The Borgias: The Art of War

May 19, 2011

The eighth episode of The Borgias continues the story of French expedition into Italy, just stopping short of the entry into Rome. Comparing events with the historical record, we find what is depicted on screen more congruent with overall themes of 1494-5, rather than a recreation of specific events, with a fair amount of dramatic license thrown in to keep the characters busy. On an art historical note, a Fra Angelico is transported from Florence to make a very brief cameo, along with a glimpse of another more elusive piece. It was another episode with great action sequences, as French cannon are turned on the Papal forces.

An enjoyable regent
Michel Muller's portrayal of the 'affable' French King has been quite entertaining. After the entry into Florence last week, it was hoped we would see some of the negotiations that occurred between Charles and the Florentine representatives, which included Savonarola. For a period Charles also had occupied the recently deserted Palazzo Medici so having a scene set under the inverted 'Battle of San Romano' would not have been out of place. Unfortunately, this episode fast forwards  to what can only be approximated as any time between January and December 1494 - these events being fixed as the date of King Ferrante of Naples death and Charles VIII arrival in Rome.

Alexander's conundrums, Cesare's influence
It is interesting to see the writers giving Cesare lines like 'I know little of the art of war' when he has already intimated that he would prefer to be in armour than the garb of a cardinal. This line was likely included to show Cesare's respecting of his father's wishes to openly support his brother's plan, but the acting direction and Cesare's numerous uncomfortable facial expressions indicate he had little confidence in Juan's plan to attack French cannon front on. As we got to see, the results were quite disastrous. It was a nicely done as far as effects for a TV series go, so we shouldn't be too picky about its historical accuracy. 

Phantom battles and the teenage negotiator
Last week we were treated to a Viking style pillage of Lucca, something not mentioned in the histories of the era. What little reference to Lucca there are during this period indicates that Charles VIII was placatingly received by Lucca and Pisa, who along with Florence were quick to compare Charles to Julius Caesar. Interestingly, such a reference is made in the show, but not directed at Charles.  The show presents us with another small engagement with a location described as "outside Rome". After a fearful demonstration of the effect of cannon on infantry, the task of negotiator falls to 14 year old Lucrezia, now being politely held hostage by Charles. Whilst it was nicely executed with Holliday Grainger dashing about on a horse and negotiating with her brother, there is nothing to suggest anything of the sort happened. It is true that an accord was struck between Alexander and Charles VIII, and the passage through Rome relatively bloodless, though this will likely be explored in the next episode.

Dear Diarist
We have not seen much of Johannes Burchardus, Papal Master of Ceremonies. It was nice to see him get a scene in this episode. So much of what we know of Alexander's tenure as pope is derived from his diaries, something which will be explored in greater detail in an upcoming post.

Back to the abbey with a Fra Angelico
It was a mild surprise to see Ursula Bonadeo again, I was hoping Cesare would be ready to move on, maybe travel to Milan and meet Leonardo. Unfortunately he still seems a little lovestruck and visits Ursula at the abbey - and is promptly again told to stay way. Shown as an altarpiece at the abbey chapel is a Fra Angelico painting that is actually part of a larger series showing the life of Christ. This was part of a 41 panel composition painted for the Santissima Annunziata Church in Florence.

There are also very quick glimpses of a piece which show what is likely to be tomb or sepulchre. There were many variations of this element depicted in scenes of the death, burial and assumption of Mary and Christ and other saints. I haven't been able to find a perfect match yet, if anyone recognises it, let me know.

What lies ahead?
The next episode will be the season finale. It is unlikely we will see Florence, but hopefully Leonardo may still make an appearance if some more plot points involving the Sforza are involved. Charles VIII entry into Rome and his negotiation with Alexander VI will likely be the focus. Although it was a tense diplomatic negotiation in actuality, the writers seem intent on depicting it as a something more akin to a trial for Alexander.


Unknown said...

