Title: The Borgias: The Hidden History
Author: G. J. Meyer
No. of Pages: 512
Origins: Bantam Dell
Bottom Line: Highly detailed and carefully researched, Mr. Meyer sheds a fascinating new light on this infamous family.
“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 center stage in the glorious and blood-drenched pageant known to us as the Italian Renaissance, standing at the epicenter 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 civilization simultaneously wallowed in appalling brutality and soared to extraordinary heights.”
Thoughts: The most fascinating element of G. J. Meyer’s The Borgias: The Hidden History is not the Borgias themselves and their escapades. People everywhere know of the Borgia name and have heard at least one element of their notorious reputation. What is so fascinating is the fact that Mr. Meyer takes every commonly-held “fact” and belief about the first unofficial Mafia family and completely negates it all. His proof for his unique and solitary opinion is in the significant absence of any direct confirmations or observations from Borgia contemporaries, and he disdains popular sources for not only having an anti-Borgia intent but also because these sources never actually came into direct contact with family members. His argument is a convincing one, especially in this day and age of rapid-fire media in which it is all too easy to distort headlines and fan the spark of gossip. According to Mr. Meyer, one family’s notoriety exists solely because of anecdotes written by warlords known to have hated detested the family and its rise to power or by others so far removed from the family as to have made it impossible for them to witness anything. Yet for years, in the absence of direct witnesses and insider knowledge, the family’s reputation was allowed to tarnish. It makes for compelling evidence, even as it flies in the face of everything that has ever previously been written about this infamous family.
If Mr. Meyer is to be believed, the Borgia family and their reputation fell prey to the adage that history is written by the victors. Thanks to vicious propaganda during their lives and especially after their deaths, the Borgia family has long since been believed to have been one of the most vicious, greedy, power-hunger, and debauched family to ever live. However, The Borgias attempts to undo the damage done by their rivals after the Borgia downfall and does so methodically as well as plausibly. Mr. Meyer not only thoroughly explains the mess that was Renaissance Italy, with its myriad city-states and constantly conspiring warlords, he slowly and deliberately presents the reasons why so many other historians before him were wrong. His arguments are sound enough to not only make sense but to raise significant doubt as to the supposed truth behind Cesare and Lucrezia’s paternity, Rodrigo’s womanizing, the family’s grab for power, as well as every other unsavory rumor/factoid often told about the family.
One small caveat to this detailed and intense novel is that its careful explanations of Renaissance Italy, its politics, its war-like culture, and the major power brokers of the time can make for somewhat tedious reading. Every chapter begins with an explanation of sorts, devoted to one point in time or one element of life in Italy in the late 1400s. It is these explanations, or deviations from Mr. Meyer’s main points, that tend to drag the most. Not strictly necessary for the understanding of his theory, they do help with recognizing some of the Borgia contemporaries and challenges they faced as a family. At the same time, they bog down the narrative to the point where some readers might be so inclined as to succumb to the boredom and set aside the book.
It takes a lot of courage to not only question the status quo but to vehemently argue against it. In The Borgias, Mr. Meyer does just that. He must be commended for not only finding the courage to do so but also because he does it so convincingly. While there is no doubt as to with whom Mr. Meyer’s sympathies lie, he still manages to present his findings in a way that negates any hint of bias. The Borgias is a well-paced, deliberately wrought, and careful challenge to long-held beliefs and assumptions about one of the most powerful families in Italy’s past. Even though there is no definitive method by which to discern the truth about the Borgia family, Mr. Meyer’s scouring and use of all information related to the family makes it difficult to dismiss his arguments. In other words, thanks to Mr. Meyer’s and his The Borgias: The Hidden History, one will never look at this family in the same light again.