The Borgias: The French King

May 5, 2011

The sixth episode in the first season of the Showtime series The Borgias introduces one of the key political players of the era, as well as gives insights into how future allegiances will be shaped. On its own it contains perhaps the least historical detail of episodes to date, though this does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the episode. The introduction of the fiery Sancia of Naples, and the nod to Echo and Narcissus were two very subtle, but intriguing art historical references.  

Factual inconsistences, French incursion, Turkish absence
Savonarola's inspired menacing of Florence has been put aside for an episode as we get to meet French King Charles VIII. Actor Michel Muller was an excellent choice, giving an impression of man who was ambitious, yet also aware of the horrors of war. Charles VIII was also not averse to the finer things in life, as the historical accounts of his appreciation of sights he saw in Italy attest. 

One factor that should be mentioned is the show's omission of a key element affecting the political dynamics of the era. Only hinted at in the episode The Moor, which featured Prince Cem, the threat of war against the Ottoman Turks was ever present during this time, and features heavily in the documents of the era. 

Some inconsistencies in dates and facts should be noted. With King Ferrante of Naples still being alive in this episode, we can (cautiously) date this episode as being set in late 1493, or very early 1494, though a new year has not been mentioned. Contrary to what has been depicted, both Prince Cem and Gian Galeazzo Sforza of Milan were still alive. As mentioned previously, della Rovere did not travel to France until mid 1494, after frictions caused by the Alexander VI's support for the elevation of Alphonso II to King of Naples.

In addition to the superb Papacy and The Levant mentioned last week, another vital resource for this period is the Diarium Burchardus, the diary of Johannes Burchardus, glimpsed in the first couple of episodes as the Papal Master of Ceremonies and an expert in canon law. A public domain copy of translated excerpts from this fascinating document can be accessed here.

Fans of Renaissance literature may also have enjoyed della Rovere's discussion with Charles VIII over the Italian style of war, which was mocked for being bloodless and an opportunity for nobles and mercenaries to parade 'like peacocks'. This very much echoes comments by Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince and The Art of War, deriding the use of mercenaries and mocking the Italian fascination with the appearance of war.

A complex web of fornication
Writers have gone to much trouble to show Lucrezia and Cesare being capable of deep emotion, and somewhat distancing them from the political machinations of their father. At one point, Cesare even admits that his Borgia name is a stain - likely included as a foreshadowing of future conflict between him and the Pope. 

For the wedding of young Gioffre Borgia, Cesare and Lucrezia are briefly re-united, and we get another taste of their eerie closeness, as well as the first hints of a deeper familiarity with her father as Lucrezia and Alexander cuddle in bed. 

Starting the episode in the throes of passion, upon learning of her husband's demise, (the seemingly fictional) Ursula Bonadeo undergoes a spiritual awakening and leaves Cesare for a convent, also being subjected to the dramatic device known as important haircut (thanks to Juliette Harrisson for that link!).

Echo and Narcissus>
With Giovanni Sforza incapacitated, Lucrezia now has some spare time to fool around with stable boy Paolo. Holliday Grainger has been fabulous to watch as Lucrezia increases in maturity and confidence, yet with a persistent vulnerability and innocence appropriate for her character's young age. The scene where she explains the legend of Narcissus was particularly lovely. How lucky for Paolo to be seduced by a pretty girl with fascinating tales from antiquity!

The tale of Echo and Narcissus, popularised by Ancient Roman Poet Ovid in Metamorphoses Book 3, also serves in an allegorical sense - hinting that this idyllic and innocent affection between Lucrezia and Paolo will one day be a distant, lingering memory. The way this scene was shot very much reminded me of the famous 1903 painting by John William Waterhouse, one of the most well known depictions of Echo and Narcissus. 

Musée des Faux-Arts
This was the first episode that did not contain a reference to a known artwork or artist. The closest we got is a painting of Sancia, the lascivious Neapolitan bride of young Gioffre and tireless lover of Juan Borgia. The painting shown is of course a likeness of the stunning Emanuelle Chriqui, the actress playing the part. It is a shame the whole painting was not shown - it would have been interesting to note the placement of the hands and the attire in the portrait as these are nice ways of telling the style and approximate era that was being emulated. For what it is worth, such a naturalistic depiction in the early 1490s seems a bit out of place. It was not until the early 1500s, with portraits completed by Leonardo and Raphael (and Titian and Giorgione in Venice) that this naturalistic style became more prevalent in Italy.

