“The Borgias” – the sumptuous Renaissance-set series that Showtime is bringing back for a second season beginning April 8 at 10 p.m. – is almost good enough to make me wish I had cable. (Actually, you can sample episodes on the channel’s website.)
As for myself, I spent a snowy weekend catching up with the first season on DVD, and I must say I can’t understand how anyone preferred Showtime’s previous historical venture, “The Tudors.” That series contained some excellent supporting performances – particularly by the actresses who played the unfortunate six wives of Henry VIII. (It’s poetic justice. The wives are always more interesting than Henry.) Still, “The Tudors” had a big hole at its center in the one-note, petulant performance of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, miscast as Henry.
With “The Borgias,” you don’t have to worry about a center that will not hold. Jeremy Irons long ago demonstrated his admirably reptilian qualities (“Reversal of Fortune,” “The Lion King”). Here he plays Rodrigo Borgia – the lecherous, treacherous cardinal who fought and bought his way to the papacy, where he became Pope Alexander VI – as a man who can always persuade us to the rightness of his cause even when he is at his most reprehensible. He is matched step for manipulative step by the young French-Canadian actor François Arnaud as Cesare Borgia – the illegitimate son who would prove to be the true monstrous scourge of his father’s ambition.
The real Cesare Borgia remains one of history’s most fascinating individuals – the model for Machiavelli’s “The Prince”; a patron of Leonardo da Vinci and other artists who captured his darkling beauty; the soldier/statesman forced by his father to become a priest; the lover who could never truly possess the one woman he wanted most, his sister and soul mate Lucrezia (played in “The Borgias” with steely charm by Holliday Grainger). Part Michael Corleone – “The Godfather” author Mario Puzo even wrote a serviceable Borgia novel called “The Family” – part Edmund, the magnetic bastard villain in “King Lear,” Cesare is the muse for scores of romance and graphic novels, role-playing games, fan art and fiction, and vampire stories.
Indeed, he is well-suited to today’s vampiric antihero, a creature in love with the night.
“By night I am who I wish to be. By day I am thus,” “The Borgias’” Cesare says, rising from the bed of a prostitute and disgustedly donning his priestly cassock.
Arnaud, who can really rock a black velvet doublet, and series creator Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game,” “Interview With a Vampire,” “The End of the Affair”) have the good sense to make Cesare something irresistible, a tortured romantic caught between duty and will. In other words, he’s us.
But though the Italians called him “Il Valentino,” after his title as the duke of Valentinois, the real Cesare was no valentine. Rather, he was cuddly as a cobra and just as comforting.
Is Jordan right to play fast and loose with a history that reads like fiction anyway? Probably not. But if a pouty, hunky brunet can portray the porcine, redheaded Henry VIII, “The Borgias” can be forgiven its poetic license.
For more on romantic scandals in history, check out the February issue of WAG magazine.