The Borgias: Death on a Pale Horse

May 11, 2011

The seventh episode of The Borgias was an action packed affair, depicting the forces of Charles VIII arriving in Italy, accompanied by Cardinal della Rovere. Whilst there were no new glimpses of artworks or artists in this episode, we again get to see the inverted Battle of San Romano in the background of Palazzo Medici, and get another taste of Savonarola spewing bile at the Florentines as news of the brutality of the French forces spread. As shall be outlined, the reality of the events of 1494 were somewhat different.

French Negotiations
The show is very clear in presenting della Rovere as the catalyst for the French expedition into Italy. This has some historical merit, but it must be clarified that it was the knowledge of the death of King Ferrante of Naples, coupled with relative stability at home that prompted Charles VIII into action, not simply the urging of an ambitious cardinal.

In February 1494,  French envoys were sent to Rome, urging Alexander to support Charles VIII, and not the young Alphonso II as the heir to the throne of Naples. Perhaps hoping to stall the French monarch, Alexander attempted to divert attention to the issue of the planned Crusade against the Turks, and that this should be resolved before the Neapolitan question was settled.

It is even documented that Alexander authorised the sending of a golden rose, a symbol of Holy blessing to Charles VIII in March 1494. Charles was not to be dissuaded though, and replied that he would like to occupy Naples first, in order to use it as a staging point for the campaign against the Turks. For those interested in finding out the full story, I have extracted the relevant chapter from Setton's Papacy and The Levant, illustrating the complexity of negotiations Alexander had to manage. You can view or download the pdf here.

The Batte of Lucca?
The great action piece of this episode is the Battle of Lucca. Scouring through sources, we are hard pressed to find any mention of this battle. It is widely held that the first battle of the Italian Wars did not occur until the following year, in the Battle of Fornovo in July 1495, with Charles VIII pitted against the League of Venice near Parma. Nowadays, Lucca is a quaint little tourist spot, known for its historic architecture, and ban of kebab shops from its city centre.

What actually happened? In March 1494 a delegation from Naples arrived to express Alphonso II's obedience to the Pope, as well as make further arrangements with regards to the marriage of Gioffre and Sancia - which had not taken place yet. By April 1494, Alexander VI had decided to side with Alphonso II and arrangements were made for an official coronation ceremony to be performed in Naples. This ceremony took place on the 8th of May. It was shortly after this that della Rovere actually travelled to France, the record noting it as June 1494.  Observers noted that "Giuliano seemed to be as much at war with the Pope as Charles VIII was with the King of Naples".

In September 1494 Charles VIII marched his land troops across the Alps, stated in the record as 31,500(stated as 25,000 in the show at this early stage), and with another 10,400 taking a sea route. At this point in the expedition, the most significant foe Charles' army met seemed to be an outbreak of smallpox.

No, not Helm's Deep, Lucca.

Meeting at the gates
One of the great dramatic points in this episode was the arrival of Charles VIII at the gates of Florence, met by Piero de' Medici and Machiavelli. There was a complex series of events before the actual first meeting between Piero and Charles, which took place in San Stefano in October 1494. The actual entrance to the city was recorded as November 17th, and was later depicted in a painting by Francesco Granacci. 

 Lucrezia's calamity, Cesare's ambitions begin to shift
Holliday Grainger puts in an other splendid performance in this episode, as the sly Giovanni Sforza announces his family's support for the French entry into Italy, thereby making the entire point of Lucrezia's marriage null and void. This is essentially what happened, and we can only guess at what the emotional impact would have been on Lucrezia, still 14 at this stage. In the show, Giovanni states as much to Giulia Farnese saying he feels Lucrezia is still too young to be affected by the news. Despite this, Lucrezia does seem affected, and the end of the episode also announces her being ill as a sign of pregnancy.

Cesare meets Ursula Bonadeo at her new convent, and her cold response indicates that it will likely be the last time we see her. The scene where a desperate Alexander considers his response to Charles was interesting, as we get another indication that Cesare prefers the role of warrior to cardinal. 

 Whenever a leading female character is suddenly unwell, a baby is usually involved

What lies ahead?
As Piero cedes territories and funds to the French King, the uprising can not be far away, and Piero will be forced to flee Florence, ending a phase of sixty years of domination by the Medici. The Medici were not to regain a foothold in the city until 1512. Charles VIII's meeting with Savonarola can not be far away. It will be interesting to see if the Dominican Friar refers to the French King as an agent of divine justice, as history records.


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