The Donkey At Bracciano

The Donkey in Juan’s tent, from Canal+’s “Borgia”

Juan Borgia, 2nd Duke of Gandia, was never really cut out to be a soldier. He was arrogant and self centred, and failed more than succeeding at anything. Yet Pope Alexander VI wanted one son in the church and another in the military, giving Cesare the Cardinal’s robes and Juan the armour. As we already know, Cesare wasn’t best pleased with this and would much rather have been the one out on the battle field. If he had been made a soldier from the outset then none of the failures that Juan instigated would likely never have happened. But of course it didn’t happen like that, and Juan Borgia was really a big failure and really quite unpopular. His arrogance made him unpopular with his troops and the butt of some rather nasty practical jokes – one such example being at the battle of Bracciano in October 1496.

Stanley Weber as Juan Borgia in Canal+’s “Borgia”

Bracciano was, and is, a small town just to the north of Rome and in the 1490’s was held by the powerful Orsini family and the town itself was overlooked by a huge fortress. When Charles VIII had invaded Italy, him and his army stopped at Bracciano as they headed towards Rome. This of course really annoyed the Pope and lead to him excommunicating the Orsini family, which only made the long standing feud between Orsini and Borgia even worse. The long standing hatred between the two families meant that even though Alexander was Pope, the Orsini family could prove to be a huge threat to the Papacy. And so something had to be done. Not only had Alexander excommunicated them for helping the French in 1494, but in July of 1496 he had Virginio Orsini and his son thrown into the dungeons of Castel Dell’Uvo in Naples. Now, he would take their towns and their castles.

The Orsini Castle at Bracciano

Pope Alexander chose Guidobaldo de Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino to command the expedition to take the Orsini lands. Juan Borgia was made second in command despite being completely inexperienced. It really was a tragedy waiting to happen. At any rate, on 26th October, Juan and Montefeltro entered St Peter’s basilica and Juan was given the title of Gonfalonier and Captain General of the Church. The next day, the two men left Rome at the head of their army to lay siege to the Orsini strongholds.

The campaign was a success to start with and they met little resistance. The strongholds of Sacrofano, Galeria, Campagnano and Anguillara were all taken without any trouble, and over 10 castles were taken in two months, but they knew when it came to Bracciano that things would be a bit more difficult. To make matters worse, flags flaunting the French colours were hung from the walls of the castle.

Bracciano castle itself was held by Bartolomea Orsini, Virginio’s sister and wife of Bartolomeo D’Alviano – a highly esteemed Orsini captain. Borgia and Montefeltro arrived in Bracciano in mid december and things started to go wrong from the outset. Montefeltro was wounded early in the siege, leaving Gandia to take control. Gandia of course had little success and the Orsini soldiers climbed the walls and shouted insults at Juan. They then played a particularly cruel joke on the young man, sending a donkey into the papal camp with a sign around his neck which read “I am the ambassador of the Duke of Gandia” and a rather rude note shoved up the poor donkey’s backside.

The sign around the Donkey’s neck from “Borgia” – in history it actually read “I am the ambassador of the Duke of Gandia”
The note from the Donkey’s bottom in “Borgia”
Alexander VI did not take the news of this slight well and the disappointment in his son made him so unwell that he did not attend Mass on Christmas day. Juan tried two assaults on the castle, both of which failed, and  then news reached him that a backup force was on its way to help the Orsini under the captaincy of Carlo Orsini. Upon hearing the news, Juan realised that it was futile and he broke the siege, marching north to intercept the enemy. His army was defeated on 24th January at Soriano. Juan himself was wounded and only escaped death by running away, and 500 of his men were killed in the fighting.
It was one of the last mistakes that Juan Borgia would ever make. By June that year, Juan would be dead and his shoes would be filled by his brother Cesare who would go on to be one of the greatest military commanders of his day.

