Jul 262013

A French “Spot the Saint” themed poster for “Borgia: Faith and Fear” assigning Cesare the attributes: archbishop’s robes, scythe, dagger, bloody hands, blood.  The French caption reads “Don’t have faith in them.” I can’t argue.

There was a Borgia boom in 2011 when, aiming to capitalize on the commercial success of The Tudors, the television world realized there was one obvious way to up the ante.  Not one but two completely unrelated Borgia TV series were made in 2011.  Many have run across the American Showtime series The Borgias, but fewer people know about Borgia, also called Borgia: Faith and Fear, a French-German-Czech production released (in English) in the Anglophone world via Netflix.  I am watching both and enjoying both. This unique phenomenon, two TV series made in the same year, modeled on the same earlier series and treating the same historical characters and events, is an amazing chance to look at different ways history can be used in fiction.

I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  I have been fortunate in that becoming an historian hasn’t stopped me from enjoying historical television.  It’s a professional risk, and I know plenty of people whose ability to enjoy a scene is completely shattered if Emperor Augustus is eating a New World species of melon, or Anne Boleyn walks on screen wearing the wrong shade of green.  I sympathize with the inability to ignore niggling errors, and I know any expert suffers from it, whether a physicist watching attempting-to-be-hard SF, or a doctor watching a medical show, or any sane person watching the Timeline movie.  But over the years as my historical knowledge has increased so has my recognition of just how hard it is to make a historically accurate show, and how often historical accuracy comes into conflict with entertainment.  More on that later...

As for the Borgias and the other Borgias:

The Borgias (Showtime)                                   Borgia: Faith and Fear (International & Netflix)

  • Bigger budget  (gorgeous!)                                     Smaller budget
  • Shorter series/seasons                                            Longer seasons, enabling slower pacing, more detail
  • Bigger name actors                                                  Extremely international cast (accents sometimes strong)
  • More glossing over details                                       More historical details (can be more confusing as a result)
  • Makes Cesare older than Giovanni/Juan                Makes Giovanni/Juan older than Cesare (<= historians debate)
  • Focus on Cesare as mature and grim                     Focus on Cesare as young and seeking his path
  • Lots of typical TV sex and violence                         More period-feeling sex and violence
  • Generally less historicity                                         Generally more historicity

What do I mean by “more historicity”?  While I enjoy both shows–both will pass the basic TV test of making you enjoy yourself for the 50 minutes you spend in a chair watching them–the international series consistently succeeded in making the people and their behavior feel more period.  Here are two sample scenes that demonstrate what I mean:

71jtW-4usiL._SL1120_Borgia: Faith and Fear, episode 1.  One of the heads of the Orsini family bursts into his bedroom and catches Juan (Giovanni) Borgia in flagrante with his wife. Juan grabs his pants and flees out the window as quickly as he can.  Now here is Orsini alone with his wife.  [The audience knows what to expect.  He will shout, she will try to explain, he will hit her, there will be tears and begging, and, depending on how bad a character the writers are setting up, he might beat her really badly and we’ll see her in the rest of this episode all puffy and bruised, or if they want him to be really bad he’ll slam her against something hard enough to break her neck, and he’ll stare at her corpse with that brutish ambiguity where we’re not sure if he regrets it.]  Orsini grabs the iron fire poker and hits his wife over the head, full force, wham, wham, dead.  He drops the fire poker on her corpse and walks briskly out of the room, leaving it for the servants to clean up.   Yes.  That is the right thing, because this is the Renaissance, and these people are terrible.  When word gets out there is concern over a possible feud, but no one ever comments that Orsini killing his wife was anything but the appropriate course.  That is historicity, and the modern audience is left in genuine shock.

