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

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

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

    • Lewis said:

      I’ve been a Borgia nut since I was a kid some 65 years ago. Fascinating period, fascinating family. I’m a newcomer to Netflix and was delighted to find The Borgias, with Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia. Historical liberties didn’t bother me—it’s entertainment, after all. What did rile me, in Episode 8 of Season 1–The Art of War—was Rodrigo’s reference to Pope John XXIII. I hope I wasn’t the only one to catch that.

      • I also was initially confused by this reference at first. However, there are 2 Pope John XXIII’s. There’s the one we remember from the 2oth century. However, there’s another Pope John XXIII from the 15th century (now called the Antipope John XXIII) who was part of the papal schism, whereby there were 3 popes claiming legitimacy.

        • exurbe said:

          Yup, he was referring to the Florentine John XXIII, the one who’s buried in the Florentine baptistery and was Poggio’s boss

  2. Kat Slonaker said:

    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.

    • I agree! The Pope sounds like he is from Chicago.

      • Paul Joldersma said:

        this!! I literally laughed out loud. “Hey meshuginah! ovah he-ah!!

      • Devan said:

        When I saw the first episode and saw John Do man I couldn’t help thinking “really? Rawls from The Wire is playing Rodrigo Georgia? Good actor but first thought was he was a terrible miscasting and being one of the central figures I considered quitting after that episode. It didn’t take me long to realize I was wrong. He truly brings out how evil and corrupt popes were during that time period. Definitely worth a watch if you are skeptical but like the time period.

  3. Ex Urbe said:

    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. Victoria said:

    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. Ex Urbe said:

    “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. Lisa A. Penree said:

    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?

    • I would prefer the international version, there is much more life and action in the international. The Borgia is expensive, but grim and sequential; as if it is done by historian with fear that the audience has very low IQ.

  7. Ex Urbe said:

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

  8. Maynard Handley said:

    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. )

    • exurbe said:

      Supplement: my guess is 19th or early 20th but I haven’t worked on dyes in that period. I know in this period it was Lucrezia who actually popularized black as a fashionable color (as opposed to being worn only for mourning and by monks) by wearing her black mourning gown (from her previous marriage) as her wedding dress for her last wedding, and suddenly wearing black as a fashion choice became popular.

      • Laura Nix said:

        Haha! Personally, I would have interpreted Lucrezia wearing her black mourning dress from her previous marriage (was it from her 1st or 2nd marriage?) as an indication that she was mourning the prospect of being married again!!

        • Laura Nix said:

          Let me clarify on my other post on the subject. I meant that as a joke, not literally. Although the truth of the matter is that most women of the times most likely didn’t enjoy being married off to whomever gave their father or male head of their family the best dowry and/or political alliance! If some fool man tried to auction me off like a head of livestock, I believe I’d remove his head, instead, and run for the hills!

  9. Ex Urbe said:

    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. Jo Walton said:

    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. Ex Urbe said:

    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. Mr. Angry said:

    – 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!

    • I only went as far as a bachelor’s in history specifically, so I guess I’m entering a major battle with a pea shooter here, but…wow. Ex Urbe was too professional and magnanimous to call you out on the abomination of a post you made above, but I’m not going to be. Allow me to summarize what you said:

      -I have credentials and am smart. I know about stuff like this. I’ve been to some places.
      Now I’m going to go nuts while criticizing one specific thing you said that made its point perfectly when read in context. I’m also going to do so in a way that makes it seem I can’t compose a coherent sentence to save my life. I’m going to name a few countries that I’ve heard of, probably in some failed attempt to make me sound like a citizen of the world. Check out my capital letters and excessive punctuation. That’s how you know I feel strongly about whatever the hell I’m saying. Oh, and by the way, I have no idea if what you said was factually accurate and don’t care if it was relevant to your overall point. I just really don’t like it or you. Because you suck.
      In case you don’t get what I’m all about, here’s some random racism and strong yet strangely unfocused hate. Peace out!

      If I’m ever in a position to help decide which of these professors gets tenure, I know where my vote is going.

      • Laura Nix said:

        I couldn’t agree more! I was going to write a similar post, but couldn’t have said it better myself! Also, I would mention how crudely “Mr. Angry” was writing (ie. using the word sh*t on a public website, only intending to be informative and mentally enriching- -while also being absolutely hilarious!). And yet, as you so poiniently pointed out, he could barely compose a sentence. Also, he didn’t even have the guts to put his name to his filthy post. My opinion is, if you’ve got big enough balls to say such filth on a public post, you ought to have big enough ones to sign your name to it! Great job. Now I don’t “have to get my nasty on” and let him have it!

    • Paul Joldersma said:

      The truth can be a hurtful thing if you let it.

  15. Ex Urbe said:

    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. Ex Urbe said:

    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. Ex Urbe said:

    Micki Suzanne,

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

  21. Rock Munis said:

    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. Ex Urbe said:

    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!”

    • altheperson said:

      Jon Burge Chicago Police torturer.
      Abu Ghraib
      Sex Slaves
      All of the above simply the one’s we know about.

      and the ultimate winner….the Nuclear Bomb. A device built as an expression for humanities hatred of itself, brought about ultimately by Earth’s position visa a vi the Sun which produces and uneven climate and thus beings that are uneven in temperament.

