The Borgias: Nessuno (Nobody)

May 27, 2011

 Francesco Francia. The Burial of Saint Cecilia. c.1504-06. Oratorio di Santa Cecilia, Bologna

The series one finale of The Borgias continued its liberal but intriguing mix of fact versus fiction. Sticklers for historical accuracy will likely find this episode the most challenging of all - with the introduction of a child for Lucrezia. Those more into an entertaining story may find this episode less rewarding as well, which for want of a better description could be best described as anticlimactic for a series finale. For fans of the period's art, there was a clearer glimpse at the elusive painting at the convent, allowing its accurate identification as a fresco created in Bologna some 10 years after the show's setting 

Charles' entry into Rome
Previous episodes had built the impending French arrival up - and viewers not familiar with the historical details may have been expecting something a bit more dramatic. The fictitious Battle of Lucca established the French forces as a band of ruthless killers. You would expect a band of warriors with this disposition to behave in a similar manner as they traversed Italy. By the time Charles' army arrives in Rome, it seems they have lost their pillaging spirit and are content to meekly follow behind and partake in a great banquet.

The French entry into Rome on December 31st 1494 was not a bloody affair, but there was a palpable degree of threat and tension. After the French arrival, Alexander had fallen back to the Castel Sant'Angelo, the fortress originally built as a Mausoleum for Roman Emperor Hadrian. The subsequent diplomatic proceedings were equally tense - with the greatest point of contention being Alexander's reluctance to accept Charles' claim on Naples.

Charles VIII was reported to have legs of uneven length, resulting in a limp (seen more clearly here than in previous episodes) as he and the Pope stroll through the old St Peter's. Alexander also bestows upon Charles an investiture of his kingship of France, but in actuality did not grant him dominion over Naples. The show makes a point of Alexander doing this as part of a greater ruse - but it was the key sticking point of the negotiations.

Charles eventually proceeded to Naples, which was indeed abandoned by the Aragon royalty by the time he arrived. During this period, Ottoman Prince Cem was actually in French custody, and was to die imprisoned in Naples. This distressed Charles, who intended to use Cem as part of his crusading plans, but within a short time, even this ambition fell through as the French King realised powerful forces were amassing against him.

The investiture ceremony of Charles VIII was depicted, and contained a snippet of interesting dialogue between Cesare and della Rovere. Similar to Cesare's previous talk with Machiavelli in Florence, the writers of the show, aware of the impact these figures had on Cesare's later career included these segments of foreshadowing. They may not be historically recorded conversations, but are worthy inclusions for dramatic purposes.

Charles' arrival in Naples was actually greeted with a degree of fanfare, not plague infected bodies, as the episode shows. It is interesting to note that owing to the overindulgence of the French whilst in Naples, many contracted Syphilis, which they eventually took back to France with dire repercussions. Historians often joke that the acquisition of Syphilis was the single most successful venture of the French Campaign of 1494-95, as in all other respects they were eventually thoroughly defeated. Less mean spirited historians will point to Charles' tour of Italy as the point where French culture became infused with the spirit of the Italian culture.

Something for the classicists
Cesare is correctly depicted as being sent to accompany Charles VIII as Papal Legate (and hostage). Cesare escaped by disguising himself a groom, though the show depicts this as a more daring escape executed by Cesare and Micheletto overpowering French soldiers. In a conversation with Micheletto, Cesare describes himself as 'Nobody' - thus the episode's title. This immediately brings to mind the story of Odysseus and his flight from his ugly captor, the Cyclops, recounted in Homer's Odyssey.

The Lucrezia baby and Giovanni's difficulties
These aspects of the story were a mixture of truth and fiction. Lucrezia's marriage to Giovanni Sforza was indeed annulled due to non-consummation - something which the Sforza in fact protested. An envoy from Ferrara, Antonio Constabili, leaves this in the historical record:

'And when His Excellency asked him [Giovanni Sforza] if this [the alleged impotence and inability to consummate the marriage] were true, he answered no. Rather he had known her an infinite number of times. But the Pope had taken her away from him only to have her to himself...'

The rumours of incest are widely regarded as stemming from this source. The Sforza also joked that Rodrigo was unnaturally attached to his daughter, and could not bear to have her parted from him - hence contriving for the marriage to be cancelled. Whilst there is nothing unnatural about a father wanting to see his daughter safe and happy, anything beyond that between Rodrigo and Lucrezia is not in the record at this point.

The scene where Giovanni had to prove his impotence did not occur, but was lifted from an actual suggestion by Ludovico Sforza to Giovanni, that he prove himself 'with women' in the presence of a Papal Legate.  It was also great to see more of Johannes Burchardus(Burkhart) in this episode, whose diary entries form the bulk of the historical record of Alexander's papacy. 

