‘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.

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