Rome in the Time of the Borgias: Has Anything Really Changed?

Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI

Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI

One of my favorite things about April, besides the glorious boughs of cascading wisteria to be seen (and smelt) all over Rome, is that it heralds the start of one of my favorite guilty pleasures, television drama, The Borgias. Following the life of the most notorious pope in history, The Borgias chronicles the intrigues, scandal, and corruption of the 15th-century Vatican court, featuring plenty of greed, violence and impermissible sex.

Jeremy Irons stars as Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander VI, the epitome of corruption, hypocrisy and debauchery, a part he plays with obvious relish. Yet he is somehow able to turn the papa cattivo (evil pope, as he is remembered) into a lovable bad boy, whom we can’t help rooting for. Although the gaunt and ruggedly handsome Irons may be physically contradictory to the actual historic figure (fat and ugly), he does capture the inner qualities the Borgia pope possessed in abundance: magnetism, sensuality, and undeniable charisma. While critics have claimed that The Borgias dulls in comparison to the (even racier, if possible!) German version, Borgia, I can’t imagine a better cast, or one with more titillating chemistry.

The cast of Showtime's  The Borgias

The cast of Showtime's The Borgias

Now, I know April is still two months away, but, for some strange reason, I’ve got that family of miscreants on the mind right now, and I just can’t wait for Season Three to begin! Last night I went back and watched the first episode of Season One, which features the conclave of 1492 and the election of Rodrigo Borgia as pope. I couldn’t help comparing the climate of tension, suspicion and political intrigue depicted in that episode to what is going on right across town, in this, the 21st century.

Scandal! Rumors! (Almost) unprecedented occurrences!

No pope has willingly given up his position since 1294 when Celestine V, who had not even participated in his own election, and who had very reluctantly accepted the tiara, resigned after only five months to return to his life as a hermit. Despite a few hints that Benedict XVI may have dropped over the past few years, everyone was shocked when he announced on 11 February that he would be resigning, effective 28 February. While I won’t comment on my suppositions as to why the pope has chosen to resign (I prefer not to get too political on this blog), from the church’s official line to the most disparaging journalists, and everywhere in between, everyone has an opinion. Rumors are swirling and many of them are not pretty.

The headline in this morning’s La Repubblica read, “Sesso e carriera, i ricatti in Vaticano dietro la rinuncia di Benedetto XVI” (Sex and career: the Vatican extortion behind the resignation of Benedict XVI). With the “Vatileaks” debacle early last year that saw the pope’s butler thrown into a medieval prison, the on-going sex abuse scandals, accusations of money-laundering, and now this, who needs the hi-jinks of Alexander VI, Lucrezia Borgia and Giulia Farnese? We’ve got enough disrepute to rival the Borgia pope himself.

Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI and Lotte Verbeek as Giulia Farnese

Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI and Lotte Verbeek as Giulia Farnese

Over 500 years have passed from the time of the Borgia pope, but has life in Italy really changed that much? This is a question I have asked myself many times since I moved here and began studying Renaissance Rome and papal history. With the secrecy and intrigue within the Vatican, the rampant corruption on every level of society, a political system that still gives credence to buffoons  like Berlusconi, and a class divide that is turning into an impassable chasm, sometimes I feel it hasn’t changed at all.

Case in point: When a young priest secured the undivided attentions of his delicious teenage sister, Giulia Farnese, for the newly crowned Alexander VI, the grateful pontiff thanked him with a coveted cardinal’s hat (the key to wealth and power in Renaissance Italy). Not surprisingly, Cardinal Farnese became pope himself in his time, although he could never shake the ridiculous circumstances of his rise to power, and was laughingly referred to as Cardinal Petticoat.

This could be likened to the case of the 25-year-old showgirl with (surprise surprise) no political experience, who was nevertheless elected to Italian parliament thanks to her inclusion on the ticket of the president of the region of Lombardia. How did she end up on that ticket? It seems it was “wanted at any cost” by then-premier Berlusconi. Don’t worry, she didn’t serve long; she was eventually indicted for her part in providing him with an underage prostitute.

This is just one example, but parallels between Renaissance Rome and today’s Rome can be drawn with sickening ease. With the parliamentary elections this weekend, it’s looking more and more like nothing is going to be changing in the near future. So I suggest you grab a bowl of popcorn and find a good seat. The new season of The Borgias may not start until April, but with the pope’s resignation and the upcoming conclave, we are about to witness a piece of history, and Showtime’s got nothing on it.

Stay tuned for more posts as I follow the Pope's (nearly) unprecedented resignation and the exciting conclave that will follow!

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4