The-Borgias-Season-1-POSTER-Promo3The Borgias, episode 1.  We are facing the papal election of 1492.  Another Cardinal confronts Rodrigo Borgia in a hallway.  It has just come out that Borgia has been committing simony, i.e. taking bribes.  Our modern audience is shocked!  Shocked, I say!  That a candidate for the papacy would be corrupt and take bribes!  Our daring Cardinal confronts Borgia, saying he too is shocked!  Shocked!  This is no longer a matter of politics but principle!  He will oppose Borgia with all his power, because Borgia is a bad person and should not sit on the Throne of St. Peter!  See, audience!  Now is the time to be shocked!  No.  This is not the Renaissance, this is modern sensibilities about what we think should’ve been shocking in the Renaissance.  After the election this same Cardinal will be equally shocked that the Holy Father has a mistress, and bastards.  Ooooh.  Because that would be shocking in 2001, but in 1492 this had been true of every pope for the past century.  In fact, Cardinal Shocked-all-the-time, according to the writers you are supposed to be none other than Giuliano della Rovere.  Giuliano “Battle-Pope” della Rovere!  You have a mistress!  And a daughter!  And a brothel!  And an elephant!  And take your elephant to your brothel!  And you’re stalking Michelangelo!  And foreign powers lent you 300,000 ducats to spend bribing other people to vote for you in this election!  And we’re supposed to believe you are shocked by simony?  That is not historicity.  It is applying some historical names to some made-up dudes and having them lecture us on why be should be shocked.

Be shocked!  Shocked I say!  See!  It's so shocking there's fire!

Be shocked! It’s so shocking there’s fire!

These are just two examples, but typify the two series.  The Borgias toned it down: consistently throughout the series, everyone is simply less violent and corrupt than they actually historically, documentably were.  Why would sex-&-violence Showtime tone things down?  I think because they were afraid of alienating their audience with the sheer implausibility of what the Renaissance was actually like.  Rome in 1492 was so corrupt, and so violent, that I think they don’t believe the audience will believe them if they go full-on.  Almost all the Cardinals are taking bribes?  Lots, possibly the majority of influential clerics in Rome overtly live with mistresses?  Every single one of these people has committed homicide, or had goons do it?  Wait, they all have goons?  Even the monks have goons?  It feels exaggerated. Showtime toned it down to a level that matches what the typical modern imagination might expect.

My hopes for "Faith and Fear" were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia.

My hopes for “Faith and Fear” were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia. Making her an intelligent, valued partner to Rodrigo’s labors instead of a scheming sex kitten makes the whole thing richer.  In their version she exerts real power, in a “separate spheres” way.

Borgia: Faith and Fear did not tone it down.  A bar brawl doesn’t go from insult to heated words to slamming chairs to eventually drawing steel, it goes straight from insult to hacking off a body part.  Rodrigo and Cesare don’t feel guilty about killing people, they feel guilty the first time they kill someone dishonorably.  Rodrigo is not being seduced by Julia Farnese and trying to hide his shocking affair; Rodrigo and Julia live in the papal palace like a married couple, and she’s the head of his household and the partner of his political labors, and if the audience is squigged out that she’s 18 and he’s 61 then that’s a fact, not something to try to SHOCK the audience with because it’s so SHOCKING shock shock.  Even in other details, Showtime kept letting modern sensibilities leak in.  Showtime’s 14-year-old Lucrezia is shocked (as a modern girl would be) that her father wants her to have an arranged marriage, while B:F&F‘s 14-year-old Lucrezia is constantly demanding marriage and convinced she’s going to be an old maid if she doesn’t marry soon, but is simultaneously obviously totally not ready for adult decisions and utterly ignorant of what marriage will really mean for her. It communicates what was terrible about the Renaissance but doesn’t have anyone on-camera objecting to it, whereas Showtime seemed to feel that the modern audience needed someone to relate to who agreed with us.  And, for a broad part of the modern TV-watching audience, they may well be correct.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers find The Borgias a lot more approachable and comfortable than its more period-feeling rival.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero's cowardace, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of poitical allies.  Even Borgias.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero’s cowardice, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of political allies. Even Borgias.

Borgia: Faith and Fear also didn’t tone down the complexity, or rather toned it down much less than The Borgias.  This means that it is much harder to follow.  There are many more characters, more members of every family, the complex family structures are there, the side-switching.  I had to pause two or three times an episode to explain to those watching with me who Giodobaldo da Montefeltro was, or whatever.  There’s so much going on that the Previously On recap gives up and just says: “The College of Cardinals is controlled by the sons of Rome’s powerful Italian families.  They all hate each other.  The most feared is the Borgias.”  They wisely realized you couldn’t possibly follow everything that’s going on in Florence as well as Rome, so they just periodically have someone receive a letter summarizing wacky Florentine hijinx, as we watch adorable little Giovanni “Leo” de Medici (played by the actor who is Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones) get more and more overwhelmed and tired.  Showtime’s series oversimplifies more, but that is both good and bad, in its way.  The audience needs to follow the politics, after all, and we can only take so much summary.  The Tudors got away with a lot by having lectures on what it means to be Holy Roman Emperor delivered by shirtless John Rhys Meyers as he stalked back and forth screaming in front of beautiful upholstery, and he’s a good enough actor that he could scream recipes for shepherd’s pie and we’d still sit through about a minute of it.  The Borgia shows have even more complicated politics for us to choke down.

