Monday, 1 December 2014

Book Review: The Borgias

The Borgias
Christopher Hibbert
Kindle edition, 2011

I'm currently suffering from Fiction burn-out. For some reason my brain has decided it does not want fantasy lands full of warriors and goblins, nor wizards, witches, and Queens in disguise. It doesn't want far-flung worlds, with desperate attempts at survival against the odds. Instead it's been crying out for fact - or at the very least possible facts, depending on your point of view. So I've been reading history books, and just finished The Borgias by Christopher Hibbert.

I got interested in the Borgia family with the excellent TV show starring Jeremy Irons. If you've not seen it I highly recommend it. It's like Game of Thrones but real(ish). And without the White Walkers. Schemes aplenty and rumpy-pumpy at every opportunity. Sadly they didn't get the chance to finish the story of the Borgias as the show got cancelled in it's fourth season, and it ends before we see what ultimately happened to Pope Alexander and his adult children. So I picked up Hibbert's book, as it seemed to cover what I wanted to know.

If you have no knowledge at all of the Borgias this is an excellent place to start, as it covers everything, from the time of Alexander's ascension to the Papal throne, to the last days of his children. The Borgias are a big deal because of the scandals that surrounded them; Spanish by birth, they were never happily accepted into Rome, and Alexander was a man of extreme ambition. He was clearly someone who was willing to do almost anything to further the gains of him and his family, and he had great plans for all of his children. Sadly the family were to largely vanish from the wheels of power, but their lives have inspired countless fictional stories. Hibbert gives a good run down of the key events and attempts to cast some light on this intriguing family. I should mention that the book includes a lot of detail about clothing and materials at the time, which at first seems odd until he quotes from sources; they too talk a lot about what kind of dress a person was wearing, so it's no wonder Hibbert does too. And eventually I came to be grateful for it as it coloured in this historical time and made the characters within it all the more real.

The book is written in a style very reminiscent of a novel, albeit with regular quotes from chroniclers and messengers. Though the book moves swiftly through the events of the Borgia's reign in Rome, all the way up to the death of Lucrezia, the last of Pope Alexander's children to survive, it really brings the characters out in detail. Some are a bit more indistinct than others; Cesare is a difficult character to get across, because the man was so mysterious even in his own time. But I definitely came away knowing he was not as nice as he is portrayed in the TV show. Or as handsome, I imagine. In fact this book should be a must-read for anyone who has seen and loved the show, which inevitably changed a lot of the actual history to create drama. Here you can find the real drama and make your own judgements about this fascinating family.

One thing I really appreciated about Hibbert's book is that he takes time to ensure that motivations of sources is known to the reader. A lot was written about the Borgias and most would be considered slanderous by our standards. While some of the terrible stories may be true others are fabrications, and Hibbert makes the point of trying to point out one from another. Some may feel he is overly sympathetic to the Borgia family but I felt this was much needed, as so much is accepted as true about them that is nothing more than rumour (for example the whole Lucrezia having sex with her brother and her father thing - no evidence exists of this and yet it's often assumed to be true).

If you too are in need of a bit of edifying, or want to see what Rome was like during it's height, I can highly recommend Hibbert's book; fantastical, colourful, intriguing and inspiring.

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