The Borgias: The Poisoned Chalice/The Assassin

April 4, 2011

This is the first in a series of reviews of the new Showtime series The Borgias. After receiving numerous requests to discuss this series, I have been pondering how to approach it in a way that wouldn't make it a chore or read like a dry synopsis. Watching the first episode provided me with the solution - I will comment on the general history of events depicted, but also focus on the art historical elements in each episode - which is a fascinating layer to the show that can best be appreciated with a knowledge of Renaissance art and architecture.

Hence, if a particular setting or artwork was featured and you are curious to know whether it exists or what it is based on - then you will enjoy these reviews. If you want a blow-by-blow of what happened, I'm sure there are other places that will supply them.

Before I begin, I would like to issue a mild spoiler alert! - the following description contains a brief outline of selected scenes from the first episode. If you want to be entirely spoiler free, best come back after you have watched the show. Also, I ask that commenters please refrain from divulging what happens in episodes that have not been aired yet. Please note, the season premiere was a double length feature encapsulating the first two episodes of the first season.

The House of Borgia was a powerful family of Spanish origin. They reached true prominence when Rodrigo Borgia was elected as Pope Alexander VI in 1492, ahead of other ambitious cardinals such as Giuliano della Rovere(later Pope Julius II), and Ascanio Sforza.

Alexander VI's tenure still resonates throughout history as one of the darkest periods in the Papacy. Allegations of corruption and indecency seem to pervade every aspect of Alexander's reign, extending into some dark rumours of incest between Borgia family members. Whether these allegations were the result of a xenophobic Roman populace or envious competitors is hard to state categorically. Many volumes have been written on the subject, from Alexandre Dumas Celebrated Crimes - The Borgia to Christopher Hibbert's The Borgias and their enemies. Other works have focused on the enigmatic Lucrezia Borgia - daughter of Rodrigo - with great controversy over allegations of incestuous relations with her father and brother, Cesare.

As we have seen in narratives of women extending from Helen of Troy, to Cleopatra or Byzantine Empress Theodora - it seems history is quick to label a prominent woman as a harlot and move on. It will be interesting to see how the series handles this aspect of the story.

Dramatis Personae
The cast for The Borgias is nothing short of dazzling. Although perhaps a bit more wiry than the portraits of the actual Alexander attest, Jeremy Irons has the intensity to play Rodrigo.

Equally impressive are the actors chosen to play other key roles. Colm Feore makes a fascinating Giuliano della Rovere. The first episode sets him up to be an ongoing antagonist to the Borgia, which is largely in keeping with historical events.  With the audience knowing this man will become 'The Warrior Pope' Julius II, his presence gives the show instant appeal.

Cesare Borgia is played by Francois Arnaud. More cunning than malevolent at this point, the interplay between father and son will be fascinating to watch. The show's version of events definitely goes out of its way to suggest that Cesare and his assassin ally Micheletto are the real power brokers behind Alexander. Whilst this is not entirely supported by the historical record, the very first episode is replete with references to Cesare's wishes to become head of the Papal Army, a position current held by brother Juan.

Lucrezia Borgia is played by Holliday Grainger. Her portrayal of this infamous woman is fascinating to say the least - and sure to attract a mixed response. It must be remembered that in 1492 Lucrezia was 12 years of age, whereas Grainger is some 11 years older. Having an older actress play a young teen must have been a crucial decision, as Lucrezia's naïveté would have been easier to fathom had it been a younger actress. That being said, I still enjoyed Grainger's performance. She has a playful, captivating screen presence.

The show also wastes no time in suggesting an uneasy degree of familiarity between Lucrezia and Cesare. The first we see of either of them is with Lucrezia eagerly watching her brother bedding another woman. Shortly after we see the two frolicking together and rolling around in a manner that most would agree is not typical of siblings! How far the show will take this element will be interesting to watch.

Romeo and Juliet? No! Cesare and Lucrezia seem a bit too friendly, already...

 The Assassin's Creed?
Some of the interest in this show has been a result of the huge popularity of Assassins's Creed 2 - a video game produced by Ubisoft Montreal. It follows a Medici allied Assassin, Ezio Auditore in his quest for revenge against the Borgia. A rich, interactive experience, AC2 and its sequel AC: Brotherhood  allow you to explore Renaissance Florence, Venice and Rome in amazing detail - and includes many fascinating art and historical references. For more on AC2, read the 3PP art and history focused summary, plus the interview with one of its lead artists Gilles Beloeil.

Interesting to note that an assassin by the name of Micheletto Corella is a key factor in the new series. Records attest to a violent Borgia henchman by this name. In fact, in the first episode at least, much seems to revolve around this assassin's choices. The way he quickly disregards his contract to Cardinal Orsini(Derek Jacobi) and sides with the Borgia make us suspicious of his motives. It will be curious to see how his influence on the Borgia and della Rovere are played out, whilst hopefully not deviating too much from established historical events.

Art Historical Elements
This was the most fun part of the show for me - watching how historical consultants, set designers and digital artists recreated late 15th Century Rome and the Vatican. I was delighted to see the artist Pinturicchio featured in a couple of scenes, including painting a portrait of Giulia Farnese.

Although it is believed Pinturicchio did paint Giulia as a Madonna, the scene in the show is contrived from  portraits of Giulia by others including Raphael and Luca Longhi - showing Giulia with a unicorn - a symbol of purity. In the show, a very cute baby goat is used as a model for the unicorn.

The famous painting Portrait of a Lady with a unicorn is believed by some to be Giulia Farnese. Its attribution history is complex and contested - with the first publication ascribing the work to Raphael in 1927. It was painted in 1505, some 13 years after the events depicted. Some also believe Raphael's Transfiguration contains a likeness of her. Giulia was best known as Alexander VI's mistress, which is also a key plot point depicted in this episode. 

