by Meghan Maguire Dahn and Abby Ohlheiser

“You are so beautiful, Giulia Farnese, I would have you painted,” declares Jeremy Irons’s Pope Alexander VI in Showtime’s new series The Borgias.  It’s not surprising.  The lighting in The Borgias is sumptuous and if there’s one thing they light particularly well, it’s the desirable flesh.  It’s all positively luminous, like pigment suspended in oil.

And, really, what else would you expect?  The viewer-attracting meat of this show is its meticulously constructed tension between our understanding of Catholic virtue and our expectations for scintillating cable entertainment. Showtime is marketing The Borgias as some sort of historical Sopranos – a crime family with pretty costumes, big meals, and the juxtaposition of religion and naughty bits.  But The Borgias is a bit more complicated than that: the series is about getting and keeping absolute power, in the name of God.

Let’s be clear about God’s role here. The Borgia family – and their enemies and friends – talk about God like a Brit might talk about the Queen.  God is real, but mostly ceremonial.  The important action happens in the City of Man.  This is not Augustine’s Catholic Church.  Instead of withdrawing from worldly delights, the cardinals turn up their nose at gruel and scoff at the suggestion of fasting, carnal sacrifice be damned.

The Borgias is vaguely based on the historical family of the same name, and the reign of their second pope, Alexander VI ( i.e. Rodrigo Borgia),  known for his delicious corruption.  Before maneuvering into the special hat, Borgia fathered a handful of children – four, for the sake of the series, but the actual number is disputed.  With the exception of the very youngest son, Jofré, they’re strategically and nepotistically positioned to aid and abet their father’s power: Cesare (François Arnaud) is a ruthless and reluctant newly-minted cardinal.  Juan (David Oakes) gets to fight, and becomes the head of the Papal Army soon after his father’s election.  The teenaged daughter, Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), who wears white gowns and thinks that seahorses are better than unicorns – no, really – seems destined for at least one strategic marriage.  Historically, Lucrezia becomes something of a Marie Antoinette-style source of titillating rumors, so we assume the white dress doesn’t last for long.

One might find it useful to enter into the viewership of a historical drama with armor on: read up on the art the Borgias funded, or the Vatican reforms they enacted.  One might get a little bleary eyed at all that history and wander back to her art history texts imagining, say, a DEATH MATCH: MEDICI V BORGIA game, where works of art matter more than spiritual cohesiveness.  And then, one might think, “ahh – I am ready to watch this.” But we advise that form of preparation that’s all wrong for The Borgias.  The history and the art are the setting and the aesthetic, repsectively.  Food, glorious food, is much more important: it’s nourishment, yes, but it’s also a metaphor for decadent consumption, and a fantastic vessel for hiding everything from bribe-promising scrolls to deadly poison.  Quoth the Pope, “Oh, what would Rome be without a good plot?” And who can plot on an empty stomach?  Obviously, not these wise guys.

Determined to match a menu to our viewing entertainment, we started to plot. Our first thought was some kind of Spanish-Italian hybrid dish. Chorizo risotto, perhaps.  But it seemed a little plain. We came up with – this, perhaps, will be featured next week? – is cherry pit ice cream (for its cyanide content, obviously) in honor of Lucrezia Borgia.  But, like anything involving poison, that would have required some advance planning.  And an ice cream maker.  Where’s a gaggle of scullery attendants when you need them?

It’s surprising that, as experienced fans of Showtime’s previous debauched (and debauching?) historical drama, also named for a corrupt family headed by a ruler with godly and political powers,The Tudors, we didn’t immediately pick up on The Borgias’ potential as a drinking game.  One episode in, it all seems so clear.  We’ve even come up with a list of rules.  Drink at the first sign of:

  • Any gratuitous iteration of the seven deadly sins
  • Winks the writers are making at the audience (e.g., foreshadowing of (in)famous historical events or characters, perhaps referring to one of the many famous Renaissance artists Borgias patroned as “up-and-coming.”)
  • Heavy-handed tension between virtue and vice (bonus if said tension involves ironic quoting of Scripture)
  • Ladyparts (it wouldn’t be Showtime without them)

(You might also spice up the game by adding an element of competition!  We think it probably best to “call SLOTH” on your opponent whenever he or she misses an instance of one of the above bulleted items.)

History’s intrigues are not all about drinking, you may rebuff.  But we’re confident that you’ll find – even through a cursory viewing of the series – that drinking is imperative.  Rodrigo,while still attempting to become pope (Belated Spoiler Alert:  he becomes Pope Alexander VI in the series too!) certainly thinks it is.  He plies his colleagues with wine from his very own vineyard (PRIDE!) while securing their votes (SIMONY!).  He pours others’ wine right out, calling it vinegar.  His son brings about a tasting monkey so that sub-standard alcohol won’t pass his lips (GLUTTONY!).  (It’s plausible that  good wine has something to do with being an appropriate vessel for divinity on earth, right?)

At any rate, it’s thematically appropriate to drink and strategize when watching a series about indulgence and strategy. In The Borgias, a cup of wine is not just a cup of wine, it’s the deliverer of salvation, the bringer of death.  Blood spilled in this show in the name of God is for an intoxicating earthly power.  The body and blood of Christ are symbols of control, the ornaments of the papacy gild, the bearers of (a certain kind of) grace.

All this is nothing new under the sun, and The Borgias would not be as interesting a show as it’s managed to be had it stopped at the reduction of God to a ceremonial afterthought in a worldly battle.  The lesson, as Mario Puzo well knew, that corruption is power and that, tellingly, power corrupts, makes for irresistible TV.  Borgia ultimately believes he is chosen by God; it’s a moment of clear, inevitable weakness.  Dizzy with the weight of his coronation adornments, the weakened, weary Pope feels a divine burden on his earthly body. Although his tears and “seeing the light” may be unorthodoxly earned – they’re the sort of tears only a carefully constructed, gorgeously shot scene can draw out – the effect is real.  Bortia needs a divine power to sustain his ambition; this need proves his imperfect, alarming humanity.

When you watch the uncensored 2-hour first episode yourself, here are our favorite moments to watch for, in order of preference:

  1. The coronation scene, where we are blessed with a Pope’s-eye-view of the processional.  We first see Borgia as his subjects do, sitting up there in his sedan, looking every bit the paper doll. Then what to our wondering eyes should the camera give us to behold but the very view that His Holiness takes of the scene.  This is powerful television, people.
  2. The Popemobile!  Here, rather than bullet-proof glass, the thing is covered in lush brocaded fabric.  We’re thinking Alex VI might regret this choice in the next episode, when Rome is stormed by a bunch of miffed Frenchies.
  3. Jeremy Irons’s gestures, postures, and facial expressions: We are entirely serious when we suggest that this is physical acting of the highest order.  He is able to match occasional frailness with convincing and potent disdain.  We’re planning on incorporating the dismissive hand gestures (of benediction and administration) into our daily lives.
  4. Did we mention the food? The Borgias makes you hungry.  Unless you’re a passionate vegetarian, that is, for the most impressive stomach porn often features whole roast pigs and fowl.  It’s glistening, drowned in sauce, and wolfed down with relish(and wine) by the Cardinals.

Is it good for you to watch this show?  Probably not.  It will probably cause some pretty significant urges to blaspheme.  Is it accurate history?  Of course not.  But we are all very much in trouble if Showtime seeks to be an approved source of historical knowledge.  Will we be watching it?  You bet your zuchetto!