There was apparently a very bad TV series about the Borgias in the 1980s, but fortunately I’m too young to remember that. Nevertheless, when I heard that the production company Showtime were following up The Tudors with The Borgias, I felt a frisson of excitement mixed with slight dread. The Tudors began with such promise, but I rapidly lost faith in a series which didn’t have the courage to show its protagonist ageing and thickening out. Its focus was not on the history, but on the series of unfeasibly Sloaney-looking girls who caught the eye of Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s implausible king.
I was afraid that The Borgias would be just another soap opera dressed up in historical clothing. However, on the basis of the first series, which I devoured last week, it seems that Showtime is on the right track (for now at least). There are sex scenes, of course – these are the Borgias, after all! – and yet they don’t feel inappropriate, unnecessary or obtrusive, as they sometimes did in The Tudors.
The series feels much more like HBO’s excellent Rome than The Tudors. There’s plenty of intrigue, a wonderful, sprawling set and knowing little details that made me happy because it showed that they cared about getting things right. St Peter’s is shown as a relatively small, medieval church, which is entirely accurate in view of the fact that the Borgias predated Michelangelo’s grand redesign and Bernini’s oval colonnades. The programme-makers gleefully reference Ferrante of Naples’s morbid habit of mummifying the bodies of his defeated enemies. When the Cardinal delle Rovere visits Florence to meet with the Medici, he eats in a room decorated with fragments of Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano, which did indeed once hang in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s private chambers. The artist shown painting Lucrezia’s and Giulia Farnese’s portraits was Pinturicchio, who decorated the Borgia apartments in the Vatican. And so on.
Most of the actors resembled the historical figures they were playing – with the notable exception of Jeremy Irons, who is much leaner than the real Rodrigo Borgia, but who gradually won me over by virtue of his performance. François Arnaud as Cesare managed to evoke a steadily increasing sense of menace, which was important because Cesare really is the pivotal character here, and is treated much more sympathetically than you might expect. The costumes were lavishly beautiful and were worthy of a full-blown film rather than merely a television series; and the CGI was expertly done.
There are areas for improvement, of course. Holliday Grainger, as Lucrezia, felt ever so slightly wooden at first, although she was evidently settling into her part by the end of the series; and she looked absolutely right. And I had a small personal gripe about the characterisation of Ludovico Sforza. In all the books I’ve read about his court in Milan, I’ve never once heard that he kept his nephew Giangaleazzo in a dungeon and publicly showed him off to visitors. From what I know of Ludovico, he was considerably more subtle and more dangerous than the raving megalomaniac the series gave us. Although, kudos to the screenwriters for setting a scene at the Milanese court and not feeling oblige to shoehorn in a cameo for Leonardo da Vinci.
Otherwise, my one real piece of historical pedantry was that Handel’s Zadok the Priest was a few hundred years too late to have been used in Rodrigo Borgia’s papal coronation ceremony. But this is a mere bagatelle. I can’t wait to watch Season 2!