The Borgias: The Confession

July 14, 2012

The second season finale of The Borgias ties together the main story arcs of the series so far. Lucrezia is finally married to Alphonso of Aragon, Savonarola is silenced and the poisoning attempt orchestrated by Giuliano della Rovere is delivered by his young assassin. 

Mourning Juan Borgia, or not
From a dramatic perspective, the reactions to the death of Juan Borgia in this episode were fascinating to watch. The historical record does provide descriptions of the pope's deep grief, but less is written about the reactions of his family. The show fleshes these out, with intriguing speeches delivered by Lucrezia, Cesare and even Juan's mother, each making it clear that Juan's abrasive character, and his failures were becoming too much to bear. 

The best of these speeches is made by Lucrezia, finally venting her anger at Juan for his role in Paolo's death. Standing over Juan's body, and to Alexander's horror, she makes her feelings clear, "You know what he did to me, what he took from me - you all do. And you stood by for the honour of the family....I have wished him dead a thousand times." 

The inclusion of these scenes furthered the writers' aims to make members of the Borgia family more human. Alexander has never been shown to be an uncontrollable despot, and Cesare and Lucrezia have only been brought to their fragile states of mind by terrible tragedies. It adds a touch of believability that is simply not present in many popular accounts of these figures, and not easily discernible from surviving records.

An epilogue to this scene shows Cesare confess to killing Juan, to Alexander's great dismay. In doing this Cesare asks to be released from his Cardinal's vows and to be forgiven. A dejected Alexander grants the former, but was not ready to forgive Cesare so easily.

Savonarola at the stake
The writers' decision to show us Savonarola being captured and brought to Rome is perhaps best described as a plausible alternative reality. It is true he was summoned to Rome by Pope Alexander, but owing to some very tangible fears for his own safety, and out of defiance, he never made the journey. In fact, Savonarola's own letters and other reports from the era attest that he required an escort when travelling around Florence, indicating that he had enough enemies to make his personal safety a concern.

In the show, the pope seeks a written confession from Savonarola. When the resilient monk refuses, this is falsified by Cesare. Micheletto has an interesting moment with the friar, who somehow knows that the assassin prefers the company of men, and taunts him for it. With the confession secured, Savonarola is named a heretic and sentenced to death. In the show Savonarola is burnt at the stake in Rome. In actuality, Savonarola and his colleagues were hanged (in Florence), and their remains burned and scattered to prevent body parts being collected as holy relics by supporters. The show is accurate in its depiction of Savonarola on the torture device known as "the rack." Records of Savonarola's trial in Florence actually document how many "turns" were applied to elicit responses to particular questions (see Weinstein in refs).

Hence, the show's depiction only very loosely resembles what the records indicate happened.  Upon initial arrest on April 8 1498, Savonarola and two fellow friars - fra Domenico Buonvicini da Pescia and fra Silvestro Maruffi - were taken to the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (Maruffi was apprehended separately on the same day.) On April 10 they were transferred to the Bargello Prison. The records of the ensuing trials are a matter of great debate among Savonarola biographers, each arguing over their reliability - as it is known many of the statements were obtained following torture. Savonarola was also provided with writing implements during his time in prison. These writings give further insight into his state of mind during his final days.

Early sixteenth century painting of the execution of Savonarola, da Pescia and Maruffi

There were two commissions conducted into Savonarola's affairs. The first was overseen by the Florentine ruling body, and represented the civil commission. Later, two delegates were sent from Rome and completed the inquiry on behalf of matters pertaining to the church. The end result of these commissions was the sentencing of Savonarola and his two colleagues to death by hanging on May 23, 1498. To this day, a memorial plaque can be seen in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence.

Each year a procession organised by the city commemorates the friar's death and places flowers on the plaque. The inscription reads, (translated by Dr. Edward Goldberg)

In the show, with Savonarola actually being brought to Rome, we are given a chance for a final dialogue between the friar and Pope Alexander. Whether such an excursion from historical fact was necessary for the writers to show us this confrontation is debatable. Both Savonarola and Alexander remain locked in their perceptions until the end. 

In reality, there was a brief period where Alexander thought he may have been too hasty in excommunicating the monk. This was immediately after Juan's death (a year before Savonarola's actual arrest and execution), where the friar sent Alexander a letter mourning the loss of his son. Whatever Savonarola's intentions were with this show of sympathy, they were soon undone by his continuing defiance of Rome. In addition, Savonarola's repeated comparison of Alexander to the "Pharoah" who taunted Moses (and also lost a son in the process) did not help endear him to the pope. 