 Figures in Pinturicchio's Disputation of Saint Catherine believed to represent Gioffre and Sancia

What lies ahead?
King Ferrante of Naples can not have much longer to live. The historical record shows his passing in January 1494. The drama of whom the Pope will support to succeed him will likely be echoed in the series. Alexander has already hinted at Naples' great importance in his pillow talk with Giulia Farnese, so the writers have essentially told us which direction his decision will go. The French incursion of 1494 can not be far away - we may also get to see the great meeting between Charles VIII and Savonarola, for which della Rovere was also present.


Juliette said...

The actor playing Charles VIII looks eerily perfect for the role!

alli said...

Thank you so much for your insights on this program- I am not able to watch it but I love reading your "recaps" and historical additions/ clarifications.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Juliette - Muller was indeed an excellent choice. I thought it would be nice to show that lesser known portrait of him rather than the one commonly knocking about. I know casting depts from historical shows get their hands on as many images of the character as possible. The portraits I have been displaying in these reviews represent what I think would have been the most influential choice for the actor/actress they ended up going with.

@alli - welcome to 3PP. I am pleased you are enjoying the art/historical recaps. They have been fun and challenging to knock out so quickly after each episode. If you are interested in some more traditional synopsis style reviews of The Borgias, follow this link to those being done at

Kind Regards

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I am not able to watch the show either but your recaps are fascinating and fun. Phrases such as "Savonarola's inspired menacing of Florence..." and a "complex web of fornication" are inspired in their own right and leave me chuckling with admiration!

Unknown said...

Many thanks Vicky! If you ever do get a a chance to watch this series - make sure you check it out.


Anonymous said...

The actor portraying the French King deserves appropriate awards for his acting. If this were a feature film I'd say give him a supporting actor Oscar. His accent is perfect too - is he a native Frenchman? Michael Muller doesn't sound like a French name.

I wondered how accurate his looks and demeanor were, and the painting is uncannily like the actor in costume. Thanks for that handy guide!

Unknown said...

Cheers for the feedback.

Michel Muller is of Austrian Heritage, but has made his name in in film and TV in France. There is a decent list of his works on his IMDB page.

I agree, he really has brought Charles VIII to life not just by his looks but his demeanour as well. He cant get an Oscar as this is TV show, but an Emmy is a possibility. There has definitely been a lot of interest in him and his character since this episode aired.

Kind Regards

Anonymous said...


Great recap (and website btw) indeed)! I'm glad you did appreciate the Michel Muller acting as he's one of my favorite actor / stand up comedist.

He do is french, former math teacher for the anecdote. His work is mainly comedy, with very, veeeeeeerrrrryyyyy dark humour (but always smart and clever, not for anybody though).

Keep up the good work !


Unknown said...

Hello Jerome, welcome to 3PP - and thank you for the feedback!

The choice of Muller for this role was a great bit of casting. I do hope he gets some type of recognition or award for it.

Kind Regards

Caroline Lawrence said...

This is a fabulous blog and commentary on The Borgias! I will definitely follow from now on... (I am coming late to this because the series is only now airing in the UK.)

I thought this was the best episode yet. I loved all the visual references like the Echo and Narcissus and the news ones you showed me. I loved the inspired use of a courtesan's calf to illustrate the importance of Naples in the political scheme of things. (That's about my level). I ADORED Michel Mullan. His character was so fresh, funny and original and I laughed every time he opened his mouth.

But I especially loved all the literary references from the tweaking of St Augustine's prayer of "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet" to the quoting of one of my fave Latin poems, Odi et amo by Catullus.

And, as the author of The Thieves of Ostia, I also appreciated not one but two mentions of Rome's port.

Unknown said...

Cheers Caroline! You may be interested to know that in reality Cardinal della Rovere had a sizeable fortified property at Ostia, where he spent some time when during his voluntary absence from Alexander VIs Papal Court. Muller was definitely a stellar casting choice for the role of Charles VIII!

Kind Regards

James Stevenson said...

Well done Caroline this is a great update on the show and where we are in historical terms. Keep up the good work.



Unknown said...

Hello James - I am assuming you have me mistaken for the lovely Caroline Lawrence, who has been kindly tweeting the links to my Borgias reviews.

In any event, I'm pleased you are enjoying them!

Kind Regards
Hasan Niyazi

Caroline Lawrence said...

Yeah, James! It ain't me! It's Hasan! I just tweet about these great summaries! :-)

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