“There’s just something cool about knowing that you’re standing on the bones of the man you’re portraying” – An Interview with Mark Ryder

Today I am absolutely honoured to have Mark Ryder, who played Cesare Borgia on Canal +’s ‘Borgia’, join me on the blog for an interview. We talk through his thoughts on getting the role, his experiences in Viana and how he got into the mindset of Cesare Borgia. Mark was kind enough to answer my questions with audio clips, so I have posted those as well as a transcript.

Sam Morris: What was it that attracted to you to role of Cesare Borgia?

Mark Ryder: Okay so I got the part when I was 20 and I had to do three auditions before getting the part. And I think I’d read the scenes that we shot in the audition room and I had researched a little bit about Cesare just on Wikipedia and the Internet. So I didn’t know that much but I say what attracted me, I think you can very quickly tell if a character is like, one-dimensional or is an actual human being. And I think Cesare’s conflict, inner conflict and his kind of desire to…well he just had desire to be and do everything and conquer everything and he had big dreams. And I think he was being held back by being in the priesthood, and he was conflicted with whether or not he believed in God. And I think also I could get all that from the scenes that we did just in the audition room and so I liked…I liked that this guy was a real human being and I like that it was this historical show but I didn’t know too much about Cesare when I actually got offered the part.

SM: On the DVD extras we see you taking a trip to Viana, the site of Cesare’s death and burial. What was it like to stand at the tomb of a man whose shoes you had walked in?

MR: That whole trip was amazing and weirdly emotional. Not like tears emotional but there’s just something cool about knowing that you’re standing on the bones of the man you’re portraying. I don’t know, it was kind of like he was in the air. I don’t really believe in that kind of thing but it’s just like there was something kind of…special, a special feeling, that Tom and I both had on that trip. And it was cool to actually see the burial site and I’d heard the quote that he’d been buried under a road so he can be trodden on by man and beast for all eternity. But to go to the actual site and see that he had been moved inside the confines of the Church courtyard, so he wasn’t on the road anymore they’d kind of pardoned him enough to move him into the courtyard. But yeah that was quite an adventure and I’m so glad we did it because I think it just deepened my understanding of the character. I don’t know, maybe just to be around Viana and see where he rode off into the distance and knowing that he was walking around those streets…that’s awesome.

SM: In season 3 we see Cesare both taking and holding the Romagna. What are your views on the way he dealt with those who opposed him (Ramiro de Lorqua etc)? Was he too harsh, or did he do what was needed?

MR: I think that Cesare, when he took a town or a city, my understanding is that city began to prosper. Like he had the interests of the people in mind, like he wanted them to thrive. I think he was quite a good ruler, well certainly that’s what Tom had told me about it. You know he encouraged the building of universities and like most of those towns and cities up in the Romagna were being held by men who were just filling their bank accounts with money and were poor rulers so I think Cesare was sort of, of the opinion “let’s get them out” and “I’m a far superior leader and ruler”. And with the example of Ramiro de Lorqua certainly in our version of the story, I think it was in Season 3, where he (Cesare) puts de Lorqua in charge of one of the cities and comes back to find that Ramiro is a terrible ruler and is not treating the people fairly and so he gets rid of him. And so I think just…he didn’t act too harshly, he had an idea of how he wanted these cities to be run and it wasn’t…if people weren’t in line with that then he dealt with them so I understand why he did what he did.

SM: What research did you do when you found out you got the role of Cesare? Were there any particular books that you read?

MR: The one book that sticks out in my mind is “The Artist, the Philosopher & the Warrior” by Paul Strathern. That was probably the only book that I read, like really studied and the rest would be just chapters in books and passages that Tom would send me – Tom Fontana, the writer. And then a lot was also conversations with Tom because ultimately it was his vision of the Borgias and his interpretation and that’s going to differ from other ones. So I kind of wanted to depict the Cesare that he wanted to depict.

SM: What do you think is the most brutal thing that Cesare did?

