Friday, July 26, 2013

The Borgias - The Hidden History by G.J.Meyer; Book Review

In Defense of the Borgias

Who are the Borgias?

Here is what Wikipedia has to say

"The Borgia family (aka Borja, Borjia and Borges) became prominent during the Renaissance in Italy. They were from Valencia, the name coming from the family fief of Borja, then in the kingdom of Aragon, in Spain.

The Borgias became prominent in ecclesiastical and political affairs in the 15th and 16th centuries, producing two popes, Alfons de Borja who ruled as Pope Calixtus III during 1455-1458 and Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, as Pope Alexander VI, during 1492-1503.

Especially during the reign of Alexander VI, they were suspected of many crimes, including adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning). Because of their grasping for power, they made enemies of the Medici, the Sforza, and the Dominican friar Savonarola, among others. They were also patrons of the arts who contributed to the Renaissance.

Today they are remembered for their corrupt rule, and the name has become a synonym for libertinism, nepotism, treachery and poisoners."

Anyone would agree that this is not a very attractive description. Most of the other sources in the internet has only worse things to say. One well known site even puts Pope Calixtus III (Alfonso Borgia) among the twenty five most evil people of the 15th century. Most published books of the history of the Borgias are also in the same vein,

Now in this book, Mr.Meyer tries to set the history straight. With thorough research, excellent analysis and trying to keep a neutral line he explores how much of the legend is true and what has been made up. He quickly arrives at the conclusion that most of the terrible stories about the Borgias were made up. But then he goes to find out what were the forces acting at that time and later, to twist history and depict the Borgias in such a cruel manner.

Very well written, this story is better than many fiction that I see. Not only are the Borgias exonerated, but Meyer also gives a fascinating account of Christianity and the Church in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the history of Italian nation states like Florence, Venice, Naples, Milan as well as a host of smaller independent city states. Many chapters come with a succinct background summary - thereby giving a quick overview of the history of the church as well as the states for a few earlier centuries as well. Just reading about how the Popes were elected (this book covers about 6 elections) itself would make any Christian shudder. The lives and actions of the Popes and Cardinals will make anyone wonder how any organized religion can survive. I was reminded of Matt Ridley's statement in his book 'Irrational Optimist' on how 'Priests, Chiefs and Thieves' come into existence as soon as people start living in groups.

Some parts of the book are not an easy read - the stories get frighteningly complex with a large number of characters with similar names, fast changing alliances, numerous side stories and their different versions - that it can beat most mythological stories in complexity. But if you are interested in any of the subjects mentioned above, this book is definitely worth reading.

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