      The acts of cruetly in the past haven’t ended, they have shifted, they are dormant, waiting to be ignited by events.

      World leaders are bad people. As long as bad people rule the world, there were will no hope for humanity in developing into a reasonable, judicious being.

      If there is anything about history that is important, it is understanding that world leaders are ambitious, cut throat, agressive and vile.

      • Erik Tiber said:

        What a small minded comment. People are unquestionably repulsed by torture. The fact that we so revile ISIS is a prime example. Abu Ghraib was actually a scandal rather than literally expected. The fact that people take efforts to hide this sort of thing normally proves the point. The invention of nuclear bombs as a weapon of war hardly proves some deep-seated appetite for torture, it’s a weapon of war that was invented and, once it spread, was extremely difficult to abandon. The fact that it hasn’t spread more shows the strength of international norms and sanctions.

        Being cynical is not the same as being mature. Your comment is a great illustration of that fact.

        • Abu Gharib is hardly a “Scandal” any more than something about Britney Spears. Guantanamo wasn’t closed. Hundreds of CIA black sites around the world. And these are the “civilized good guys”. People know of this. Do nothing. You think dismembering someone with a saw is worse than dismembering them via high explosive carpet bombing? There is no international community. Gadaffi was killed by the west after abandoning WMDs, Kim Jong Un was strenghtened by using the hydrogen weapon. See your morality.

  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. Ex Urbe said:


    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. JoeInCalifornia said:

    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. David Naas said:

    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. JoeInCalifornia said:

    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. Allison MacArthur-Ruesink said:

    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 […]

  35. […] Speaking of BORGIA, I simply have to include this insightful post from a historian comparing the two shows on the infamous Borgia family: StudioCanal’s BORGIA: […]

  36. […] Irons as Rodrigo Borgia and another, an European production, Borgia, created by Tom Fontana and apparently more historically accurate. (For a detailed comparison between the two, see this). Having the 3-season-Borgia package on […]

  37. […] Related: Read about the Borgias in TV Drama. […]

  38. Ilaria Coser said:

    I really enjoyed this, thank you. I cringed when a cardinal or other in one of the early episodes of Borgia: Faith and Fear mentioned ‘chocolate’ when Columbus was still en route to the Americas, so thank you for putting things in perspective.

    • Henry said:

      Being an engineer rather than a historian, my cringe moment came when various cardinals were discussing various Italian cities as being “so and so many kilometers outside Rome,” knowing that the invention of the metric system was still two centuries in the future.

  39. D. Adcock said:

    I have only recently discovered the Netflix series, Borgia. Thank you for your well written article. I, too, have struggled with overly criticizing historically based productions, and have come to appreciate the limits and power of this genre. I have not seen The Borgias by Showtime, but am convinced it may be a worthwhile investment of time. Certainly, Borgia: F&F has proved both fascinating and a decent vehicle for “history” in dramatic form.

  40. For anyone still on the fence, I watched “The Borgias” first. Love the heck out of it. Then, not realizing it had been cancelled, I started watching “Borgia” to get my fix while waiting for new episodes. At first I was underwhelmed by the lower-budget look, and found the hodge-podge of accents distracting. But once I got used to it I found it much much deeper and more engaging. I can barely watch the Showtime version now…though the fact that it never finished its run doesn’t help, I’m sure.

    Frankly, I see the lack of historicity in “The Borgias” as something of a mess once the full comparison can be made over the two shows’ respective runs.

  41. Rennie Conrad said:

    I have watched both versions and although they are both historically inaccurate, there is NO comparison between the two!

    Borgia SUCKS! The acting is abismal and it is astounding and disturbing that viewers are incapable of identifying such terrible acting! There were very few scenes that I considered well acted with reactions being comical most of the time! The dialogue is deplorable, not even attempting to simulate the 14th century. Although both shows were historically inaccurate, BORGIA went so far as to be annoying!

    The Borgias was very entertaining with far better acting, dialogue and costumes.

    I do hope there is a 4th season of The Borgias, because I would love to see it!

    One thing I find unesesary, are all of the sex scenes! I fast forward past all of them becasue I find them tedious and a waste of valuable program time! I wish the current batch of TV shows didn’t feel the need to include graphic prolonged sex scenes.

  42. […] Borgia, © Showtime (source) more Lucrezia […]

  43. Lizzie said:

    I find it a bit unfair of you to use a promotionnal poster to point out that Lucrezia yellow dress is inaccurate : that dress never appears in the show itself, which is by the way superior in historicity for the costume. Indeed dye is the one minor criticism one can level at it, and only two of Lucrezia’s many dresses are concerned : both her later dresses and Julia’s use very strong color, as well as Lucrezia’s mother’s. The show also do an exemplary work of showing the evolution of the sleeves’ shape in later season, following the historical changes. On the other hand, Borgia : F&F costuming is much less satisfying, the headgear is often off, and they put metal eyelets on dresses.
    So yes, I guess every historian see different problems while watching ‘historical’ movies or shows! It is quite interesting though to see the comparison between these two shows, and I think they complement themselves rather than being in ‘competition’ on historical matters.