Now, historians aren’t certain of Cesare’s birth date.  He may be the eldest of his full siblings, or second.


Showtime’s “elder brother” Cesare taking care of Lucrezia.

The difference between Cesare as elder brother and Cesare as younger brother in the shows is fascinating.  Showtime’s Big Brother Cesare is grim, disillusioned, making hard decisions to further the family’s interests even if the rest of the family isn’t yet ready to embrace such means.  B:F&F‘s Little Brother Cesare is starved for affection, uncertain about his path, torn about his religion, and slowly growing up in a baby-snake-that-hasn’t-yet-found-its-venom kind of way.

Faith and Fear's "little brother" Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

BF&F’s “younger” Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

Both are fascinating, utterly unrelated characters, and all the subsequent character dynamics are completely different too.  Giovanni/Juan is utterly different in each, since Big Brother Cesare requires a playful and endearing younger brother, whose death is already being foreshadowed in episode 1 with lines like “It’s the elder brother’s duty to protect the younger,” while Little Brother Cesare requires a conceited, bullying Giovanni/Juan undeserving of the affection which Rodrigo ought to be giving to smarter, better Cesare.  Elder Brother Cesare also requires different close friends, giving him natural close relationships with figures like the Borgias’ famous family assassin Michelotto Corella, who can empathize with him about using dark means in a world that isn’t quite OK with it.

There are other age-heirarchy-related differences as well.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese sitting with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan.  Not a safe seat.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan. Not a safe seat.

Younger Brother Cesare gets chummy classmate buddies Alessandro Farnese and Giovanni “Leo” de Medici, who must balance their own precarious political careers with the terrifying privilege of being the best friends of young Cesare as he grows into his powers and toward the season 1 finale “The Serpent Rises.”  All this makes the two series taken together a fascinating example of how squeezing historical events into the requirements of narrative tropes makes one simple change–older brother trope vs. younger brother trope–lead logically to two completely different stories.  I think both versions are very powerful, and the person they made out of the historical Cesare is different and original in each, and worth exploring.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

The great writing test is how to do Giovanni/Juan’s murder.  Since some people do and some don’t know their gory Borgia history, part of the audience knows it’s coming, and part doesn’t.  Historians still aren’t sure who did it, whether it was Cesare or someone else, and what the motive was.  Thus the writers get to decide how heavily to foreshadow the death, how to do the reveal, what character(s) to make the perpetrator(s), and what motives to stress.  I will not spoil what either series chose, but I will say that it is very challenging writing a murder when you know some audience members have radically different knowledge from others, and that I think Borgia: Faith and Fear used that fact brilliantly, and tapped the tropes of murder mystery very cleverly, when scripting the critical episode.  The Borgias was less creative in its presentation.

But what about historical accuracy?

I said before that I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  Shows ignoring history or changing it around does bother me sometimes, especially if a show is very good and ought to know better.  The superb HBO series Rome, which does an absolutely unparalleled job presenting Roman social class, slavery, and religion, nonetheless left me baffled as to why a studio making a series about the Julio-Claudians would feel driven to ignore the famous historical allegations of orgies and bizarre sex preserved in classical sources and substitute different orgies and bizarre sex.  The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient!  But in general I tend to be extremely patient with historically inacurate elements within my history shows, moreso than many non-historians I know, who are bothered by our acute modern anachronism-radar (on the history of the senes of anachronism and its absence in pre-modern psychology, see Michael Wood: Forgery, Replica, Fiction).  For me, though, I have learned to relax and let it go.

