The arrival in DVD format of the third and final season of Neil Jordan's "The Borgias" gives rise to a host of interesting and even important questions.
Could the world of the Italian Renaissance really have been as nasty as the Showtime series suggests?
Could it really have been that dangerous to be a king, or a warlord, or even the pope in Rome?
Could politics have been such a fight to the death, and everyday life so drenched in blood?
The answer, to all such questions, is yes. To enter the world in which the Borgias rose from nowhere to become one of the dominant families of Europe is to be shocked and shocked again by how horrifying that world could be.
The Italy of the Borgias was not a nation but an unstable jumble of autonomous states, some as big as the great kingdom of Naples, others quite tiny. The rulers of these states were, for the most part, usurpers and tyrants with no legitimate claim to their positions of power. Thus they lived in constant danger -battling each other and at the same time menaced by jealous and resentful kinsmen.
It was not a life conducive to mental health. This explains why so many of the "great" men of the age were nothing less than homicidal psychopaths. Murder happened frequently, even at the highest levels of society. Fratricide and parricide were almost as common as murder. If incest was not common, neither was it unheard-of.
Thus the world depicted in "The Borgias" is in no way exaggerated. The series captures its essential spirit, its extravagance, its madness.
The papacy, being not only geographically but also politically and spiritually at the center of this world, was profoundly affected by it. Rome was one of the leading city-states, and as such it was inevitably drawn into the endless intrigues that kept the Italians at each other's throats. Its pope was an elected monarch (chosen by the college of cardinals), and all the leading families of Italy wanted either to win the pope as an ally or, failing that, to destroy him. Whenever a pope died, those families did everything within their power to get one of their own members elected or, at a minimum, keep the papacy out of unfriendly hands.
It was a recipe for mayhem, and in this regard too "The Borgias" is true to the spirit of the times.
That the Borgias not only moved from Spain to a Rome where newcomers were despised, but got two members elected to the papacy in less than forty years - this is so remarkable as to almost defy belief. And the career of the Rodrigo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI (and is portrayed by Jeremy Irons in the TV series) was as eventful as any in history.
That career was made possible by one thing only: Rodrigo himself - his brilliant personality, his extraordinary abilities. His uncle, the first Borgia pope, made Rodrigo a cardinal when he was little more than a boy, but that same uncle died only two years later, leaving his nephew alone and vulnerable in a setting that could not have been more hostile to outsiders.
Against huge odds, Rodrigo not only survived but flourished. He became right-hand man to the next four popes, proved himself a master of politics and diplomacy, and after becoming Alexander VI successfully guided Rome through two French invasions, the fall of much of Italy to Spain, and more perils than Pauline could ever have dreamed of.
All this is captured by "The Borgias" - in spirit if not always with scrupulous adherence to the established facts.
It would be easy to assemble a bill of indictment against the series, beginning with the fact that Rodrigo was elected pope not through bribery and murder but simply because he was, at a time when strong leadership was desperately needed, obviously the best man for the job. Lucrezia Borgia never poisoned anyone and was not the sexual wanton of legend. Juan Borgia was not murdered by his brother Cesare, Cesare also did not kill Lucrezia's first husband, it is as certain as any unprovable negative can be that Lucrezia never committed incest with Cesare or Alexander or anyone else. Et cetera et cetera et cetera.
Such departures from the historical record may be regrettable, but how much do they matter, really?
If "The Borgias" captures the spirit of a glorious and bloody time, and if it provides heart-stopping entertainment while doing so, isn't that enough, really? For television, isn't it even a little wonderful?
The Borgias season 3 and the series 1-3 box set is released on DVD now.