The Borgias: Day of Ashes

May 20, 2012

The sixth episode in the second series of The Borgias depicts the religious fervour inspired by Savonarola in Florence. Piero dei Medici finally makes his exit from the city and Pope Alexander and Cesare plot Savonarola's demise. Despite her objections, it is decided that Lucrezia is to be re-married in the interests of securing another favourable financial and military alliance.

The friar and the fanciulli
Watching the scenes of self-flagellation and persecution of sodomites (homosexuals) was a sobering realisation of the darkness Savonarola had brought to Florence. To this day, the Dominican friar is still commemorated in the city, his condemnation of usury, corruption and avarice still appealing to some.

The persecution against the sodomites also shows the fanciulli, the young boys mustered by Savonarola to receive alms, irritate and round up those seen to be involved in vice, ranging from vanity, to gambling or consorting with the same sex. It is reported that there were up to 4000 fanciulli, deployed into companies across the four quarters of the city (Weinstein). Contemporary diarist, Luca Landucci relates, 
Some boys snatched from a girl's head the tiara that held her veil, and her family made a great fuss about it. Fra Girolamo encouraged boys to do [such things] in order to censure scandalous behaviour and gamblers, so that when someone cries "Here comes the friar's boys!" every gambler, no matter how bold, runs away, and the women dress more modestly. 
Landucci also clarifies, one such "scandalous behaviour" targeted by the fanciulli was "the vice that may not be named" - implying homosexuality. In the context of the show, we now understand the revelation of Micheletto's homosexuality in the previous episode. He is present, and visibly affected in these scenes.

Exit, Piero dei Medici
A few months delayed compared to actual events, things are finally too hot for Piero dei Medici to stay in Florence. Although his ineffective negotiation with Charles VIII proved to be his actual undoing, the show depicts Savonarola's influence as being the primary factor that drives the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent to leave the city.  Although a branch of the family were to regain control of the city in later years, going on to becomes the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, Piero's exit from Florence signalled the end of an era - most popularly remembered for their patronage of artists such as Botticelli and fostering the young Michelangelo. 

Piero finally gets the gist - time to leave Florence

In the episode, Piero arrives in Rome and pleas for protection. After some scheming with Machiavelli, Cesare and his band of unkempt mercenaries seize transports carrying Medici gold. Cesare presents this as a gift to Alexander, obviously hoping to remind the Pope of his resourcefulness, should anything happen to Juan Borgia on his return from Spain .

Cesare's military ambitions, on hold
Although Alexander seems quite aware of Cesare's exploits with the band of mercenaries, he is still not prepared to give Cesare control of the Papal Army, a role still occupied by his brother. We are told Juan will be making his way back from Spain shortly, which seems to tie in neatly with Juan's unfortunate destiny and the open animosity between the brothers in the show. The scene where Alexander and Cesare contemplate Savonarola's increasing resistance was fascinating, although in actuality Cesare was not personally charged with eradicating the wayward friar.

A special mention must be made of Francois Arnaud, the young actor portraying Cesare. His interactions with Alexander and Lucrezia are fascinating to watch, giving a strong sense of his dedication to particular members of his family, but with a violent streak which seems to be escalating with each episode. The writers, along with Arnaud's portrayal give a sense of a more human figure than the popular accounts suggest. 

As Arnaud has also pointed out in interviews, depending on which source is consulted, historical accounts either laud or condemn Cesare Borgia. It is nice to know the writers and the actor are aware of this, and made an independent decision on how to render the character in a more complete sense. We can certainly be envious of the writers who in future episodes may treat us to interesting dialogues between Cesare and Leonardo. It was also nice to see more exchanges between Cesare and Machiavelli - this time in the streets of Rome.

Lucrezia's suitors
It is decided that Lucrezia must be re-married in order to bring about a favourable financial and military alliance.  Lucrezia is initially opposed to the idea, but becomes increasingly compliant when her mother is tasked with screening potential applicants. Although we know Lucrezia ends up with Alphonso of Aragon, he has not yet made an appearance. Lucrezia instead seems to have eyes for the dashing, but seemingly fictional Raffaello Pallavicini, who is the brother of one the suitors - Calvino.

The facade facsimile
From an art historical perspective, there were no portraits that begged identification. The opening scene in Florence gives a panning shot of a Church, the facade of which does not resemble the Florence Cathedral nor the Church of San Marco where Savonarola was based. The closest we can find is the Santa Maria Novella in Florence - affiliated with the Conventual Dominicans, which was not the same order to which Savonarola belonged (the Observant Dominicans). Given the great similarity of the design, it's likely the depiction in the show is a digital facsimile. 

We do get a clearer view of the version of the Christ at the Column, variously attributed to Bramante or Bramantino, but still missing its distinctive background. Although the Sforza have been heavily featured in recent episodes, we still have not heard a mention of Leonardo, described last season as "the Milanese mirror painter."

What lies ahead
Alexander's plan to end Savonarola's tyranny over Florence is in motion, as is Giuliano della Rovere's plan to poison the Pope. As we head into the latter half of the series, we can expect to see some more harrowing scenes in Florence, the return of Juan Borgia and his eventual demise.

Many thanks to Dr. Edward Goldberg from Italy's Secret Places for details regarding the Santa Maria Novella and the Dominican order.

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 

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

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

Weinstein, D. Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet. Yale Univeristy Press. 2011. Ch.15: Mobilizing the Children (includes Landucci source)


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