The marriage of Lucrezia and Alphonso
After the departure of the Genoese suitors, Lucrezia is now free to consider other candidates for her hand. Stepping into this role is Alphonso of Aragon. Accurately depicted as a youth, and perhaps somewhat naive, his marriage to Lucrezia was finalised in July of 1498. As Gregorovius (a late 19th century biographer) curiously recounts,
The young Alfonso accordingly came to Rome in July to become the husband of the woman whom he must have regarded at least as unscrupulous and utterly fickle. He doubtless looked upon himself as a sacrifice presented by his father at the altar of Rome. Quietly and sorrowfully, welcomed by no festivities, almost secretly, came this unhappy youth to the papal city. He went at once to his betrothed in the palace of S. Maria in Portico. In the Vatican, July 21st [1498], the marriage was blessed by the Church.

The source of Gregorovius' reflections on the mental state on Alphonso is not clear. This being said, he does reveal sources indicating that the young couple seemed to have a genuine affection for one another.
The youthful Alfonso [17 years old at the time of his marriage] was fair and amiable. Talini, a Roman chronicler of that day, pronounced him the handsomest young man ever seen in the Imperial City. According to a statement made by the Mantuan Agent [Joh. Lucidus Cataneus] in August, Lucretia was really fond of him.
Alphonso was to remain a year in Rome, until a shift in Alexander's (and Cesare's) politics forced him to flee the city. Viewers of the series will need to wait to see how the writers handle the tumultuous events which befell the young lovers. It should be clarified that while the show depicts Alexander mourning Juan during the wedding celebration, these events were separated by a year, with Juan's death occurring on June 14/15 in 1497 (as reported previously).

The poisoning of Alexander Sextus
The second season cliffhanger had been gestating for such a long time, that seeing it finally delivered was perhaps an anticlimax. It was a brief and dramatic scene, yet also raises more questions about the next series. With the time period of the show being around 1498, it is still too early to kill off Alexander, who actually died in 1503, and under circumstances which are not entirely clear. Some writers have speculated that he was poisoned, but there is little conclusive evidence to support this. For example, Burchardus' diary account of the pope's final days describe a rapidly progressing illness.

This invented poisoning has perhaps been included by the writers to make Alexander take a less active role in the affairs of Rome - as he convalesces for the first part of the next series - allowing Cesare to cement his position.

What lies ahead
The second series of The Borgias was essentially about Savonarola, and the demise of Juan Borgia. A third series has been confirmed, and it is likely the focus will shift to Cesare's ambitions. Those of us interested in art historical glimpses may hope to perhaps see Michelangelo in Rome, and possibly Leonardo in Milan.

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

Goldberg, E. Shadows on the Ground. Italy's Secret Places. June 2011.
A brief but intriguing blog post by Dr. Edward Goldberg highlighting the changes in attention paid to Savonarola's commemorative plaque in Florence across the year. Translation of the plaque was from this post link

Gregorovius, FA. Lucretia Borgia: According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day. (Garner, JL Trans.) D. Appleton and Company. 1904. pp. 112-113 ; Full text at link

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.

Image Notes
Savonarola execution painting (artist unknown) via wiki commons link
Savonarola plaque via wiki commons link


Anonymous said...

A great recap with historical accuracy. Thanks for the new resources, always looking to expand on this subject with acceptable sources.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the feedback!

I'd definitely recommend Weinstein's new biography on Savonarola - released late 2011 by Yale Press. I hope to post a review in the not too distant future!

Kind Regards

Grande Soeur said...

Really interesting stuff, looking forward to read your comments of the season 2!

Anonymous said...

Late, but thanks again and looking forward to your thoughts on next season!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the great review and the sources of what actually happened. The fact that the series had Savonarola burnt in Rome really annoyed me. May-be because having been to the Piazzia della Sinoria in Florence and stood there, it was moving to be there and it was annoying that history is messed with just for a dramatic point. I also thought that the Pope's reaction to his son's death although somewhat explicable was over the top. There are accounts from the time that describe Juan Borgia being buried as he should have been in some state: so why the hurried secret burial in the back garden by Alexander? And what records are there that he was poisoned prior to his actual demise in 1503? Obviously it makes a good season finale and we know he will be back to haunt us for another season, but I am thinking that good drama as it may be, the Borgia's is in competition with the Tudors for the most historical blunders.

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