The Borgias

When reading Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci I was struck by an anecdote about how Leonardo, Machiavelli, and Cesare Borgia spent time together in the same small Italian town. Wanting to know more about what drew together three men from seemingly very different walks of life I bought a handful of books about them.

The first two of these I read are G.J. Meyer’s The Borgias and Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias and Their Enemies. They’re an interesting contrast in books. Hibbert’s takes a more traditional view of the family and relates as historical fact the stories of foul play, nepotism, and illegitimate children. Meyer’s, though, calls some of the Borgia myth into question and points out the tenuous nature of some source material. Personally I found Meyer’s more fair and interesting, but I’m no historian.

There’s a ton from each book that I took notes on and learned. A couple general points are worth noting. Overall if you’re to read one of the two I’d start with Meyer’s.

Accuracy

There’s a reason Showtime ran a three-season TV show on this family. The problem is that we’re dealing with events of the 1400s. Some of the source material is dubious at best. One oft-cited source is, essentially, a 15th-century gossip.

Meyer’s book tries to dig beyond conventional wisdom. It’s not a sensationalist history and tries to be fair. I’m glad I read it first rather than just assuming the stories from Hibbert’s book were unquestioned fact. Meyer also describes the problem of historical accuracy as this:

This is the Borgia problem in a nutshell: wildly outlandish accusations accepted as true generation after generation because when taken together they add up to one of the most gloriously lurid stories in all of history. Anecdotes about murder and incest that are especially delicious because their subject is a pope, and that have become so firmly embedded in the consciousness of the whole world that to question them can seem fatuous, to challenge them preposterous.1

Violence

Cesare Borgia was a key inspiration for Machiavelli’s The Prince. Given that images of cruelty, heavy-handedness, and violence might come to mind. One thing I learned is that Cesare’s violence has to be compared to contemporary peers. And here he’s, in some cases, almost humanitarian.

Hibbert quotes from Machiavelli in describing rulers within this territory:

[these lands were] a nursery of all the worst crimes, of outbreaks of rapine and murder, resulting from the wickedness of local lords…For these lords were poor, yet endeavouring to live as though they were rich, they resorted to innumerable cruelties.2

When taking over these towns Cesare typically took a different approach. He figured that if he built a reputation of generosity and fairness he’d have an easier time taking over additional towns. Meyer writes that Cesare, “was making it his practice to deal generously with people and places whose lord he intended to remain, thereby winning the loyalty of cities accustomed to the random cruelties of sadists.”3 His plan worked as in some cases he was able to take over towns without resorting to violence. Simple persuasion of the people was enough.

Crime

Rome of this era was crime-ridden by modern standards. That in itself wasn’t that surprising to learn. There’s an anecdote in both books that stuck with me, though.

Juan, Duke of Gandia and one of the many powerful Borgia children during the late-1400s, was murdered and his body thrown into the Tiber. Eventually the pope’s forces learn that a night watchman had seen five men dump a body into the river and weight it down with rocks. When asked why he’d not reported the watchman replied, “that in the course of many nights standing guard over cargo barges he had seen any number of corpses deposited in the river, and that until now no one had ever seemed to care.”4

  1. G.J. Meyer, The Borgias pg. 174
  2. Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and Their Enemies pg. 142.
  3. G.J. Meyer, The Borgias pg. 318.
  4. G.J. Meyer, The Borgias pg. 259.

Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World

I bought Jack Goldstone’s Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World after reading some of its ideas referenced in Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power. It sat on my shelf for a few months until a vacation earlier this year provided an opportune quiet time to start reading. It’s a dense, academic book and it’s unlikely I remember many of Goldstone’s ideas. There are a handful, though, that I want to detail and hope to remember.

Theory of revolution

Goldstone’s guiding question throughout the work is why state breakdown on a worldwide scale occurred in two waves separated by a century of stability. He focuses on demographics and looks at how worldwide population trends impact early modern states and social institutions. Goldstone ultimately ties state breakdown across Europe, China, and the Middle East to a single process: population growth leading to changes in prices, shifts in resources, and increasing social demands that overwhelm a state’s ability to cope.

