The Borgias: The Siege at Forli

May 27, 2012

The seventh episode in the second series of The Borgias finally delivers the infamous bonfire of the vanities, a spectacle promised since Savonarola was introduced in the first series. Juan Borgia returns from Spain, and is quickly set to the task of bringing Caterina Sforza to Rome.

The bonfire of the humanities
Since Savonarola's first appearance in series one, viewers have wondered what the writers would do with the incident known as the "bonfire of the vanities" - so called because Savonarola's adolescent mob, the fanciulli were reported to travel the city gathering objects such as vanities (hand mirrors) to put into a bonfire to physically and symbolically expunge Florence's sins.

In the episode, Savonarola's fanciulli roam the streets, singing hymns and harassing households for objects to throw into the fire. Machiavelli, with Cesare looking on is confronted by the youths, and amusingly relinquishes a stuffed owl to get the youngsters away from his door. Later, he and Cesare watch with concern as Botticelli makes his way towards the bonfire to throw in a painting that appears to be a pastiche resembling La Primavera.

As far as dramatic license is concerned, the writers are continuing a tradition that has plagued the study of the Renaissance since the nineteenth century at least, and possibly beyond. Was Botticelli an ardent follower of Savonarola, and did he throw his paintings into the bonfire on either of the (at least) two  occasions they were reported to occur? (Weinstein)

Cesare and Machiavelli watching Botticelli lead his painting to the fire. Inset widely believed to be a self-portrait, Botticelli in an Adoration scene for the Medici.

Checking the historical record, there is no contemporary account that names Botticelli as a follower of Savonarola. There is also no evidence that plainly states he committed painting(s) to the fire. We unfortunately do not know much detail about what went into the fire, and whether paintings were among these. The popular conception of this occurrence comes from a mixture of sources, which lead to the assumption that this may have happened. These sources are:
  • Accounts that the bonfires occurred during the period of Savonarola's influence
  • Accounts of Savonarola's sermons against impious depictions of the Virgin and the saints. Savonarola was not entirely against images, but did seem to take offence at depictions of holy figures that were too infused with aesthetic consideration. For a wonderful account of this, and artists' response to Savonarola, Marcia B. Hall's The Sacred Image in the Age of Art is thoroughly recommended.
  • Surviving descriptions of Botticelli's brother Simone, being an ardent follower of Savonarola. These descriptions come from Simone's Chronicle of events between 1489 and 1503 which survive only in extracts and secondary accounts. These descriptions takes us a little closer to a firmer link between Botticelli and Savonarola, but are still ambiguous enough to make the association between the painter and friar uncertain. Raffaella Zaccaria's extremely useful summary of Simone's life on the Italian national biography website, reveals a sixteenth century source describing Simone in Botticelli's workshop, and discussions concerning Savonarola:
Lorenzo Violi, in his Giornate or Book of Days (sixteenth century), writes that Simone Filipepi was often present in Sandro Botticelli’s workshop for meetings and discussions between the supporters and the opponents of Savonarola and that he recorded many of those discourses in his Chronicle. Violi adds that he read Simone Filipepi’s book and that it was bound in boards. [Translation provided by Dr. Edward Goldberg. See Zaccaria and Violi in refs.]
  • Vasari's (later) account of Botticelli - which tells us he was a follower of Savonarola, and attributes the Friar's teachings to negative impact on Botticelli's style and fortune. The crux of Vasari's account is as follows:
In addition, he produced many of his drawings in print, but these were poor in style since the engraving was badly done. The best that one sees from his hand is The Triumph of the Faith of Fra Girolamo Savonarola from Ferrara, of whose sect he was an avid supporter. This threw his life into grave disorder since it led him to abandon painting and he had no income on which to live. Being an obstinate adherent of that party and what they called a “wailer” (piagnone) in those days, he set aside his work and eventually found himself old and poor. Indeed, he would have starved to death if Lorenzo de’ Medici had not supported him while he lived (he worked for him a great deal for that Ospedaletto in the territory of Volterra) and then there were various other friends and well-off people. [Translation provided by Dr. Edward Goldberg, see refs]
Hence, despite not being documented at the time, and not even by Vasari writing over 50 years later, we still somehow end up with the idea that Botticelli was so swayed by Savonarola that he threw his paintings into the fire. The development of this particular myth of the Renaissance is likely linked to its representation in popular culture, from literature to TV - which this episode of The Borgias has astutely perpetuated for the current generation of viewers.