    (on a side note, several specialists disagree with the notion that in the XVIIIth century people in Versailles would shit on the floor : I’ve seen some explaining that the misconception was mainly due to a letter describing it happening because the latrines were obstructed, leaving no choice to the nobles, and framing it as an exception)

  44. Lyn Gray said:

    I am nearly finished the first season of Borgia and after having seen The Borgias I was troubled at first with this one but now I am hooked and cannot stop watching, but of course have to as I need to sleep. My husband who normally hates historical shows is also enjoying this immensely although the violence is dreadful. However, having read your blog it explains exactly how they were in the Renaissance and I didn’t realise they were so cruel. I read somewhere that The Borgias was historically very accurate but now I’m thinking the Borgia version is. I’m enjoying it anyway. I’m also looking forward to watching Rome.

    I really enjoyed your blog.

    • exurbe said:

      Glad you’re enjoying it so much! I too had to fight to sleep when I was first watching.

      I think both shows are very historically accurate in the technical sense of using names and dates (both super accurate by the standards of more off-the-rails historical shows like Xena Warrior Princess), so it’s “accurate” if you judge it by that metric, but “The Borgias” changes a lot (especially in Florence!) while “Borgia: Faith & Fear” definitely sticks closer to events. In both cases, though, I think names and dates are a less important aspect of accuracy for the viewer than how successful each one is at invoking the un-modern feel of the age it’s set in. Rome, for all its insertions of extra sexual relationships, is wonderfully accurate on the social fabric of the society, so highly recommended for that.

      I hope you’ve already seen “I Claudius” but if you haven’t that’s the main historical show that I think is not-to-be-missed! Great historical accuracy/fabric/society AND brilliant acting. And at 13 episodes it’s easy to get through without too much loss of sleep.

      Thanks for the kind words and enjoy!

      • AnnaS said:

        Thank you for your blog.
        But is really BFF very accurate with dates? The first season is said to describe the 1492 and 1493 events but there are many events that occurred indeed later (such as the French invasion and the Giovanni/Juan’s death).

  45. bob robertson said:

    What a wonderful article. Spot on and so incisive, I have had a long passion for the Borgia; and can only commend you in championing the Borgia series on Netflix, far superior to its inferior cousin. I believe it to be realistic and as near to the mark as we are going to get.

    The great problem I see with any interpretation of TV History is that we view it from 21st Century eyes, not from how it really should be seen. Life was far more bloody, brutal and brief than it has ever been.
    PS…I love the Machiavelli articles; Nicolo nailed Cesare in The Prince.

  46. Satchel Pratt said:

    Very astute examination of the two shows. I’ve tried in vain to make the same arguments many times. From now on I will just link to this page.

  47. I agree with the commentators that this is an excellent article comparing the respective virtues of both series. I also agree with the writer that Borgia: Faith & Fear is the superior series with some (very) minor caveats.

    As the writer mentions, The Borgias is much more visually sumptuous of the two. I recall in particular a wedding banquet scene that took my breath away (Lucrezia’s wedding to whomever??). Also, The Borgias has Jeremy Irons. He has the power almost to carry the series on his own and vastly more watchable than John Dorman. Dorman, whom viewers may recall as a repugnant police chief from the Wire, is likeable enough as an actor, but fails at times to convince as a man of the Renaissance, let alone the Supreme Pontiff. That was a bizarre casting choice that I still haven’t got my head around.

    I won’t speak too much to the historicity of the two series as I’m neither expert in the pontificate of Alexander VI nor more generally the daily life in late 15th C Italy. I would say there is however, a love of history that is apparent in Borgia: Faith & Fear that is less apparent in The Borgias. This to me is key in any good historical drama: whether I can feel the writers are devoted to exposing what is fascinating about the period – this in addition to making good narrative. HBO’s Rome had it (first season, but not the second), ‘Vikings’ when it works has it, ‘The Last Kingdom’ has it too. The epitome for me of this are the old BBC series ‘Six Wives of Henry VIII’ and ‘Elizabeth R’.

    The Borgias in contrast is devoted to costume and the exposition of moral decadence – in short all that is titillating about the past but not the past itself. It seems to me the writers do not particularly care the stories are set in Renaissance Rome; they could just as easily be set in the Restoration English court or France during the Terror. This doesn’t immediately condemn it, but it means it must rank fairly poorly as an historical drama.

    As to being just a drama (as opposed to an historical one), I don’t think it succeeds particularly well either. I must confess it’s not entirely fresh in mind, but my main criticism of it while watching it was the lack of at least one moral character. I understand it’s trying to depict an extraordinarily unscrupulous age, but as an audience we need at a minimum one character with whom we can identify and for whom we can unreservedly cheer. I don’t care if that character works in the kitchen or is a saintly monk, or may even be a very flawed character who at least strives for real goodness. The Borgias had no one, which meant I had no emotional involvement in any of the characters and is why I dropped it after about 6 -7 episodes (please correct me if such a character was introduced in later seasons!).

