As a history, The Borgias offers a vivid insight into the hothouse world of papal politics in the tumultuous years before the Reformation. Nevertheless, it struggles to make any significant contribution to its subject.
Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, spent 20 years working on a novel about the Borgias, The Family, which confirmed them as the great dynasty of the debauched and the depraved. Strathern’s book, a synthesis of numerous other modern sources, is similarly glutted with stabbings, poisonings, slaughters wholesale and retail, treacheries, sinister omens, rapes, orgies and the inevitable sprinkling of misspelt Italian place names (“Spoletto” for Spoleto).
If the history is assured, the style is sometimes schlocky, no cliché left unturned: sworn enemies, unseemly rows, unholy brawls, coming to blows, long hot summer, wreak his revenge. Strathern writes of “the likes of Botticelli and Ghirlandaio” and “the likes of Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci”, and later of “the likes of Michelangelo”. Borgia rivals are “flung” in the dungeons of the Castel Sant’Angelo (“dark and damp, and infested with spiders, snakes and rats”) or “flung” in the Tiber. He uses the formula “as we have seen/as we shall see” 11 times in 30 pages (three times on the same page). Still, if you can forgive some clunky exposition, this history of ruthlessness, intrigue and men broken on Fortune’s Wheel is a wickedly entertaining read.