MR: In Season 3 of Borgia Cesare massacred the entire population of the town of Capua – all men, women and children…fairly extreme! I don’t know if that actually happened in the history, so I don’t know. Like, you’ll know, but that was the interpretation. I think if it happened then it’s fairly brutal and that’s what I would say was one of the only things where I would think well “why did Cesare do that?” – like I understood all of his decision-making, I agreed with his decision making when I was in the mind of the character. But I don’t understand why he would completely wipe out an entire town so I’d say that was probably his most brutal thing. (SM – It was actually the German and Gascon infantry, under the command of the French, that sacked the town, of which Cesare has been blamed thanks to chronicles blaming him – the French officers who commanded the troops were keen to have someone else take the blame.)

SM: The Borgia family have been vilified for centuries and Cesare was accused of committing incest with his sister. Do you think the rumours were true or was their close relationship taken out of context and twisted by their enemies?

MR: I definitely think it was taken out of context and twisted. There’s no doubt that Della Rovere, one of the Popes following the Borgias, he really wanted to destroy the Borgia name. And I think he did fairly successfully. I mean, Pope Alexander is not a Saint and all the other Popes of around that time, well the majority of them are now Saints. And yeah, so I think the accusations of incest and anything to do with bestiality and these giant prostitute orgies, like I don’t know…I think they’re probably written by people who want to give the Borgias a bad name. I think Cesare and Lucrezia had a very close relationship. Do I think it was a sexual one? No I don’t – I don’t think so. But, you know, who knows?

SM: What was the hardest part of playing Cesare?

MR: I remember, thinking back to it now, I had a lot of trouble…well, I was worried that I wouldn’t, that I would never be strong enough as Cesare because I was twenty-one, twenty-two at the time of shooting and most of my twenty-one year old friends were at university or starting jobs and partying quite a lot and they don’t have many responsibilities (SM – those were the days!!!) and Cesare was leading armies and ruling cities and ruling them well and respected and feared by all men. He was a great warrior, even at a young age. And so I was like “how can someone that young have such power, such presence?” and I was genuinely worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it. Particularly as he began to get older in the third season and I was playing him at thirty years old and I was twenty-three at the time. But I think we got there. And I think we got there because I went through Cesare’s journey episode by episode and every time I would think “oh, I’m not going to be able to get to this” we ended up just gradually getting there and moving on to the next one and then Cesare kind of aged and grew over the course of the seasons. But yeah, certainly, identifying as a boy I didn’t feel like I was a man and I could very much see that Cesare was a man and so I didn’t want to pretend and do all sorts of manly stuff. I wanted to be the real deal. So that was the hardest part, I think, for me.

SM: Where were you when you got the call saying that you had the role of Cesare? What went through your mind at that moment?

MR: You know, I was on my lunch break. I was working in a veterinary clinic as a receptionist and I was on my lunch break and I got a call from my agent and they said ‘you’ve got the part’ and I was like ‘Whaaattt?!’, called everyone immediately because up to that point I’d had jobs here and there but nothing of this size and I was just like ‘what?!’, you know? You know your life is going to change in a big way. I think I had a little party that night. You think when you get news like that, just like, life is going to be different and you’re going to walk down corridors made of gold or something. But you very quickly realise that life just continues and your shit still stinks. But it was obviously amazing, I was really happy and I was due to go back to university, I’d just done a year and all my plans had to change and I had to head over to Prague for 7 or 8 months. So it was really exciting.

SM: Having played one of the most notorious character of the Italian Renaissance, are there any other historical characters that you would like to portray?

MR: The one that jumps to mind was, I wanted to play King David from the Bible. I think that story is brilliant and I think that if it was done well it could be incredible right through from David and Goliath to when he was a King and just, there’s so many great stories. But actually, I came close to playing him but it didn’t materialise and I’m glad I didn’t because the show ended up not being very good. But yeah, King David and I don’t know, I kind of have a historically face really, don’t I? So I imagine I’ll be doing some more history style things. Anything with a sword would be great.

SM: What methods did you use to get into Cesare’s mindset?

