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Did the Borgias poison Cardinal Orsini?

Portrait of a cardinal, by Raphael 

A post from 2012: 

The Borgias may well have poisoned Cardinal Orsini.  But it didn't happen until years after the Showtime series shows it, and certainly not in the manner shown.


Here is the real story of Cardinal Orsini's alleged poisoning: in 1503,  Alexander had him  thrown in the Castel Sant'Angelo,  where he died abruptly without a mark on him.  The pope had his body displayed publicly, to quell rumors of poison. It didn't work.


Pope Alexander VI already had a reputation as a poisoner because he imprisoned many powerful Italians when he confiscated their land, which had once belonged to the papacy.  Many of his prisoners died abruptly and mysteriously.The Italian aristocracy, who hated the land seizures and Alexander, screamed "poison," as well as accusing the Borgias of many other nasty things, some of which  are likely true. But rumors that would have died abruptly in previous generations were preserved and "went viral," Renaissance style, because of a new invention: the printing press. Libel became fact, without careful examination.


The sheer number of prisoners who died while in Pope Alexander's custody is powerful support for the theory that they were poisoned. Modern criminal defense lawyers, however, would quickly shred the case against the pope. There is nothing to prove that Alexander ordered the poisonings, assuming they occurred. Why not suspect Cesare Borgia or his hired assassin Michelotto, who were known killers?  Or some underling who assumed he would be rewarded for eliminating the Borgias' enemies?  Were prisoners forced to drink the prison well water, and was it somehow contaminated?  The Castel Sant'Angelo is not more than 100 feet from the Tiber, which had been a sewer for centuries. Cardinal Orsini was middle aged, debauched and outraged at his imprisonment–might he have suffered a heart attack? Or died from one of the many natural causes that  constantly caused premature deaths in this unhealthy era?  It is all speculation.


Lucrezia Borgia's  reputation as a poisoner is largely derived from a 19th century opera by Donizetti, whose libretto is pure fantasy (as opera usually is).  Though some contemporaries labeled Lucrezia a poisoner along with the rest of her family, no one ever identified her supposed victim(s), much less a motive. Unquestionably, Lucrezia suffered guilt by assocation with her infamous father and brothers. She was no angel, but it's unlikely she was a killer.


For a fun and accurate history of the Borgias read my mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies, which you can get here: https://www.amazon.com/Borgia-Daughter-Dies-history-Machiavelli-ebook/dp/B007WONQV2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1501519534&sr=8-1&keywords=A+Borgia+Daughter+Dies or on Smashwords. Also available in paperback.  



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The Borgias and New Technology: Cannons, Muskets, the Printing Press and Incest Rumors

Arquebus from around the time of the Borgias

A blog from 2012: 

The Borgia miniseries has highlighted some of the technological advances of the Renaissance, to its credit. The writers haven't always gotten the details right, but they are good at showing the essence.


Take the advances in warfare of the time. The cannon figures heavily in the second season, for good reason. By the Borgias' time, iron shot and better gunpowder produced cannons  that could smash through city walls like dry bread. Yet they were still uncommon. So when Cesare Borgia began the systematic retaking of the Papal States with seventeen cannon in tow, he had the Renaissance equivalent of the atom bomb.


The Showtime  Borgia miniseries also touches on the first use of smaller guns. In the completely fictional scene where Il Moro rescues Caterina Sforza from the clutches of Juan Borgia, there is an equally fictional glimpse of Il Moro's army brandishing the forerunner of the musket, the arquebus. The guns look right but they are held wrong, and they repeat fire which is centuries in the future. The first arquebuses were more like mortars than muskets, meant to stand on a tripod or hook to a stationary object ("arque" means "hook"). They were heavy and unwieldy, so Il Moro's men could not have held them like spears. But the first battle featuring a squadron of arquebusiers happened right around that time, a portent of the future. So the Showtime series is right to showcase the arquebus.


Another Renaissance innovation was double entry bookkeeping, as noted by Lucrezia, Vanozza and Giulia in the completely fictional account of their campaign to end the accurately portrayed corruption of the cardinals of the Church.


