By Christopher Hibbert.
Harcourt. 336 pp. $26.
Reviewed by Desmond Ryan
When Lucrezia Borgia walked down the aisle to marry her second husband in the summer of 1498, there were more discreet titters of derision than happy smiles to greet the bride.
And understandably so. As a matter of political expedience, the Pope had invalidated her first marriage and declared she was still a virgin. The pope responsible for this brazenly untrue assertion was Alexander VI. He was Lucrezia's father, and his open acknowledgment of that fact was only one reason the papacy sank to new depths during his tenure.
Alexander's declaration of his daughter's purity was further compromised by a scandalous and eagerly circulated rumor - shocking even to the hardened moral sensibilities of Renaissance Italy - that Lucrezia had been involved in an incestuous relationship with both her father and her brother Cesare.
A family so maligned and feared by its contemporaries could probably expect little mercy from history, and so it has been with the Borgias, a dynasty synonymous in popular imagination and fiction as toxic avengers poisoning or otherwise dispatching whatever opposition stood in the way of their rise to power.
The Borgias and Their Enemies
- and the list of the latter makes Richard Nixon's roster seem like a mere fit of pique - is the first history of the family to appear in 30 years. While this new assessment certainly isn't a makeover of the Borgia image, it does successfully place the clan in the cutthroat context of the times, and one of them - Lucrezia - emerges as more fun-loving and fast-living than the Lady Macbeth archetype rumored to keep both a chef and a house poisoner on her household staff.
Hibbert's many books have ranged over many periods with a ready expertise, on subjects from Benito Mussolini to the Indian Mutiny. But the Borgias present problems that occasionally impede even his usually fluent and entertaining style.
Hibbert has to acknowledge that most of his readers are strangers to the unfathomable and Byzantine politics of 15th-century Italy, the petty dukedoms and city states that intrigued and fought one another incessantly. The history of the Renaissance popes - of whom Alexander VI, formerly Rodrigo Borgia, was the most notorious - offers a another challenge.
Background necessarily occupies the foreground in the early going, as Hibbert narrates the election in 1453 of Alfonso de Borja as Pope Callixtus III. De Borja owed his election to a grudging consensus in the College of Cardinals. His nephew Rodrigo (who had Italianized his last name to Borgia) became a cardinal and ruthlessly amassed great wealth, which he then used to bribe his way to the papacy in the summer of 1492.
Rodrigo/Alexander's rule set a new low of rapacity and greed that degraded his office to a degree that profoundly shocked even his jaded contemporaries. Hibbert's dynastic history finds pulse and vitality with his vivid account of Alexander's unscrupulous expansion of his land holdings and the elimination of countless enemies.
Alexander's venality had far-reaching consequences. At the summit of the church, he epitomized the disparity between what it preached and what it practiced, providing ample fodder for a growing chorus of criticism. Hibbert provides an instructive chapter on Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar who roused Florence against the sins of the Catholic hierarchy and was burned at the stake on Alexander's orders. But a deeper consideration of the connections between this disgraceful papacy and the subsequent rise of Martin Luther and the tide of the Reformation would have been welcome.
For all his many sins, Alexander pales beside the excesses of his illegitimate son Cesare, an exceptional military leader much admired by Machiavelli, who advanced the family's holdings in a career of homicidal violence.
Hibbert's portrait of Lucrezia does something to rescue her from a lurid reputation. She emerges as a strong-willed figure forced into marriages of convenience and consequently inclined to take lovers who brought her much grief. But she certainly didn't deserve the heap of indictments forever linked to her name. She died a pious death at the age of 39.
The Borgias spring to life in Hibbert's pages, but readers caught in the swirl of the politics of Renaissance Italy will be baffled by the omission of maps or illustrations. The former would help our grasp of strategy, and the latter would enrich our appreciation of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and the supreme artists commissioned by Alexander and his successor Julius II.