to work into the full text.
This is a dense book that takes some concentration to read. It is well written, comprehensive and definitely challenges the status quo understanding of the Borgias. I am so glad I stumbled upon it the library’s collection!
The Borgias: the hidden history