The miniseries so far has not focused on the enormous effect of the printing press on the Borgia family, which came to power roughly sixty years after its invention. Rome had a number of presses by the time Alexander was pope, and his enemies used them effectively.


For example: the rumors of incest between Lucrezia and her father and brother had their genesis in a spiteful letter written by her first husband, Giovanni Sforza, to his cousin Cardinal Ascenio Sforza, complaining that the pope would not send Lucrezia to him because "he wants her for himself." The Italian verb, "to want," has the same ambiguities as its English equivalent. Whatever Giovanni Sforza meant, rumors soon accused the pope and his daughter of incest, then enlarged to include Cesare as part of an incestuous triangle.


In an earlier era, the rumors would have died out rapidly. But Roman poets–the yellow journalists of their time– sold sheets of doggerel about the alleged incest, which were a big hit with the Roman public. Written texts like the Bible had been revered for centuries, so people may have believed what was in print (much the way the public treated internet rumors in the early days).  And what was rumor went into the "histories" of the time as fact.


The Borgia miniseries has to date  ignored this nasty rumor, to its credit.  Ignoring the printing press, though–that's a big omission.



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Fact and Fiction about the Borgia family

Get it on Amazon and Smashwords 

A post from 2012: 

Since the Showtime Borgia series began I have been pointing out what is fact and what is fiction. (I know the difference because I worked hard to keep the history accurate in my historical mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies.)  The series has  strayed further and further from the historical record, and become stranger and stranger in the process. The truth about the Borgias is so dramatic and bizarre that it's hard to understand why Showtime felt it necessary to create so much fiction.


 If you want to learn  the true history of the Borgias  in a fun way, read my  e-mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies, which is getting great reviews on Amazon.  If you have any difficulty telling fact from fiction you can look at the Cast of Characters and Afterword at the back and sort things out right away. Get it here: https://www.amazon.com/Borgia-Daughter-Dies-history-Machiavelli-ebook/dp/B007WONQV2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1501519534&sr=8-1&keywords=A+Borgia+Daughter+Dies


Season 3  so far is completely fictional, though Lucrezia Borgia did marry Alfonso of Naples. While there were undoubtedly assassination attempts on Pope Alexander–Caterina Sforza sent him a gift wrapped in blankets from a plague victim, for example- none came close to success until–well, I'll  save that for later. Suffice it to say, nothing happened remotely resembling  the poisoning and attempted stabbing we have seen in the past few episodes.(Did any one notice that Showtime has now killed Cardinal Orsini twice? Ironically, in the historical chronology he hasn't died yet.)


The characters no longer bear much resemblance to the historical figures, either. Instead, Cesare Borgia,  who was a sociopath, probable rapist and the worst of the family is being portrayed as a relative innocent, while the one innocent in the family–his sister Lucrezia, who was by all accounts an admirable and capable woman–has been turned into an incestuous whore. For shame, Showtime!



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Did Lucrezia Borgia poison the king of Naples and other musings

Caterina Sforza, Countess of Forli

A post from 2012:

Hooray!  The Showtime Borgia miniseries actually features some real history in third season Episode 6, giving me something to blog about!


Did Lucrezia poison the king of Naples, though? Definitely not.  First, the King of Naples in 1499—when this episode supposedly occurs—died in France in 1504. Second, Lucrezia never acknowledged  baby Giovanni as her son—and he may not have been her son–so the whole premise for poisoning the king is fiction. (See more about that at http://maryannphilip.com/cesare-borgia-pope-alexander-vi-lucrezia-borgia-involved-incest/).  Finally, she and Alfonso, who were married in the Vatican (shocking!), never went to Naples together.


I resent that Showtime is  making Lucrezia into a villainess, and her brother Cesare into a relatively likeable figure.  In real life, it was the opposite.  Showtime is slandering a (relatively) innocent woman, and minimizing the conduct of a sociopath.


The rest of this episode, however, has a lot of truth in it.  The pope, not Cesare, initiated the alliance with France. But Cesare did bring the new French king a papal bull allowing the king's divorce, and did marry a French princess.

