Published on November 13th, 2014 | by Lucie Pierron0
The Borgias – a Fascinating black legend, and an underestimated influence
“There are two things that are not easy to find in heaven : a dagger without an Italian man and an Italian woman without a lover”
Rustighello, Act II, Part II, Scene 1. Victor Hugo, Lucrezia Borgia.
When talking about the Borgia family, simply called “the Borgias” the worst vices and abominations come to mind. Indeed, in this papal and royal family is incest (as in the supposed relationship between Lucrezia and her brother Caesar), general crimes, crimes of assault as well as a thirst for power and splendor, all tinged with a nameless fascination. From this very dark portrait, one would not realize the lesser known role of the family in promoting the arts during the Renaissance. An aura surrounding this clan still persist as evidenced by the lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair preserved today in a reliquary (see the many historical films or TV series).
The exhibition “The Borgias and their time – Leonardo da Vinci to Michelangelo” which runs from 17 September 2014 to 15 January 2015 at the Maillol Museum depicts the family by addressing the most diverse possible points. Whether through their papal career, their thirst for military invasion or their promotion of the arts, the Borgias still fascinate.
* The Borgias or the revival of Roman life by papal influence.
The Borgia family expanded into Italy and initially into papal life. The first symbol of the Borgia dynasty was Rodrigo Borgia, known as Alexander VI. Originally from Spain when we arrived in Rome, he became richest and the most powerful cardinal in Rome. His wealth and influence allowed him to settle into Roman life: it was the beginning of the Borgia era. Appointed pope in 1492, his choice of the name “Alexander VI” is not insignificant: Rodrigo Borgia chose it to reference Alexander the Great and Alexander III. It clearly reflects his desire for hegemonic power.
At a time when Italy was undergoing a reorganization and included many states (the areas around Milan, Turin, Venice…) Alexander VI sets a new organization of the Church that led to the creation of a real pontifical state. The first revolution of the Borgias was territorial. His reign was a break, it is what we call anachronistically described as a centralization of power, and put an end to the interference of political power in the cities. On the other hand, the city changed its face: it was rebuilt and embellished, the road lanes were widened, the first cardinal’s palace was built and Castel Sant’Angelo was renovated.
This pope was also recognized for his role in the geopolitics of this fifteenth century Europe that faced the social and religious movements.
On one hand, he was condemned by a papal edict, the practice of slavery in the United States of America and Spain. On the other hand, Alexander VI attended the Council of Trent, the “Counter-Reformation” erected in response to the Reformation led by Luther at that time in the Holy Germanic Empire.
Rodrigo Borgia opened this era by its splendor as much as by the scandals he created: he was the first pope to recognize his offspring (including Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia), his second wife Giulia Farnese was only fifteen when they met. This relationship caused a scandal in the Roman upper bourgeoisie as evidenced by the The Virgin and Child and Alexander III table Pinturicchion: the Virgin is depicted as his then mistress Giulia (the work was later destroyed). Twists surrounding his character seemed to last until his death ; historians have not come to a decision on this topic: the Pope reportedly died of malaria or was poisoned. This mystery perpetuates the myth.
* The Borgias: Patrons of the arts
During the Tang Dynasty, the symbolic protector emblematic of the arts was Lucrezia Borgia. This Renaissance woman, who also embodied the family instrument for its political and diplomatic interests, played a fundamental role in the recognition of artists. This attraction to art itself comes from her father, Rodrigo Borgia who was himself a patron of the arts, sacred music and secular Spanish. The family is also a fervent defender of the Arts although breaks from this position are visible from these policies that they adopted: Lucrezia Borgia affirmed the elaborate court of Ferrara and frequented Ariosto and Pietro Bembo, who became her lovers.
Leonardo Da Vinci also played a significant role with the Borgias. Imprisoned in France in 1500, he went to Italy and offered his services to Cesare Borgia, son of Rodrigo Borgia who abandoned his religious career for a military career as he was suspect in the murder of his brother, John (he inspired Machiavelli as a figure of the eponymous Prince). The latter appointed Da Vinci as an arms advisor for hydraulic uses and fortifications. Fascinated by science and by the artist, he made him his protégé and informs his Court that Di Vinci’s decisions are irrevocable. This collaboration allowed Cesare Borgia many victories and put Leonardo in the prefront of the stage.
With the Borgia era beginning with the reign of Alexander VI thus began the period of the artistic influence of Rome as well as the whole of Italy. The successive arrivals of Michelangelo under Julius II, of Fra Angelico duras, the reign of Urbino and the patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent with the construction of the Sistine Chapel, marked the renewed interest in painting and architecture.
The fascination with the Borgias continues today as they retain their scandalous character. One can quote the 1935 film by Abel Gance in which the filmmaker reveals Edwige Feuillère embodying a naked Lucrezia Borgia, causing a public outcry.