The ninth episode in the second series of The Borgias brings us two major events which actually occurred in different years, Savonarola's ordeal by fire (April 7 1498) and the death of Juan Borgia (14/15 June 1497). Meanwhile, Giuliano della Rovere's assassin takes a step closer to his target and Lucrezia's unlikely Genoese suitors are finally sent from Rome.
Savonarola's trial by tinder
The writers of the show seem quite intent on showing a direct link between Savonarola's trial by fire and Alexander. The involvement of agents sympathetic to the pope have always been suggested by historians, but is difficult to prove in a documentary sense. The most detailed accounts of how the trial by fire was first suggested and then (almost) became a reality is more clearly related by Florentine sources, not Cesare Borgia defiantly enforcing a papal edict as the show depicts.
What can be discerned from the records is that the trial by fire originated as a challenge from Fra Francesco di Puglia, a Franciscan monk staunchly opposed to Savonarola. Similar challenges had apparently been issued before, but at time time of the di Puglia challenge, Fra Domenico da Pescia was leading the sermons of the Dominican order, as Savonarola had been forbidden to do so ; Fra Domenico eagerly embraced the challenge, much to the regret of Savonarola, who naturally became implicated in the affair.
In the show at least, Savonarola proves to be equally as flammable as a Botticelli painting
Ultimately, and perhaps bizarrely, the Florentine ruling body, the Signoria, took on an officiating role, and records show that public funds were put towards creating the pyre and providing security against public discord. There seems to have been heavy debate over whether the matter should have been left to the Church to resolve, but most commentators suggest that the trial by fire was viewed as a means of dealing with the friar once and for all. There is little left of the records of this debate - but of what is reported to survive, the plea of Giovanni Canacci seems quite poignant as a voice of reason in a time where rational thought seems to have deserted many:
When I hear such things as these said, I scarcely know whether life or death is most to be desired. I truly believe that if our forefathers, the founders of this city, could have divined that a like question would ever be discussed here, and that we were to become the jest and opprobrium of the whole world, they would have indignantly refused to have anything to do with us. And now our city is come to a worse pass than many long years ; and one sees that all is in confusion. Wherefore I would implore your Excellencies to deliver our people from all this wretchedness at any cost, either by fire, air, water or any means you choose....I pray your Excellencies put an end to these things in order that no misery or hurt may befall or city. (See Villari)
Alexander was noted to have been informed of proceedings, and there is debate over whether he actually opposed it or simply disapproved. A letter is mentioned, which was not delivered and no longer survives, which allegedly outlined his disapproval of the ordeal. In any event, the fiery spectacle we see in the episode did not take place, and the pyre was never actually lit. Much of the city was reported to have turned out for the spectacle - but there was debate and procastrination by both groups of monks and officials from the Signoria - particularly over whether Fra Domenico should be allowed to carry a crucifix, and later the Host into the fire.
The large crowd reportedly became restless and scuffles ensued, with the Dominicans retreating back to the convent of San Marco. The friars involved (including Savonarola) were later arrested and taken into custody, but remained in Florence. In the commission examining his activities, Savonarola is recorded to have expressed disapproval of Fra Domenico's zeal for the trial by fire, but could find no successful alternative to extricate himself from it. Perhaps the most truthful element of events depicted in the episode around this matter was Savonarola's excommunication by Alexander, which had given Savonarola's Franciscan opponents the impetus to issue the challenge in the first place.
Alexander excommunicates Savonarola
Savonarola's capture and the Florentine witch burning
After the ordeal by fire, where Savonarola is scorched but does not die, he is denounced by the crowd, and taken into custody by Micheletto and Cesare, who bring him to Rome for confession. In reality, Savonarola was apprehended by Florentine officials and placed in the Bargello, where officials from Rome arrived in May 1498 to oversee a commission examining the Friar's activities.
Cesare welcomes Savonarola to Rome
Another scene, set immediately before the trial by fire shows Machiavelli, Micheletto and Cesare attending a witch burning on the outskirts of Florence. Obviously intended by writers to allow the characters to lament on how far Florence has fallen under Savonarola, witch burnings in Florence during this time seem to be absent from the historical record. The closest I could find in Florence was a mention of a trial and beheading of a witch in 1427. Witch trials, beheading and burnings were occurring in Europe during he late fifteenth century, but seemingly not in Florence. (See Kieckhefer for a calendar of witch trials from the period).