I remember the turning point moment.  I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my roommates, and it went into a backstory flashback set in high medieval Germany.  “Why are you sighing?” one asked, noticing that I’d laid back and deflated rather gloomily.  I answered: “She’s not of sufficiently high social status to have domesticated rabbits in Northern Europe in that century.  But I guess it’s not fair to press a point since the research on that hasn’t been published yet.”  It made me laugh, also made me think about how much I don’t know, since I hadn’t known that a week before.  For all the visible mistakes in these shows, there are even more invisible mistakes that I make myself because of infinite details historians haven’t figured out yet, and possibly never will.  There are thousands of artifacts in museums whose purposes we don’t know.  There are bits of period clothing whose functions are utter mysteries.  There are entire professions that used to exist that we now barely understand.  No history is accurate, not even the very best we have.


See this real Renaissance portrait of a wealthy lady?  She has a bunny, and it’s a class marker, showing she’s wealthy enough to have domesticated rabits.  And this is in the south, centuries later.

Envision a scene in which two Renaissance men are hanging out in a bar in Bologna with a prostitute.  Watching this scene, I, with my professional knowledge of the place and period, notice that there are implausibly too many candles burning, way more than this pub could afford, plus what they paid for that meal is about what the landlord probably earns in a month, and the prostitute isn’t wearing the mandatory blue veil required for prostitutes by Bologna’s sumptuary laws.  But if I showed it to twenty other historians they would notice other things: that style of candlestick wasn’t possible with Italian metalwork of the day, that fabric pattern was Flemish, that window wouldn’t have had curtains, that dish they’re eating is a period dish but from Genoa, not Bologna, and no Genoese cook would be in Bologna because feud bla bla bla.  So much we know.  But a person from the period would notice a thousand other things: that nobody made candles in that exact diameter, or they butchered animals differently so that cut of steak is the wrong shape, or no bar of the era would have been without the indispensable who-knows-what: a hat-cleaning lady, a box of kittens, a special shape of bread.  All historical scenes are wrong, as wrong as a scene set now would be which had a classy couple go to a formal steakhouse with paper menus and an all-you-can-eat steak buffet.  All the details are right, but the mix is wrong.

In a real historical piece, if they tried to make everything slavishly right any show would be unwatchable, because there would be too much that the audience couldn’t understand.  The audience would be constantly distracted by details like un-filmably dark building interiors, ugly missing teeth, infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with, crush, and throw away, and Marie Antoinette relieving herself on the floor at Versailles.  Despite its hundreds of bathrooms, one of Versailles’ marks of luxury was that the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day, and always more than once a week.  We cannot make an accurate movie of this – it will please no one.  The makers of the TV series  Mad Men recognized how much an accurate depiction of the past freaks viewers out – the sexual politics, the lack of seat belts and eco-consciousness, the way grown-ups treat kids.  They focused just enough on this discomfort to make it the heart of a powerful and successful show, but there even an accurate depiction of attitudes from a few decades ago makes all the characters feel like scary aliens.  Go back further and you will have complete incomprehensibility.

he Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor.  Communication can be more important than accuracy

The Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor. Communication can be more important than accuracy.

Even costuming accuracy can be a communications problem, since modern viewers have certain associations that are hard to unlearn.  Want to costume a princess to feel sweet and feminine?  The modern eye demands pink or light blue, though the historian knows pale colors coded poverty.  Want to costume a woman to communicate the fact that she’s a sexy seductress?  The audience needs the bodice and sleeves to expose the bits of her modern audiences associate with sexy, regardless of which bits would plausibly have been exposed at the time.  I recently had to costume some Vikings, and was lent a pair of extremely nice period Viking pants which had bold white and orange stripes about two inches wide.  I know enough to realize how perfect they were, and that both the expense of the dye and the purity of the white would mark them as the pants of an important man, but that if someone walked on stage in them the whole audience would think: “Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?”  Which do you want, to communicate with the audience, or to be accurate?  I choose A.

