Borgia Season 1

As I sit here this morning, I am feeling rather sorry for myself. For the past two days I’ve been off work with a nasty sicky bug and so am sat here wrapped up in my PJs with a massive mug of tea. It’s not helping much and I feel like I should still be hugging the bowl I was hugging for the entirety of yesterday. Now, I realise that’s really too much information but it has a point. As I was curled up on the sofa last night, hugging my bowl and running off to the toilet every so often to make best friends with it, I decided to finish watching Borgia. Before I started watching this series, I will admit I was a little put off by some of the reviews I’d read and the things people told me – “don’t watch it Sam, it’s really inaccurate”, “It has Cesare and Lucrezia incest”. I wish I had gone into watching the series with my eyes open as when I started watching it, I really wanted to hate it. However, after a few episodes it really did begin to grow on me and a few episodes after that I really started to enjoy it.

So, Borgia itself is a French/German production that was shown in 2011 on Channel + and stars Mark Ryder as Cesare Borgia, Stanley Weber as Juan Borgia, Isolde Dychauk as Lucrezia Borgia and John Doman as Rodrigo Borgia. The story itself is, of course obvious – it is the story of the Borgia family, from Rodrigo Borgia’s election to the Papacy in 1492 and onwards (I hope in future series) to the Pope’s death and Cesare’s own imprisonment and death. When I first began to watch the series I was a little unsure about the casting of the show, and the first thing that really got to me was the huge mix of accents – Rodrigo was American, Cesare was English (with the odd lilt of Irish coming through), Lucrezia German and Juan was French. It was kind of off putting for a while, but a few episodes in I was able to look past it. Other than this though, after a few episodes as well I found myself really liking some of the characters and really hating others – as you would expect in such a television programme. I had exactly the same issue when I watched The Borgias and Los Borgia, and I think when actors manage to make their viewers love the characters or hate them to such an extreme, then they are doing a good job.

Mark Ryder as Cesare
Mark Ryder is the young man playing Cesare Borgia (and I’m allowed to say young because I’m a little bit older than him!) and right from the get go you can really see that Ryder has done his utmost to step into Cesare’s shoes and get right into the man’s psyche. A consequent conversation with Mark Ryder on twitter the other evening lead to a discussion on books about Cesare which was awesome. Anyway, even in the first episode you can see the extreme emotions that haunt Cesare – one moment he can be having a laugh and the next he can be in a murderous rage, and these extremes get even worse as the series goes on, finishing up in Cesare committing murder right in front of his father and the college of Cardinal’s and claiming that his name will echo throughout history and shouting that he is “CESARE BORGIA!” whilst just moments before he had been in floods of tears with his sister. In history, Cesare was well known for these extremes of emotion, I thought that Ryder did a really excellent job of showing this side of Borgia’s personality. 
Isolde Dychauk as Lucrezia
Lucrezia is played by Isolde Dychauk. The character of Lucrezia in this was one that I started out really disliking, probably because her parts of the story were really quite inaccurate. Saying that though, by the end of the series I had begun to like her – you see Lucrezia go from this innocent young girl to a woman with her own thoughts and minds, to a woman who will do anything to protect her family. Although her story was hugely inaccurate, I really loved how the script showed her change. Plus, when you compare Isolde to the representation of Lucrezia in Pintruccio’s murals, they really did a very good job in casting her. 
Marta Gastini as Giulia Farnese
The character of Giulia Farnese is the character who I probably hated the most in the whole series and right from the get go. Played by Marta Gastini, Giulia was shown as a nasty, manipulative little girl who came across as obsessed with keeping Pope Alexander to herself. In all of my reading on the Borgia family, I have come across very little on Giulia but what I did read pointed out that Giulia was actually quite a nice person and friends with Lucrezia. I have also never ready that Giulia used Pantisilea to try and manipulate Lucrezia and gain more love from Rodrigo. However Gastini did a really good job as coming across as nasty and manipulative and even though I despised her character, it takes a really good actress to make a viewer hate them quite that much.
John Bradley as Giovanni de Medici
Cardinal Giovanni de Medici played by John Bradley (Sam Tarley in Game of Thrones). I loved this casting from the outset. Giovanni de Medici was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and made a cardinal in 1492 and was known as a man who loved the pleasures of the table. Top notch casting here, and Bradley is a top notch actor too!
Mark Ryder as Cesare and Stanley Weber as Juan
Played by French actor Stanley Weber, I absolutely despised Juan Borgia in this adaptation. And I really think I was supposed to. Whereas in The Borgias I felt quite sorry for Juan, in Borgia I hated the man with a passion and thought he was the world’s biggest derp. And it was awesome. Why? Because in history, Juan Borgia 2nd Duke of Gandia was a massive derp and a bit of a failure. There is no doubt that Cesare was the better man that he, and that if anyone should have been the one in Cardinal’s robes, it was Juan. However, the series dealt with Juan’s death really very well and (almost) sticks to the facts – you see him ride off in search of further pleasures with another man; and he is never seen again. His horse returns with the saddles cut, and a search begins in earnest. When they find his body floating in the Tiber with 9 stabs wounds and a slit throat, Pope Alexander flies into a paroxysm of grief and investigations begin into who killed Juan. Alright so in history we won’t ever know who killed Juan, but historical investigation shows that the most likely candidate was the Orsini family who Juan really managed to piss off. It wasn’t likely to have been Cesare but rumours abounded due to the apparent jealousy between the siblings; and whilst I was rather pleased they did not show Cesare offing his brother I was a little shocked that they showed Lucrezia as the guilty party. Still, well done to Weber for getting into the character of Juan and in my opinion, doing a damned good job of it!
John Doman as Rodrigo Borgia and Isolde Dychauk as Lucrezia
The last character I want to discuss in a bit more detail is Rodrigo Borgia/Alexander VI played by John Doman. When I first started watching the series I was a little taken aback by their portrayal of Rodrigo, mainly because of the whole accent thing. But like with many of the other characters, I soon found myself really liking their portrayal of him. He certainly looks a lot more like Pope Alexander than Jeremy Irons (although I adore Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander and he’s become affectionately known as “Pope Irons”). Yet again, the extremes of emotion showed by Doman were second to none and I particularly loved his show of grief after the death of Juan – it was so well done that it almost moved me to tears.
The sets during the show were also top notch. I was particularly impressed with their depiction of the Sistine Chapel:
The Sistine Chapel
Having been to the Sistine Chapel I was really rather impressed in the set used here. They even got the ceiling correct, which in 1492 hadn’t been worked on my Michelangelo, rather it was painted blue with stars. The detail shown in the chapel was just stupendous. In fact, the majority of the sets were done in such a way right down to the CGI of what Rome would have been like in 1492.
A brilliant CGI rendering of Rome as it would have been in 1492
The old basillica of St Peters, not the one that exists today