The death of Juan Borgia
To this day, the identity of Juan's killer is not conclusively known. Popular suspicion falls on Cesare, who was reportedly the last to see him alive. The show's previous depiction of a masked Cesare secretly leading a band of mercenaries seemed to indicate that the writers had decided to name Cesare as the killer. The writers actually discard the masked man from the accounts completely, and plainly show Cesare and Lucrezia plotting their brother's death, which Cesare vengefully delivers in the closing scene.
Using the diaries of Sanudo and Burchardus as key sources, Setton describes the known details,
As evening began to fall on Wednesday 14 June (1497), the pope's son Juan Borgia, second duke of Gandia and captain-general of military forces of the Holy See...left a dinner for family and friends given by his mother Vannozza de' Catanei in her vineyard near the church of S. Pietro in Vincoli. The dinner had probably been given in honor of his brother Cesare, who was soon to be leaving for Naples. Suddenly bidding Cesare goodbye when they had reached their father's former palace [the present Palazzo Sforza-Cesarini..], Juan departed with a masked man (facie velata), who had been calling on him almost daily at the apostolic palace for the past month. Cesare watched Juan disappear into the gathering dusk....That was the last time Juan was seen alive by family or friends.
Investigation revealed that a certain Giorgio Schiavone, a lumber merchant with a yard in the Tiber...had seen a man mounted on a white horse, and four servitors who addressed him as signore, throw a body into the river about 2.00 a.m on Thursday [June 15, 1497].
...some three hundred fishermen and divers were assembled for the purpose [of recovering Juan's body], with their nets and grappling hooks. Before the hour of Vespers on Friday the sixteenth Juan Borgia, duke of Gandia, was fished out of the Tiber, his throat slit and body bearing eight other wounds. Obviously the motive for his murder had not been robbery. He was completely and expensively dressed ; his gloves still tucked under his belt ; his purse contained thirty ducats.
The pope was noted by Burchardus to be overcome with grief. Interestingly, it is reported that Michelangelo's famous Pietà, which was commissioned only months after this incident by Cardinal Jean de Bilheres was emotionally, if not factually linked with this incident,
Almost from the time when Michelangelo's work was first exhibited, there have been those who have seen Gandia's features and his beard in those of the dead Christ and (still more) his mother Vanozza's features in those of the Virgin. (Setton, Menotti)
Popular imagination saw the faces of Juan and his mother in Michelangelo's famous Pietà, which was completed in Rome during Alexander's papacy. There is no specific mention in sources related to Michelangelo of any intent to depict the figures in the Pietà as members of the Borgia family.
Paving the way for Alfonso and what lies ahead
The Genoese suitors are finally sent from Rome after Raphaello Pallavicini "the pauper painter" professes his love for Lucrezia. Alexander of course refuses. This paves the way for a young Alfonso of Aragon to make his first appearance in the show. With Giuliano della Rovere's young assassin securing the position of the pope's poison taster, it seems likely that Alexander's poisoning will be the focus of the next week's series finale.
Glaser, FL. Pope Alexander VI and his Court. Extracts from the Latin Diary of Johannes Burchardus. FL Brown. New York. 1921. Full text at archive.org. link
Kieckhefer, R. European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500. University of California Press. 1976 pp. 118-147 (Calendar of 15th century witch trials and their sources) preview available at Google Books link also at UCP website link
Menotti, M. Vannozza Catanei e i Borgia. Nuova Antologia di lettere, scienze ed arti. 6th ser. CLXXXVI (186) (=CCLXX (270), Rome 1916). pp. 470-86, esp. p. 478. Cited by Setton.
Setton. KM. The Papacy and the Levant 1204-1571. Vol 2. 1976. American Philosophical Society. pp. 500-503.
Villari, P. The Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola. (Villari, L, Trans.) T.F. Unwin, London. C. Scribner's Sons, New York. 1888. pp. 650-674 full text at archive.org. link Ordeal by fire section start: link ; p. 657 footnote: Archival source for Canacci's speech is cited as Florentine Archives cl.ii. series 5. file 131 and Consulte e Pratiche cod. 66. p.161. (the latter published by Lupi)
Weinstein, D. Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet. Yale Univeristy Press. 2011. Ch.23-25. preview available at Google Books. link