The French king did lend the pope an army to begin re-conquering the Romagna, also known as "the Papal States." This had been a papal goal for centuries. But the papacy was weak until Alexander came along, because of the "Babylonian Captivity" that took the popes to France and the "Great Schism" that created multiple popes who spent all their time excommunicating each other.


Pope Alexander maintained that his wars were for the papacy, not for the Borgias—a point the Showtime writers seem confused about.  Granted, it's  likely Alexander would have arranged for a permanent Borgia territory in the Romagna had he lived long enough, just as his predecessor Pope Sixtus "gave" Forli  to Caterina Sforza's first husband, Pope Sixtus' "nephew"/ illegitimate son.  But Alexander's ostensible purpose was laudable, from a papal perspective, whatever his ulterior motives.


One last note about this episode:  Caterina Sforza did send the pope a gift, wrapped in the blanket of a plague victim.  With real history like that, why do the Showtime writers keep making things up?


For a complete  and fun history of this period, the Borgia family and Caterina Sforza (among others), read A Borgia Daughter Dies , which is getting great reviews on Amazon, see http://www.amazon.com/A-Borgia-Daughter-Dies-ebook/product-reviews/B007WONQV2/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1.   Versions for Nook/Apple and other miscellaneous e-readers are available at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/151617.

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Borgia incest: fact or fiction?

A blog from 2012: 


History reverberates with rumors that the Borgias-father, son Cesare and daughter Lucrezia–committed incest. The Italian aristocracy hated the Borgias and loved to start nasty rumors about them.  In my RealHistory e-mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies,  I do my best to sort rumor from fact and fiction, showing the source of the incest rumors, and why I don't believe them.


Showtime could have taken the high road and avoided the rumors all together, since they are unlikely to be true. (See http://maryannphilip.com/cesare-borgia-pope-alexander-vi-lucrezia-borgia-involved-incest/). But judging from the preview to the third season, it appears Showtime is  taking the lowest of low roads: pretend there was incest, and blame it on Lucrezia. This is blaming the victim in the story.


The Borgia men did some very bad things–I've blogged about a number of them. In contrast, the worst we know about Lucrezia is that she may have had a baby out of wedlock. As  A Borgia Daughter Dies  shows, the probable father is known and it was not a family member, much less the fictional Paolo from the Showtime series. (See above post; also see http://maryannphilip.com/lucrezia-borgia-pregnant-convent/) .


The historical record shows  Lucrezia  as a charming and intelligent woman who was an excellent administrator–the pope actually made her governor of Spoleto, where she instituted various reforms, and had her running the papacy at one point.  It seems unlikely he would extend this level of trust to her if he were sexually abusing her.  She eventually became known as "the good Duchess" and was widely admired for her good works.  Why pick on her?


Guilt by association is  probably inevitable for the one good person in a bad family. Lucrezia's bad rep likely stems from a Donizetti opera, written several hundred years after she died, which (like most operas) bears no resemblance to historical reality.  She has been labeled a poisoner, but no contemporary or historian has ever identified her supposed victim(s).


In contrast, Cesare, Juan and the pope were surrounded with corpses. The pope regularly put enemies in the Castel Sant'Angelo, from which they soon emerged feet first, without a mark on them.  This is how he got labelled a poisoner. Though he may not always have deserved the label (see for example http://maryannphilip.com/borgias-kill-prince-djem/), at least we can see where it came from.



If you want to learn the real story of the Borgias in a fun way, check out A Borgia Daughter Dies,   which has persistently gotten 4 out of 5 stars on on Amazon,  after 160+ reviews.  It's also available on Apple ibooks, and for Nook on Smashwords.


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"A Real Work of Historical Fiction--Ten Stars!!!"

A blog from 2013: 


This reader understands what I as an author try to do--and enjoys it! I swear she is a total stranger to me.  



