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The Borgias and other historical TV dramas - GJ Meyer interview (exclusive)

The Borgias

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED author GJ Meyer talks about The Borgias and other programmes such as The Tudors and The White Queen and how true to historical fact they remain.

He also talks about his passion for writing, why he is drawn to different subjects and what the 100th anniversary of The Great War means. Meyer is a former Woodrow Wilson Fellow with an MA in English literature from the University of Minnesota, a one-time journalist, and holder of Harvard University’s Neiman Fellowship in Journalism. His books include A World Undone: The Story of the Great War and The Borgias: The Hidden History.

Q. First of all, how authentic was the TV series The Borgias in your opinion and what did Jeremy Irons bring to Rodrigo, in particular, that you liked or disliked?
GJ Meyer: Where I give credit to The Borgias is the extent to which it captures the spirit of a truly fabulous time in history: the height of the Italian Renaissance, a time of sublime artistic and intellectual achievement, shocking violence and lawlessness, and appalling immorality at the highest levels of society. Jeremy Irons uses his great gifts as an actor to show a Renaissance pope struggling with the the very real and considerable dangers and difficulties of that time. Physically and in other ways, his portrayal differs from my understanding of the real Pope Alexander VI, but in fairness we must remember that the creator of the series, Neil Jordan, makes no claim to scrupulous historical accuracy. Let us be grateful to him for making a new generation aware that Renaissance Italy was a stunningly fascinating place.

Q. How do you view The Borgias as a family? Your book, The Hidden History, takes a more balanced approach to their politics and actions…
GJ Meyer: For almost exactly half a century, beginning with the surprising election of the first Borgia pope in 1455, the Borgias were one of the most important families in Europe. Their importance and fame is entirely the achievement of one member of the family, the Rodrigo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI and is portrayed by Jeremy Irons in the television series. He was a truly remarkable individual, steering Rome and the Church through perilous times, and without him the Borgias would have remained unknown. With his death, and Cesare’s a few years later, the story of the Borgias was over. For five centuries now the family has had a reputation for villainy that is not supported by the facts. My own view, overall, is that the Borgias were not as evil as their legend but even more fascinating.

The Borgias

Q. Why do you think that history vilified them so much?
GJ Meyer: Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgias, was succeeded on the papal throne by Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who was himself the nephew of a pope and for decades had been the resentful and frustrated rival of the Borgias. Upon becoming Pope Julius II, he devoted himself to blackening the Borgia name, going so far as to have former servants of the Borgia family tortured in hopes of getting them to reveal dark secrets. In the century that followed, the Reformation gave rise to a Protestant northern Europe that was hungry for evidence that the Catholic Church and the papacy in particular were hopelessly corrupt.

The legend of Borgia wickedness, first fostered in Rome itself by Julius II, thus was spread through all of Europe. That this legend was firmly based on fact came to be taken for granted, even in Rome. Alexander VI became the personification of the extravagantly evil Renaissance papacy, though his enemy Julius II was in all likelihood the guiltier of the two.

Q. Was there really as much incest and sex at play within The Borgia family?
GJ Meyer: When Lucrezia Borgia’s first husband (Giovanni Sforza) was forced to agree to a divorce by Pope Alexander and Cesare Borgia, he claimed that this was happening because the pope wanted Lucrezia for himself. Clearly this was not true – Alexander wanted a more politically advantageous marriage for Lucrezia. But nevertheless the complaint grew into the legend of Borgia incest. Like other Italian princes of his time, Cesare Borgia was a sexual adventurer with innumerable conquests and mistresses, but his sister Lucrezia was not among them. Sexual immorality was more or less the rule in Renaissance Italy and Europe, at least among people at the top of society, and it is easy to point to other powerful families that were actually much worse.

Q. What continues to drive people’s fascination for this period in history? Does the sexual politics hold a key interest point given people’s penchant for something racy that also includes betrayal and murder?
GJ Meyer: Remember that we are talking about the Italian Renaissance, a period that combined brilliant intellectual and artistic achievement (Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc.) with a political environment in which the stakes were literally life and death and much blood was spilled. Italy was broken into a patchwork of autonomous city-states (Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples and many others) whose rulers lived and died by the sword and were often driven to insanity as a result of living under constant threat.