Perhaps one day a lucky archivist will stumble on a document that can clarify this without question, but for now the closest we have are interpretations of Botticelli's paintings that seem to suggest the influence of Savonarola's sermons, such as the Mystic Nativity - though it should be mentioned even this reading is not universally accepted. (see Hatfield in refs, and 3PPs post on the Mystic Nativity).

Botticelli's Mystic Nativity

Overall, this scene is quite fascinating - even beyond the curiosity of Botticelli throwing his mock-Primavera into the fire. Savonarola ominously taunts Machiavelli that his books will be next, and Micheletto seems to have joined Savonarola's followers. Whether this is out of guilt for being an assassin and/or his love for Augustino, or some other reason is unknown - there is very little said to make Micheletto's  intentions clear during his appearances at the church and the bonfire scene.

Another curiosity in this scene is the equestrian statue seen in the background of the throng making their way towards the bonfire. The statue strongly resembles the monument made to Cosimo I dei Medici by Giambologna, some 100 years later.

Caterina Sforza's distorted legend
Juan Borgia is back from Spain, venereal disease in tow. With Cesare watching Botticellis burn in Florence, the potentially violent re-union the brothers will have is postponed and Juan is sent to bring Caterina Sforza to Rome to answer for her defiance. She refuses, and in an underhanded move, her son is kidnapped by Juan, and soon tortured. Caterina's actual defiance against the papal forces was celebrated for generations - with accounts describing her nobility and courage. There is something of this in Gina McKee's portrayal, though it can easily be argued the writers took their penchant for historical legends a little too far when they showed an armoured Caterina proudly brandishing her privates to the papal forces, reminding them that she has the necessary anatomy to make more sons. Fortunately for everyone watching Caterina's display of bravery, the whole fiasco comes to an end when Ludovico Sforza's army turns up and Juan Borgia is injured and forced to flee. 

From the historical record, we do have an account of different confrontations at Forli, where Caterina acted in a noble and brave manner, the most notable perhaps being against the Orsi and also against Cesare Borgia in 1499. In the episode at least, this bungled siege has been put in by the writers to further pave the way for Cesare to eventually take control of the papal armies.

Those curious about the historical accuracy of Caterina's display should be aware that the most popular account stems from Machiavelli, giving an account of when Forli was besieged by the Orsi. First described in his Discourses on Livy, and then in History of Florence, Machiavelli's tale of an emboldened Caterina mythologises the woman beyond what the historical record permits. The two accounts are slightly different, with Caterina becoming increasingly bolder and boastful in the latter, claiming she has the means to make more children.

Count Pietro Desiderio dall'Onda, who compiled  the most well-known biography of Caterina, relates this event, known as leggenda della rocca (legend of the fort) as being a folk tale distorted and mythologised by writers, particularly Machiavelli and Lodovico Guicciardini.

It is Guicciardini, in the later work L' Hore di ricreatione (1568. nb. see extended annotation in refs) who relates Caterina's words during this apocryphal incident, with Caterina on the battlements lifting her skirt and mocking her enemies by asking,
E non vi pare egli, stolti, ch'io abbia le forme da farne degl' altri?

You fools, don’t you see that I have what it takes (forme: "the moulds") to make more of them?
As dall'Onda clarifies, 
Catherine's admirable defence of the Castle of Forli soon became a sort of epopee [epic poem], adorned by popular fancy and enriched by the boastful additions of those who had taken any part in it. It was this version that reached Machiavelli, who was only to make Catherine's personal acquaintance eleven years later : he believed it, and delighted in handing it down to history in its most cynical form. But the narrative of Machiavelli cannot stand against the absolute silence [on the incident] of such contemporaries as Cobelli and Bernardi. The person who appeared and who spoke to the crowd was the castellane [Corradino] ; Catherine was not on the battlements, but in bed, and when she did appear, wore not armour, but her shift, which she was probably the last to perceive. At that moment, the dauntless Countess was not alarming, but alarmed. [Trans. P. Sylvester, 1898]
For more on Machiavelli's motives, and the classical sources he likely drew upon when distorting Caterina's legendary story, see Viroli and Shugaar (2010) in references. 

Caterina Sforza boldly defies Juan. Inset This figure in Botticelli's Primavera is claimed by some authors to be a depiction of Caterina.