I enjoy reading your artistic perspective on The Borgias and have really kind of depended on your matching the art work on the show to works of the time period. But as for history you truly seem like the optimistic little boy searching for a pony in a pile of manure. The history is awful, especially if you consider that this period hardly needed “extra and new ” dramatization. They often deny characters their only quotable lines, such as Kings Charles line after hearing of the ransom plans of the captured Giulia Farnese and Adriana de Mila: “I don’t fight with women!” (Of course Adriana de Mila was the “real” mother to the Borgia children from Vannozza dei Cattani since they were removed from her when Juan was eight. Surely, this could have been a great dramatic set piece all by itself??)
And, as you’ve mentioned, Juan was in Spain the whole time of French invasion. This Showtime version of the story seems to be move events of 1495 to 1493 which has the effect of robbing the theories of Juan’s murder of one particularly important motivation. And speaking of robbing: Alexander’s severe ire at Savonarola’s embrace of Charles was an important reason for his ultimate execution.
I mean, is this any different than the totally fictional “Game of Thrones” on HBO or “Camelot” on Starz? Are you surprised by the amount of “fictionalization” of this extremely dramatic (and well documented) period of history?

Unknown said...

Game of Thrones is totally fictional?! I'll have to take Dragons egg off my amazon wishlist.

Hello Chris. I wish I could more enthusiastically welcome you to 3PP, but I'm not sure I like your pony analogy - you could have picked something a bit less smelly...clutching at straws perhaps? :p

The aim of covering this series was to provide a counterpoint between whats on screen and the historical record. I would have preferred to have stuck entirely to the art historical elements but there has been very little of it in the last few episodes.

It is very easy to criticise a production of *anything* for not being historically accurate. I often wonder if there was a grumpy historian cursing at Shakespeare in the middle of a performance of [insert historical play].

If Showtime were marketing this as a documentary, I would be the first to agree with you, but they are not. If it upsets you that much, don't watch it!

Alternatively you could start your own site and do a more thorough assay of the historical discrepancies. I'm glad to see this era on screen despite the flaws, given the steady diet of cop and reality TV we are otherwise subjected to.


Unknown said...

Sorry about alluding to the joke about the little optimistic boy and manure but every post seems to look forward, so optimistically, to the next set of events which are totally written out of the next show!
And I do have a web site but it is dedicated to photography. But really, being quite serious, wouldn’t it be better to catalog when the show actually matches the historical record? Aside from names of course, what did they get right? Not much that I can tell.
Such historical failures can have benefits if it leads to a greater understanding or a wonderful profile but more often or not in The Borgias the anachronisms lead straight to comedy. My wife and I broke out laughing when they trotted out the portrait of Sancha. Why did they choose the style of a late 19th saloon painting for Sancha? Why not Kahlo? Warhol? I certainly wouldn’t have laughed any harder! It certainly doesn’t match the style of the “Lucrezia’s Dead and In Heaven” lacune-housed portrait which seems to be based on the art developed in the early 20th century to sell soap.
As for the architectural details and wall paintings, I’m assuming most of the filming is “green screen” with professionals filling in the backgrounds with time-relevant ceilings and backgrounds like the glimpses of Pinturicchio in the Papal apartments or the Brunelleschi Dome in Florence. These guys are great at their job so I assume they are doing their very best given time and economic constraints. That’s why such anachronisms floor me.
I understand the necessity of fictionalizing the elements of the past to fit a dramatic structure in a limited time constraint but do you really want to compare Neil Jordan to Shakespeare? I can’t even get a handle on Irons Alexander VI let alone more obscure characters like Cantanei or Farnese. Things are either too subtle or too dependent on modern notions, i.e. Cesare. I know a little about Shakespeare (I wrote my dissertation on Richard III) and I’m aware of the rearrangement of the timeline, especially after the intro of Act III. But Shakespeare had a wonderful grasp of the psychology of his characters and armed with his knowledge of Tudor propaganda he wrote a lasting if inaccurate portrait. I’m not sure we’re in the same territory with The Borgias. Do you think we are?
And I love your writing, so please don’t see any of this as a criticism. And I’m hoping you find that pony so I don’t have to dig through the manure!

Unknown said...

Hello Chris. Thank you for your comment.

I wouldn't say Sancia's portrait was *that* drastic time shift forward, maybe just a decade or so. Look at Raphael's 'La Muta' or 'La Donna Velata' for instance. My only lament was that they didnt show us the attire and pose of the hands, it would have revealed much.

Just in case you are curious - my post on 'La Muta' can be found in the archive section above.