Thus, rather than by accuracy, I judge this type of show by how successfully the creators of an historical piece have chosen wisely from what history offered them in order to make a good story.  The product needs to communicate to the audience, use the material in a lively way, change what has to be changed, and keep what’s awesome.  If some events are changed or simplified to help the audience follow it, that’s the right choice.  If some characters are twisted a bit, made into heroes or villains to make the melodrama work, that too can be the right choice.  If you want to make King Arthur a woman, or have Mary Shelley sleep with time-traveling John Hurt, even that can work if it serves a good story.  Or it can fail spectacularly, but in order to see what people are trying to do I will give the show the benefit of the doubt, and be patient even if poor Merlin is in the stocks being pelted with tomatoes.  (By the way, if you’re trying to watchthe BBC’s Merlin and decide it’s not set in the past but on a terraformed asteroid populated by vat-cultured artificial people who have been given a 20th century moral education and then a book on medieval society and told to follow its advice, everything suddenly makes perfect sense!)

Showtime's Borgias being Dramatic!  This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they're going for.

Showtime’s Borgias being Dramatic! This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they’re going for.  I also notice that her hair is a darker shade of blonde when they have her being ‘bad’. Before you complain, the historical Lucrezia did bleach it: lemon juice & lye.

I am not meaning to pick a fight here with people who care deeply about accuracy in historical fiction.  I respect that it bothers some people, and also that there is great merit in getting things right.  Research and thoroughness are admirable, and, just as it requires impressive virtuosity to cook a great meal within strict diet constraints, like gluten free or vegan, so it takes great virtuosity to tell a great story without cheating on the history.  I am simply saying that, while accuracy is a merit, it is not more important to me than other merits, especially entertainment value in something which is intended as entertainment.

This is also why I praise Borgia: Faith and Fear for what I call its “historicity” rather than its “accuracy”.  It takes its fair share of liberties, as well it should if it wants a modern person to sit through it.  But it also succeeds in making the characters feel un-modern in a way many period pieces don’t try to do.  It is a bit alienating but much more powerful.  It is more accurate, yes, but it isn’t the accuracy alone that makes it good, it’s the way that accuracy serves the narrative and makes it exceptional, as truffle raises a common cream sauce to perfection.  Richer characters, more powerful situations, newer, stranger ideas that challenge the viewers, these are the produce of B:F&F‘s historicity, and bring a lot more power to it than details like accurately-colored dresses or perfectly period utensils, which are admirable, but not enriching.

Final evaluation:


I like how the French packaging and “Do not have faith in them” subtitle highlight the Borgias’ wishful/self-deluding aspirations toward holiness, a major theme in in the series, which its American release motto “Before the Mafia, there was the Borgia” abandons.

In the end, both these shows are successfully entertaining, and were popular enough to get second and third seasons in which we can enjoy such treats as Machiavelli and Savonarola (Showtime’s planned 4th season has been cancelled, though there are motions to fight that).  Showtime’s series is more approachable and easier to understand, but Borgia: Faith and Fear much more interesting, in my opinion, and also more valuable.  The Borgias thrills and entertains, but Borgia: Faith and Fear also succeeds in showing the audience how terrible things were in the Renaissance, and how much progress we’ve made.  It de-romanticizes.  It feels period. It has guts.  It has things the audience is not comfortable with.  It has people being nasty to animals.  It has disfigurement.  It has male rape.  When it’s time for a public execution, the mandatory cheap thrill of this genre, it  goes straight for just about the nastiest Renaissance method I know of, sawing a man in half lengthwise starting at the crotch and moving along the spine. The scene leaves the audience less titillated than appalled, and glad that we don’t do that anymore.

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter's and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.  But ansewr me

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter’s and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.

Are they historically accurate?  Somewhat.  They’re both quite thorough in their research, but both change things.  The difference is what they change, and why.  If Borgia: Faith and Fear wants do goofy things with having the Laocoon sculpture be rediscovered early, I sympathize with the authors’ inability to resist the too-perfect metaphor of Rodrigo Borgia looking at this sculpture of a father and his two sons being dragged down by snakes.  It adds to the show, even if it’s a bit distracting.  But if The Borgias wants to make Giuliano della Rovere into a righteous defender of virtue, they throw away a great and original historical character in exchange for a generic one.  It makes the whole set of events more generic, and that is the kind of change I object to, not as an historian, but as someone who loves good fiction, and wants to see it be the best it can be.

(I do get one nitpick.  When Michelangelo had a cameo in The Borgias, why did he speak Italian when everyone else was speaking English?  What was that supposed to communicate?  Is everyone else supposed to be speaking Latin all the time?  Is the audience supposed to know he is Italian but not think about it with everyone else?  I am confused!)