Further Reading

Sarah Bradford – Cesare Borgia: His Life & Times
Sarah Bradford – Lucrezia Borgia
Mary Hollingsworth – The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious Dynasty

Los Borgia

This evening I sat myself down with a large glass of pink lemonade, and curled up to watch Los Borgia. I’ve been a fan of The Borgias pretty much ever since it first started and although I love the series more than anything the lack of historical accuracy in the series has been known to make me rage and scream at my television. For instance, in season 2 of The Borgias you see Juan Borgia at the Siege of Forli – now, the siege of Forli happened in 1499 when Juan had been dead for two years, and it was Cesare who commanded the armies and who took Caterina Sforza prisoner. Oh, and Caterina didn’t do the whole “ten more sons” thing at the siege in 1499 either, she apparently said it in 1488 after the death of her first husband Girolamo Riario.  Both series 1 and 2 tend to do this, and the mistakes in the historiography are just too many to count. Now, I know it’s a drama series and made to give that dramatic kick in the balls to make the whole thing seem much more exciting but honestly, the story of the Borgia family really doesn’t need any fabrication or stuff changing around.
Now then, when I first heard about Los Borgia I was a little put off as it is entirely in Spanish. However, having sat down and watched it I am so, so glad I did. I will start by saying that the casting was almost perfect. The young man who played Cesare, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, was nigh on perfect and really captured the essence of Cesare Borgia. As the programme went on you saw him change from a young man who didn’t want to wear cardinals robes to a man growing into his role as soldier and general, his obsession with glory. Each and every actor or actress brought something to their characters that made you feel something for the character – I adored Lucrezia and her innocence, Juan was ambitious and arrogant as I imagined him in history, Caterina Sforza was like a tigress. To me, the cast was almost flawless. 
What was even better was that the script kept as close to the history as it could. Alright so there were things that had to be glossed over or missed out due to the 2 hour timescale, but they showed each and every one of Lucrezia’s marriages (with none of these ridiculous random suitors like in The Borgias) and Alfonso of Aragon was actually the correct guy in this one (in The Borgias, Sancia’s brother gets horrifically murdered by Charles VIII and Alfonso D’Aragona ends up being someone completely different when in reality he was actually Sancia’s brother), Juan isn’t shown as stabbed and chucked in the Tiber by his brother – rather you see him ride away with a masked man and then found in the river the next day, The Siege of Forli is shown with the correct brother heading the army and at the correct time and the script made it clear that the rumours saying Juan was killed by Cesare were rumours; and made sure that the audience knew the incest thing is based on vile rumour also. As well as this, I thought they dealt with Cesare’s death exceptionally well, sticking as close to what actually happened as they possibly could – he ended up alone, dressed in light armour, and was ambushed. He was stabbed from all sides and then stripped and left naked and bleeding. The men who killed Cesare had no idea it was actually him, until Cesare’s squire was shown his armour and the young lad burst into tears. The script dealt with his death really well, and the show finished with a shot of Cesare lying dead, pierced by spears and holding a necklace given to him by his sister. Brilliant cinematography that had me reaching for the tissues.
If you are interested in the Borgia family and want to watch a television show about them that is a lot more historically accurate and less dramatised than The Borgias (which I do adore by the way), then I would wholeheartedly recommend Los Borgia.
And now for some screencaps. Enjoy!

Cesare, Jofre, Lucrezia and Juan

Cesare sparring with Micheletto

Cesare and Juan eyeing up Sancia

Juan, about to go off and be a rubbish soldier

Lucrezia and Cesare

Cesare with the body of Juan’s groom, who was stabbed on his way to fetch Juan’s armour

The body of Juan Borgia, 2nd Duke of Gandia

Pope Alexander VI and Lucrezia


Cesare’s sword was inscribed with the words Caesar Aut Nihil which meant “Caesar Or Nothing”

Cesare and his sword

Cesare, about to head off and be an awesome soldier

Lucrezia giving her brother a helmet

The Pope, about to be handed letters infused with Cantarella from Caterina Sforza. In reality, these letters had been infused with the plague.

Cesare, being an awesome soldier

Caterina Sforza defending Forli

Cesare and Lucrezia

The Pope

The funeral of Alfonso D’Aragona

Vanozza Cattanei

Lucrezia basically telling Cesare to go away because he killed her husband

Cesare suffering from the same illness that killed his father, and Lucrezia (who is in Ferrara) all worried

The death of Alexander VI

Pope Julius II

Cesare looking across the hills of Navarre, Spain

Cesare is said to have worn this mask to disguise the deformities on his face from syphillis

Cesare and his young groom

Cesare and his groom

Taking on the soldiers, ON HIS OWN


The death of Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois and Duke of the Romagna