MR: Well actually what happened is, it happened during the second season for me, is that you begin to have the characters thoughts. Like there becomes this blending, blurring, of you and the character. And when it happens it’s kind of scary because you just…I’d heard people talk about it, and I thought it was pretentious crap. But it makes sense, if you’re spending that much time in your characters head that there’s going to be some crossover and it happened to both myself and Isolda in the second season – Isolda played Lucrezia. So yeah, then you’re just kind of in the mind-set all the time and then by the third season I was kind of able to control it and drop in and out of it whenever I wanted. But there’s definitely a period during the second season where there is some confusion – I was like ‘why am I thinking like this, I can’t really drop Cesare’ which is awesome and I see why actors immerse themselves in the characters world. Like obviously the extreme version of it is Daniel Day-Lewis who completely embodies the character 24/7. But it just has you constantly thinking and in that characters mind and that’s only going to be helpful when you’re in front of the camera because then the usual crap of ‘oh did I do a good job?’ or ‘does this director like me?’, that doesn’t come as much if you’re just in the characters mind.

SM: Had Pope Alexander not died in 1503, do you think that Cesare would have been able to see through his wish to become the most powerful man in Italy?

MR: Yes I do. I think he was driven enough, had the resources, he was a step ahead of his rivals. And he would have united Italy and I think he had the support of a lot of people at that time and if his father hadn’t have died he kept going he would have got it done. I think even he may have got it done if he had not got sick at the same time as his father got sick cause his father died and Cesare had the same illness and was in a very weak position for a while. And then during that time I think his enemies were able to get their act together and get strong. So that’s our interpretation of it in the show, I don’t know the exact history but I think there is a line that Cesare says “I prepared for every eventuality except one” and it’s that he would be weak at the same time as his father died. So yeah, I don’t think there was a character like Cesare for hundreds of years until Italy was unified.

SM: Rumour surfaced in 1498 (Venice) that Cesare murdered his brother. Who do you think committed the crime?

MR: I think Cesare probably did it…I don’t know. You know the history on this one, I don’t know it. He had this big rivalry and I’m sure his brother was a big obstacle and so I can see him definitely getting rid of him. He had it in him and I think it was probably Chez. Who else could it have been? I don’t know…yeah, Cesare did it.

***

I’d like to extend a massive thank you to Mark for agreeing to do this interview. Borgia is available on Netflix, and available to buy on Amazon.

 

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An Interview with Dan Jones

Today I am honoured to have Dan Jones on the blog for an interview. Dan Jones is a well-known and highly respected historian who has written books on the Plantagenets, Wars of the Roses and the Magna Carta. He has also presented television documentaries on British Castles, the Wars of the Roses and the Great Fire of London.

Sam Morris: Firstly, thank you very much for agreeing to this little interview. I know my readers will be really excited to see you on the blog! First question then – Growing up, what was it that initially sparked your interest in history?

Dan Jones: I started vibing history in school, relatively late, I guess. You may think I was inspecting battlements as a six-year old or being chaperoned around monuments before I could talk, but put that thought out of your mind. I was about the age of 15 when I ran into a teacher at school who made history burst into life. His name was Robin Green and he taught Tudor history like a demon dog, got me hooked on it and helped push me towards studying it at Cambridge.

SM: You’ve written a range of books with topics from the Tudors through to the Templars – which era of history is your particular favourite and why?

DJ: Well, evidently I have something of a yen for the European middle ages, and particularly for the history of England between about 1150 and 1500. But I couldn’t say for certain that I have a clear favourite. I tend to pick subjects I either know or imagine I will enjoy spending three years wrestling into submission, and I work to a plan. So the Templars was a subject that had some very flimsy overlap in terms of subject matter with my earlier books on Plantagenet England – but it was also a way of easing myself into the history of the crusades, which is an area I intend to stick with for the next few years.

SM: Regarding your upcoming book on the Templars, I myself have visited Templar castles over in Portugal – the Convento de Cristo in Tomar is a personal favourite. Is there a particular place associated with the Templars that made you think “hang on a minute, I’d love to write about these guys?”

