The Borgias: Stray Dogs

May 5, 2012

The fourth episode in the second series of The Borgias is centred around the engagement known as the Battle of Fornovo which occurred on July 6 1495, an altogether bewildering skirmish between the French and the newly minted Holy League. We also see tragedy befall Cesare, who openly reveals his darkening nature and assembles a band of rogues to seek vengeance on the French. Those familiar with Renaissance history may be pleased to note the appearance of Francesco II Gonzaga and Ludovico Sforza. The episode also holds some amusing challenges for fans of art, with  glimpses of famous regal portraits by Titian and Clouet featuring the likeness of an actor in the show.

Everyone's a winner at Fornovo
Francesco II Gonzaga and Ludovico Sforza ride to Rome, where they meet Alexander and vouch their support for the Holy League. There is a great deal of tension in these scenes between Cesare and the Sforza, which was a nice touch. Cesare has been given an increasing number of reasons to hate the Sforza, starting with Giovanni's Sforza's disrespect to his mother in season one, then his mistreatment of Lucrezia. In last week's episode Giovanni rode with Charles VIII to march on Rome and this week we learn of Gioavnni's role in the demise of Ursula Bonadeo. Given this background, Cesare's growing ire with the Sforza is understandable, and will undoubtedly be mirrored in depictions of historical events we expect to see later.

The negotiations that led to the formation of the Holy League were of course much more complex - but perhaps best avoided by any historical dramatist interested in moving the story along. Through official documents, diaries and letters we get a fuller picture of the machinations behind the league.

The political affiliations of Ludovico Sforza in particular are a headache to track. It should be mentioned, largely omitted in the Showtime series is the threat posed by the Ottoman Turks, who were a constant source of worry for Alexander and the Venetians in particular. Records from diplomatic negotiations between Istanbul and Venice describe the difficulties in making sense of the transient alliances the Christian city states seemed to perpetually make and break. As Setton relates,
 ...the vagaries of Christian politics were raising questions in Istanbul, where it was only too clear that the Venetian league had entirely frustrated Charles VIII's alleged intention of using Naples as his point of departure for a crusade. The secretary of the Venetian embassy at the Porte informed his government by letters dated 12 May (1495) that the pashas had been asking him how it had come about (come va queste cosse?) that Lodovico il Moro had invited King Charles into Italy and now joined the league against him....Their purpose [in asking the question] was obviously to illustrate the unreliability of the Christian states, even in dealing with one another.
Francesco II Gonzaga is played by Patrick O'Kane

It was interesting to see Francesco and Ludovico, each also important patrons of Renaissance artists and poets. Ludovico was Leonardo's primary patron at this time and the court of Francesco II and his wife Isabella d'Este favoured many notable artists of the day, including Andrea Mantegna.

The outcome of the Fornovo engagement, whilst historically described as a partial victory for the French is depicted as the opposite in the show. The question of "who won what?" at Fornovo is an interesting one, where varying answers can be found depending on which sources are consulted. Working directly from primary accounts related by French and Venetian officials who participated in and witnessed the battle, Setton recounts,
Rather than wait for an attack upon their well-prepared defences, the Italians would now have to take the initiative across the rocky terrain of the river [Taro]. By whatever ford the Italians undertook to cross the river to attack the French, a relentless rain increased the difficulties of their offensive with each passing hour. But attack they did in a murderous melee, riding and wading through water up to their midriffs. For a brief while it looked as though Gonzaga's assurance of victory would be justified. The heavy rains were diminishing the effectiveness of the French artillery. At a crucial point in the battle, when persistent attack would probably have overwhelmed the French, the Gonzaga's light horse and infantry left the Italian Knights and men-at-arms the task of crushing the enemy, and headed for the baggage train (which they had been encouraged to believe contained the spoils of Naples)...
It was this distraction that proved calamitous, as the Italian soldiers and their mercenary allies broke into disorder after descending on the baggage train. Loaded with plunder, they lost their taste for battle and went into a disorganised retreat, with the French giving chase, though they stopped short of pursuing the Italians across the river. It is at this point where the subjective nature of judging the victors in a battle becomes more evident, as each side claimed a victory. Initial reports back to Venice even (falsely) claimed the capture of Charles VIII. Both had suffered casualties, the French a reported 1200, the league around 2000 men. The French had lost their treasure, yet their army and King were still intact. In any event, Francesco saw the proceedings at Fornovo to be sufficiently in his favour to have Mantegna immortalise him in the famous Our Lady of Victory, now at the Louvre.

