Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

The Borgias: Fact or Fiction?

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Rodrigo Borgia

Rodrigo Borgia

presumed Lucretia Borgia

presumed Lucretia Borgia

The Showtime series The Borgias is now in its third season. Wondering how much of what has been portrayed is true? Having a hard time believing this actually happened?

“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
— Orson Wells, The Third Man [Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, but Wells ad-libbed these sentences for pacing purposes]

I have found The Borgias to be rather well-made and based substantially in either fact or widely accepted rumor. Sure, there’s plenty of violence and soft-core porn — otherwise, why bother? The makers have altered or embellished some events, but there is a lot of historical fact to work with. Barbara Tuchman’s history, The March of Folly, devotes a chapter to the Borgia papacy, which is simply and concisely titled, “Depravity.”

Here is where we stand at the close of Season 2:

The Borgia Family

  • Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) really did keep  mistresses and acknolwedge his bastard children.
  • Vanozza de Cataneis really was the mistress of Rodrigo and really was married to another man; Rodrigo preferred his mistresses to be married.
  • Vanozza really was the mother of Juan, Cesare, Lucretia and Jioffre.
  • Giulia Farnese really was the mistress of Rodrigo after he became Pope.
  • Juan really was Rodrigo’s favorite.
  • Juan’s body really was fished  out of the Tiber with nine stab wounds.
  • Juan probably was not murdered by Cesare. Juan had plenty of enemies.
  • Cesare really did resign his cardinalate, and was the first person ever to do so.
  • Lucretia really was blonde.
  • Juan really did put out rumors that  Cesare and Lucretia were having sex, but they probably were not.
  • We do not know who the parents of Baby Giovanni were. He could have been Lucretia’s illegitimate son, or he could have been the son of Rodrigo an another mistress.


  • Michelotto Corella really was  Cesare’s hit man.
  • Michelotto really was not  from Forli, but was Spanish and had known Cesare since childhood.


  • Cardinal Giulliano della Rovere really did plot with the French king to overthrow Pope Alexander. The cardinal survived Alexander, ultimately becoming Pope Julius II. However, I have no evidence that he attempted to poison Pope Alexander.
  • Johann Burchard held the office of Ceremoniere, or Master of Ceremonies, for five consecutive popes including Alexander VI. He really did keep a detailed and somewhat dry record of the proceedings and ceremonies of the popes, called the Liber Notarum.

The Sforzas

  • The Sforzas really were an important noble family in Italy. They started out as Dukes of Milan, and  spread out by marriage.
  • Ascanio Sforza really was the cardinal who succeeded Rodrigo as Vice-Chancellor.
  • Catherine Sforza really was Countess of Forli and an accomplished and influential woman in her own right. She was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan.
  • Ludovico “il Moro” (the Moor) really did not kill his nephew, and really did not keep him in a cage in the basement. However, Ludovico did misplay his hand and ended his days in a French dungeon.
  • Giovanni Sforza probably was not  abusive to Lucretia. Lucretia may have provided Giovanni information of a Borgia plot to kill him.
  • The Pope really did annul Lucretia’s marriage Giovanni, claiming Giovanni was impotent, because Rodrigo wanted to use Lucretia to get a more influential marriage alliance and punish the House of Sforza for siding with the King of France against the Borgias.
  • Cesare really did not kill Giovanni Sforza.


  • Ferrante I of Naples really was notoriously crafty and cruel.
  • Ferrante really did keep the embalmed bodies of his enemies and show them to visitors.


  • Piero “the Unfortunate” de  Medici really had been the Gran Maestro of Florence, but he was expelled by the people after allowing the French to pass through, and Florence actually became a republic.
  • Niccolo Machiavelli really was a leading player in Florence, and really did meet Cesare.
  • Girolamo Savonarola really was a charismatic preacher who turned Florence upside down, leading citizens to burn their fine clothes, furniture and works of art in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
  • Rodrigo really did excommunicate Savonarola and order his burning.
  • Savonarola really was given a trial by fire, although it was probably less dramatic than shown in the series. But it was this event that caused the city to turn on him.
  • Savonarola really was not brought to Rome, but was tortured and burned in Florence.

Written by srojak

May 1, 2013 at 4:17 am

Posted in History, Media

Tagged with , ,

One Response

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  1. One of the best, and addictive series I ever watched. Brabo! Greathe acting indeed!

    Ali Mhajoub

    March 15, 2018 at 6:19 pm

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