‘The Borgias’: Between heaven and hell in the Eternal City
It is often true of public figures that they are judged by what their enemies and competitors say about them, sometimes even more so than by the words of friends or neutral sources.
Of course, it is human nature to lend an ear to juicy tales rather than to positive or balanced accounts.
In the case of Rodrigo Borgia, elected Pope Alexander VI in 1492, his family name has become a byword for corruption and scandal (and that started during his lifetime). But that same family also produced a saint, Francis Borgia, Rodrigo’s great-grandson.
While great evil and shining goodness fascinate us, most humans lie in the murky area between, and that conflict can produce compelling drama.
On Sunday, April 3, Showtime offers the two-hour premiere of the 10-episode first season of “The Borgias,” a sumptuous account of the Spanish family that stormed Rome during the Western Renaissance — the time of Christopher Columbus, Da Vinci, Michelangelo and the Medicis — beginning with the election of Rodrigo ( Jeremy Irons) to the papacy.
The series also marks the first TV role for Irons since 1981’s “Brideshead Revisited,” which ironically also examined sin and temptation against the background of Roman Catholicism.
Also starring are Francois Arnaud as Rodrigo’s son Cesare Borgia, whom his father forced into the clergy; Holliday Grainger as daughter Lucrezia Borgia; Sean Harris as the assassin Micheletto; and Colm Feore as Rodrigo’s chief rival, Cardinal Della Rovere.
Ireland’s Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game,” “Interview With the Vampire”) is creator, executive producer and writer (along with director for the two premiere episodes).
“The whole contradiction that lies within the character, I found very interesting,” says Irons. “A lot of the history, I think, is malicious gossip. He had filled the Vatican with a lot of very liberal writers, and when (one of his sons) was killed — which hasn’t happened yet — he had a bit of a breakdown and thought, ‘Right, I’m going to get rid of all these people. I’m going to really focus the power down.’
“And he evicted all these humanist writers right at the beginning of the Renaissance, and they spent the rest of their lives writing mean things about him.
“He’s a man who uses all the things we’ve seen used by American presidents or anyone in power. Power does corrupt, and the difference for Rodrigo is, he’s aware he’s the head of the Christian church. He knows. That vibration between what you do and what you know you shouldn’t do is really interesting.
“So often, dramatic characters are given a really simplistic line. They’re either good or they’re bad. I’m interested in the people who are doing their best. They’re failing; they behave badly in some cases; but it doesn’t mean they’re bad people nevertheless.”
And it’s not as if Rodrigo’s ascension to the throne of Peter was met with unqualified joy and acceptance.
“Once Rodrigo Borgia was elected pope,” says Jordan, “he was immediately under threat from all sides, from all his enemies. His family was under threat, so they had to survive by any means necessary.
Jeremy Irons stars in “The Borgias,” which premieres Sunday on Showtime.