 The scene quoting the Raphael painting - but featuring Pinturicchio

The opening montage is itself an interesting art history slideshow, though astute watchers will quickly realise that many of the images depicted are from the Baroque period, and not exactly from the historical timeframe covered in the story. You can view it in the player below.

Another interesting art historical tidbit was the quick glimpse of the original Sistine ceiling, with the star patterning by Piero Matteo d'Amelia - later to be chiseled off by Michelangelo's team in preparation for his famous fresco. The Papal Conclave(or election) was first held in the Sistine Chapel in 1492 - in this respect the show is delightfully accurate.

The papal coronation ceremony is (correctly) shown to take place in Old St. Peter's Basilica. The computer generated rendering of this architectural space is fascinating, but somewhat idealised as we know this structure was in a degree of disrepair by this time - eventually leading to Julius II's decision to level it to the ground and build the modern structure in its place. Those who have played Assassin's Creed Brotherhood will have had a somewhat more accurate experience of the Old Basilica - which is shown in the game in a state of much less grandeur.

What does the future hold?
The Borgias has got off to an enticing start. It will be fascinating to see how the writers tackle the difficult issues of incest and the role of Lucrezia. The continuing involvement of Giuliano della Rovere holds great promise. I have avoided future episode synopses but do hope that there is some representation of Florence and Venice in this series, whom allied against Rome and the Borgia.

This was the time of Savonarola and the Bonfire of The Vanities - here is a perfect opportunity film makers to show us Botticelli throwing his works into the fire - which would be quite harrowing to watch I must admit. As Alexander VI intervened directly into Savonarola's conduct, I am hoping it at least gets a mention in an upcoming episode. If you find the history of the period interesting, look up the books mentioned above or visit the Official Borgias Wiki - a great resource giving historical background to events and characters depicted in the show.

I'd be delighted to hear what others think of The Borgias, so please feel free to leave comments - though I do request that you please avoid leaving spoilers from upcoming episodes!


Dr. F said...


I don't usually like to watch these so-called historical dramas but your review wets the appetite. One objection is the English accents. Why can't they find Italian or Spanish actors for these roles? What about aging Italian-american stars like DeNiro, Travolta, or Gandolfini?

I hope they do justive to Giuliano and wonder how they will treat the murder of Lucrezia's husband.


Unknown said...

Oh Frank! I hardly think American-Italian accents will make this any more authentic! They do throw in a bit of ecclesiastical Latin I've noticed.

If you do want to experience the story in Spanish - there is always the 2006 mini-series Los Borgia - which I have in my collection, and throughly recommend.

This series is definitely worth a look, even just to spot all the art and historical references.


Heidenkind said...

I don't get this channel, so I couldn't watch it. Wah wah. I did notice a bunch of art historical references in Camelot, though.

Alberti's Window said...

I don't get this channel either, but it looks like a fun show. I hadn't even heard of it! Perhaps I'll be able to watch the season on Netflix afterward. (I saw that you mentioned this is a series - do you know how long this will run?)

I love that you gave a historical twist to your discussion of the sets, actors, etc. Your discussion of St. Peter's was especially interesting.

Benjamin (Ben) said...

Heidenkind and M:

I think you can still see the first episode online:

Not sure how long this will be available, nor whether they will also be posting later episodes....


Judy said...

H., I am glad you decided to provide this service for your readers who are art historians AND costume drama addicts! It is just the kind of commentary that I love to read.
I thought the "cultural background subtitles" that were provided with the video set for HBO's "Rome" were a great example of what can be done in this area.

I don't get this premium channel either but I have been looking forward to "The Borgias" ever since " The Tudors" wrapped up. Sigh...I'll have to wait til the videos are out.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments :)

US based folks can indeed watch it at the above link provided by Ben. It is officially hosted on behalf of Showtime by DailyMotion - I'm not sure if they'll do the whole series but a good way of seeing the first episode.

@Judy - I never got around to watching The Tudors, but it is most definitely on my list! This series of course inherited many of the production crew from that show.


Juliette said...

I know nothing about the Borgias but I love your setting the portraits and actors side by side! I'll keep an eye out for this if it comes to the UK. Mum is contemplating a box set of the Tudors as well, as we've missed a lot of that.

Judy said...

@H, I loved "The Tudors" because it did a leisurely romp through the reign of Henry VIII and the supporting cast was excellent. Uh...but Henry barely grew out of his 20s in appearance and everyone was STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL...yes even Anne of Cleves...
I likewise loved "The Desperate Romantics" which most people thought was one bad joke so my tastes aren't highbrow.

Judy said...

Thanks for the tip that the 1st episode is available online. Yippee!

Stella da Genova said...

Thank you for pointing me to this site, I love it. Renaissance portraits are a passion of mine, and I forsee many great topics being discussed on this blog. Wonderful!


Unknown said...

Hello Brooke! Welcome to 3PP! If you love the Renaissance, there will be many things for you to read and watch here. Enjoy!

Kind Regards

Val said...

Can't wait to check out the link for the first episode - I also don't get this channel, but enjoy period dramas. And having studied in Rome, I always love to see it in film. You even make video games sound appealing, H, although I can never figure them out.

Judy, I also loved Desperate Romantics, mostly for its cheek, humor, and use of color. Like The Borgias, The Tudors, Downton Abbey, and so many more, it's ambrosial eye candy!

Unknown said...

Hi Val - welcome to 3PP! I am glad you enjoyed the post.

If you do plan to watch the video at the link left by Ben - make sure you do so quickly - It likely won't be up indefinitely. I can also confirm that it is *just* for the premiere episode that it was being hosted free online at Daily Motion.

Kind Regards

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