Orbiting Dicta

The Borgia Pope and the Dominican Friar

Some distortion of history may be tolerable in the case of great art.  Certainly Shakespeare did not scruple to bend fact to the requirements of immortal drama.  It remains the case that Brutus killed Caesar, not the other way around.  Truth stretches only so far.

In the case of the running TV production of The Borgias, the writers and producers frequently stretch facts beyond recognition, not least in the segments about Girolamo Savonarola, the prophetic preacher and mystic who in fact opposed Alexander VI for several years and paid for it with his life.  But almost every detail in the portrayal of Savonarola’s life and death is wrong, from his religious habit to his manner of execution.  Nor did Savonarola engage in the ordeal of fire as shown.  Challenged, not by Cardinal Borgia, but by the Florentine Franciscans, the ordeal was postponed then cancelled because of rain. It never happened.  Surely a program series that takes justifiable pride in historical verisimilitude in many respects could at least have got the Dominican habit right.

I began to realize how deeply fictionalized the account of Rodrigo Borgia’s papacy had become when Cardinal della Rovere, superbly portrayed by Colm Feore, turns to the Capuchin Franciscans in his bid to unseat the pope.  The Capuchin branch of the Franciscans would not appear for another generation after Borgia’s death.  It may be said that Jeremy Irons also plays the part of the wicked pope with Shakespearean relish.  But his trim, clever, witty even sometimes sympathetic characterization is a far cry from the grossly fat, thuggish brute who bought his way into the papacy and ruled with an iron fist for eleven years.  (His son Juan, by the way, was murdered a year before the execution of Savonarola.)

Anyone interested in the truth of the case could profit by a glance at one of the recent histories of Savonarola such as the two volumes by Lauro Martines, Scourge and Fire (Random House) and Fire in the City (Oxford University Press).

Truth is often the first casualty in politics. When it comes to historical accuracy, the same may be said for entertainment.