If you have not already read it, see my Machiavelli Series for historical background on the Borgias.  For similar analysis of TV and history, I also highly recommend my essay on Tor.com about Shakespeare in the Age of Netflix (focusing on the BBC “The Hollow Crown” adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad).

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  34 Responses to ““The Borgias” vs. “Borgia: Faith and Fear” (accuracy in historical fiction)”

  1. These posts are amazing! Please, never stop blogging.

  2. I had dipped my toe in the International/Netflix series (about 15-20 minutes worth), but was put off by the mish-mosh of accents and thought it was meant as a cheap rip-off of the better known series. I now know I should persist, since that sounds like the more interesting – to me – series.

    Thank you for that and, belatedly, for your fascinating posts about Machiavelli. I am learning a lot from your blog.

  3. Very glad to help redirect you to the series. The mix of accents bothered me at first as well. I kept trying to figure out if they were trying to communicate something by having each member of the Borgia family have a radically different accent. It finally made sense when I realized it was an international cast.

  4. OK, I have to ask – she could *never* wear pink, even elaborately figured pink silk covered in jewels? Isn’t there a possibly portrait of her as Flora, dressed in white? And haven’t I seen a portrait of Mary Stuart in pink? Or are the painted colours of pink ladies that faded?

    The reason I ask is that I felt the general aesthetic of the Borgias is very ‘paintingy’ if that makes sense. Every scene lit as if it was an oil painting, and that feels deliberate.

    Whereas, unfairly going on the screenshots you posted, the costumes seem somehow more random in ‘Borgia’ – more naturalistic, I suppose, as people do not generally dress so that they create a beautiful artistic unity with the wallpaper and the other people in the room. And yet, surely the art is a part of the historicity too, so recalling it does add something to the flavour…?

  5. “The Borgias” is definitely much, much more visually stunning than the European production. As I stressed in my discussion, it had a much bigger budget, so had, in addition to better CG backgrounds and more elaborate costumes, better cameras and better post-processing so the light is, as you stay, stunning. You can watch it on mute with music playing and it’s still an amazing experience.

    As for the question of portraits in pale colors, you absolutely get portraits in white becuase white was a very expensive color, and the goal in a portrait is to show off the expense of the fabric, not to aim for a specific color. Hence portraits of Queen Elizabeth, for example, wearing a white gown covered with pearls. But anything in the red range aims to be intensely red if it can, since that’s the expensive color. You get dark pinks (see below) often combined with other expensive elements like fur sleeves (as below) but anything in the pale baby pink rnage that Lucrezia wars in that shot, which communicates “childlike and innocent” to us, communicates “we couldn’t afford a good dye-job” to a Renaissance viewer who is very aware that it’s intense colors–rich reds, pure whites–which are most difficult to attain. As for wearing pink covered in jewels, it would be like setting diamonds in pewter–you could do it, but if you did it everyone would wonder why you scrimped on the base. Pale baby pink looked cheap to people, so a dressmaker wouldn’t make that choice.


  6. I felt the international version flowed so much better than the showtime one. The showtime version just didn’t seem to “come together” as well. Still waiting on the 3rd season on Netflix – or is it all done w/2 seasons?

  7. My info says “Borgia: Faith and Fear” is filming season 3 now.

  8. Regarding the color of clothing, it seems there is scope here for an interesting article.

    My understanding (and I’d be happy to be corrected) is that black (dark black, not light grey) until fairly recently represented extremely expensive cloth, because of the dye required.
    This puts in a different light issues like
    – officers of the medieval church wearing black (ie not at all a statement of humility and poverty) or portraits of Dutch middle class or various Puritans wearing black (once again a boast, not a statement of sober piety).

