Thanks to Netflix, I have been watching the Canal+ produced series Borgia: Faith and Fear. The series is produced by Tom Fontana, a writer and producer on previous dramas such as St. Elsewhere and Homicide: Life on the Street, and stars an international cast led by John Doman as Rodrigo Borgia, a.k.a. Pope Alexander VI. The series started its run in 2011, with seasons appearing on Netflix’s streaming service. Borgia: Faith and Fear is not to be confused with the Showtime series The Borgias. While I have not seen the Showtime series, after watching this Borgia I doubt I want to. Borgia brings a perfect blend of historical depth and character driven drama that captures the viewers’ attention, whether they are familiar with the era or not.
For a dramatic historical setting, you probably could not pick a better subject than Renaissance Italy. The constant bickering between the Italian political states and the family rivalries, the ever present threat of foreign intervention from France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Spain, and the struggles with the role of the Papacy create an impressive political backdrop for the individual characters to play a role in. I continue to be impressed by the amount of historical detail the show includes. From the extent feud between the Orsini and Colonna families in the early episodes to such smaller details as the period of Lucrezia Borgia’s appointment as governess of Spoleto by her father the Pope, the series goes to great length to keep events strongly accurate. The only noticeable diversion from history is that the timeline is rapidly sped up. For instance, King Charles VIII of France died in 1498, while in the show the king died in 1494. The timeline does stay consistent with the arrangements of historical events, however. It is also understandable why they did this, as compressing the events heightens the suspense surrounding them.
The choice of the Borgia family as the protagonists is also an excellent one. Fontana and the writers do an excellent job of presenting the complexities of every character. None of the main members of the Borgia family save perhaps Juan are portrayed as wholly evil, and all have some redeeming qualities. Rodrigo as Alexander VI struggles with his genuine efforts to reform the Church while maintaining and strengthening his family’s power as outsiders in Italian politics. Cesare is conflicted at first between his priestly duties, receiving recognition from Rodrigo, and his emerging military ambition before his ambitions win out. Lucrezia struggles with her faith and desire for marriage, while being a political pawn in her father’s machinations as Pope.
The antagonists of Borgia: Faith and Fear tend to be more one dimensional. Juan Borgia is the conceited older brother bringing Cesare into his schemes, but gets little development himself before his death. Giuliano della Rovere’s only motivation as cardinal seems to be to oppose Rodrigo at every step, with little reasons for doing so besides a hatred for the Pope. However, in the case of della Rovere, there does not need to be any more motivation than that. They are already rivals in the college of cardinals before Rodrigo’s election to the Papacy, and della Rovere is the leader of the opposing faction in the cardinals. Additionally, the cardinal is being bankrolled by the secular rulers, mainly Milan and later France, that would most benefit from the vilification of the Borgias. We are treated to some more minor villains with complex motivations. The primary example of this comes in during the regime of the fanatical reformer Savonarola in Florence. Savonarola’s preaching tells of a need to cleanse the office of the Pope of its corrupt, sinful influences, and his deposition of one of the most powerful families in Italy poses a genuine threat to the Papal States. The difficulty with Savonarola and the balancing of the other political forces engaged in the Italian Peninsula are the major external conflicts of the show.
While there is little depth in the external antagonistic elements in the show, there does not need to be. The central focus of Borgia: Faith and Fear is as a character study of the three most well-known members of the Borgia family, and the show presents these with remarkable depth. It would be very easy to present Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia as inherently immoral people and to vilify and demonize them so that when they reach their downfall the audience is wholeheartedly rooting for it. However, the central characters are instead such that the audience gains a rapport with them. Rodrigo does have some genuine desire to reform the Catholic Church, yet his lust for women and power overwhelm him. Rodrigo’s downward spiral continues in the second season as he tried to cope with Juan Borgia’s death amid increased attacks on him as Pope, but even here the audience sympathizes somewhat with Rodrigo. Cesare is molded into a great military leader, and his ambition of unifying Italy is not so ghastly to the modern viewer that the audience supports him at first. However, we then witness Cesare’s descent into megalomania, yet there is still some inkling of support the viewer has for him when the show presents his softer side. These moments become rarer and rarer as the show goes on, but they are still occasionally there. Lucrezia is probably the member of the Borgia family that retains the most goodness. She comes across as a competent administrator when given the chance, and in the face of politically induced but unfulfilling marriages, even Lucrezia’s infidelity is given a more neutral spin. This complexity of character is one of the most compelling aspects of the series, taking some of the most vilified people in history and putting their actions in a new light when the context is applied.
The final aspect of Borgia: Faith and Fear that makes the series so compelling is the sheer authenticity of how the Renaissance is presented to the audience. There is no romanticizing of the time to suit modern sensibilities. Modern audiences might be shocked at the idea of a cardinal and Pope siring illegitimate children and view Rodrigo Borgia as amoral purely from this, but the series presents it as the regular occurrence that it was. In the second episode, on Pope Innocent III’s deathbed, we see the Pope’s son Franceschetto at his deathbed. The shock in the scene is not that he has a son, but that Franceschetto has altered the Pope’s last will and testament to try and inherit the Papal treasury for himself. Throughout the series, the audience is also not spared when it comes to the filth of Rome as disease runs rampant through the city. Additionally, while sexual and violent scenes are prevalent, they are not overused and so are more powerful when they are used. In one execution scene, the method they go with is one of the most brutal used during the Renaissance; sawing a man in half beginning at the crotch. In what could have been an excuse for a simple but gory beheading, the writers opted for the more authentic and extreme method. It may leave the audience appalled, but they should be. The Renaissance was a nasty time when Machiavelli (who shows up quite a bit) was writing his political treatises and feuding families brought decades of conflict to northern Italy. The fighting that erupts between Cesare and the Colonnas is blunt as well, as it would have been. Rather than the elegance of fencing duels, the fighting takes place in quickly escalating bar brawls and night ambushes in an alley, and might end with somebody losing a finger. It is this authenticity at every aspect of the Renaissance period that makes Borgia: Faith and Fear truly stand out.
Borgia: Faith and Fear is currently filming its third and final season, but the first two are available streaming on Netflix. I highly recommend the series as it goes to great lengths to stay true to history while weaving an excellent historical drama. The series is sometimes slow paced and takes some time to build up at first – Rodrigo is not elected Pope until the fourth episode – but this enables the show to create a much more complex and intricate plot than would be capable otherwise. The complexity can also occasionally be confusing to follow with the intrigue within Rome and the Vatican, the political balance of Italy, and the travails of each of the three Borgia family members. However, Borgia does manage to advance the plot of all of Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia within every episode and does not leave one thread dangling in favor of the others. The series is very much worth a look if you are interested in historical and character drama, especially if you have an interest in Italy or the Renaissance.