    Borgia: Faith & Fear has at least the Alessandro Farnese or Giovanni de Medici characters, a smattering of upright priests, Cesare’s mother, all decent enough folk who reside mostly on the modern spectator’s side of the moral spectrum and whom we want to see succeed. They also provide moral compass by which we can judge the rest not merely through modern sensibilities but contemporary mores as well. Yes, it was common knowledge the Pope had a mistress, yes simony was rampant, but yes too many people found this distressing and proof of an urgent need for reform. This is the same age that spawned Martin Luther and Erasmus after all.

    If I have gripe with Borgia: Faith & Fear I do find the violence at times too graphic, although the writer here makes an excellent point that it really was that bad. Still, there is a difference between informing the audience of how bad it was, perhaps by implying the violence as opposed to showing it in graphic detail. But this complaint goes for nearly every historical drama on television at the moment. Likewise the sex scenes are almost entirely gratuitous. I realize that makes me sound awfully prudish, but they almost never drive the narrative forward and are a blatant ratings grab. Again the series is hardly alone in this.

  48. Eleanora said:

    Watching The Borgias (love Jeremy Irons) (tried Faith and Fear – too graphic for my refined sensibilities, lol), and just finished a book on Lucrezia Borgia. Combine TV series with researched written literature for total confusion on “what actually happened.” We have camera footage of JFK’s assassination, today’s 24/7, TV / cell phone recording of every moment in life, and still varying opinions and conspiracy theories abound. Purists must suffer so. Really appreciate your encompassing and flexible attitude to historical accuracy. Pop the popcorn and enjoy the show!

    • Maria said:

      What book on Lucrezia did you read? I read The Serpent and the Pearl by by Kate Quinn about Giulia Farnese’s relationship with the Pope.

  49. Maria said:

    Excellent write up! I first saw the Showtime series before I found the BBC version. I have to agree with the above poster; on my first attempt, I turned it off and decided not to watch it (graphic torture scenes). I later went back to it and watched it through. SO glad I did! I totally agree with the analysis in this article. Showtime’s was great for its entertainment value, but BBC was much more believable as being more true to history. I ended up watching both series more than once and have a very hard time deciding which I like better because they both have their own merits.

    The only additional thing I wish this article would have addressed is the vast differences between the two Giulia Farneses; one having a sweet and calm demeanor while the other was loud and demanding with a bad tamper.

  50. Sandy Sanchez said:

    Thank you this is an amazing read. looking froward to watching BFF and re reading your post.

  51. Tiffany said:

    I think Borgia was better in terms of accuracy and reflecting the time, but The Borgias was better in settings and good costumes.

  52. Don’t you think Cesar Borgia would have been the 2nd son based on the fact he was the one chosen to be in the priesthood, and Juan was the one that was to be the one to marry into an important noble Italian family? The only possible way I see for Cesar to be the older brother is if Rodrigo Borgia was not really Cesar’s father.

    It really didn’t make much sense in Showtime for the eldest son to be the one tasked to be the priest while the 2nd son was given everything, but they confounded that by having Juan’s true father being the nobody. It’s what drove him mad in the show, the fact his father was a commoner. So why did Juan get everything if he was the 2nd son of a commoner?

    I didn’t think the Showtime version was making too big of a deal about the Pope having a mistress, it was just that Pope Alexander VI was so public about it was what was the issue. His mistress was also active in the political affairs of the Vatican, which did not sit well with the traditionalists. Sure they were corrupt, but they had their traditions.

    I agree Della Rovere was a generic oversimplified character, and they should have played more on his French allegiances. In the show, I don’t remember being told at any point that he was from a noble family himself. I agree, it’s not like he wasn’t trying to buy the Papacy himself, he just got outplayed. That’s what it really boiled down to. Della Rovere wanted the papacy and France supported him because they wanted to reclaim Naples, they just got outplayed and outbid by those that aligned themselves with Borgia, like Ascenio Szorza and the deep pockets of the Medici.

    Bummed they didn’t bring the show back. I would like to have seen how it all played out, especially with their version of Della Rovere. How he would have manipulated it for Piccolomini to be the next Pope, and then himself.

    • exurbe said:

      The reason historically that it’s not easy to say “Cesare was clearly the 2nd son, he went into the Chuch” was that Rodrigo had an elder bastard, Pier Luigi, by a different mother, who died fairly young, shortly before Rodrigo’s election to the papacy. Pier Luigi had a different mother, and was a Duke before Juan was (same title, passed to Juan when he died), and he spent most of his time in Spain, dealing with the family’s lands & titles there, not in Rome, so one doesn’t hear as much about him in the Italian context. Thus even if Cesare was the eldest of Vanozza’s children, there was already an heir in place to inherit the family lands, and if the 1st son dies and the 2nd is in the Church the inheritance will skip to a 3rd son if there is one (Juan). So either way is plausible, because it’s also plausible that Rodrigo (and Vanozza) would have wanted their eldest son to be an heir for the Roman part of the Borgia holdings while Pier Luigi dealt with Aragon. Thus both interpretations are plausible, and the surviving historical records don’t help us much.