DJ: Not really – I just had this instinctive sense that the Templars was a subject that would draw in regular people who don’t read a lot of history, get them intrigued and have them clamouring for more of the same. As regards Templars locations, I have spent a lot of time in the Temple Church in London, which is a true gem on the outskirts of the City, now surrounded by barristers’ chambers, so a hub in the middle of lawyer-town. William Marshal’s tomb is there.

SM: You are regarded as a young and ‘hip’ historian – what advice would you give someone wanting to break into the field of history? (This is something I could have done with before writing my first book!)

DJ: Work hard, read a lot, write a lot, and know exactly what you want to write about. I have had such a weird career that I don’t think I can offer it up as a model pathway – but I don’t think the basics are hard. Graft. Meet people. Specialise. Enjoy.

SM: You studied at university under the eminent David Starkey. What was it like to be taught by someone so respected in the field?

DJ: Well, it’s a long time ago now, but I remember turning up to David’s lectures in my first year at Cambridge, despite not having signed up for a Tudor history paper. I just knew that I wanted to be around someone so manifestly brilliant and (at that time) impossibly famous. I buttonholed David after a lecture one day and demanded that he supervise me (i.e. that he spend one academic term teaching me one-to-one for a single hour, once a week – this is the structural basis for all undergraduate history teaching at Cambridge, or was when I was up at least). He said yes, and then duly came up from London once a week to do the job – a task for which I now realise he was not paid or thanked or rewarded in any meaningful way, and which I basically took for granted at the time. He was a superb teacher, who besides sharing his knowledge of sixteenth century England also took it upon himself to teach me how to write decent prose. I owe him a huge, huge debt of gratitude.

SM: What are your interests outside of history?

DJ: Sport: I write a sports column for the London Evening Standard. Also, I was for a while in my twenties one half of a fairly dreadful DJ combo. Our biggest gig was Ministry of Sound… on an under-sixteens night. We had the knack of emptying any dance floor within three songs.

SM: Following on from your book on the Templars, have you got any other projects in the pipeline?

DJ: I’m working on a lot of TV stuff, as usual. But my next book will be a collaboration with the brilliant digital recolourist Marina Amaral (marinamaral.com), who colours in old black and white photos – to astonishing effect. We are doing a book called The Colours of Time – a new history of the world from 1850 to 1950 and I am loving every second of it.

SM: For a little bit of fun – who should win the Iron Throne?

DJ: Oh, give it to someone who doesn’t want it. Pod, maybe. Or Grey Worm. I am finding the endgame of Thrones rather less enjoyable than the first six seasons.

SM: Whilst writing my books, I found it incredibly easy to get distracted and also found myself hating my subject quite a lot. When you’re writing, do you find yourself getting put off and how do you go about getting your head back in the game?

DJ: Put your cell phone in another room. Turn wi-fi off on your computer. Stop reading this interview and do some goddamn work. Discipline… there are no tricks except for controlling your own environment and practicing self-denial with focus and intent.

Dan’s new book, “The Templars” is out on 7th September and available on Amazon.

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The Renaissance Preacher – From Idea to the Page.

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I remember the first time I came across Savonarola properly. Although I’d read his name in passing I hadn’t really paid all that much attention to him. But, to my sins, I was watching Showtime’s The Borgias when I first really started paying attention to him. On the screen there was this monk, shouting to the heavens about everything that was wrong with the Church and the Borgia papacy. I found myself drawn in and began to read – his story is so intertwined with the history of Florence during the Renaissance that I soon found myself hooked on the story of this Dominican friar who so many believed was a prophet, and who was literally a thorn in the side of Lorenzo de’ Medici. I soon realised though that his portrayal in The Borgias was seriously inaccurate – I suppose I shouldn’t really have been surprised given how much of a train wreck the rest of show was when it came to accuracy. In Borgia Savonarola also has a role to play and I must admit I enjoyed Iain Glenn’s portrayal (it was way more accurate) much more.