    Which makes me wonder when this changed, when black becomes cheap. My guess would be 1840s or so, but maybe even that’s too early, maybe it only occurred with the rise of the chemical dye industry in the second half of the 19th C?
    (I assume the basic story of the great color switch requires both cheap manufacturing of black dye AND industrialized cities, so that now wearing light colors, easily marred by smoke and soot in the air, signifies “I’m so rich I can afford to have other people wash my clothes every day, then throw them away when they start going grey”. Basically just like wearing silk or linen today signifies “I can afford frequent dry cleaning”, whereas polyester, or even cotton, being practical and not requiring so much care, signify the opposite. )

  9. True, dark black was indeed an expensive color.

    It wasn’t the most expensive, not as expensive as blue or purple, or a strong red, but expensive, more expensive than intense green, yellow or orange tones and much more expensive than weaker and mixed dyes like gray, brown, pink, pale colors etc. Wearing black was indeed a mark of a certain type of affluence. It was also a very enduring fabric, though, since it didn’t show stains, so one piece of black cloth could often be worn for many years, even generations. It was not uncommon for a wealthy person when dying to specify in a will to leave black clothing items to a nunnery so the nuns could reuse the fabric for their habits.

    I don’t know when black became cheap.

    For those genuinely interested in the history of fabric dyes, I can recommend an excellent history of red, called “A Perfect Red”


  10. This is amazing. Also, now you have convinced me not only that I should watch these shows but also that I really, really have to find out more about Giuliano della Rovere.

  11. Black only became cheap with anilene dyes post 1856.

    As for black lasting, that’s only true up to a point. Oak gall dyes become “rusty” — so it would still be black, and still usable, but it wouldn’t look sumptuous any more.

  12. Ah, excellent. Thanks for the much-needed date.

    We must inagine our nuns in reddish faded hand-me-down black much of the time.

  13. Brilliant and hilarious editorial. As a Renaissance scholar who is also a historical novelist, I completely agree, and only admire your ability to “let go” of inaccuracies you spot. But you are right. I’m going to try to adopt your attitude.

  14. - I am an historian. I study heresy, freethought, the recovery of the classics after the Middle Ages, and their impact on science, religion and atheism. My research on the Renaissance often takes me to Rome, Florence and around Europe. I work at rare books libraries, especially the Vatican. At home, I am a professor of European History –
    You are a very interesting person. Positioning yourself as a historian and professor, you demonstrate tremendous ignorance, describing the french Queen shitting on the floor in the palace. Is it a kind of mocking, and you somehow don’t like the french? Can you imagine your “first Lady” doing the same in White House??? And why do you write THIS about THE QUEEN??? Or you beleave the british Queen behaves this way??? In Russia a lot of people believe that the Americans are stupid. You prove it’s true. You are a wild pale faced native. And will go on beeng it, if you won’t start THINKING. With my greatest contempt to you, ciao!

  15. On bathrooms at Versailles, and the continued use of indoor spaces for personal relief in 18th century France (though not later periods in France, nor England, since hygiene reform in the19th century changed such things) see the book “At Home: A Short History of Private Life,” by Bill Bryson, chapter 16 “The Bathroom.”


  16. On the lighter side…I love what you said about Merlin! I’m watching it with my son, and I about went into spasms when I first saw their “medieval” world. My son told me, “think of it like a fantasy world.” So, that’s what I try to do when I see Morgana walking around in high heel pumps.

    I do like your distinction between historicity and accuracy.

  17. Thanks! I sometimes enjoy imagining that Merlin is set in a universe where some spell or time-travel distorted everything and made causality turn all strange, and that Mordred and the dragon are the only ones who know, and are conspiring to push events toward something which will make the timeline correct again. A fun way to enjoy the show.

  18. Very nice write-up. I definitely appreciate this site.
    Keep writing!

  19. A/an historian who writes with brilliance??? SO many things I never knew and SO many chuckles along the way; this may be the BEST blog I’ve ever read.

    I was trying to find ANYTHING that would demonstrate the power of Borgia/ff to another writer friend and this is it.

  20. Micki Suzanne,

    Many thanks for the praise, and I’m delighted to hear this helped you share BorgiaFF with a friend.

  21. I have been watching the Borgias on Showtime and have enjoyed it but started to lose interest in the liberties the writers took with History in lieu of entertainment.

    I am enjoying the Borgias: faith and fear and its much more relevant to the time. You can never learn from history if you don’t tell the real story.

