The sixth episode in the first season of the Showtime series The Borgias introduces one of the key political players of the era, as well as gives insights into how future allegiances will be shaped. On its own it contains perhaps the least historical detail of episodes to date, though this does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the episode. The introduction of the fiery Sancia of Naples, and the nod to Echo and Narcissus were two very subtle, but intriguing art historical references.
Factual inconsistences, French incursion, Turkish absence
Savonarola's inspired menacing of Florence has been put aside for an episode as we get to meet French King Charles VIII. Actor Michel Muller was an excellent choice, giving an impression of man who was ambitious, yet also aware of the horrors of war. Charles VIII was also not averse to the finer things in life, as the historical accounts of his appreciation of sights he saw in Italy attest.
One factor that should be mentioned is the show's omission of a key element affecting the political dynamics of the era. Only hinted at in the episode The Moor, which featured Prince Cem, the threat of war against the Ottoman Turks was ever present during this time, and features heavily in the documents of the era.
Some inconsistencies in dates and facts should be noted. With King Ferrante of Naples still being alive in this episode, we can (cautiously) date this episode as being set in late 1493, or very early 1494, though a new year has not been mentioned. Contrary to what has been depicted, both Prince Cem and Gian Galeazzo Sforza of Milan were still alive. As mentioned previously, della Rovere did not travel to France until mid 1494, after frictions caused by the Alexander VI's support for the elevation of Alphonso II to King of Naples.
In addition to the superb Papacy and The Levant mentioned last week, another vital resource for this period is the Diarium Burchardus, the diary of Johannes Burchardus, glimpsed in the first couple of episodes as the Papal Master of Ceremonies and an expert in canon law. A public domain copy of translated excerpts from this fascinating document can be accessed here.
Fans of Renaissance literature may also have enjoyed della Rovere's discussion with Charles VIII over the Italian style of war, which was mocked for being bloodless and an opportunity for nobles and mercenaries to parade 'like peacocks'. This very much echoes comments by Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince and The Art of War, deriding the use of mercenaries and mocking the Italian fascination with the appearance of war.
A complex web of fornication
Writers have gone to much trouble to show Lucrezia and Cesare being capable of deep emotion, and somewhat distancing them from the political machinations of their father. At one point, Cesare even admits that his Borgia name is a stain - likely included as a foreshadowing of future conflict between him and the Pope.
For the wedding of young Gioffre Borgia, Cesare and Lucrezia are briefly re-united, and we get another taste of their eerie closeness, as well as the first hints of a deeper familiarity with her father as Lucrezia and Alexander cuddle in bed.
Starting the episode in the throes of passion, upon learning of her husband's demise, (the seemingly fictional) Ursula Bonadeo undergoes a spiritual awakening and leaves Cesare for a convent, also being subjected to the dramatic device known as important haircut (thanks to Juliette Harrisson for that link!).
Echo and Narcissus>
With Giovanni Sforza incapacitated, Lucrezia now has some spare time to fool around with stable boy Paolo. Holliday Grainger has been fabulous to watch as Lucrezia increases in maturity and confidence, yet with a persistent vulnerability and innocence appropriate for her character's young age. The scene where she explains the legend of Narcissus was particularly lovely. How lucky for Paolo to be seduced by a pretty girl with fascinating tales from antiquity!
The tale of Echo and Narcissus, popularised by Ancient Roman Poet Ovid in Metamorphoses Book 3, also serves in an allegorical sense - hinting that this idyllic and innocent affection between Lucrezia and Paolo will one day be a distant, lingering memory. The way this scene was shot very much reminded me of the famous 1903 painting by John William Waterhouse, one of the most well known depictions of Echo and Narcissus.
Musée des Faux-Arts
This was the first episode that did not contain a reference to a known artwork or artist. The closest we got is a painting of Sancia, the lascivious Neapolitan bride of young Gioffre and tireless lover of Juan Borgia. The painting shown is of course a likeness of the stunning Emanuelle Chriqui, the actress playing the part. It is a shame the whole painting was not shown - it would have been interesting to note the placement of the hands and the attire in the portrait as these are nice ways of telling the style and approximate era that was being emulated. For what it is worth, such a naturalistic depiction in the early 1490s seems a bit out of place. It was not until the early 1500s, with portraits completed by Leonardo and Raphael (and Titian and Giorgione in Venice) that this naturalistic style became more prevalent in Italy.
Figures in Pinturicchio's Disputation of Saint Catherine believed to represent Gioffre and Sancia
What lies ahead?
King Ferrante of Naples can not have much longer to live. The historical record shows his passing in January 1494. The drama of whom the Pope will support to succeed him will likely be echoed in the series. Alexander has already hinted at Naples' great importance in his pillow talk with Giulia Farnese, so the writers have essentially told us which direction his decision will go. The French incursion of 1494 can not be far away - we may also get to see the great meeting between Charles VIII and Savonarola, for which della Rovere was also present.