You may have heard of a little Showtime series called The Borgias. The Emmy-Nominated show created by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The Company of Wolves, Interview With The Vampire) is an epic depiction full of violence, sex and betrayal that charts the rise of the 16th Century’s most famous family as they slowly dominate Europe and eliminate anyone who stands in their way.
With a stellar cast including the likes of Jeremy Irons, Gina McKee, Steven Berkoff and Derek Jacobi, what’s not to love? If you have an itch for Historical Drama, perhaps this is the next series to scratch that itch for you, and allow you to immerse yourself in the decadent courts of Rome.
And speaking of Late Medieval Italy, G. J Meyer is something of a Renaissance man himself- an award-winning journalist, acclaimed author, historian, academic… his latest novel uncovers the Hidden history of one of the world’s most infamous dynasties, so to coincide with the release of the final season on DVD, who better to discuss the series and its accuracies with?
Read on for Meyer’s fascinating revelations about the extent of the Borgias’ obscenities, the reasons behind our love of Historical Drama, and his current obsession with Breaking Bad…
What is it that fascinates you so much about The Borgias?
What I found most fascinating- and I had to do some research before I even became aware of this- is the extent to which they actually were at the centre of not only Italian but European power politics throughout the whole second half of the 15th century.
Rodrigo Borgia was one of the most important men in the Roman church, and therefore one of the most important people in Europe. He was right at the centre of the hub around which European politics and diplomacy was rotating, which was Rome, because it was the seat of the papacy.
If you study the Borgias, you find that you’re inevitably studying the whole story of what was happening to Italy [at that time], and how France and Spain were relating both to each other and to Italy, and the whole world[‘s] rivalries.
So they were more influential than, say, The Medici?
Absolutely- infinitely more! Rome was a somewhat more powerful state than Florence. But what mattered far more was that every monarch in Europe had to deal with the Pope and to some extent pay obeisance to him, and that certainly wasn’t true of the Medici or the other Italian ruling families.
How much of what we’re seeing in historical dramas now is realistic? Was there as much sex and violence? Was there more than what’s depicted on screen?
There was actually more! Being just one drama focusing on the Borgia family, this latest series of The Borgias didn’t show, couldn’t show (and I don’t think it can be criticised for that) the full scope of the lives of the ruling families of the time. It was a period of extraordinary moral degeneracy- that may be a word that’s losing its bite, maybe there’s no such thing today. All of these families in Naples, Milan, Rome, [even] in France, [they] were extraordinarily murderous and… I find myself seeing that the climate became a breeding ground for homicidal psychopaths.
I think that was because all of these people- especially in Italy- lived in tremendous lifelong insecurity, because most of these rulers had not legitimate right to their power. They were constantly under siege from their neighbours and members of their own families. So fratricide and parricide were almost routine.
How do you describe the sudden surge in the interest for historical drama on television- The Borgias, The Tudors, The White Queen?
It’s not clear to me [that] there’s a sudden resurgence – not to say that there [hasn’t been] – but having been fascinating with history all my life, it seems to me that these [dramas] have always been subjects of great interest.
It’s perfectly obvious to me that there’s a lot more than there was Twenty or Thirty years ago, but it’s not at all strange to say that this interest exists, because History is stranger than fiction and to find the great stories you look to history- and they have all the more bite and are all the more compelling because they are in fact true.
One thing I always point to is that when Shakespeare wrote his History plays, he stayed very close to the historical truth as it was available to him at that time- now, much of it has been overthrown since [then], but he certainly understood [that] he couldn’t much improve upon what was true (or, at least, seen to be at the time). A lot of modern drama would be better off if they followed his examples more than they [currently] do.
Out of this slew of Historical dramas we’ve seen recently, which do you find to be the most historically accurate?
Not to denigrate any of them, but… I’ve just had to opportunity to watch [most] of The White Queen and I really was impressed with it. It’s a great true story, and it stays close to the truth. It brings out some historical figures who ought to be much better known than they are, [like] Edward IV. The irony of it is that this is a television dramatization based on fictional novels, but I think that it’s very good depiction of both the letter and the spirit of the historical record.
Do you feel that it’s important that programmes like these are particularly accurate? They’re not meant to be educational, so why shouldn’t artistic licence take over completely in service of the story?
That’s such a big question- I can see both sides of [the argument]. Any writer is free to do with their material as they wish. In the case of The Borgias, for example, I’d consider Neil Jordan to be an impressionist. He goes his own way with the details very often, and at the same time he often does a great job of capturing the spirit… of the times. Can he be criticised for his deviations from the truth? I don’t think so.
I’m a historian of sorts- I write History, and try to write truthfully [because] that’s what fascinates me. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that’s how it should always be done.
So, what are your viewing habits like?
I’m a pretty voracious Television viewer- probably more than I should be! My wife and I are presently addicted to Breaking Bad, which I think is great drama! These television series that have been around for the last decade- The Sopranos, The Wire, In Treatment… I think they’re… beautiful work.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to forge a career as a historian?
Well, I’m not sure I qualify for the title ‘historian’- to me, a true historian is someone who works with original source materials to refine the truth and find new truths. I am a writer off popular history, which I work hard to make as accurate as I possibly can- and I’m not really called out or challenged on the basis of facts [I present in my work]. I’m more a writer than an academic, and never made my living from teaching, even though I’ve done a lot of it.
I guess the advice I’d give would be to pursue your own instincts and what interests you. My first success, [which was] sort of a career-changer [for me], was my History of The First World War (A World Undone), which came out a decade ago. I wrote it entirely because I was in love with the subject and thought that Americans had a lot to learn about the Great War, and in spite of the fact that people said “the last thing the world needs is another history of the First World War”, I went ahead and did it!
It was published by a major publisher; it continues to sell and has done very well. And it’s all [down to] the fact that I really cared about the subject, and I think there was something [new] to be said about it.
Can you discuss any upcoming projects? What do you have in the pipeline?
I have decided, in the aftermath of having had my book on The Borgias published this year, to devote at least a year to fiction. I’m trying to write my first novel, and slog away at that day by day, and it’s a very interesting process [for me]. I may go back to History [at some point], but right now it’s an adventure in fiction and not historical fiction.
The Borgias: Series 3 and The Complete Seasons 1-3 is available on DVD from Monday October 21.
Click next to reveal the 5 Disturbingly Common Historical Inaccuracies In Movies About The Ancient World…
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