Not the Raffaello I wanted to kiss...
Lucrezia is still being courted by Calvino Pallavicini of Genoa, but ultimately rejects his offer of marriage. Alphonso of Aragon's name is mentioned, steering us back towards the historical truth of Lucrezia's future husband. Until Alphonso arrives though, Lucrezia takes to flirting with Calvino's brother -  Raffaello Pallavicini, a noble youth who passes his time by drawing the ruins of Rome. It has been numerously reported that there were many artists named Raffaello (Raphael), even beyond the most famous of them all, Raffaello Sanzio of Urbino, who is still over a decade away from his first documented appearance in Rome (taking the show's timeframe as c.1495-7) .

 What lies ahead
Things can only go downhill for Savonarola after the bonfire of the vanities. Alphonso of Aragon must surely appear soon to woo and wed Lucrezia, and Juan Borgia is likely to meet a masked figure intent on killing him.

Many thanks to Dr. Edward Goldberg from Italy's Secret Places for the translations of Vasari's account, the Zaccaria entry on Simone Filipepi, and the Caterina Sforza quote, plus extended annotation on Lodovico Guicciardini and the complexities of stating a publication date for L'Hore di ricreatione.

Pasolini dall'Onda, PD. [Trans. Sylvester, P]. Catherine Sforza. William Heniemann London. 1898. pp.128-131. full text available at link

Guicciardini, L. L'Hore di ricreatione. Published by Guglielmo Silvio. 1569 version available via Google books link ; Caterina Sforza quote on p.278 link

Hatfield, R. Botticelli's Mystic Nativity Savonarola and the Millennium. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Vol. 58. (1995) pp. 88-114 JSTOR link

Weinstein, D. Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet. Yale Univeristy Press. 2011.

Vasari, G. Milanesi, G (ed.). Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architettori. GC Sansoni. Florence. 1906. pp.317-318. Excerpt translated by Dr. Edward Goldberg.

Violi, L. Le Giornate [sec. XVI], Garfagnini GC (ed.). Florence. 1986. Cited by Zaccaria.

Viroli, M & Shugaar, A. Machiavelli's God. Princeton University Press. 2010. pp.111-114. view excerpt at Google Books link

Zaccaria. R. Entry for Simone Filipepi in Treccani Italia (Italian Dictionary of Biography) link
Translation provided by Dr. Edward Goldberg.

Image Notes
Equestrian statue of Cosimo I via wiki commons link
HQ image of La Primavera is available at the Google Art Project link


Margaret said...

Savonarola's bonfire was something to behold - and I was so horrified to see the Botticelli burning that I didn't even notice it was the artist himself who had thrown it in!

Anonymous said...

LOL! You crack me up H :) I was wondering how you were going to cover the Caterina bit. Her nickname apparently was "the Tiger", after all

Thx for the great reviews


Dr. F said...


Thanks for a very nice job on Savonarola and Botticelli. Savonarola objected to depictions of the Madonna in regal robes and claimed that artists should depict the actual humble status of the Holy Family.

What books could Machiavelli have written by 1495?


Unknown said...

Cheer for the comments!

@Frank - that's right, Machiavelli's more famous works did not appear until the early part of the 16th century - maybe Savonarola is threatening to burn his shopping list :)

I've added a clarification on the "Legend of the Fort" and the infamous display ascribed to Caterina Sforza - it seems many want to know if this happened and who was responsible for the distortion.

Kind Regards

Anonymous said...

We do not know for certain what was on the Bonfire of the Vanities but we assume that many objects of beauty were lost. It is not likely that Italian artists would put their own masterpieces on the fire: but that does not mean that patrons did not place their own copies on the bonfires. I was alarmed to hear that books were also being demanded as these were rare and Savanlarola was well educated. However, may-be some works were considered wicked or heretical and should have been considered worthy to be burnt in his eyes. I was fascinated to see Caterina Sforza standing up to Juan even when her son was being used against her and her famous legend of her stating she has the means to produce more sons if he was killed was a lively part of the same episode. What a contrast. She will of course, be captured not by the coward Juan, but by Ceasere, as papal general after his brother's death. A great episode: vivid and provoking.

Unknown said...

@ Frank and Hasan : Did not seem to me as Savonarola was talking about book Machiavelli had written but simply like anonymous said a reference to his personal library that would be likely to include "wicked" book...

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