  22. I agree with other commenters. This blog article is wonderful. So well written, compelling and informative and NEVER boring. I came here to find out if I should bother watching ‘Borgia’ as I have seen it listed on Netflix, but didn’t know if it offerred anything that ‘The Borgias’ hadn’t already shown me. Now I know it is worth checking out. However….I fear I may fall into the category of the squemish 21st Century viewer with modern sensabilities, as scenes such as the one you describe of the man being cut in half make me feel very disturbed and upset. Am I TOO sensitive? I certainly don’t want to close my mind to learning about history as it truly was. I loved ‘The Tudors’ but in the later series when Henry began his torturing spree I found it much harder to watch. I actually cried when they put Frances Dereham to death by hanging, drawing and quartering. I much preferred the sexy brooding but generally decent Henry in the earlier period – and yes, I agree I could watch Johnathan Rhys Meyers shirtless all day long!
    I fully agree that something does not need to be fully accurate when presented as entertainment because in watching an historical film or tv show, many viewers then become interested enough to explore further, by buying books or reading online articles about the actual story. This was certainly the case for me with the film ‘Titanic’ for example.
    Anyway, thanks again for a wonderful article!

  23. I think it’s perfectly natural and, in fact, healthy for a modern viewer of these types of shows to be distressed by the violence. They are depicting acts of cruelty which our culture and society hold to be repugnant, inhuman and unforgivable, and being uncomfortable seeing them depicted is a sign that that moral shift has taken firm root. Voltaire and Beccaria, who campaigned so hard to end judicial torture, would be overjoyed to learn that the new countries and governments founded in their era have so thoroughly embraced their ideals as to produce citizens whose reaction to seeing a man drawn and quartered is “Ugh! I can’t watch!” instead of “Fun! Let’s bring the kids!”

  24. Thanks for your reply! Ironically, as I read this I am watching the final episode of The Borgias, Season 2, in which Savonarolla is tortured and burnt at the stake, and again I find myself wondering – what was the supposed justification and thinking behind these acts? What did the church think burning people acheived? I know it was meant to be symbolic in some way, but of what I don’t know. I just do not understand why people were capable of such hideous acts of evil and why they did not realise that it was evil? How on earth could they reconcile this acts with their supposed devout religious beliefs???Why was torture used without a second thought? So many questions about humanity and religion. Why did it take so long for us humans to develop a moral compass, and to value compassion? Still, as I write this I am aware that many countries do still perpetrate such acts in the name of religion….

  25. Jen,

    Actually your earlier question got me thinking about writing an entry on exactly this quesiton, so your follow-up has helped me make up my mind. Next entry (or at least one of the next couple) I will talk about philosophical discussions of judicial torture in the 18th century, and how Western society transitioned from thinking of torture as useful and commonplace to thinking of it as cruel and unnecessary. Should be an interesting topic!

  26. Great! That will be fascinating! Is there some way I can register with this blog and have an update sent to me when you have posted the new entry? Thanks.

  27. After reading your post, I watched Borgia: Faith and Fear via NetFlix. Thanks for an excellent suggestion. It’s great.

    One history trivia question: What is that huge pine cone thingie in the courtyard at the vatican?

  28. Your postings on Machiavelli and the Borgias shows are quite enjoyable.
    But, alas, and regardless of historicity, I find that I prefer the Orson Welles Cesare (from *Prince of Foxes*) as the most deliciously evil Prince ever. And after reading your mementoes I had to watch it again. But, alas, Shellbarger did mess up — would Cesare have allowed even a supposed cadet branch of the Orsisi to get so close to him?

  29. JoeInCalifornia,

    Here is a wonderful explananation on the history and meaning of ‘The Pinecone.’



  30. Hi Jen,

    Thanks for the link.

  31. No bother, Joe! I only looked it up because of your post. It’s really interesting isn’t it? The symbolism and meaning behind things that you don’t really think about.

  32. Oh dear. I have just noticed my typo in the comment I posted with the link about the Pinecone.
    What on earth is an ‘exPLANANation’?! Sorry about that! I must be more careful in future!

  33. I had season 1 of Borgias Faith& Fear and picked up Borgias -Season 2 in the store not realizing there were two series on the Borgias.
    Loved Borgias Faith & Fear, and was extremely disappointed in the latter probably because I was expecting something quite different. Call me a nerd, but I would love a running commentary on the historical aspects and minutia.

  34. […] European show (also known as Borgia: Faith and Fear) a try to get my Borgias fix thanks to this intriguing comparison of the two shows by a historian, but found it […]

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