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.

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.