      I too wish there had been more of the series. But there will be more tales of Borgias in time… there always are.

      • exurbe said:

        The European series begins with news of Pier Luigi’s death arriving in Rome; the American one left him out entirely, which is why having Cesare be the eldest there made no sense.

  53. Michael said:

    I’ve only just now found the time to watch these two series. I started with Borgia F&F and have only seen one episode of The Borgia. I agree with your assessment completely. My only issue with BFF is the horrible acting. John Doman delivers his lines so horribly at times.

  54. Keith said:

    I have only seen BFF. On Netflix. I was suffering withdrawal from Marco Polo, which me and wife watched bit seasons in two weeks. It is so gripping! And behold. BORGIA, was great ! Watched every episode in 3 weeks. And will watch again.
    For me, no expert in anything but my trade. It ranks with Schindler’s list. In content and context. I’m a southern man. And I felt pain at finishing it. The first episode didn’t completely grab us. But , it pulls you into these lives, times and Cesare has you rooting for his accomplishments, from his on spot cunning. The last episode brought tears for both their ending.
    I hope anyone here can refer any others on this excellent level?

  55. Shaman00 said:

    I find I have exactly the same perspective as ExUrbe; too much accuracy would make the story unwatchable. For me, the biggest inaccuracies I notice are the teeth. In NEARLY all these types of shows, teeth are 21st century white at a time when having any teeth left past the age 30 was remarkable. Do I want to watch my heroes and heroines with nasty teeth? No, accuracy be damned. Our perception of attractiveness has changed, and I am not insulted when actors conform to modern definitions in order to relate how comely their characters were perceived by their contemporaries.

    I began my fascination with historical dramas as a teen, watching Gore Vidal on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I purchased his CREATION the next day. I was enamored with the idea of a “fictional story within the facts.” This began my life-long enjoyment of the “historical drama.”

    I did watch The Borgias completely, then found B:F&F…which I have watched the first season in 3 days…just can’t put it down. The positives of both far outweigh negatives…which for me are all due to the medium itself.

    There were some comments about inferior acting ability of John Doman (someone mistakenly referred to “Dorman”). I think his work is competent and dynamic. I do understand how some viewers might see lines as simply being “delivered” but I consider this part of the dynamics he hopes to achieve. I also think John’s voice is compelling. Somewhat reminiscent of another pair of Johns: Huston and Hurt.

    This article, and all the posts following have cleared up quite of a bit of my questions. I noticed immediately the question of which brother was older. I also questioned the pine cone in the square. Thanks for those tidbits. They do help bring flavor.

    I have enjoyed many other series and mini-series from this period, and surrounding periods.
    The White Queen
    The Tudors
    Wolf Hall
    The Last Kingdom
    The Pillars of the Earth
    World Without End
    Da Vinci’s Demons

    But also other historical periods…but for the same reasons

    Taken in the context of what I’ve seen. I think neither Borgia or The Borgias are over-the-top in regards to sex and violence. Contrarily, I would say that I prefer those elements being included somewhat graphically…as an historical lesson. I had not even considered the inverted logging saw as a method of torture until I saw it here. If the camera were to pan away and just include some sounds of anguish, it would be left to the imagination of the viewer, which has an entirely 21st century view of torture. These types of scenes are not taken to the lengths of graphic horror movies or pornography…though viewer discretion is advised. So, if you are offended by the explicitness of these scenes, you are free to exercise your discretion and choose another show that fits within your values.

    For those who’s curiosity is piqued by these elements, Starz’ Spartacus series is replete with far more graphic sex and violence.

    Humorously, I also return to watch Xena: Warrior Princess from time to time…in all it’s historical absurdities. Xena must have lived to be 1000 years old to interact with the characters she meets. I still watch because I became a fan of Lucy Lawless after watching Spartacus series.

    Which leads me to my comment about Da Vinci’s Demons…one of my favorite historical dramas. Forget the fact that they paint Leonardo as a swash-buckling action hero. This is definitely more on the Xena side of history than either Borgia series…but it’s just plain FUN. Each major invention saves the day for a particular episode’s challenge.

    …suggesting we needn’t light sets with single tallow candle to enjoy a good story.

  56. Valentino said:

    I agree with the comments that both series have several inaccuracies regarding in history and that is no surprise, it is not a simple task to depict something “real” in a tv show. I am an Italian from Rome and I must really say that The Borgias series have made the Roman and Napoletan atmosphere way more spectacular, credential, stronger than Borgia series where you cant feel that real Roman air and urbanism. And one other major element that I felt was very poor in Borgia series where chosen faces for the historical figures. In The Borgias you could experience amazing period faces like Della Rovere, king Charles VIII, Cesare, Caterina Sforza, MACHIAVELLI!!! ofcourse certain women look too pretty and Rodrigo is not a very accurate face but all the rest was amazing to watch. I study art all my life and I am well educated about the looks of people from that period. Plus here and there you can also hear accents in The Borgias, not only in Borgia. But I dont agree that you should compare historicity of these both series, ofcourse The Borgias have many fictional moments, but that is a necessity, even in the great HBO series Rome they had to put some fictional stories to have a certain linear structure of the story, because in history you cant never follow ones persons story but seeing many other elements at once and that makes the view very confusing in a video. Maybe Iam criticizing Borgia series too harshly but I just feel that they miss the overall energy of people and Rome and possibly its mostly about the chosen actors that dont convince me and they have a lack of energy in their roles. Which is a shame and paradox when most of the actors in Borgia are Europeans. I played as extras (soldier) in Borgia in the Pragues studio and I saw that most soldiers were Czech people and using czechs as Romans is like using a scandinavian man as an African man, they are soo different in their mentallity that not even acting would be that convincing. American would do much better as an Italian than a czech person. Its about the energy thats all wrong.

