VATICAN CITY — Their lives steeped in intrigue, treason and lust, and set against a backdrop of luscious Italian landscapes and Renaissance masterpieces, the Borgias are probably the most famous — or infamous — family in the long history of the papacy.
Now, a new Italian book wants to dispel, at least in part, the “black legend” surrounding a dynasty that bore two popes as well as cardinals, poets and warriors.
Journalist and historian Mario Dal Bello drew on documents from the Vatican Secret Archive to write his new book, “I Borgia: La leggenda nera,” ‘’The Borgias: The Black Legend.”
For five centuries, the Borgias have attracted writers, painters and playwrights. They have been the subject of hundreds of movies and TV productions, most recently Showtime’s popular series, “The Borgias.”
“It’s easy to understand why: sex, blood, poison, power,’’” Dal Bello said. “This is already fiction material.”
And that’s part of the problem, Dal Bello says — when it comes to the Borgias, fact and fiction aren’t always easy to separate.
The Borgias’ story still resonates today through the Vatican’s various scandals, from child abuse to Vatileaks. In many ways, Dal Bello says, it’s a case of what’s old is new again.
“The church is made of men, there will be always infighting and intrigue at the Vatican,” he said. “But at least, the Curia is much improved now. Back then, popes and cardinals didn’t live exactly exemplary lives.”
With his book, the historian doesn’t so much try to “rehabilitate” the Borgias, but rather give a more “fair account.”
For him, while the Borgias were certainly “no saints,” they weren’t that much different from other powerful families of the time.
In 15th century Italy, resorting to murdering one’s political opponents — as Rodrigo Borgia, who became the second Borgia pope with the name of Alexander VI, did, — wasn’t that unusual. Neither was keeping mistresses, even while rising through the ranks of the Catholic Church, or appointing sons and nephews to become cardinals. Many other popes, before and after the Borgias, acted along the same lines.
Dal Bello’s book will be the first of a series devoted to shedding new light on some of the darker corners of church history thanks to documents from the Vatican archives.
According to Barbara Frale, an historian at the Vatican Secret Archive, in the case of the Borgias, “we can see truth and untruth … We want to eliminate the superstructure that has ended up damaging the real story.”
The reason the Borgias have gone down in history as a synonym for “abject crime and depravity,” Dal Bello says, is that they were victims of an historic case of “bad press.”
“They were foreigners and they were hated for this,” he said.
Originally from the Aragon region of modern-day Spain, the Borgias aggressively tried to establish a power base in Rome when Alfonso Borgia was first made a cardinal, then elected pope as Calixtus III in 1455.
But the Romans never grew to love them. When Alexander VI died in 1503, legends quickly sprung up of devils appearing at his funeral.
Such accounts, and many other similarly damning tales, were quickly taken up by historians and memoir writers, and their black-tinted portrait of the family has never really gone away.
Dal Bello cites one of the most scandalous episodes in Borgia family history: Cesare Borgia’s ruthless murder of the servant lover of his sister Lucretia, in front of their father, Pope Alexander, with the blood staining the pontiff’s white robe.
“We only know of this episode through the account of the Venetian ambassador, who was no friend of the Borgias,” says Dal Bello. “But it has been repeated ever since.”
For Dal Bello, the difference between the legend and the truth is particularly vast in the case of Lucretia Borgia, one of the eight children of Pope Alexander.
“She was accused of incest and poisoning — but she never did neither of those things.” In fact, according to the book’s account, when she died in 1519, she was a devout woman beloved by the people of Ferrara, where she lived.
Her last words were “I belong to God forever… I rejoice in what he rejoices in.”
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