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The Borgias and the "New World"

First map of the "New World," unknown in the Borgia's time

A post, edited,  from 2012:

Showtime has Juan Borgia bringing presents to his father the pope from "the New World."   Though Roderigo Borgia had much to do with the future of the New World, this didn't happen. In fact, Juan's  repeated  reference to "the New World"  is one of several anachronisms in this episode.


Here are the facts:  though  Columbus "discovered" America the same year that Roderigo Borgia became pope, both went to their graves believing that Columbus  had "discovered" the spice islands, such as Ceylon and Borneo, that are east of India, but west of Europe. This is why  the islands south of Florida  were called "the West  Indies" and  their natives "Indians," labels that have stuck.  The "New World" was a phrase coined later, when persistent efforts to reach India finally made it obvious that  there was a land mass--portrayed as a long skinny island on the first New World map, featured above-- between Europe and Asia, namely North and South America.  (My second book, Da Vinci Detects, tells this story when it actually occurs, showing why two continents carry an obscure Italian's first name, which fortunately was  not something common like "Luigi" or Giorgio."  Can you imagine North and South Luigi?) 


The Borgias never knew about this.  They died too early to know.


What about "conquistadores," the soldiers Juan presented to his father as gifts from Spain? Undoubtedly, Columbus tried to bring Christianity to "the West Indies."  But "conquistador" means "conqueror"   a term that stems from Spain's later attempts to "conquer" the New World and its inhabitants.  Once they knew it was there.  So this, too, is an anachronism.


What about the cigars?  Columbus did bring tobacco back from "the West Indies."  So Pope Alexander could have enjoyed a cigar.  It is unlikely, however. It was an oddity, not a commodity, at the time. (Cigars are featured as an exotic luxury in my third book, Martin Luther, Machiavelli and Murder,  which takes place ten years later.)


Nonetheless,  Pope Alexander VI  had a great deal to do with the history of the Americas.  In fact, he is the reason  why Brazilians speak Portuguese.  He settled a dispute between Spain and Portugal over the "islands"  they each discovered, by choosing a longitude line to delineate their claims.  Spain got the better deal—everything west of Brazil, which sticks out into the Atlantic.  But Portugal got Brazil.  And Brazilians got Portuguese.  And but for the later Protestant Reformation,  all of us in America would speak Spanish.  Because Pope Alexander enforced the boundary he established  with the threat of excommunication from the Church.  (I capitalize "church" because there was only one, back then.)


The other glaring anachronism in this episode is the use of guns resembling muskets by the army of Il Moro, who rescues Caterina Sforza. ( By the way, this never happened.  See my blog titled, "Caterina Sforza: What a Woman.")  The first such weapons, "arquebuses," were very heavy, and  probably fired from the ground, like mortars.   And "arquebusiers"—squads of  footsoldiers armed with "arquebuses"– didn't exist in Juan Borgia's lifetime, at least not in Italy.


So Showtime was off by a decade or two, here and there.  So what?  It was five hundred years ago. The Showtime writers have succeeded beautifully in showing that the Borgias came to power at a colorful and critical point in the history of western civilization.  It's better history than you will find in most TV series.


If you want to know what really happened during the Borgia papacy  and have fun while learning it,  read my  e-mystery, "A Borgia Daughter Dies."  The murder mystery is fiction but the background history is accurate.  It's available on Amazon and Smashwords, for all e-readers as well as for PC's.  Enjoy.


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