  57. Dinara said:

    Thank you very much for such an informative post! It was eloquent, witty and extremely interesting.

    I also don’t understand the complaints about Doman’s acting. I thought it was very good. Is there anyone who thins that Doman’s acting was actually good?

    • exurbe said:

      I thought it was pretty good, not outstanding but not poor either. I think it was very understated and controlled. I think in general that in BFF it’s hard in the first two episodes to get used to the sort-of clash of accents, I too found myself feeling a bit awash, uncertain whether the accents were supposed to be differentiating the characters’ backgrounds in some way or whether they were just the actors’ natural voices. That made me feel a little rocky in the first episodes, which may be what is making some people feel uncomfortable with the acting? Once I got used to it I thought the acting was above par for TV.

  58. tarheelwestie said:

    Thank you for your informative article. I must say that I was a huge fan of the Showtime series. And I understand that was such a large budget comes better actors, costumes, sets, writers etc. But the acting on BFF is some of the worst I have ever seen. I have looked at the series often for the last three years trying to get past the first 20 minutes of episode one season one. I always find myself turning it off due to frustration with the poor acting. So today I stopped watching episode one and moved onto the second one. It’s just as bad. I feel like the actors are doing a fifth grade play and just dating their lines and not really “acting.” The only reason I am going to try and continue watching the series is because of your write up and you’re admiration of that version. I have to tell you even though they may have elaborated more on history etc. The acting just sucks. It sucks there’s no way around it. But I will try based on your review. I’ll have to come back and let you know what I think after I’ve seen the whole thing. Keep blogging.

  59. Exfednurse said:

    I first watched the Showtime Borgia when it came out. I just discovered the European version and find it far superior than the SHO version. I too enjoy history and found that the European version was more accurate, and believable. in having watched both, I did find myself comparing various scenes, such as Juans death, Scanavllas execution, and some of the other “known” facts. I was surprised however that the European version suggests that Juan was dispatched by his sister….interesting.
    Finally I have been binge watching the European version often viewing 8 hours at time….love the series. Thanks Netflix.

  60. Orion Fervor said:

    Having watched The Borgias religiously as new episodes were released on Sky Atlantic I can safely say that it gave me just the tasting I needed to spark an interest into the threats, debauchery, and everything else that goes with the delights of the Renaissance period.

    It was only recently, after finally cracking down on picking up the history books again, I realised that my craving for more was still not satiated, and after a search on Netflix – it seems I have indeed been sated!

    Yes the accent mix is not ideal, and Yes, the acting is not fantastic at all in Borgias F&F in comparison to the wonders of Jeremy Irons – However, that does not make or break a show for me, particularly when I watch for a genuine interest in the period (Please allow me to also caveat this by saying I am by no means any historian nor expert in the fields, therefore cannot comment on the historical (in)accuracy.).

    One thing I will say though, is thank you for confirmation of my suspicions regarding the differences between the two shows, as well as clearing up some questions of my own! I am continuing to watch Borgias F&F now, but I know for certain that if I ever recommend the show? They will almost certainly be recommended in conjunction with one another, maybe starting with The Borgias for the glory and the depictions, followed by Borgias F&F for more accuracy…

  61. Natalie said:

    I’ve seen all of both. I like the Euro one better. The shooting is very dark, which may put some people off, especially in season 1. I think they were trying to get the feel of the time, with no electric light, but not sure it makes for the best TV. But despite that, the story and development were far better. The script was also far superior, although a bit wordy at times. The sets were less fancy, but felt more realistic, so you felt like you were in the time period, which is more unto me than a fancy, perfect set. The acting was good, too, better than the American version, I found. Parts of the show are funny. In season 1 of the Euro version, Cesare is like a tortured teenager, not sexy, etc., like they emphasized all the way along in the Showtime version. But his character development is much better, and he gets more attractive starting in season 2. Thanks for the blog.

  62. Sheryl said:


    Just finished all 38 episodes and loved every minute….. but so confused about the final scene of cesare in”the Americas.” Can you help me understand? Mark Ryder refers to “the body” in its various burials. Does this mean there’s a question as to who was in the graves? Thanks to all with such interesting input !

    • AnnaS said:

      AFAIK historians don’t doubt that Cesare was killed in Viana (the writers also don’t doubt, see vimeo.com/100356277), but his body was awfully damaged and there were a lot of reports and rumours on his death, they vary much so one can only wonder what really happened there. Cesare’s death became a legend, and Fontana contributed something of his own to it.

