It’s been about a year since I was watching the Showtime version of The Borgias. That show remains available on Netflix streaming to this day but I watched it when I did because of its topicality and because it seemed like the most acclaimed of the several television treatments of the Borgia family story. I had every intention of eventually watching another series, created for European cable/satellite TV, Borgia.
There are plenty of opinions out there on the internet that actual hold Borgia, not The Borgias, as the better of the two series. They were created and aired nearly simultaneously and so comparison is invited at every turn.
Netflix has now forced me to take on Borgia immediately, as the series will not last the month with them. Like the Showtime version, this series ran for 3 seasons, so I fear I will be hard-pressed to complete my viewing in time.
But we do what we can.
Like the Showtime version, we are treated to nipples in the opening credit sequence, giving us a promise of the sexual content to come. Unlike Showtime, that sexual content is not presented to us as the opening scene in the show and, also unlike Showtime, we’re not immediately dealing with hints of incest. Borgia, being a European production, should come with different expectations when it comes to sexuality. It is at the same time both more explicit and less salacious, if that makes sense.
I was also struck early on by the actors ages, and commented on the choice in The Borgias to have a 23-year-old actress play the 11-year-old Lucrezia Borgia. With Borgia also using Lucrezia’s entry into womanhood as an anchor for the opening of the narrative, I note that the use of an 18-year-old actress (and a young-looking one at that) is a significant production change.
Of the two, Showtime clearly worked with the bigger budget. They used more well-known (by Hollywood’s measure, at least) acting talent and their costume and sets are far more elaborate. Outdoor scenes in Borgia seem tight and narrow, probably as a result of fitting them onto a small set with a limited number of extras. Indoor scenes do better, but none have that stunning beauty that shown forth from the occasional Showtime set.
That said, my gut says that this version put more effort into historical accuracy. The scenery is shabbier, yes, but is often portraying poverty and disease. Costumes have less style but (particularly the religious vestments) seem to display a little more variety. Without knowing the details, I get the impression that the different “uniforms” have legitimately different purposes. Likewise the music, which in the Showtime version I heard the occasional anachronism, seems to be correctly matched to the period, especially when the instruments are being played or the singing being done on the screen (as opposed, that is, to background music).
The narrative itself follows a slightly different path. Historicity, in this regard, can be difficult to judge, perhaps more so if, like me, these dramatizations are your first exposure to many of the details of Rome at the end of the fifteenth century. The Borgias featured a cynical Cesare who, from the beginning, commanded the screen and was already working towards seizing power. Particularly when compared to his brother Juan, he clearly was the true heir to Rodrigo. In Borgia, by contrast, Cesare starts as pious and even superstitious, displaying weaknesses and errors that seem to keep him from fulfilling his desires.
This is an intriguing change. From the beginning of The Borgias, it is clear from Cesare’s screen presence (including the look of the actor as well as the focus on his character) that he is going to be the protagonist. Even if we don’t approve of his methods, we know that this going to be the person we should care about. In Borgia, Cesare is difficult to like from the start. In some ways, he seems to be a little more focused than brother Juan, but he is also prone to his own monumental acts of stupidity. Unlike Juan, he tends to fret endlessly over his blunders, reducing his sympathy. I expect it to make for a deeper story moving forward.
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
I had this moment of disorientation when watching the conclave in Borgia. This episode is from 2011, but it seems to be speaking very specifically to current events. It probably didn’t help that someone had just sent me an article from 1990 talking about the methodology of defamation as a political attack. Pointedly, the article explains that the practice of “ritual defamation” is universal;
It is not specific to any value, opinion or belief or to any group or subculture. It may be used for or against any political, ethnic, national or religious group. It may, for example, by anti-Semites against Jews, or by Jews against anti-Semites; by rightists against leftists or by leftists against rightists, and so on.
The story of the election of Rodrigo Borgia to become Pope Alexander VI will often dwell, with good reason, on the politics of Rome at the time. As Borgia explains in its introduction, the “crown” of the papacy was more than just the mitre of a high priest. The Pope ruled, as a monarch, over the Papal States, which was a major player among the competing kingdoms if Italy. Add to that the sway that the head of the Catholic Church could wield over all Christians (monarchs and other men of influence), and you are talking about one of the premier secular positions of power in the world of 1492.
The Pope is supposed to be chosen through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is, he is assumed to be divinely selected. However, given the political importance of the position, we know that politics comes into play. Major factionalizations include both the Italy-versus-the-rest-of-the-world faction as well as factions comprised of competing kingdoms within Italy. Within that context the voting cardinals tended to be, themselves, from powerful families and thus voted with the interests and biases of their own bloodlines.
The Borgias focused on outright bribes and Cesare’s role in distributing them. The Borgias also went from the death of Innocent VIII to the coronation of Alexander in one episode. By way of contrast, Borgia takes two episodes for Innocent to pass on and two more episodes to elect the new pope. Also, while a passing mention is made of the bribes that have been distributed, the focus is on the bargaining within the conclave itself. In particular, all sides use defamation to attempt to keep votes away from their opponents.
As described in the article, the veracity of the accusations are often irrelevant. As pointed out recently in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings, these political arenas are not courts of law. The point of making heated charges is simply to produce enough fear, uncertainty, and doubt to keep a candidate from getting enough votes for a victory. Uncannily, for his opponents’ most effective attack upon him, Rodrigo Borgia stands accused of attending an orgy as a young man. He is also accused of having Jewish blood. As described in the linked article, however, his real crime is that of being an outsider. As a Catalan, he does not belong among the Italian elite. That he dares to aspire to its heights is sufficient to justify whatever charge is lain upon him.
Plus ça change.