Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times

Cesare Borgia: His Life and TimesCesare Borgia: His Life and Times by Sarah Bradford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Italy in the 1490s-1500s, where the Renaissance is in full swing. This is the Italy of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (who are all mentioned). It is also swarming with prostitutes, a great many of them looking after the clergy. One lord “received ambassadors while lying in bed with his sister”. Another had both his wives murdered, raped his daughter and attempted to sodomise his son, but it was for heresy that the Pope excommunicated him. It is a world of warring cities and statelets, of intrigues and vendettas, poisonings, factional street fights and hired assassins.

To flourish in such circumstances required not just luck but extreme cunning, drive, courage, brilliance, and coolness under pressure. Enter Cesare Borgia, a man who became a byword for immorality: a man who “deliberately created his own myth by calculated acts of terror, veiling his life in a secrecy which gave his sudden brutalities and lightning moves added impact”.

In many ways Cesare fits the profile of a psychopath: abundant charm and charisma; the ability to read the feelings of others, without true empathy; the skills to act out deep emotions, without feeling them; the restless and reckless pursuit of new thrills, sometimes even against his overall interests. That said, his love for his sister Lucrezia appears to have been genuine (and not, as often supposed, incestuous). He was not a sadist. His treatment of the common people was no worse than that of his peers, and often better, since he took care to build support for his rule. Cesare Borgia was periodically interviewed by Machiavelli, and helped to inspire The Prince.

The book is a probing, thoughtful, weighty biography of this remarkable man. It is necessarily dense with names and the detail of events, which may be hard to keep track of. But it is well worth it for the fascinating accounts of the antihero’s subtle machinations as he draws on the power of his father, Pope Alexander VI, to navigate between the rival, predatory powers of France and Spain; to fend off Venice, then a strong independent power; and to try to establish his own united realm, under Papal authority, in mid-Italy.

His story reminded me of the Game of Thrones, and aficionados of that series take note: Cesare’s younger brother is Jofre, wedded to Sancia; the period has its own Red Wedding; and Cercei has interesting parallels to the blonde haired, “proud and cruel” Caterina Sforza, “noted not only for her beauty but for her courage and ruthlessness”.

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