Review: The Borgias: The Hidden History

Prior to reading The Borgias: The Hidden History by G. J. Meyer, I knew next to nothing about the Borgias other than their infamous reputation in popular culture and depictions in a certain stealth-parkour video game. Many books—fiction and non-fiction—have been written about this infamous family. Some notable authors of popular histories include Paul Strathern, Christopher Hibbert, and G. J. Meyer. It's surprisingly difficult to find recommendations for a good introduction to the Borgias, in the vein of Mary Beard's SPQR about the Roman Empire. I went with Meyer because his book is more recent and appears well-received on Goodreads (not the best metric, I know, but there you go).

You should know that Meyer is not a historian by training, but rather a journalist who has written a number of popular history books. His thesis is ultimately that all the terrible deeds of the Borgias—incest, poisoning, corruption, and general depravity—are rooted not in fact, but in the lies of their enemies such as Giuliano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II) and Girolamo Savonarola. Meyer also casts doubts on the parentage of Cesare Borgia and his siblings, whom many historians have asserted to be Rodrigo Borgia's offspring. Although Meyer seems like a really smart bloke, his assertions are based mainly on the work of a single Vatican clergyman named Peter de Roo.

My aim was to get a basic overview of the Borgias, and to this end the book does an excellent job. Meyer focuses heavily on three members of this family: Alfonso, Rodrigo, and Cesare, each of whom held power in distinct and fascinating ways. The history of the Borgias is wrapped up in the history of the Catholic Church and of Renaissance Italy; Meyer doesn't assume much prior knowledge on the part of the reader, and he buttresses every chapter with background details about the geopolitical structures and events of the time. We meet various players in the Italian Wars, such as the Medici of Florence, the Sforzas of Milan, and the monarchs of France and Spain. This was also the age of the condottieri, the colourful mercenaries who shaped the political fortunes of the Italian states.

Meyer has superb writing chops, and reading this substantial tome rarely felt like a slog. It's as close to feeling like a historical novel as you can get while still remaining an academic work. Meyers has done a great job of coaxing a coherent and engaging narrative out of the murky alphabet soup of Borgia history. That said, I do wish Meyer had included inline citations rather than dumping a list of references at the end.

Remember how I mentioned Meyer's very specific and rather iconoclastic stance on the Borgia reputation? At times, it felt like he leans too hard in the opposite direction, painting Rodrigo in particular in an almost saintly light. Justified or not, it can come across as grating and repetitive. I actually appreciated the background chapters on Italy and the Church more than the ones about the Borgias, if only because they felt less prone to Meyer's digressions into his pet theories about the Borgias.

All things considered, this is a solid work of non-fiction that I recommend wholeheartedly as an introduction to the Borgias and the world they inhabited. The author makes his biases clear from the start, and, again, while I lack the knowledge to comment on the veracity of his claims, I think anyone looking for a stepping stone to the Borgias and Renaissance Italy could do worse than to start here. Personally, I suspect the truth about the Borgias to be somewhere in between the two versions that confront us, but what do I know?

Day 29 of #100DaysToOffload

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