The societies he details shared a handful of common traits, most notably that they all relied on an agrarian economic base.1 This tied the bulk of state revenue to direct taxes on agricultural production. It also made much of state revenue, expenses, and debt subject to the swings of population trends, disease, and climate.

Eventually these large agrarian states (England, France, China, and the Ottoman Empire) experienced population increases in excess of the productivity gains of land. They raised taxes but faced a worsening fiscal crisis. Within a century populations doubled, prices and rents rose, and elite competition increased.

Poverty and Puritanism

A shift in the nature of poverty was, at least in the case of England, a contributing factor to revolution. Goldstone writes that:

In the early sixteenth century, poverty was hardly unknown. But the poor fell into readily comprehensible groups: the aged, the mentally or physically handicapped, the widow and her family. Young men of working age and families with the male head of household present were not among the poor. Over the course of the sixteenth century, however, this situation changed. As land and employment failed to keep pace with the growth of population, substantial numbers of men and their families were unable to keep above the line of dependence on charity.2

This increase in poverty overtook the state’s ability to provide for its people. And it contributed to the increasing popularity of Puritanism, which had become a more revolutionary movement and developed into a crusade offered as a panacea to cure the nation’s ills.

France and urban taxation

Much of the state breakdown in mid-18th-century France tied to the state’s massive debt and ultimate bankruptcy. Goldstone connects this to the state’s taxation patterns. France relied on agriculture for much of its tax revenue. And during the 18th century this sector of the economy was stagnant at best. During this time agricultural production fell 4% but agricultural tax rose 95%!3

Over the same years France’s urban and commercial sector was booming. But the state had sold privileges to municipalities that allowed them exemptions from many taxes. With a declining return on agricultural taxes and a political limitation or commercial taxes the state turned to borrowing. That led to an increasing debt and interest payments that were untenable.

  1. It was the 16th century after all.
  2. Jack A. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World pg. 126.
  3. Jack A. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World pg. 207

Museums: A Visual Anthropology

I’ve always enjoyed museums. Places like the British Museum are spaces I can spend an entire day or longer. A few years ago I bought two textbook-like works about the history and structure of museums. Since then Mary Bouquet’s Museums: A Visual Anthropology has sat on my shelf. But I got around to reading it on vacation last month.

While it is a textbook, it’s also readable. Bouquet sets out to answer how museums gained their current prominence. And to look at what dilemmas they face and what lies ahead in their future.

It was interesting to learn that many academic disciplines were based in museums during the 19th century. It was only in the 20th century that these shifted to being based in a university.

She also does an excellent job detailing the role of a national museum; a place like the Louvre or Rijksmuseum. These emerged in the late 18th century. That’s right around the time when many modern nation states were solidifying themselves. At the time these states were an unfamiliar and abstract form of organization for people. National museums helped make the state real and concrete.

Early national museums were often in large, imposing buildings. That architecture, “helped to create a visible, tangible presence and cultural identity for the nation state.” The museum itself was a way of demonstrating the new state’s competence. Its ability to bring back objects from abroad (which is a whole problem in itself) was a way of demonstrating early competence and organization.

Leonardo da Vinci

Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci was a gift from a while back. I’d read and enjoyed a few of his earlier books and read the Leonardo biography while in Kauai last month. It’s a worthwhile read, even if you’re already familiar with Leonardo’s life.

Isaacson opens by encouraging us to be wary of applying the word “genius” to Leonardo. Instead he portrays a man who was routinely human: someone who worked hard, made mistakes, and had an insatiable curiosity. His skill and imagination were practiced crafts.

The acuteness of [Leonardo’s] observational skill was not some superpower he possessed. Instead, it was a product of his own effort.

The book is a 500-page detailing of Leonardo’s life. And rather than even attempt to summarize, I want to instead pull out a couple things I learned.