Lucrezia's pregnancy introduces some problems with the logic of the story. If Lucrezia was visibly pregnant, it would have greatly lessened the claim that the marriage was never consummated. Why the writers added this is a mystery - one reason is perhaps they want to show her developing into a more mature character than the naive young girl of the first few episodes. As in real life, motherhood begets maturity - a device also commonly exploited by writers to rapidly indicate a transition in a character's development.

A writer's trick: add baby for instant maturity

To clarify of course, there is no record of Lucrezia's pregnancy at this age, nor of a baby born in 1495, when Lucrezia was 15 years old. It is worth noting that following her separation from Giovanni, Lucrezia did spend time at the convent of San Sisto, and was known to repeat this at other stressful points in her life.

A Francia Fresco from the Future
To distract us from the anticlimax of Charles' Roman visit, we are given another glimpse at the chapel painting, which proved difficult to identify in the last episode due to incomplete views on screen. Thanks to the assistance of  art historian Sergio Momesso and historian David Meadows, we finally have the identity of the image - Francia's Burial of Saint Cecilia.  The best clue was actually given in the seventh episode, where we are told that the convent Ursula Bonadeo had entered was St. Cecilia's. The painting depicted is a fresco, believed to have been completed between 1504-6, some ten years after the setting of the show.

It was the work of Francesco Francia, a master from Bologna, with some assistance by his one time pupil Amico Aspertini. This work is part of a series of frescoes painted for the Oratory of Saint Cecilia in Bologna. Francia was a gifted painter in his own right, but often unfortunately remembered for Vasari's description of him dying shortly after being wowed by Raphael's The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia. Raphael and Francia seemed to have enjoyed a close friendship, as the installation of (Raphael's) Saint Cecilia image, originally part of an altarpiece was entrusted to Francia. There is also great debate over whether the artists exchanged self portraits, as recounted by 17th Century art historians such as Carlo Malvasia, but there is little documentation to support this at present. 

 Raphael's The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia. c.1516-17. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

What lies ahead?
The second season of The Borgias has been confirmed, bur seems like an age away at this stage. Whether the show will pick up immediately from where it left off in 1495, or skip ahead a few years is up to the writers. It is likely season 2 will show us Leonardo in Milan, and perhaps more Savonarola in Florence. The Battle of Fornovo, the first major military engagement of 1495, would be nice to see on screen, though its direct relevance to the exploits of Alexander and his family mean in it may be described or paraphrased rather than depicted directly.  


Alberti's Window said...

Glad to see that you identified the image by Francia! I saw your tweet asking about the image, but I didn't have any pointers for you. (I even tried to look up the image through TinEye, but I didn't get any help there.)

Were Sergio and David already familiar with the painting beforehand, or was there some hunting involved? I've never seen this painting before.

Unknown said...

Cheers M! Thanks for having a try. It has been a great week for Twitter collabs! The initial ID came from David, and the Oratory reference came from Sergio. I'm very lucky to have such astute and helpful readers!

Kind Regards

Margaret said...

I'm so glad you have been taking the time to follow this series on your blog! I've really enjoyed The Borgias - probably because I only took one course on the Renaissance in University, so the fact that they play fast and loose with history doesn't annoy me nearly as much as it did in the Tudors.

Anonymous said...

well, Lucrezia's divorce occurred in 98 (i believe) and not 1495. she was pregnant when the divorce occurred, so it makes sense for the pregnancy to be moved up to 95 alongside the divorce. Cesare violently killed the father of the child in front of the pope. Perhaps that'll be a good way to open the next season? I feel like the most interesting parts of Cesare's life are upcoming in the next season, I'm very excited. thank you for your insightful posts on the show, I love your comparisons between the historcal record and the show.

terry94705 said...

I'm in the second wave of viewers, watching the DVDs from the first season. Thank you so much for taking the time to create this extremely interesting blog. It certainly enriched the experience for this student of art and history. I appreciate your insights -- and your delight in analyzing the construction of this fiction from the historical record.

And I'm happy to discover your blog!


Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Terry - I'm very much looking forward the second series! I wonder if we'll get to see Leonardo, or the Bonfire of the Vanities?!


Craig smith said...

I am in the second wave DVD viewers, and was wondering if there was any historical truth to Alexander greeting the French king dressed as a friar, or the cardinals presenting themselves in sackcloths?

Wonderful site by the way!

Unknown said...

Hello Craig - for the first question, the Burchardus diary is our main source of information for Alexander's papacy - I can not recall it specifying any such detail, otherwise I would have surely mentioned it.

As for the second, whether it may have happened in specific instances requires an intimate knowledge of centuries of primary sources, which I do not have. In my reading on the subject I have not encountered it - but that hardly means it hasn't happened.

That being said, as far as depictions of cardinals are concerned, they are usually spotted by their distinctive red garments. An early image we have [believed to be] Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere shows this, a Vatican fresco by Melozzo da Forli. image link

Glad you are enjoying the site and the reviews.

Kind Regards

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