My reading soon took a turn away from the Borgia – although that family will always be my biggest love of the Renaissance – and I started reading more around the history of Florence. From the early days of the Medici family through to Savonarola practically chasing the family out of the gates, right up to the very last Medici, I couldn’t get enough. But every time I found myself coming back to Savonarola.

A lot of the books I read on this fascinating character were absolutely huge brick type books. Or they were very academically written. I found neither of these issues to be a problem and devoured them. However what I wanted to see was a book that told Savonarola’s story without getting too bogged down in the politics of the age – of course politics played a huge part and Savonarola was involved in a lot of it, but I really thought there should be something out there that could introduce the life of this man without proving to be too complicated.

So I sat down, and I started to write.

I found myself caught up in Savonarola’s story so incredibly quickly and as I wrote, a gained a huge respect for the man who was burned as a heretic. Despite his wrong doings, despite his burning of some of the world’s most beautiful works of art, I found that he was a man who truly believed in what he was doing. He wanted Church reform. He wanted to reform Florence from a city of vice into a city of God. Unfortunately for him, he pissed off the wrong people with the methods he used and ended up dying a horrific death – something that no one deserves.

As part of the journey, my partner and I took ourselves off to Florence at the beginning of this year. The aim was to see the places that Savonarola lived and worked, to spend time in the cell where he spent his final hours and to take plenty of photographs for the book. Whilst we were there I found myself becoming hugely emotional – I had spent months and months and months researching this man’s life, his works and his death so to see the places where he had been? It was a very moving experience. Despite the fact that I got some very funny looks whilst getting all thoughtful in the Albergetto and got in the way of some guy taking photographs of Savonarola’s cell in San Marco! Those things truly didn’t matter to me though. What mattered to me was that I was finishing off my long journey in the place where Girolamo Savonarola had worked to reform the city and had died. Such a moving experience and one I will never ever forget.

Now the work is finished – photographs and all – and this may sound a little bit conceited but I’m seriously proud of this work. The writing of this book took me on a roller-coaster ride of emotions involving happiness, tears as well as slamming books down and stating I wouldn’t write another word.

And it was all worth it. Every single moment.

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Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher is available now.

Already got the kindle version? Head on over to authorgraph and request for an autograph!

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Girolamo Savonarola in the Modern Media

 

As part of the launch for “Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher“, I thought I’d do a few posts in and around the infamous Dominican friar who took Florence by storm. As well as the multitude of books surrounding Florence at the time, telling us his story amidst the political turmoil of the time and the wonderful art that was encouraged by the Medici family, Girolamo Savonarola has had a starring role in a few recent television adaptations of the period.

Many of you will have seen Showtime’s series ‘The Borgias’ and many of you will have seen Canal +’s series ‘Borgia: Faith & Fear’ – within both of these series, Girolamo Savonarola has a central role in the storyline. How accurate are these representations?

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Stephen Birkoff as Savonarola

In Showtime’s ‘The Borgias’, Savonarola is played by Stephen Berkoff and I have to admit he really does look like the Savonarola seen in the portraits. He has the cold eyes and the hooked nose – not only that but in the scenes where Berkoff preaches, he has the booming and thunderous voice described by those who saw the friar preach. However, despite Berkoff pulling off Savonarola, the show made some HUGE mistakes particularly in regards to the Bonfire of the Vanities, the trial by fire and Savonarola’s execution.

We know from the sources that the Bonfire of the Vanities, the main one at least, happened in the Piazza della Signoria. A huge pyramid of vanities was built up and set aflame in the square in front of what is now known at the Palazzo Vecchio. In ‘The Borgias’, we are shown the bonfire taking place in front of the Santa Maria del Fiore. In the same vein, we are also shown Savonrola’s trial by fire taking place in the same spot – with Savonarola himself walking through the flames, his robes catching alight. This did not happen. Two other friars took the place of those supposed to walk through the fire and even then did not complete the trial – instead, after hours and hours of arguing and waiting about, a rainstorm made it so the trial had to be called off. As for his execution, we see it taking place in Rome in front of Pope Alexander – Savonarola was in fact executed in the Piazza della Signoria along with two other friars. The Pope remained in Rome whilst the execution was carried out with his blessing.

