The glorious and infamous history of the Borgia family—a world of saints, corrupt popes, and depraved princes and poisoners—set against the golden age of the Italian Renaissance.
The Borgia family have become a byword for evil. Corruption, incest, ruthless megalomania, avarice and vicious cruelty—all have been associated with their name. And yet, paradoxically, this family lived when the Renaissance was coming into its full flowering in Italy. Examples of infamy flourished alongside some of the finest art produced in western history.
This is but one of several paradoxes associated with the Borgia family. For the family which produced corrupt popes, depraved princes and poisoners, would also produce a saint. These paradoxes which so characterize the Borgias have seldom been examined in great detail. Previously history has tended to condemn, or attempt in part to exonerate, this remarkable family. Yet in order to understand the Borgias, much more is needed than evidence for and against. The Borgias must be related to their time, together with the world which enabled them to flourish. Within this context the Renaissance itself takes on a very different aspect. Was the corruption part of the creation, or vice versa? Would one have been possible without the other?
In this way, the Borgia too represent the greatest aspirations of the Renaissance. Condemning the Borgia is as futile as attempting to exonerate them. Their leadership and their depravity must both be taken into account, for it would appear that they are both part of the same picture. In the nineteenth century the German philosopher Nietzsche would outline his theory of the Will to Power. In the ensuing century this idea would be hijacked by the Fascists and put into ruthless practice. The Borgia were no Fascists, nor were they thinkers of the calibre of Nietzsche: yet it is arguable that they united both the idea and the practice of the Will to Power some four centuries prior to Nietzsche’s conception of this guiding human principle. Telling the story of the Borgias becomes both an illustration and an exemplary analysis of the strengths and flaws of this evolutionary idea.
The primitive psychological forces which first played out in the amphitheaters of ancient Greece: hubris, incest, murder, the bitter rivalries and entanglements of doomed families, the treacheries of political power, the twists of fate—they are all here. Along with the final, tragic downfall. All these elements are played out in full in the glorious and infamous history of the Borgia family.
"Historians who seek a wide readership, while giving their readers the drama they crave, must honor the historical record in all its complexity. The Borgias presents just such a nuanced account. Authoritative and well-written. Strathern has an admirable talent for the biographical sketch, particularly of artists and writers."
– Wall Street Journal
"Rich in telling details. The Borgias’ ambition was boundless; their legacy proved to be enormous. Not without reason did Machiavelli make Cesare the hero of The Prince."
"In this accessible look behind the curtain, Strathern lays out the history of the infamous Italian clan. Strathern makes a tangled and thorny history readable."
– Publishers Weekly
"Strathern continues his investigation into powerful Italian clans, following The Medici with this equally engaging and informative history of a notorious family. To be immersed in this group biography is to visit a particularly exciting and consequential period in European history in all its high drama and richness of character. A magnet for all who are intrigued by this infamous clan and everyone versed in European history who is looking for a new perspective, this is an outstanding account."
"Strathern's latest venture into Renaissance Italy proves just as exciting as his previous histories. Strathern's smooth narrative and comprehensive insight bring the Borgias to life for scholars and amateurs alike."