The first is that Leonardo had the good fortune, at least retroactively speaking, of being born out of wedlock. 15th-century Italy being what it was this meant he escaped, and was even barred from, any obligation as a first-born son to follow his father’s trade. His father was a successful notary. Thankfully Leonardo was not. And while Leonardo’s notebooks indicate he picked up the note-taking mindset, he was free to pursue other work.

Another aspect that Isaacson covers throughout is Leonardo’s approach to problem-solving. Given what he was able to create, Leonardo was a relatively uneducated man. He had a limited formal education, struggled to learn Latin and math, and for much of his life preferred his own experience over handed-down knowledge. And yet he was able to create and engineer works of remarkable complexity. Isaacson ties this success to Leonardo’s ability for visual thinking. He relied far more on geometry and analogy than he did formulas and math.

Leonardo da Vinci's town plan of Imola.
Leonardo’s map of Imola.

Isaacson also describes how, in the winter of 1502, a serendipitous series of events led to Leonardo, Machiavelli, and Cesare Borgia all residing in the town of Imola. As he writes:

Imagine the scene. For three months during the winter of 1502-3, as if in a historical fantasy movie, three of the most-fascinating figures of the Renaissance—a brutal and power-crazed son of a pope, a sly and amoral writer-diplomat, and a dazzling painter yearning to be an engineer—were holed up in a tiny fortified walled town that was approximately five blocks wide and eight blocks long.

As best I can tell there’s one notable book about that connection. It’s on my reading list and something I hope to dig into more.

A Pompeiian Horse

Even after 100+ years of excavation there are still original finds happening at Pompeii. Earlier this year archaeologists uncovered fully intact horse remains, a first for the site. Beyond the find itself the manner in which archaeologists found the horse is clever. They basically took advantage of tunnels looters had dug to accomplish two things:

Using a laser scan mapping of 200 feet of tunnels, archaeologists excavated areas encroached upon by looters to aid in the investigation while simultaneously preserving remains harmed or endangered by the looting activity.

Grand Hotel Abyss

I first read Frankfurt School theorists in college as part of a course called Education in the Matrix. Beyond being a fantastic title, the course was also one of my favorites. It looked at the way popular culture becomes part of education, and the need that creates for a critical perspective and strong media literacy. Reading The Fear of Freedom reminded me of that course and motivated me to add Grand Hotel Abyss to my list.

The book’s title comes from a critique of the Frankfurt School. György Lukács claimed these theorists lived in a hotel, “equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity.” My view of their work is a little more favorable.

What Grand Hotel Abyss covers is a history of the main theorists involved in the Frankfurt School. These are largely German Jewish men who grew up in the early 1900s and were frequently from privileged family backgrounds. Under the Institute for Social Research they came together and created a vein of philosophy called critical theory.

All this work was funded through an endowment from Hermann Weil, a wealthy German businessman. Despite both privileged upbringings and a wealthy benefactor these theorists sought to critique and condemn capitalism and mass culture.

That set up an interesting tension, one of many ironies and contradictions within the school’s work.

The Frankfurt School was thus paid for by the economic system it was established to indict, and the businessman father who bankrolled it stood for values that his son sought to destroy.

Past that, much of the theorists’ work focused on the role of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer termed the culture industry. Loosely-speaking they felt mass production led to cultural output that resembles factory-produced goods. Movies, magazines, and radio programs become industrially produced and oriented toward our pleasure and entertainment. Culture focused on objects which pacified the masses. Where capitalism dominated work, the culture industry dominated leisure and:

[changed people] from productive beings to consumers, from the Marxist dream of creatively vital humans to stupefied moviegoers all giggling at the same thing.

They worried our passive cultural consumption dulled our sensibilities toward more radical social and economic change. That may not sound all that novel today, but they were writing this in the mid-1940s.

Another key theorist, Walter Benjamin, challenged what today we might term a flow state of concentration. Focusing on the productive output of thought was a mistake in his eyes. Our thoughts are valuable for more than their economic potential. And Benjamin’s interest, particularly when it came to art, was in the disruptive, dissonant, and absent-minded nature of thought.

