[Spoilers ahead. Season 1 only.]
When I used to think “1400s Europe,” my first thoughts were of plague, warring feudal states, the Hundred Years’ War, rampant Christian piety, men like Niccolo Machiavelli and Christopher Columbus, and overall subordination and disempowerment of the female gender.
Then I discovered Showtime’s The Borgias. The TV show originally ran for three seasons from 2011 to 2013 and stars Jeremy Irons, Francois Arnaud, and Holliday Grainger. It follows the rise and fall of the Borgia family to political and religious power — the first episode intimates the events leading to the election of Rodrigo Borgia to pope of Rome — and allows us to witness how each member of the family participated in the intrigue that followed. Known as the “original crime family,” the Borgias and their patriarch, Pope Alexander VI, may have gained their power as religious authorities, but few of them were strangers to murder, bribery, and romantic affairs. Its plots are reminiscent of those in The Game of Thrones books and TV series (though it lacks magic ice zombies and dragons).
I’ve just finished the first season and was greatly — and unexpectedly — rewarded by the show’s portrayal of gender politics. Within the family and its inner circle, the women are outnumbered by the men three to eight. Two of these women are romantically linked to Alexander VI while the other is his young daughter, Lucrezia Borgia. From afar, then, The Borgias seems like it’s going to be yet another story of powerful men and the women they keep around for fun.
But it’s not, and no character portrays this better than the pope’s daughter, Lucrezia Borgia.
At the start of the first season, Lucrezia is thirteen years old. She is young and innocent; she hopes her father will be elected pope only so she can wear a pretty dress to his coronation. The people compliment her for being beautiful while they compliment her brothers — most especially Cesare — for being “far too clever.” She watches idly as her older brothers Cesare and Juan receive missives from their father to bribe, cheat, and steal for votes for the papacy and gives little sign she understands or judges the moral or political repercussions of their actions. When her father insists she must marry to accrue political and military advantage, Lucrezia does not argue and meets her suitors with an amiable and childish good nature. Several scenes show Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia debating on their own which suitor will be most advantageous to themselves and to the papacy, not to Lucrezia, though when his father tries to marry him off to an ugly woman or a king’s bastard daughter, Juan is not only present for the discussion but is also able to flat-out refuse. Even when she is married off to a duke of Sforza, Lucrezia remains innocently optimistic, wondering if she will find a certain kind of sprezzatura — a genuine and candid air of grace — in her offensive and unaffectionate husband.
At first, then, Lucrezia seems to have no control over her own life or, in the case of her marriage, her own body. She seems to hold no power whatsoever and seems to accept that, as her father’s mistress, Giulia Farnese, once warned her, “[a]s women, we control so little of our destiny” (Season 1, Episode 2).
All of this changes when her father marries her for military gain and her innocence is replaced by fear, bruises, and a sexually abusive husband. Lucrezia comes into her own Borgia genius via cunning and trickery when she decides to protect herself from injury, abuse, and unhappiness. She has her husband’s saddle loosened so that he falls off and breaks his leg, making him unable to demand she complete her marital duties. She gains the trust and loyalty of her husband’s servants so that they will aid her in getting away with anything, including a romantic affair and fleeing back to Rome. Lucrezia learns to give men what they think they want in order to gain what she wants. For example, she performs the role of worried and helpful wife only moments after causing her husband to slip and fall, further injuring him and hindering his sexual demands. In this way, she develops a cunning mind to protect and empower herself in a situation that could have been stifling, abusive, and dangerous.
With her marriage, Lucrezia learns that it may seem she has little control of her destiny or protection from the demands of men who seem to hold that control. But, with experience and brief instruction from Giulia Farnese, she learns to thoroughly protect herself. Giulia tells her that a woman’s beauty is “a weapon” that “can be deadly, when well-used.” She also suggests that, when beauty fades, as it must, a woman’s “wit” and “intelligence” can also be sharpened and utilized. At first, Lucrezia is not only doubtful of the usefulness of intelligence as a weapon but also of whether she has — or will have — it at her disposal at all. Her doubts prove unnecessary, however: When it is most needed, Lucrezia fully arms herself with cunning and cleverness long before her beauty even begins to fade.
