Review: The Borgias – The Hidden History by G.J. Meyer

They burst out of obscurity in Spain not only to capture the great prize of the papacy, but to do so twice. Throughout a tumultuous half-century—as popes, statesmen, warriors, lovers, and breathtakingly ambitious political adventurers—they held centre stage in the glorious and blood-drenched pageant known to us as the Italian Renaissance, standing at the epicentre of the power games in which Europe’s kings and Italy’s warlords gambled for life-and-death stakes. Five centuries after their fall—a fall even more sudden than their rise to the heights of power—they remain immutable symbols of the depths to which humanity can descend: Rodrigo, the Borgia who bought the papal crown and prostituted the Roman Church; Cesare, the Borgia who became first a teenage cardinal and then the most treacherous cutthroat of a violent time; Lucrezia, the Borgia as shockingly immoral as she was beautiful. These have long been stock figures in the dark chronicle of European villainy, their name synonymous with unspeakable evil. But did these Borgias of legend actually exist? Grounding his narrative in exhaustive research and drawing from rarely examined key sources, Meyer brings fascinating new insight to the real people within the age-encrusted myth. Equally illuminating is the light he shines on the brilliant circles in which the Borgias moved and the thrilling era they helped to shape, a time of wars and political convulsions that reverberate to the present day, when Western civilisation simultaneously wallowed in appalling brutality and soared to extraordinary heights.

I received this book as a pre-release copy, for review purposed and so as a first port of call I would like to let you all know that when this book becomes available on 2nd April, if you are interested in the history of the Borgia family, you all need to purchase it. If I’m honest, my whole review could be summed up in those first few lines. This book is utterly fantastic, and offers a brand new approach to much of what we thought we knew about the Borgia family. In fact, it really makes you rethink much of what we have come to know and trust about the family’s history.

Of course, as a pre-release copy, I was expecting to find a few mistakes and I would like to get these out of the way before I launch into how amazing I thought the book was. But to be honest, there really wasn’t that many mistakes – the only mistakes I really noticed were a few date discrepancies at around the 6% mark (I had a kindle copy) in which instead of dates reading “14xx” when speaking about Alonso De Borja, they read “15xx”. Easily fixed, but could easily be fixed with a bit of proof reading. There were also a couple of grammatical errors that made me have to reread a few sentences a couple of times, but for the most part this can be easily looked over as a reader and doesn’t deviate much from the reading experience.

For the most part though, Meyer’s writing is fluid and provides a very easy read. As I was reading, it really didn’t feel like a non fiction book to me. But then, I have read much heavier tomes than this. Meyers writing is so fluid that at times it really did read like a novel to me, but at the same time I could really see the amount of research that he did into his work. His writing style really did make the story of the Borgia family – from Alonso De Borja right up until the fantastic Saint Francis Borgia – utterly accessible. Easy reading, and doesn’t overload the reader with too much politics – although given the era, politics is really a given.

The book itself concentrates on the history of the Borgia family, history’s most notorious dynasty, and works its way up from the first Borgia Pope – Pope Calixtus III – right up until the end of the dynasty proper with Lucrezia. As a history that spans well over a century, if not longer (taking into account the varied relatives, particularly of Juan Borgia) it can get quite confusing but thankfully Meyer splits it into very easy sections. You have chapters relating to each family member and what they did, followed by mini chapters which give a great background to what else was going on at the time. I thought this was a really good idea, and gives the reader a bit of context into the political background of the era. There was one sub chapter in particular that really grabbed my attention, and it addressed the apparently paternity of Cesare, Juan and Lucrezia Borgia – I won’t go too much into it here as there will be a separate blog post coming but let’s just say Meyer’s findings are incredibly interesting, and very convincing!

In all then an incredibly interesting and quite frankly brilliant read, and one I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in learning about the history of this fascinating family. An inherently interesting read that offers a brand new insight into this wonderful family, and one that discusses (and quite frankly, disinherits) most of the disgusting rumours of this brilliant family! A must read for anyone interested!

The Borgias: The Hidden History is available right now for pre-order from Amazon UK and Amazon US – Please do pick it up if you can!