Capitalism and culture were the two predominant themes to this work. And the interplay between the two drew much of the theorists’ attention. To them we live in a world where we have the freedom to choose what is always the same. Mass production leads to mass, passive consumption of what is increasingly identical. Their writing is not always uplifting and can be gloomy. But they sought to understand and to challenge popular culture and our relation to it.

All-in-all the book’s an accessible overview of what’s my favorite strain of philosophy. It’s not overly academic and if you enjoy history surveys you’ll likely enjoy reading it.

Inventing the Individual

While I was in Singapore last month I spent the better part of an afternoon browsing the Kinokuniya bookstore. One of the books that stood out to me was Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual. It’s subtitle, The Origins of Western Liberalism, frames the focus on the book.

Part of what I find engaging about books like this is how they challenge things you presume to be first principles. It’s why I enjoyed so much of the reading, if not always the classes, in college. In this case Siedentop tells a history that stretches from ancient Greece to the Renaissance. Throughout he shows how the modern notion of an individual was built through centuries of change.

While much of the book focuses on Christianity and the Catholic church it does so in a historical, rather than religious, sense. A theology book it is, thankfully, not.


It’s helpful to understand that for ancient Greeks and Romans the starting point of identity was not the self. Individualism was not how society centered itself. Instead the center of power, prestige, and citizenship was the family. And prime amidst that was the father.

The ancient family was, in many ways, a church unto itself. The father represented all his ancestors and served a role that was one part priest and one part magistrate. Legislation tended to stop at the property of the family while the eldest son inherited the wealth, power, and of course ancestors of his father.

This started to shift during the later years of the BC era. It was centuries, though, before we got to the type of individualism that informed the political or artistic movements of the 1400s and onward.

There are three things that most stood out to me when reading back over my notes on the book. They’re ideological shifts that made sense as soon as I read them, but ones I’d never thought of in such a clear way as Siedentop puts it.

Inherited Power

As mentioned above, family and inheritance played a large role in ancient identity and power. That set a foundation in which leadership, wealth, and power were hereditary. The assumption for much of how society operated was that inequality was natural and people had natural roles to fill. Even something as basic to us as the exercise of reason was presumed to be only possessed by a few.

The early Christian church had a very different starting assumption. For them the focus was on equality. It was vital to the faith that all souls could have a relationship with God. So they needed to subvert the established, ancient societal order.

But Christian priests, particularly in later years, had a lot of local power. The church needed to ensure that didn’t become hereditary local power and wealth. Otherwise priests, and the inequality surrounding their position and family, would undercut the message of The Bible. By disallowing marriage and procreation among the clergy the church was also able to ensure power and authority remained in the hands of the church itself rather than in bloodlines. They preserved a fundamental assumption of equality and avoided the trappings of inherited power.

The Value of Work

When your society is built around inherited wealth and power work comes to take on an interesting meaning. When wealth is inherited work can become something that’s disregarded. It’s what those without strong families have to do. It’s not necessarily a value in itself.

Monasticism helped shift this narrative and rehabilitate work. It made work and labor less servile and gave it a renewed dignity. The early monks felt that personal salvation was a laborious, lifetime quest. And in many ways they laid the groundwork for later ideas like the Protestant work ethic.

Reason and Rationality

From 1000 to 1300 the papacy initiated a host of changes that were long underestimated but, at their core, were revolutionary. One of those that Siedentop emphasizes is the democratization of reason. For Greeks and Romans, Reason (often personified by the god Apollo) was something that used people; it was not evenly distributed in society nor was rationality thought to be available to all.

By the twelfth century reason began to lose this aristocratic heritage. It became seen as an attribute of any individual. And, notably for the church, it enabled people to build a personal relationship with a deity rather than an ancient and tribal one. The democratization served the church’s immediate need as it enabled individuals to investigate their inner relationship with God. Over time this shift and movement of equality had far-reaching impact.


There’s more that I took away from the book (I have around 2,500 words worth of notes). But those are the three historical shifts I hope to remember and that I wanted to share.

Next on my reading list is Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom, a book that also focuses on individuals. I’ll have reading notes for that posted shortly.