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Savonarola’s execution in Showtime’s ‘The Borgias’

Savonarola’s death also came about through the method of hanging first and then his body being burned. In ‘The Borgias’, we see the friar simply tied to a stake and burned.

The show makes out that Savonarola’s execution came about simply because the Pope wanted it, but this is far from the case. Savonarola had been popular within Florence – his defiance of Papal orders even went as far as ignoring his excommunication which the people seemed to love. Yet, having been one of the driving forces behind the expulsion of the Medici and their ‘tyrannical’ ways, the people soon turned on him, seeing their friar as a tyrant in his own right. Not only did the Pope want Savonarola, a thorn in his side who so wholeheartedly believed that he was the voice of God, gone but the people wanted him gone also.

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Iain Glenn as Savonarola

In ‘Borgia: Faith & Fear’, Girolamo Savonarola is played by Iain Glenn of ‘Game of Thrones’ fame. Now, Iain Glenn looks nothing like the hook nosed friar immortalised in the portraits however in this instance it really seems as if the looks don’t matter. Within this series there is much more accuracy to the story, despite the fact that there are still some rather huge mistakes – Glenn is a phenomenal actor and in his role as Savonarola there is feeling. The sermons delivered in the show truly make your hair stand on end and you can literally feel the hatred of the Church’s vices rolling from Glenn’s portrayal. Accuracy wise, whilst watching this show, I was very pleased to see how well the Siege of San Marco was done following the botched trial by fire. Not only that but we see the horrendous torture of the frate in the days leading up to his execution. Whilst it is overseen by Cesare Borgia, a rather large inaccuracy in itself, we are shown how Savonarola was subjected over and over again to the strappado in order to extract a ‘confession’. We know, historically, that Cesare was not anywhere near Florence at the time of Savonarola’s torture, nor was he there at Savonarola’s execution.

In ‘Borgia’, Savonarola’s execution is shown as taking place in front of the Santa Maria del Fiore. The execution actually took place upon an elaborate stage before the Palazzo della Signoria (Palazzo Vecchio).

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Savonarola’s execution in ‘Borgia: Faith & Fear’

However, despite the fact that the series has Cesare and Cardinal Farnese in attendance, they had his method of execution correct. The friar was hung alongside two of his fellow Dominicans and then his body burned. His ashes were then scooped up and thrown unceremoniously in the River Arno. The execution scene, despite being incredibly harrowing, was beautifully done.

Whilst both series’ made mistakes in the historical accuracy of Savonarola’s life, both portrayals have their pluses and minuses. Berkoff looks much more like the Savonarola of the portraits and his version of the infamous friar was fantastically done. I found myself believing that I was seeing Savonarola preaching within the Santa Maria del Fiore. However to see the friar sent to Rome for his execution after a trial by fire that didn’t actually happen was incredibly disappointing. Glenn’s portrayal seemed to have much more feeling to it – the sermons were delivered with a fire that only a phenomenal actor of Glenn’s stature could deliver and, as an historian of this era with a specialist interest in Girolamo Savonarola, I was pleased to see that the show stuck as much as it could to the historical fact whilst still making it interesting enough for a historical drama.

All in all, both actors do the frate justice in their own way. But personally I will always prefer Iain Glenn as Savonarola over Stephen Berkoff. Glenn’s portrayal just seemed that much more believable to me, and I would recommend ‘Borgia: Faith & Fear’ to anyone looking for a good series on this era of the Italian Renaissance.

My new book ‘Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher’ is available here.

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Launch day & a GIVEAWAY!

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The day is finally here! After months and months of hard work along with a trip to Florence, Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher has been unleashed upon the world.

In celebration of launch day, I’m running a giveaway over on the facebook page. All you have to do to be in with a chance of winning is:

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The winner will be announced on Sunday 13th August, maybe via facebook live or periscope.

Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher is available in paperback and on kindle here.

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