5.0 out of 5 stars Finally! A REAL WORK OF HISTORICAL FICTION!!!, May 17, 2013

Ignatza – See all my reviews
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: A Borgia Daughter Dies (Kindle Edition)
I wish there were a "plus" rating for Amazon! I love History – especially European and obviously church history. This book is only .99 on Kindle. It is worth the money. It is finally a work of historical fiction that doesn't just throw in bits and pieces of History but uses that History as background (and, I apologize, but I do not mean "background" as in what they wore or how they adorned their homes). BRAVO for the author!!! If you enjoy a good story and an intriguing and accurate historical background, spend the $.99!!! I downloaded a sample due to being unsure of "historical fiction" novels. I have a degree in History and I do not enjoy quasi-historical romance novels. I downloaded it around 1:30-2:00a.m. and couldn't put it down. I have not finished it due to it being early morning but I wanted to give the author props!!! I only happened upon it this morning while looking for something to read. Even if you are not a "history buff", you will enjoy this. Those of us who are "historical purists" will appreciate the author's intense research and clarification in the form of an afterward of the times when she strayed from the strict history. 10 STARS!!!


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Plot Summary: Da Vinci Detects

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The Second Half of Lucrezia Borgia's Life

Palace of Diamonds, Ferrara, Italy


A blog from 2013: 



Lucrezia Borgia spent the second half her life in Ferrara. After two marriages that ended in bizarre and terrible ways–as you will see if you read my book, A Borgia Daughter Dies, or watch the Showtime series– her last marriage to the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso I (or Alfonso II if you count how many husbands she had named Alfonso) was relatively tranquil.

In fact, her life had a fairy tale quality, as shown in the pictures here: https://www.pinterest.com/maryannphilip/the-second-half-of-lucrezia-borgias-life/    She lived in a giant brick castle with a moat around it and attended church in a pink and white striped gothic cathedral, which had  a pink and white striped bell tower that is leaning a bit, after close to a thousand years.  
When Lucrezia tired of her castle or her pink striped cathedral, she could visit the castles and hunting lodges all over her husband's dukedom, including at least two more in Ferrara. One of them was the Palazzo Schifanoia, which means, roughly, the Palace where Boredom is Banished. It had a large interior garden, high, coffered ceilings and walls covered with frescoes of lords, ladies and mythological beasts.  If Lucrezia got bored at Schifanoia, there was always the Palace of the Diamonds, named for its elaborate walls:. (See image above.)  Lucrezia probably had plenty of diamonds of her own. The Este dukedom was fabulously rich. Her husband had one of the finest collections of art and precious objects in the world at the time.



But of course, life is never a fairy tale. While Lucrezia and her family dwelt in sumptuous Renaissance apartments in the castle, her husband's uncles were down below in the dungeons. They had made the mistake of trying to wrestle the dukedom away from Alfonso, who was a dangerous man to mess with. And he had not wanted to marry Lucrezia. The Estes considered themselves the oldest and most cultured of all Italian nobility. Marrying the bastard daughter of a Spanish pope was not part of Alfonso's plan. However, Lucrezia's father was even more dangerous than Alfonso d' Este. Alfonso had taken the offer of an alliance with the pope, which was one he couldn't refuse.

Lucrezia had been forced once again into a marriage she hadn't chosen. So she had a lot to cope with when she moved to Ferrara. But she seems to have won Alfonso over with her legendary charm. They had a large number of children together—many more than the heir and spare that suggest cold relations between husband and life. By all reports she was a solicitous mother, a devout Christian and patroness of many charities. In fact, she became known as "the good Duchess." And when she died in childbirth in her late 30's, her husband expressed genuine sadness.

 Lucrezia is buried in Ferrara in the Corpus Domini convent, along with her husband, several of her children, and many of the Este family from that era and before. Knowing how the Este operated, you would expect large, ornamental tombs. You won't find them. I walked over all of them without even noticing. In fact, the floor vault that contains the remains of Lucrezia and her immediate family is so worn from six centuries of footsteps that you can't even read their names.

The Este family fell apart a century or two after Lucrezia's death. The large art collection was dispersed; the palazzi fell into other hands and much of the interior artwork was destroyed. Only the residents of Ferrara really remember the Estes. But the entire world knows about Lucrezia Borgia.



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