The Borgias made more for ratings than for jabs at Church, professor says

By  Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service
  • March 31, 2011
Actor Jeremy Irons portrays Pope Alexander VI in the upcoming TV series 'The Borgias'.WASHINGTON - The upcoming series The Borgias may be interpreted less as a swipe against the Catholic Church than the desire for the Showtime pay-cable channel to produce a follow-up in the same vein as its racy predecessor, The Tudors.

"They're going for the flamboyant, the exotic, the erotic," said Timothy Thibodeau, a history professor at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y. "Everybody's heard of Henry the Eighth," the central character in The Tudors, Thibodeau added, while Rodrigo Borgia (who became Pope Alexander VI) is a figure "a lot of people have never heard of. For most historians it's very well known."

It's because of this, Thibodeau said, that leads him to doubt whether The Borgias "will present anything new that will stand the test of time."

The Borgias debuts April 3 on the Bravo network in Canada and Showtime in the United States. John Mulderig of Catholic News Service's Media Review Office, in a review of the premiere episode, said it "sometimes degenerates from an intriguing study in power politics — however misplaced and lamentable — to an obvious exercise in sensationalism."

Jeremy Irons, who plays Pope Alexander, is "a magnificent actor, it may well be a great performance on his part," said Thibodeau, who for the past five years also conducted a seminar at Nazareth on how history is portrayed in film and television. The problem, he cautioned, is "taking on a historical role and being faithful" to all of its elements.

Many elements of the Borgia reign in Rome are salacious enough. Pope Alexander, who had four children at the time of his election as pontiff, "probably bought the papacy," Thibodeau said.

Further, Pope Alexander had a penchant for seizing the assets of cardinals for the pope's treasury, according to Thibodeau, who is internationally recognized as an expert on the history of Christianity.

But Lawrence Duggan, a professor of Renaissance and Reformation history at the University of Delaware, said much of the vitriol directed at the Borgias was levelled out of ethnic spite.

"The Borgia family were not even Italian — they were Spanish — and they were regarded as outsiders," Duggan said. "The Borgias were a focal point of hostility, like the Clintons; people were rabid in their hatred of Bill Clinton and wanted to take him down even before he became president."

The most enduring fruit of the Borgia years — Pope Alexander reigned 11 years, from 1492 to 1503 — according to Thibodeau, was, ironically, the Reformation. Pope Alexander was "very responsible" for creating the conditions railed against by Martin Luther, Thibodeau asserted.

"The pope, as a CEO, was a promoter of a number of practices that were detrimental to the Church. One was nepotism. Cesare, the son of Rodrigo, was made a cardinal and a bishop to enlarge their income and their estates," he said.

Duggan called it "standard papal practice if you had a family."

The Latin rite of the Catholic Church has made celibacy a condition for ordination for centuries. But in the early Church in distant regions from Rome — and even in Rome itself — the rule was often ignored. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, many top Church leaders, including popes, paid lip service to the requirement while living with mistresses and fathering children.

The first written rule was apparently a product of the Council of Trent, which was held between 1545 and 1563, although local rules on celibacy had been enacted since the fourth century.

Another dubious practice, Thibodeau said, was "pluralism," to be a bishop for more than one place. "Some people were made bishops in two or three or four places," he said. "How can you be pastoral if you're not living in that diocese?"

Perhaps most injurious to the Church, he said, was "the buying and selling of Church offices, which (Pope) Gregory (XIII) in the 16th century declared a mortal sin. The most widely known (practice) was the sale of indulgences by Pope Leo X, which pales in comparison" to Pope Alexander's corruptions.

"This fueled a lot of the propaganda and a lot of the polemic about the Reformation," Thibodeau said.

Duggan said a 1969 book by scholar Michael Mallett debunked many myths that grew up around the Borgias.

"There's no evidence whatsoever for the most lurid of the stories, that the father (the pope) and the son, Cesare, had incestuous relations with her (Lucrezia). ... She doesn't become prominent until the 19th century. The responsibility for that lies largely with Victor Hugo in his book Lucrezia Borgia," he said.

Their excesses brought about, at least indirectly, the Council of Trent, which instituted much-needed reforms, said Thibodeau.

"Less than two generations later (after Pope Alexander's reign), one of the most important events in the life of the Church takes place. What came out of that was a Church that looked radically different. I tell my students, 'You don't belong to the Church of Alexander VI.' ”

According to Thibodeau, the greatest achievement in the reign of the Spanish-born Pope Alexander may have been dividing between Spain and Portugal their territorial New World claims so the two Western European powers would not go to war with each other over them.

A side benefit of the ill-gotten gains of the Borgias was the seed money that financed the construction of many of the buildings in the Vatican.

"Rome as a city was behind the curve when it came to the Renaissance; it began in Florence," Thibodeau said. "The Roman papacy and the Roman aristocracy realized it was taking place in the north and were in effect playing catch-up. It really picked up with (Pope) Alexander. Pope Julius (who succeeded Pope Alexander following the one-month reign of Pope Pius III) commissioned St. Peter's Basilica."

Even here, though, problems abounded.

"Cost overruns were endemic. He wanted to build the biggest and best," Thibodeau said. "This led (Pope) Leo to sell indulgences."

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