Beautiful set pieces

Alessandro Farnese at Orvieto

The churches and chapels were superbly done

Another brilliant CGI rendering of the approach to Rome

The Colosseum

Laocoon and His Sons – this wasn’t excavated until much later (and Michelangelo was present) but I thought it interesting they put this in the show. And the copy of this amazing work is second to none!
Whilst the historical accuracy of parts of this series leaves a lot to be desired, I have to say that I am very pleased that they got the chronology of what happened mostly correct. Of course, you need to leave room for dramatic license and I can understand this there were a couple of parts that made me shake my head. First of all, and probably the biggest crunch for me was Cesare leaving his young son on a mountainside to die – dramatic license yes, but I have no idea where the writers got this idea from. Secondly, Cesare being raped by Marc Antonio Colonna. Well done yes, and done for dramatic license but again, I have no idea where they got this from. In my opinion, it added nothing to the story as this never happened. In the same way, although this is a tad more understandable, they have Juan’s death in 1493. This actually happened in 1497. I can however understand why they have done this and at least they didn’t have it happen after events that Juan was never at anyway. Such as the Siege of Forli which happened in 1498 – although The Borgias had it happen much earlier with Juan at the head of the army. Didn’t happen. These little things however are easily able to be overlooked and I am really glad that I decided to watch this show. I was rather disappointed by the make-out session between Cesare and Lucrezia though – although the script makes it clear that this is based on rumours so they might as well prove everyone right. Thankfully it didn’t go very far but I was cringing throughout that entire scene (and as you will know I have fought the NO BORGIA INCEST fight for a while, so anything that shows it just makes me go all fhjsdkhfjsdfhsdkfdsk).
Excellent casting, beautiful costumes and a story that tries as best it can to stick to the historiography. I will most definitely be watching Season 2 when it comes out. If you’re interested in the Borgia family and looking at watching something on the family for a bit of drama, then I would highly recommend this. It’s not perfect of course, but they give it a damned good go. 7/10.

4 thoughts on “Borgia Season 1

  1. I, too, wish they didn't have the makeout session – especially, unlike Showtime, their relationship wasn't very well established. I feel they threw it in solely because it's expected by the audience. If they really wanted to go that way, they should've allowed more time to show them together. I know Lucrezia and Cesare spend much time in different places, but still, there're some missed opportunities – for example, when Lucrezia is in the monastery. Why was Guilia the one to see her and not Cesare?

    That said, I prefer this to Showtime and Season 2 is awesome – I haven't enjoyed the history drama as much since Rome.

  2. Speaking about Colonna… I just found out Cesare was, indeed, a hostage in Marino and it was Cardinal Sforza's idea. Of course, it doesn't mean anything else happened, especially since Marcantonio lived longer than Cesare (actually ended up marrying one of della Rovere's nieces).

    I actually think the vendetta with Colonna was not a bad idea: it showed how ugly things could get and the consequences of mindless violence.

  3. All the blogs I have seen tout the Showtime version as the extravaganza created for Americans who prefer their television hollywood-ized so to speak. With the international version of Borgia having more historical accuracy, basically it’s legitimized as the thinking mans preference. I find this version long winded and boring. Could not stand Cesare. Just looking at him aggravates me and I’m horrified to admit that when raped, I thought he’d had his comeuppance. I guess if you are a historian, teacher, or student – go with this version. Otherwise, the other has much better actors, is quite entertaining, and somehow there are less characters that you hate passionately….

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