Sexual violence was a part of life for many of these men. So, we have a world that combined almost everything that we humans have always found fascinating: war, political intrigue, enormous wealth (for the fortunate few), violence, sex and high culture. It is an irresistible combination.

The Borgias: The Hidden History

Q. How realistic was The Tudors as a series and representation of the reign of King Henry VIII in your opinion? Jonathan Rhys Meyers had his critics for being too good looking, especially late on – is that something you’d agree with?
GJ Meyer: It’s obviously true that Mr. Meyers bears no resemblance at all to Henry VIII in later life. The real Henry became grossly fat, had stinking unhealed wounds , etc. The Tudors television series was a rich mixture of fact and fantasy, but like The Borgias it often did an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the times.

Q. And how does The White Queen rate? Aneurin Barnard, in particular, draw a lot of praise for his portrayal of King Richard III as less of a tyrant…
GJ Meyer: I give The White Queen exceptionally high marks for being true to a great story. Yes, the portrayal of Richard III is impressive both dramatically and in its adherence to what we know of the man. Also impressive is the portrayal of young king Edward IV, a bold young monarch and the grandfather of Henry VIII. This series is all the more impressive for not claiming to be more than the adaptation of a set of novels – of fiction.

Q. Which period dramas/films have most impressed you with their eye for detail and historical accuracy? And dare you say your least favourites?
GJ Meyer: For my money, nothing has ever surpassed or even equalled the film version of A Man for All Seasons, with its magnificent script and cast. It is the model of how to produce great drama without departing from the truth.

Q. You, yourself, have examined several periods in history, from The Borgias to The Tudors and The Great War and The Memphis Murders. What interests you about history and understanding it more… and how do you choose which eras to focus upon?
GJ Meyer: Truth really is stranger than fiction, and the true stories offered to us by history simply could not be richer in great characters, great drama, and food for thought. The fact they are true makes them more compelling than anything but the greatest fiction. It is worth remembering that Shakespeare’s history plays are very true to the facts available to the dramatists of his time. He knew that it was neither necessary nor desirable to depart from those facts in order to tell a compelling story, and that truthfulness adds meaning. I wish that more of today’s dramatists understood this.

There are a hundred historical subjects that I would like to explore in books. In choosing which to pursue, I must give weight to the preferences of my publisher.

A World Undone: The Story of The Great War

Q. With the 100th anniversary of The Great War now almost upon us, what would you like to see happen with a view to helping people to continue remembering?
GJ Meyer: I have different answers for the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Americans have too little understanding of what a vast tragedy The Great War was, because for the US it was a short war ending in total victory at comparatively little cost. In Britain, there is I think too little understanding of the fact that – as something I read recently noted – the war was not a crime but a disaster. None of the nations that tumbled into war in the summer of 1914 wanted war. They were driven to fight not by ambition but by fear. The old idea that the war happened because evil Kaiser Wilhelm wanted to conquer the world is nonsense. People inclined to glorify war also need to understand how bad the consequences of the Great War were. It paved the way for Stalin in Russia, for Hitler in Germany, for Mussolini in Italy, it replaced the Austro-Hungarian empire with chaos in eastern Europe, and it bled Britain and France white.

Q. And what lessons do you think the failures and successes of that period have for our current leaders, especially within the context of the war on terror?
GJ Meyer: Wow – what a huge question. Personally, I have come to believe, at least partly because of my lifetime of reading history, that violence rarely solves anything and that war damages everything it touches, including the victors. I doubt that terrorism on a global scale will ever be defeated by simply killing terrorists. Why? Partly because of something I occasionally hear: “No justice, no peace.” This is profoundly true. Terrroism is the warfare of the powerless. War is the terrorism of the powerful.

And here, in my opinion, is another lesson: It is folly to say (as is often said) that if you get into a war, the politicians should then stand aside and leave it to the generals to fight that war. In fact, the German loss in the Great War was caused partly by the domination of the politicians by the military. The generals made politically disastrous decisions that had terrible consequences (unrestricted submarine warfare being one obvious example). As Von Clausewitz famously said, “war is the pursuit of politics by other means”. To put policy in the hands of the soldiers is a recipe for disaster.

Find out more about GJ Meyer

The Borgias Season 3 is released on DVD on October 21, 2013, from Paramount Home Media Distribution.