Many young people have become interested in Ancient Greece because of '300' and now in the Renaissance because of 'Assassins Creed' and 'The Borgias'. I'd maintain the historical accuracy of a TV show or video game are not paramount, but creating a spark of ineterest is - as the numbers visiting these posts attest - people are interested in finding out what really happenned.

I have endeavoured to write accessible pieces that clarify the bigger picture and point people in the right direction to the resources where they can find out what the record actually says.

Aything that can make young people interested in reading a bit more about history is a good thing, surely?

eg. check google trends to see how 'Rodrigo Borgia' search volume has skyrocketed in the last couple of months:

Jordan and co. have successfully engaged popular imagination far more than a scholarly volume ever could. This is an unfortunate reality perhaps, but a reality nontheless.

Kind Regards

Unknown said...

I thought surely that you’d jump to El Greco and “A Lady in a Fur Wrap” for Sancha’s portrait! Raphael’s is flatter without the shading of the faux-Sancha portrait. But what differentiates the old from the new is the “smiling eyes” evident in the faux-Sancha and the “round fully open but half-lid” style of portraiture of both Raphael and El Greco. Smiling eyes would have to wait until the Dutch masters of the 17th century like Frans Hals (sorry if that’s misspelled – autocorrect on my phone did not like that name!)

Ancient Greece and “300”: Yes, but Frank Miller dressed up a story using an “extra-supernatural” evil from a totally fictitious Darius but historical documentation primarily originates from Herodotus and he didn’t know Darius either! The story itself is quite simple and violent as it is found in the “The Histories” and 300 followed it pretty well with a bunch of compression. The hook was wrapping them in modern “faux-Shakespeare by way of Roadhouse as told by a noire comic book” style which tended to trap a lot of non-history folks. It was deeply emotional (arch, few against many) in a way The Borgias haven’t been yet.

And your Google chart does not show that “The Borgias” has encouraged wide spread interest. What it shows is that searching began in 2007 when Cesare’s remains were moved from outside the Church of Santa Maria in Viana to back inside. This move created a firestorm (as much as this issue can) in '08-'10 in Europe where most of the searches hail from. Add to that the '08 supposed discovery of a portrait of Lucrezia in Australia pretty much explains the early spikes. The short term spike in 2011 was almost certainly from the show but was probably caused by people like me who went “WTF????” The first show caused me to dust off my Hibbert, Tuchman, and Setton just to make sure I hadn’t lost my mind! The spike would not last long...

I have a friend who is an associate professor of English who teaches a course on the Iliad every other semester and he would be glad to disabuse you on the point about video/film getting young people to read. He routinely flunks about 15 %(!) of the class because they use the Brad Pitt/Trojan War film as their guide and not, at least, Cliff Notes! This even after he explains how tragically bad the history/plot of the movie in comparison with Homer - at a University of some renown! Video is king - God help literature.

On that note, from what I’ve read The Borgias viewership has dropped off dramatically and it has been saved by DVR viewership levels. This is probably because the Renaissance-fair crowd gravitates to the video-game like atmospherics of Game of Thrones for the first view saving The Borgias for later. (Also they have a lot of upfront investment with Bravo!) The only reason I stick around is the hope we might see an elderly Leonardo or a young Buonarroti. But, alas, the horribly written, wildly uneducated, comically fictional cameo of Machiavelli does not leave me that enthusiastic to see other important personalities portrayed. But I paid for Showtime so what the hell. :)

(BTW, wasn’t Hibbert’s book “The Borgias and Their Enemies” a best seller. That book, mostly cribbed from Burchard, has at least the pretense to real history. Why couldn’t they have filmed that instead??)

Unknown said...

The 2007 spike does seem to correspond to that Cesare news, though was primarily from sources in Spain and Romania. The 2009 spike is of course Assassins Creed 2 and the current spike would have to be for this show, doubling the previous search volume spikes.

From my own sites stats, 'Rodrigo Borgia' is definitely the top search query leading people to these reviews at the moment.

My only advice to you from this point Chris is to please not use this as a forum to vent your ongoing disapproval at the show's innacuracy. Any approach that consistently references a topic with a negative disposition is hardly likely to be enjoyed by anyone else other than the person unburdening themselves :)

If that is the focus of your watching this show - You may prefer something like at the Television Without Pity thread dedicated to it >> link

Kind Regards

Unknown said...

