The Borgias: World of Wonders

June 16, 2012

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 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 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


Dr. F said...


Great job. Fair, balanced, and well-researched. You're really getting into it.


Unknown said...

Cheers Frank - I have enjoyed covering the series, though keeping up with the reviews on a weekly basis has been challenging - especially with other things I am working on at the moment!

I am relieved we are nearly at the end of this series, and also glad the series will be back next year. I wonder if we will see Leonardo at all?

Kind Regards

Jarod said...

Thanks for these, I love it when pop culture has a strong basis in history - but it's often hard to know the fact v reality. Been really enjoying all of your The Borgias reviews.

I also loved your comments on the Assassin's Creed games, and would love to read more (finally into the most recent one, bit tedious by now but I want more of the "history"). Seeing the same characters in the game and in a TV show has been really thrilling for me. After the 2nd game I'd visited Florence (2nd time for me) and from the game I knew where things were... it was a fantastic addition to enjoying the history, art and culture. Still haven't visited Rome yet but I hope to experience something similar :)

I'd love to see more of this type of thing in computer games - why do they create imaginary cities when you could actually be in New York, London, Barcelona etc???

awayleft said...

Thanks again for the great write-up. Looking forward to your posting on the season finale.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved the trial by fire! Very well done and very dramatic. It does not really matter that the challenge was actually made by a rival friar, because it was a great re=enactment of this famous event that led to the downfall of Savonarola. I do think, though that his followers are a bunch of turncoats. It is the message that he preaches that they are meant to follow and find truth in, not the man and his claims. He gets a bit burnt in a fire and they go away and leave him! Nice lot!

I am interested to see that a new book: Savonarola's Women has been published that traces some of the lives of his female followers and why his movement was so attractive to women in particular. It also looks at how a group of women kept his faith and teachings alive after his death and went underground in convents to follow his ways. Interesting that women have more integrity than men.

Great handling of the death of Juan, who had it coming as far as Cesare was concerned, but in light of what was wrong with him, his habit and his sexual disease, and perhaps a mental condition; it is more that he should have been pitied. Even though he was cruel, he was about 20 when he died and he left a wife and two young children. Tragic really.

I do have one question though: although Cesare is the one most likely, do we have any real evidence that he killed or had his brother killed?


Alicia McKinney said...

So happy to have found your blog! I started watching the Borgia's recently and was getting so frustrated as I sifted through the dregs of Wikipedia citations for actual information about the characters. Thank you for your thoroughness and references! I've truly enjoyed reading these after watching each episode.

One thing I noticed in this episode is that the Bonfire of the Vanities and trial by fire were depicted as occurring in the piazza in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore - I thought both occurred in front of the Medici palace at the Piazza della Signoria, as well as Savonarola's eventual execution.

I do think it is interesting how the producers have chosen to portray Savonarola, quite negatively it seems. I know many historians consider him a villain or a dictator, while others view him as a martyr who stood up to the corruption of the church in Rome (corruption which is not being hidden through this series, but the viewer is certainly expected to understand and justify the Borgias' actions). I'm interested to see how his confession and execution are portrayed!

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