945: The Borgias by G.J. Meyer

by Gerard


945.060922: Meyer, G.J. The Borgias: The Hidden History. New York: Bantam, 2013. 432 pp. ISBN 978-0-345-52691-5.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 940: History of Europe
  • 945: History of Italian Peninsula and adjacent islands
  • 945.06: 1494-1527
  • +0922: Biographies of collected persons

There are only a handful of family names that were pivotal in Italian Renaissance history. The Medici, the Sforzas, and maybe even the Malatestas can claim a place in this group. But one family existed alongside all of them, one family on which centuries of history has been heaped: the Borgias. Originally from Spain, the Borja family rose to prominence in the 15th century and were crucial in the election of several popes. G.J. Meyer’s new history of the family—simply titled The Borgias—is a deep and magnificent retelling of this tumultuous age.

The book covers three major figures in the Borgia family:

  • Alfons de Borja (1378-1458), later elected as pontiff as Pope Callixtus III,
  • Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503), Callixtus’s nephew, appointed as a cardinal and then as Pope Alexander VI, and
  • Cesare Borgia (1475-1507), son of Rodrigo and the first person to ever resign a cardinalcy

The lives of these three are a gateway into the Byzantine politics, economics, and social fabric of Renaissance Italy. And while much of the backroom machinations would seem both tragic and horrifying to anyone today, none of the corruption, bribery, and murder plots were out of place then.

One of the many commendable aspects of this book is that Meyer seeks to set the record straight about a lot of the outlandish claims made by earlier historians. His reassertion of contemporary accounts and primary sources allows for a more level-headed picture of the time. Previous writers, he claims, were more apt to emphasize the more salacious rumors and pamphlets that circulated in order paint a lurid tableau. Meyer’s history, on the other hand, while more plodding and methodical, is a rich and interesting book nonetheless. Also included are nice background chapters on related matters: a history of Milan, Florence, cardinal appointment and the Sacred College, etc. Meyer finds a useful way in integrating a lot of information without unduly interrupting the main history. No doubt ardent readers of Italian history already have this in one their library, but for those who don’t, I highly recommend it.