I’m truly disappointed in your response. You do know that The Borgias, like The Tudors before it, are trash TV? It has equal and large helpings of lurid sex and gory violence for no other reason than to have lurid sex and gory violence. But unlike The Tudors that had much of the sex and violence in the right place, The Borgias just takes stabs at it and invents people (like Cesare’s recent conquest) or events (the Battle of NoName between Papal forces and King Charles) in a ludicrous motivation stealing manner.

But I loved watching The Tudors for its focus on musicians (musicians!!) and artists. In what other entertainment in your lifetime will you see a depiction of Holbein! I loved it. I talked about it with friends and they were as equally addicted to the show. But The Borgias...well...nothing. No one watches or cares about the show. This is a mystery to me.

Sooooo... I was hoping when I commented on your site that maybe other people might jump in and correct me or give their opinions or just agree. I’m all ears and love to discuss art (any art, any time period. Have you see Cave of Forgotten Dreams?)

But you can’t pretend that what we’re viewing is high art. It is not. The irony is that it is about a complex and thrilling time in history that was loaded with sex, violence, mystery and intrigue at the inception of some of the greatest art the world has ever known. I wish it were better. And I wish people would talk about it but I guess not here!

I won’t bother you anymore.

Anonymous said...

I just surfed in and wanted to say: I am very much enjoying your reviews and your website. I'm one of those who is moved to learn much more about this era, and the historical figures in it, having watched the HBO series. For instance, I ordered some things on Kindle. I never would have otherwise. Keep up the great work, H.

Unknown said...

Many thanks for the feedback!

The books mentioned in the series of posts on this show are a good start. Some are heavier going than others, and some are available in the public domain - see the other Borgias posts plus the post on the Borchardus diary for more info and links.


Anonymous said...

Lots of interesting banter, but the end of the criticism should be - not bothering to watch.

H, you have done a stupendous job educating your readers about this show in each post, offering alternative resources and links. My friends and co-workers enjoy the show for its entertainment, the historical accuracy discussion only inspires them to learn more. No need to pick it apart like Cesare's bones.

Unknown said...

Cheers @thiswritelife! Thank you for the feedback.

Watching the show and producing these reviews within a couple of days is pretty hard given work and family committments - I am glad there are many that do appreciate the effort and find it interesting and helpful. If it leads to further reading, even better!

Kind Regards

Dr. F said...

H and Chris:

I enjoyed the back and forth between you and Chris and hope that Chris won't be deterred from commenting in the future. He appears to have a wealth of good historical info about our favorite period.

I also agree with him that the actual history contains much more of interest and drama than attempts to recreate the past in our own image and likeness. Despite their technical wizardry, the prejudices and even ignorance of modern filmmakers always let us down.

Maybe it's my advanced age H, but I am not so sanguine as you about educating the young. Most historical dramas don't educate--they only confirm the myths and biases that have been handed down to them by the current educational establishment.

This is not to say that I have not been enjoying your reviews of the Borgias, especially your historical corrections.


Unknown said...

Hi Frank. Thank you for the feedback.

It is not the role of a historical drama in any medium to educate. I am quite certain I have not said that at any point. That they can lead to an interest in a topic is a different story.

If classes are populated with kids that think the events depicted in Historical dramas are 100% accurate, this is a failing of their parents and their educators.

With the increasing amount of distractions available to people these days, anything that can potentially ignite a spark of interest in history is a positive thing. The fact that this has most recently been achieved for the Renaissance by a video game and TV show rather than an epic scholarly tome speaks volumes about our modern age.

One must remember that Burckhardt and Vasari as are as full of factual rubbish as a TV show - at least the latter does not present itself as the genuine article.

I also do not share your enthusiasm for seeing a return of the aforementioned commenter. Let him go and write his views at his own corner of the web.


Anonymous said...

Hi H,

Just wanted to confirm your supposition that shows like these DO spark interest in history! While I had heard of the name Borgia, I had no idea why they are famous to this day. I started watching the show, which led me to internet searches on the actual historical figures, which has led to me purchasing books on the period.

Wishing you more glimpses of art in the next season,


Unknown said...

Many thanks for the feedback Vanessa! Anything that leads to more reading is good.

The propensities of those who insist on seeing the negative should never ruin the fun for the rest of us.

I hope to review the Spanish Borgias movie soon, I wonder what art references it will contain, if any?


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