The Borgias: The Hidden History by G. J. Meyer is a thorough look at the notorious family that inspired two television series (one and two), a myriad of rumors, and more. The author states in the introduction, "the Borgia story, when one pursues it far enough, turns out to be vastly different from what the world supposes and vastly more interesting than I myself had imagined" (xxvii). It was my hope to find a book about the Borgia family that did not focus on only the salacious--the poison, incest, murders, orgies--something above and beyond the gossip.
Meyer's book fit the bill perfectly. He doesn't avoid the gossip but there's no debating that his book is an apologist approach to his subject matter. Yes, Cesare Borgia was notoriously brutal; his actions, if not completely excusable at least become understandable. Italy, in the 15th century, was rife with feuds between city-states while trying to stop both France and Spain from invading. So is it any wonder that Rodrigo Borgia, in his role as Pope Alexander VI would support all attempts to stop his enemies both within his homeland, some even within the Vatican itself, and beyond?
But if you're hoping to hear evidence of some of the most scandalous rumors, you won't find them here. Instead, Meyer gives reasonable explanations for how the rumors started and makes it easy for the reader to accept that truth is often just as fascinating as gossip. This is not revisionist history. Instead, the truth is enough.
I found the quick rise to power that began with Alfons Borgia, who became Pope Callixtus III, reason enough for people to vilify the family. Meyers does a brilliant job of putting events in a context. Nepotism is not unique to Callixtus III's reign nor was it a guarantee that future generations would benefit. Several men would be chosen to be Pope before his nephew, Rodrigo, would be selected. All of the behind-the-scenes politicking, the maneuvering and back-stabbing, is intriguing but occasionally confusing. Thankfully, there are maps and a timeline to help keep things from getting too confusing.
I was a bit disappointed that Lucrezia Borgia wasn't given more attention but it's understandable that there is less documentation about a woman's life than the many men's lives. With historical figures like Louis XII and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella on the stage, it's hard to shine a spotlight on a beautiful woman who was little more than a political pawn but eventually earned the love of her people. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this book enough that I would not only recommend it but I am now curious to read other books by the author. His commitment to exposing the truth without giving in to lazy research and the ease of reiterating salacious gossip makes Meyer an author worth trusting.