The Borgia Apartments In The Vatican

The Disputation of St Catherine – Pinturicchio
After Rodrigo Borgia became Pope in 1492, he planned a whole new set of rooms for his personal use. These rooms still exist today, and in them survive a fascinating insight into the Borgia mindset. The walls are covered in frescoes of the Borgia bull, and the entire set of apartments show the Spanish roots of the new Pope – the floor tiles were imported especially from Spain, giving the rooms a completely Spanish look, and mixed in with the frescoes of the Borgia bull are are representations of the Aragonese double crown, to which they added sun rays or flames mixed in a grazing bull.
The Borgia Bull, Borgia Apartments (picture by me)
The Borgia Bull and the Aragonese Crown, Borgia Apartments (picture by me)
Spanish Tiles, Borgia Apartments (picture by me)
Borgia Coat of Arms, Borgia Apartments (picture by me)
As can be seen from the pictures above, Pope Alexander made sure the family device was everywhere – gilded Borgia bulls on the ceiling in a repeated pattern with the Aragonese arms, Spanish tiles all over the floors as well as gilded stucco frames around the frescoes. The entire space was created to reflect the pride Alexander felt in his family name, pride at their Spanish origins and the huge ambition that he had for himself and his family.
Quite possibly, the most impressive monument to the Borgia family surviving in those set of rooms hidden away in the Vatican (and used to house a contemporary art gallery, I wasn’t too impressed with that!) are the frescoes that surround the walls of the main room.
The Disputation of St Catherine, Pinturicchio (Picture by me)
After his election to the Chair of St Peter in 1492, Pope Alexander hired Bernadino di Betto di Biagio (better known as Pinturicchio) to paint his new apartments. Pinturicchio was an incredibly talented artist from Sienna, and one of the most sought after artists in his day and had even assisted in the painting of the Sistine Chapel. And whilst some weren’t all that impressed with his works, the Pope certainly was.
The most famous fresco is the one shown above: The Disputation of St Catherine. And it is the biggest testament to the Borgia family in the room, simply because it contains images of the Borgia family. Most are dressed in the Turkish fashion whilst St Catherine (Said to be an image of Lucrezia, and I have to say I agree wholeheartedly) argues against the Pagan emperor. 
The entire image is full of imagery – in the centre stands a triumphal arch based on the Arch of Constantine and sat atop it is the Borgia bull. The arch of Constantine is an incredible monument to Christianity – the arch itself (still standing outside the Colosseum) was built as a celebration of Constantine’s victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge which established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. In essence, it’s place in the painting is saying that the Borgia family are as important to Christianity as Constantine was – reinforced by the Borgia bull sat right on top of said arch. And not only are members of Alexander’s family depicted (Lucrezia, Cesare, Juan, Joffre and Sancia) but also other members of the papal entourage and it is said, though I haven’t yet found a source for this and will update as and when I do, that the man sat in the chair is actually a self portrait of Pinturicchio himself.
As for the imagery of the family, the main figure in the painting is St Catherine. She is portrayed as blonde, the known hair colour of Lucrezia Borgia, and this image has long been traditionally held as an image of Lucrezia although there is, of course, no certainty of this.
Detail of St Catherine showing the supposed figures of Lucrezia and Cesare (Picture by me)
The figure behind her, dressed in Turkish robes and glaring out, is said to be an image of Cesare Borgia while the figure on the left hand side (the right as we look at it) is traditionally held to be an image of Juan Borgia, second Duke of Gandia.
Detail of the figure said to be Juan Borgia in The Disputation of St Catherine
The two diminutive figures at the front of the painting are said to be of Joffre Borgia and his wife, Sancia of Aragon.
Figures said to be of Jofre Borgia and Sancia of Aragon from The Disputation of St Catherine
Pope Alexander himself is not shown in the Disputation of St Catherine. He is however shown in the fresco “Resurrection”, in which he witnesses the Resurrection of Christ during a moment of prayer. He has his hands clasped in prayer, dressed in embroidered robes and his papal tiara on the floor before him. Pinturicchio also painted another portrait of Alexander above a doorway adoring a beautiful virgin who, according to Vasari was given the face of Giulia Farnese. This portrait however was destroyed when the room it was in, was destroyed for other building works.
The Resurrection by Pinturicchio
Detail of Pope Alexander VI, Pinturicchio
In all then, the Borgia apartments are a testament to the sheer self belief of the Borgia family, their belief in unbridled power and the pride that Alexander felt in his family origins. 
And one last picture from my visit last year, though this could have been carved at an point throughout the room’s history – a gaming board carved into a windowsill which I found to be incredibly interesting. I have no idea how the game was played but it certainly looks interesting!
Random gaming board in the Borgia Apartments (Picture by me)
Further reading