      The final scene is up to variuos interpretations, I think, we don’t see his dead body so we can understand everything literally but we can also consider it as a Lucrezia’s dream, for example…

      However, I’m sorry for my interefernce, let’s wait for the author’s reply.

  63. Christine Lewis said:

    I really enjoyed the BBC series of The Borgias on the TV in 1981, so when I saw Showtime were making a version I was very much looking forward to watching the DVDs. However, the story and characters are completely different. I think the Showtime one is a bit wishy washy to be honest. The BBC one is more in keeping to what I had read about the family, whereas this later version I did not recognise much at all and was a tad disappointed. I was delighted when the BBC decided to release their DVD and bought it as soon as I could. Oliver Cotton makes a superb Cesare in my opinion and well worth watching. I have yet to see Borgia: Faith & Fear.

  64. audience said:

    idont like the borgia (canal plus) it was low budget and wholly fictional ,but some says its not fictional at all the point is they are are fictional to atract certain audience i watched the borgia and the whole time i thought why they chose popes actor a american and he had american accent and other charactor like julia farnese who was mistress of pope had italian accent and it was amateurish the make julia farnesse one of main character which was unnecessary they should focus more on political environment of that time and cesare character was like shit he sound like a petulant brat with high ego going out and make war with unnecessary people and pope was all the time drunk and had addiction(seasin 2) these were really wholly fictional and like soap opera and julia farnesse was shagging everyone around and didnt had any serious role i mean she was just there for decor?what about its special effect? it was horrible it sounded like certain people with ugly cloth talking with each other in ancient locations ??that is why i thought by watching canal plus borgia was waste of time anyone had different idea but i think the borgias (show time) is way more better

    • Log Lady said:

      Oh my. What an incoherent stream of consciousness here.D
      Have you even read the article you comment on? It doesn’t look like that.
      At least you could have googled how to write the name of Giulia Farnese properly…

      Tastes may differ, surely. But to say Borgia Faith and Fear is “wholly fictional” and isn’t enough concentrated on the political environment is pure sacrilege. Because you know, any single episode of this series contains more true historical facts, characters and details than all 3 seasons of The Borgias put together.

      Dear fans of the Showtime’s version, why cannot you just peacefully drool over your “wonderful Borgiacest”, or Francois Arnaud’s leather pants, or Micheletto’s gay adventures, or whatever? Why do you waste hours of your life watching anything you cannot neither understand nor enjoy, and then make yourselves ridiculous by writing absurd and ignorant comments?

  65. Chris said:

    One of the most annoying things in The Borgias (Showtime) was “Ursula Bonadeo”. Oh, please deliver me from this terrible oppressive marriage, help me Cesare. The two men duel, DUEL! And she is “delivered” but becomes a moaning guilt-ridden fool! Oh, you killed mu husband, you murdered him! It was a duel and you basically asked him to murder your husband, you wanted this and now you’re moaning in the most ridiculous way possible and now you’re going to join a convent. GO! Go be a nun you stupid woman, I am sick of your moaning!

    • exurbe said:

      I do remember being frustrated by that subplot myself. It just felt very ahistorical, not the actions or reactions either a Renaissance man or a Renaissance woman would take or have in such a situation. I had hoped they would make her more active and in control of her life.

  66. Tony Damiano said:

    Loved the analysis. I am just finishing up the first season of Borgias: Faith and Fear. Although I am enjoying both versions, I can’t get past John Doman’s performance seeming more American than European. His performance is like an American Pope.



    • hotchocolatejunkie said:

      Thats quite an assumption youve got there mate. I, for one, am certainly not american. Do you understand that you’re on the WORLD WIDE web??

  68. Immanio said:

    I was reading the Wikipedia article on Carlo Gesualdo, and was reminded of the example you used here about Orsini killing his wife when he finds her in the arms of another man, and how this was considered a perfectly acceptable reaction by the mores of the time.

    If anyone is reading this and can’t be bothered to look him up, Gesualdo (heir to the principality of Venosa) found his wife in bed with another man (a duke) and killed them both. There was no question of his having done it, witnesses even described him returning to the room to mutilate the corpses further, because “he wasn’t certain they were dead yet”. The court found him innocent of any crime. Within 4 years he had married again, this time the niece of the Duke of Ferrara.

    For what it’s worth, according once again to the Wikipedia article there is “considerable evidence” that he spent the rest of his life tortured by guilt.

    The main reason he’s remembered these days is not the killings alone, which were scandalous at the time but certainly not unique, but the fact that he was also a composer ahead of his time.

  69. Tricia said:

    I just tried Borgias F&Fafter The Borgias” and honestly, I still do not understand how anyone can view Doman’s acting as equal to, or according to at least one person “better than” Iron’s performance. The accent was totally jarring, as was the delivery.

    I’ve watched historical films/series that are not created more for “the masses” (think Showtime, HBO, etc), and I am fine with thing having a bit more of a “historical documentary” feeling to it, and the accent hodge-podge only threw me off slightly.

