Today I decided that I really had to do some work, so I sat down and watched four episodes of The Borgias. In my defence, I am actually studying Renaissance Europe for a History module at university, and besides, I was visiting a friend who had just purchased the box set, it seemed churlish to refuse.
The series opens in Rome in 1492, where the Pope is about to breathe his last. “You will fight like dogs over this corpse I leave.” He accuses the assembled cardinals, and of course he is right. The first half of the episode focuses on just that fight, as Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) bribes what appears to be the majority of the College of Cardinals (and none too subtly either) in order to secure the papacy for himself. “They call it simony,” worries eldest son Cesare (François Arnaud), far more concerned over this than he is about the number of women who he has taken to his bed despite his supposedly chaste life as a bishop. Not that this life is what he wants, as he later tells his father through the medium of the confession box (an important tool in this show), he would much prefer to be a soldier. But, as so often in powerful families, his choices are not his own to make, and he is to serve the family as a cleric, while younger brother Juan (David Oakes) takes the role of the soldier, heading the papal army for his father.
And it’s not just Cesare who is suffering the consequences of his family’s rise to power, mother Vanozza (Joanne Whalley) must be cast aside so that Rodrigo can keep up a pretense of chastity, and sister Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) is concerned that they will make her marry now. Indeed this is all she can think about, talking about it even during Rodrigo’s coronation. And judging by the looks which she and Cesare keep giving each other, there could be a deeper meaning behind her unwillingness to marry. Do I spy an incest story line in the pipeline?
Rodrigo (or Pope Alexander Sextus as he is now known) has bigger problems though. Cardinals Orsini and Della Rovere are unhappy that a Spaniard has been appointed Pope and are going out of their way to make things difficult for him. But it’s when Orsini invites Rodrigo to a banquet that we know he’s in trouble. Seriously, had I lived in those times I would never have attended a banquet: the risk of poisoning is just too great. Luckily, Cesare has a plan: attend anyway, but bring a monkey. This monkey swiftly meets its maker when Cesare creeps down to the kitchen to confront an assassin who is preparing to poison his father’s wine. Money and loyalties swiftly change hands, and it’s Orsini not Rodrigo who becomes the first character in the series to die by assassination. Something tells me that he won’t be the last though….