Tag Archives: Johann Burkhard

The Real History of the Borgias

Contessa of Forli, alsoAn interesting exchange of comments on this website has me once again pondering the difficulties of deciding what is accurate history and what is fiction when writing about Italy five hundred years ago.

I feel I should clarify one thing about my earlier posts: when I refer to “fiction” in critiquing the Showtime Borgia miniseries, I am saying that the version of history the Showtime writers chose to portray is inconsistent with any historical account I have seen.  In other words, they looked at those historical accounts, then made up their own story. In many instances, their falsehoods have been easy to catch.  They got the Neapolitan succession wrong, for example, presumably deliberately.

This is not to say that  “historians” were accurate five hundred years ago, however. Italians of that era loved to vilify each other, and “Renaissance” historians gleefully reported rumor as fact. Guicciardini, a contemporary of the Borgias whose history is often cited, was one of their enemies and made many demonstrably false statements about them.  The printing press was only about 50 years old when all this happened, and may well have perpetuated as “history” rumors that in earlier times would have quickly died out. Eventually, society developed things like libel laws and journalistic/academic standards which tempered this kind of behavior.  But these things evidently did not exist in Italy during the high Renaissance.

For the most part, I can’t claim to have gone back to original documents in “A Borgia Daughter Dies,”  though I relied upon historians who did.  But did they do it every time?  It’s unlikely.

A comment on my blog asserts that Caterina Sforza did not, in fact, send the pope a gift wrapped in blankets from plague victims, a historical reference dramatically portrayed (complete with the  incineration of a papal official in his infected castello that is not in the history books ) on Showtime.  As I’m currently traveling, I  can’t look to see where this “fact” originates, but I’ll look when I get home, and amend this blog post if appropriate.  If the assertion about plague blankets came from the notes of Johann Burchard, the Borgia papal employee who is both a real historical character and  a minor figure in the Borgia miniseries, I’d be inclined to credit it–although it is often hard to tell whether Burkhard speaks from firsthand knowledge, or whether he is simply reporting rumors himself. But as one of the commentators on my blog stated, “who knows, it might be true. Caterina wasn’t exactly known for her restrained behavior.”

A Borgia Daughter Dies  reports the real history of Caterina Sforza as I understand it from credible sources.  The men of her era surely begrudged her accomplishments, which makes me believe that most of the extraordinary assertions about her are true.  (An analogy from legal doctrine  is an “admission against interest,” which says that when people admit something that is against their own interest, the admission must be true because they had no motivation to make it up.)  But am I certain that Caterina’s story is entirely accurate?  No. Colorful, fascinating, and fun, yes.  But completely true? Alas, I can’t be sure.