Mantegna definitely thinks Francesco won at Fornovo

Cesare's darkening heart
The writers seem intent to give us a traumatic backstory for both Lucrezia and Cesare - presumably with the hope that it may explain some less restrained behaviour as their characters develop. In this episode, the emotional focus in on Cesare - who becomes obsessed with vengeance, having lost Ursula Bonadeo in the sacking of convent of Saint Cecilia by French scouts. After finding Ursula's mutilated body at the convent, Cesare plainly states vengeance is the only emotion left in him now.  Seeking revenge against the French, he becomes the ringleader of a group of rogues mustered by Micheletto. Later, after a gruesome session of torturing the captured French scouts, Cesare learns that the convent was deliberately targeted due to his affiliation with it, on the suggestion of Giovanni Sforza.

Micheletto's "stray dogs" are not a jovial bunch

Looking at the historical record, there were indeed reports of unruly advance groups of French soldiers committing offences. It is related that they acted without the sanction of King Charles VIII, who did not stand to gain by attracting the increasing ire of the Italians. The most widely reported of such incidents was the sacking of Toscanella, a town in the papal territory. (Setton)

Renaissance Batman aka Cesare Borgia

Another intriguing aspect of Cesare being depicted as the leader of the rogues is his insistence on wearing masks. Although this ploy does not successfully hide his own identity (his deeds are known to Alexander by the end of the episode), it may be relevant to revealing the identity of the mysterious masked figure that was said to have a role in the death of Juan Borgia. 

Lucrezia left in charge
Playing fast and loose with the timeline, the writers use Alexander's departure to the battlefield to place Lucrezia in the papal chair. Such an event actually did occur, in late July 1501 when Alexander departed Rome to deal with a conflict with the Colonna family. Alexander's diarist Burchardus relates this is a very matter of fact way, including a small anecdote about a joke shared by Lucrezia and one of the cardinals,
Before leaving Rome he [Alexander] handed over his room, the whole palace and current affairs to daughter Lucretia, who also occupied the papal rooms during his absence. He charged her also to open the letters sent him, and, in case any difficulty should arise to consult Cardinal Costa and the other cardinals whom she might call on for that purpose....

It is said that at one occasion Lucretia sent for Costa and explained the order of the Pope and a pending case. Costa considered the case as being without importance and said to Lucretia that when the Pope brought up these affairs before the consistory there was the Vice-chancellor or another cardinal who kept the record for him. It would be proper therefore if there were some one present who would note down the conversation. Lucretia answered: “I understand quite well how to write!” Costa asked: “Where is your pen?” Lucretia understood the meaning and joke of the cardinal. She smiled and they brought the conversation to an end in good humor. I was not consulted about these matters.

This event was also famously depicted in a c.1910 painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper. Particularly noteworthy are the faithful reproductions of the Borgia apartment frescoes by Pinturicchio in the background. For those interested in looking closer, a detailed image is available at the Google Art Project via the Tate Museum, UK link

Lucrezia Borgia reigns in the Vatican in the absence of Pope Alexander VI c.1910

Regal art historical hijinks
No Raphael portrait sightings to excitedly report this week, though I did catch at least two distortions of famous portraits that had been made to look like the actor playing Francesco II Gonzaga.  One of these is derived from the Portrait of King Francis I of France by Jean Clouet, the other a Titian portrait of King Phillip II of Spain. Both were painted many years after the era depicted in the show. Bizarrely anachronous, but fun to spot.

What lies ahead
With Charles VIII and the French forces now much less of a menace, the show will likely shift its focus to the spiteful ambitions of Cesare and Giuliano della Rovere, the latter of which is destined for Florence and a meeting with Savonarola.

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 

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


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for these reviews! I just love catching up on the show and then immediately coming to read these reviews.

I appreciate how the historical clarifications are presented wthout the snobbishness you sometimes see when "the show gets it wrong". The art glimpses are fun - how funny that they painted O'Kanes into Titian and Clouet - I wonder if he gets to keep them?!

thanks for your hard work H!

Unknown said...

Cheers for the feedback Stephanie.

There is a deal of effort required to get these out so quickly - which reminds me... I need to finish the next episode :)

Kind Regards

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...