    I wanted to like it. I thought having Lucretzia actually *look* like a teen was great. I enjoyed knowing that there would be more of the historical characters featured. But it felt “meh” and it was just so difficult for me to get over the way Rodrigo was being delivered.

    I will try it again and see. In the meantime I shall read.

  70. I just watched the AMC historical drama “Halt and Catch Fire” and was reflecting on how it used (and glossed over) various bits of history, and came back to this post.

    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.

    Right. “Halt & Catch Fire” uses old clothes and songs and set dressing to hit nostalgia buttons, and sometimes they get little things wrong, like the month or year a particular law came into effect (mentioned in one or two lines of dialogue), or even a somewhat more major plot point/sequence, like what it would have taken to accomplish a specific hardware or programming feat. But the key stories, and how history influences the characters and situations, ring true to me.

  71. I loved the in-depth descriptions you give here along with your personal reasoning, all well stated. Growing up I came to love ancient Greece/Rome “stories”, never learned much that was historically accurate I’m sure as tend to lean more to the fantasy ideas passed down or believing somehow that no matter what I was told or read about how we should behave based off their “teachings”, that the more realistic horrors and sexual openness among other things was always covered up and hidden away. The idea that for all of our past, humans have been cordial and honorable and even sexually inactive but tender when it happens all seemed ludicrous to me so I for one prefer a more realistic telling of past events and lifestyles even if some depictions are too difficult for me to watch. Thank you again for not just stating which is a bit more historically realistic of the two mentioned shows but also for fully explaining the reasoning behind your statements so that people cam clearly see which wpuld be better suited for their personal tastes, your writing is superb and I hope to read many more enlightening posts from you.

    As far as the negative comments some have made, a Queen using the floor as a toilet for example, it clearly shows those who respond with personal attacks or obvious outrage are just taking life too personally, who cares is a Queen or a President or whomever in the past relieved themselves in a hallway or their reasoning for doing so, it has no bearing on how good a leader someone was or what their country fought through to get where they are in the world, as we all know, most kingdoms and countries and leaders of all past generations have likely done (if not historically proven) horrific things to others including ,any of their own citizenship. The world was harsh, people did harsh things, as humans we’ve (hopefully) learned better ways and although some atrocities will likely always happen at various times, they’ve also become largely unacceptable in how to treat other living people/things.

  72. The contrast in the 2 shows is massive.
    Not relevant to my compare, but a comment all the same, the cast of the Showtime version are much more attractive. Actors playing Cesare and Lucrezia are absolutely stunning.

    The guy playing Cesare in the Netflix version is hideous.. an unappealing actor I must say, but their Juan is better looking.. although perhaps his acting skills not as good because I don’t hate him like the Showtime version.

    How are we to know which is more historically accurate?
    It seems a LOT of the teachings or writings on Lucrezia are based on rumors..
    Was she sleeping with her father? Was she sleeping with her brother?
    NOWHERE on the internet does it tell us that this was fact, merely suspicion

    Showtime presents Lucrezia as an absolute whore, making out with her father, climbing into his bed, and having professed incestuous love for her brother Cesare.

    I’m only up to the middle of season 1 of the foreign version, but Lucrezia is more innocent in this one.

    The foreign version has more detail and information about the election of this pope, whereas the Showtime version glossed over this and I thought it began with him already being pope? if not then the first episode was not so interesting and not grasping my attention.

    So far in the foreign version there has been nothing of the noblelady that became a nun.
    Lucrezia has also expressed that she wants to be a nun.

    The first husband of lucrezia is completely different in both series.

    Showtime he is a violent rapist, and she claims he never consumated the marriage to get an annulment.

    The netflix version he is a kind man who loves her, and his first wife died but he cannot get it up. at first she longs for her husband but then she falls for another.

    both popes are repulsive and oversexed and how does a man who has had sex become a priest let alone a pope? he should have been cast away and castrated

  73. Nicole said:

    I am trying to figure out if Cesare really had a son he sacrificed to get his dad elected, or if at least there were rumors that he did, or if it is totally made up by the show… anyone know?

    Google isn’t helpful.

    • exurbe said:

      I haven’t heard of any period documents indicating that there was such a rumor.

  74. […] and unpleasant people, all of which the show has aplenty. Yet somehow, I find myself binging it. Here‘s an interesting article by a historian comparing the two Borgia […]

  75. Alberto said:

    “a French-German-Czech and ITALIAN production”
    The devil is in the detail 🙂

  76. I really love this blog entry. The way you describe both series is entertaining as well as informative. I could write a whole essay about how much I agree but I have to point out a little mistake: in your first example in which you describe how BorgiaF&F was feeling more period than The Borgias (agree! agree! agree!), you mentioned the scene in episode 1 where Juan makes out with a nobleman’s wife – you called him Orsini but it’s actually Fabrizio COLONNA 😀

  77. Hello !
    I read this article a few years ago, and some of the comments about how to adapt history into something watchers can relate true was truly influencial for me. I would love to make this article available in my language. Would it be ok for me to translate and publish your article (for non profit of course) with proper credits to you and a link to your website ?
    Best regards,

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