People are often surprised when they ask me what my particular interests are and I tell them naval warfare in the 1700s, and European battles in the late medieval period, particularly armour and weaponry from 1400 – 1510. It is probably not surprising then that in my job I specialize in defence issues. A side interest of mine is the destrier – a war horse used in jousting and battles which itself often wore armour (barding), while at the same time carrying riders in full armour. Destriers were usually stallions, very muscular with strong bones, and able to easily stop, spin, turn or sprint. They sometimes wore leg armour which allowed them to knock down the opposing soldiers with their legs.
Another thing I am fascinated by is politics, power and wealth in the Catholic Church during the above times, right up to modern day. So the period where Rodrigo Borgia was Pope is fascinating for me. I have read Christopher Hibbert’s excellent The Borgias and their Enemies, Sarah Bradford’s Cesare Borgia: Life and Times, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Mario Puzo’s The Family as well as The Godfather (when Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather, he said, “I just took the Borgias and stuck them in Little Italy”). Alexander Dumas’ The Borgias is one that I have tried to read but the translation was so bad I gave up half way. I have just finished rewatching Showtime’s The Borgias – an epic three-season, 29 episode television series which began in 2011 – on Netflix. I slavishly watched the first two seasons a few years ago but never got around to the third one. The series was due to tell the complete story of the reign of Pope Alexander VI so there was supposed to be a fourth season. Neil Jordan, however, felt he did not have enough material for a full season so wrote a movie as a complement to the third season instead. This was never made, although the script (Borgia Apocalypse) is available online. The season 3 series finale is a perfect series finale though so you definitely do not feel short-changed. I prefer this series to Borgia, which is more true to historical fact but the accents are all over the place and Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) speaks very formal old fashioned English lines with an American accent. Americans often trip over long Olde English speech patterns and I think the speechwriters should have adapted John Doman’s lines to more suit the way he naturally speaks. I recently finally watched the third season and remembered why I love it so much. So much so that I went back and rewatched the entire series for about the fourth time. Reasons I love The Borgias
- Jeremy Irons – he is brilliant. Not as fat as the original Pope but he is comical, terrifying, lecherous, corrupt, dramatic and ambitious. Not a sympathetic character but you continue to watch because he is fascinating and shows flashes of humanity and crises of faith. At one point, after surviving yet another attempt on his life, Ascanio Sforza (played by the marvelous Peter Sullivan) says ‘He’s alive. When I left he calling for water. By now he is probably fucking some servant girl with a wine jug in one hand and a swan’s leg in the other’. That kind of encapsulates Jeremy Irons’ Rodrigo Borgia in a nutshell!
- Gina McKee – the epitome of a warrior queen. She is truly magnificent.
- Francois Arnaud – a French Canadian actor speaking British English while playing a Spaniard in Italy. He is a brilliant young actor and actually wipes the floor with Jeremy Irons in season 3, which shows the rise of Cesare Borgia from Cardinal to fearsome warrior. He, like his siblings, was used as a pawn by his father seeking to create political alliances by marrying his children to other empires.
- Julian Bleach as Niccolo Machiavelli (a perfect casting choice), Peter Sullivan as Ascanio Sforza and the BRILLIANT Sean Harris as Micheletto Corella.
- The sets, the costumes, the battle scenes, the balls – each lavish episode cost £2.5 million to make. Absolutely epic. Artistic licence has been used on some events but for the most, it is pretty accurate, particularly the costumes and the architecture.
Because this is Showtime, there is swearing, lots of violence and gore, sex, full frontal nudity (male and female), and incest (which, surprisingly, is not as icky as you may expect, due to the off the charts chemistry between the actors playing Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia). But none of it is gratuitous – this is the nation that brought you Caligula after all. I can recommend it!
- Special effects – Doug Campbell was the VFX supervisor and he did an absolutely brilliant job!
- The costumes. Actually (maybe because I dress in a very masculine way myself), I found the men’s costumes to be more beautiful than the women’s. The character of Cesare Borgia (who was well known known for his love of finery) is always beautifully dressed with various jaunty hats and shawls which look very stylish and are still true to the era. Not many people could pull off the tight leather pants and jackets as well as François Arnaud does. And Jeremy Irons stands out even though his papal robes are the same in just about every episode. They are the wrong colour for the period (Popes wore the same red as the Cardinals in those days) but I suppose Neil Jordan had them done in white to easily distinguish the Pope from his Cardinals.
I also really enjoyed Rome and am, at the moment, watching The Tudors. The Tudors starts at the end of the reign of Pope Alexander VI and there is armour, jousting and a great number of beautiful costumes (though, in my opinion, puffy leather bloomers and thigh high leather boots for men was not a fashion high) . But to me it lacks the colour, passion and humour of the Borgias. There is also something about Jonathan Rhys Meyers (as an actor) and his portrayal of Henry that annoys me and I am not sure what it is. His Henry is melodramatic (oh the eye acting! I hate eye acting!), not to mention despicable. At least Jeremy Irons’ Pope Alexander VI is endearing at times. Plus The Tudors’ Henry VIII never ages or gains weight through four seasons depicting many years of Henry VIII’s life, despite the fact that everyone knows King Henry grew to be ENORMOUS as he got older. A look at his humongous suit of armour in the Tower of London is proof of that. His poor horse! And while The Borgias is a combination of battles, politics and family relationships, The Tudors concentrates mainly on King Henry VIII’s love life. This is understandable as his desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn was the catalyst for the Reformation and Protestantism. But there is too much moping around from discarded wives for my liking. And not enough battles! Interestingly in the Borgias, the youngest son suffers from Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.