As the first season of The Borgias draws to a close, a French king marches on Rome with the aim to conquer the kingdom of Naples, depose Alexander VI, and pillage and destroy as much of Italy as possible. This king has just returned from defeating the English in the bloody and violent Hundred Years’ War and his weapon of choice is the cannon, an invention never before seen in the wars of Italy. His goal is destruction and carnage.
To protect the city and his papacy, Alexander VI desperately sends one of his male progeny, his son Juan, bred for war and the military, onto the battlefield. Juan plans to use a classic Roman feint in order to defeat the French king’s hoards, but he is unprepared for his opponents’ numbers and deadly chained cannons. He freezes in the face of this destructive force.
In the face of military annihilation, it is Lucrezia’s cunning and clever mind that saves the day. She was not bred for politics and intrigue like her brother Cesare or for battle and combat like her brother Juan — she was bred, for all intents and purposes, merely for marriage. This is not what she brings to the French king’s table, however, when she is captured by his forces and held prisoner with Giulia Farnese.
Unlike her brother’s borrowed military plan, Lucrezia develops her own stratagem to protect herself, her father’s papacy, and the city of Rome. She feigns innocence to give the men what they expect, but bends them to her will with her attention, her beauty, and her unwavering and persuasive cleverness. When the treacherous cardinal that has promised the French king Naples in exchange for a papal deposition plays at chivalry, begging forgiveness for subjecting them to “indelicacies,” both Lucrezia and Giulia look him dead in the eye and reverse said indelicacies on him, making him squirm and weaken. At dinner with the French king, Lucrezia play-acts and, with references to her courtesan mother’s lessons, entertains and tricks the violent men around her into trusting and listening to her. The women — especially Lucrezia — now have the upper hand.
When battle and death threaten, Lucrezia staunchly opposes the French king’s cannons with her weapon of choice: her mind and her words. She fully comprehends the danger of her and Rome’s situation but she pretends, for the benefit of the city’s aggressors, that she doesn’t understand at all. Lucrezia begs the king to halt the sound of the cannons a moment, making him believe she is scared and delicate. Moments later, she is laughing, telling the king the battle is all a misunderstanding: “My brother …. He thought you meant to sack Rome. Like the Goths, or Vandal hordes. I told him you were a gentleman, and you had no such idea…. Your goal is Naples” (Season 1, Episode 8). With this definitive statement, Lucrezia disarms the entire French army, but most especially its cannons. She tells the king not only who he is — catering to his desire to be desired and to be honorable — but also what he wants.
The battle is halted before it has even begun. Rome is not sacked. The French cannons are fired only once, and Lucrezia has incapacitated more of the French army’s military force than they have of the papal army’s.
With cunning and words alone, on her own, Lucrezia Borgia has, as her brother Cesare exults, “achieved what the papal arms could not” (Season 1, Episode 9). She has brought to Rome a king that meant to sack it and she has led him into the city, figuratively shackled and disarmed, as an ancient conqueror would a conquered slave. As a woman, Lucrezia ought to be the conquered, but she has, instead, become the conqueror of some of those who aim to enslave her. (All while a little bit pregnant! That’s a whole other batch of baddassery and symbolism that I’ll refrain from venturing into at the moment.) In this way, Lucrezia has recognized the limitations placed on her as a woman and gotten around them in her own clever way to empower herself.
As I prepare to launch myself straight into the second season of The Borgias, I look forward to seeing what more clever and beautiful Lucrezia Borgia has up her sleeve. Maybe conquering the entire world is next on her agenda. (I know that’s not historically accurate, but a girl can hope.)
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Please note: Featured image is the artwork “Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI,” by Frank Cadogan Cowper (c. 1910).