The Borgias: The Choice

May 14, 2012

The fifth episode in the second series of The Borgias finally brings us back to Florence, where we get a glimpse of the fervour descending on  the city, incited by Savonarola. The show offers us another look inside the Medici Palace and takes us to Caterina Sforza's fortress at Forli, where Cesare Borgia has been sent to specify the terms of her compliance to Rome.

Desperately seeking Savonarola
From an historical point of view, there is much in this episode which seems out of place for the latter part of 1495 suggested by the events so far. Having dealt with Charles VIII at Fornovo, Alexander VI decides to take Ascanio Sforza to Florence, where they attend a charged Savonarola sermon incognito. Also among the crowd is Giuliano della Rovere, still in monk's habit. The pope then goes on to calmly visit Piero dei Medici, who is still occupying the Medici palace.

This seemed the most out of place, with the writers obviously choosing to ignore Piero's actual fate - which was to leave Florence following a disastrous attempt at negotiation with Charles VIII in October 1494. Hence, in the first season episode when we saw Charles arrive in Florence (November 1494), Piero and other members of the Medici family had already fled Florence. We are told that other branches of the family stayed on in the city, adding the epithet il Popolano (the Man of the people) to their names and removing the Medici coat of arms from the walls of their palace (Hibbert).

Savonarola stirs the mob

As Alexander and Ascanio chat to Piero and Machiavelli about the menace of Savonarola, we finally get a glimpse of Savonarola's invectives against the impious art the Florentines seemed so fond of. Unfortunately, this is delivered second hand by Piero, who relates "they would ban all art and ornament, and they have set their sights on the coin of the realm itself....they see gold and silver coin as part of the fallen world." 

The actual fate of the Medici Palace is reported by Phillipe de Commines, a diplomat travelling with Charles VIII,
[the French nobleman in charge of guarding the palace]...fell to rifling the palace upon pretence that the Medici bank at Lyons owed him a considerable sum of money...and among other things he seized upon a whole unicorn's horn besides two great pieces of another ; and other people followed his example. The best of the Medici furniture had been conveyed to another house in the city, but the mob plundered it. The Signoria got some of Piero's richest jewels, twenty thousand ducats in ready money from his bank in the city, several fine agate vases, besides an incredible number of cameos admirably well cut, three thousand medals of gold and silver weighing almost forty pounds....'
Included in this haul were many pictures and statues, the true number and nature of which is unknown.

The scene does show Alexander admiring some of the Medici collection of antique statues - which  seem uncharacteristically displayed in a dining hall and in fragmentary form. Accounts we do have of the antique statue collection describe that pieces were often restored and displayed on specially prepared pedestals and niches. In the background of this scene is a sculpture of the crucifixion resembling the version at the Santo Spirito in Florence, one of (at least) two wooden variants tentatively attributed to Michelangelo, but not universally accepted as authentic. 

 Cesare's revenge, Micheletto's graveyard tryst
We also follow Cesare and Micheletto to Forli. The assassin Micheletto has largely been a mystery until now, yet in this episode we get to meet his mother, and his lover Augustino. Part of Micheletto's brooding character is explained in this encounter, showing not only a tender side but also emphasising the necessary repression of his sexuality as a source of his violent behaviour - this seems most evident in his words, "I punish this world for not being as I want."

 Assassins need love too...

Meanwhile, inside the Sforza fortress, Cesare seeks to deliver a message to Caterina Sforza, who wastes no time in manoeuvring him into her bedchamber. Several steamy and dramatic scenes follow, the last of which betray Cesare's true aim in visiting Forli - to revenge himself upon the Sforza - which he finally delivers to an arrogant Giovanni Sforza. While this suits the course of events in the show, Cesare's revenge on the Sforza was to be delivered later, and Giovanni Sforza in fact did not die until July 27 1510, where he was noted to have "died peacefully, in the castle of Gradara, where he had been in the habit of spending much of his time alone" (Gregorovius). He left behind his second wife Ginevra Tiepolo, and son Costanzo. The show depicts Giovanni to be a loathsome character, so perhaps here is the moment to relate that in actuality he was described as a cultivated man and student of philosophy. He also created a manuscript index of archival records in Pesaro, which proved very useful to historians studying the region.

Cesare sinks the dagger into Giovanni...a villain in the show, less so in real life it seems

Old Saint Peter's in ruins
The final scene shows the pope and Ascanio Sforza back in Rome, where a lightning storm damages the previously gleaming Old Saint Peter's Basilica. As reported by several sources, perhaps most notably by Leon Battista Alberti, the old structure has been in a state of worsening disrepair for a long time. In the show at least, the destruction of the church seems to be used as a manifestation of Alexander's sinful activities. In actuality, Old Saint Peter's was purposefully dismantled after 1505 on orders of Pope Julius II by Bramante, earning him the nickname Bramante Ruinante or "Bramante the Wrecker" (Bosman). Those seeking a similar incident from the historical record may look to October 29 1497, when lightning ignited the gunpowder magazine of the upper tower at the Castel Saint'Angelo, resulting in an explosion which injured fifteen people.

Lightning damage - not as disastrous on the ancient church as Julius II's ego and Bramante's zeal

What lies ahead
Giuliano della Rovere has finally caught up with Savonarola, and they both begin plotting their revenge against Alexander. If the focus remains in Florence, we will likely see more evidence of the fervour inspired by the Dominican monk, who Alexander will eventually excommunicate, ultimately bringing about Savonarola's brutal end in 1497.

Many thanks to Dr. Edward Goldberg from Italy's Secret Places for clarifications on the Medici withdrawal from Florence and translation of Nicola Ratti's account of Giovanni Sforza (see refs)

Bosman, L. The Power of Tradition: Spolia in the Architecture of Saint Peter's at the Vatican. Uitgeverij Verloren. 2004. p.12

Glaser, FL. Pope Alexander VI and his Court. Extracts from the Latin Diary of Johannes Burchardus. FL Brown. New York. 1921. Full text at link 

Gregorovius, FA. Lucretia Borgia: According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day. (Garner, JL Trans.) D. Appleton and Company. 1904. p. 330 ; Full text at link

Hibbert, C. The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici. Ch. 14. Penguin. 1979.

Ratti, N. Della Famiglia Sforza. Solomoni. 1794. pp.163-166. Digitised at Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Digitial [BSD] link ;
Accessed May 14 2012. Translation by Dr. Edward Goldberg

Setton. KM. The Papacy and the Levant 1204-1571. Vol 2. 1976. American Philosophical Society.  pp. 483-507

The Antique Sculptures of Cosimo, Piero and Lorenzo. Palazzo Medici-Riccardi website. Accessed 13 May 2012. link


Glennis said...

That reminds me I must catch up on this series!

Unknown said...

Hi Glennis! That hide/show code is proving immensely useful - I like the idea of hiding more extended notes in the refs for those interested in more detail without cluttering main content.

Definitely worth catching up on the series - I'm really looking forward to the next episode especially - which seems to feature more of Savonarola - I really hope they'll get to cover the Bonfire of the Vanities in this show!


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