Under The Radar: Raphael Reviews Book About Borgia Family

Aug 31, 2012

"Under the Radar" reviewer Lev Raphael has a political book for us in this political season. It’s about a powerful family dynasty in Italy during the Renaissance. He spoke with WKAR's Melissa Benmark.

LEV RAPHAEL: This is called “The Borgias and Their Enemies.” It’s by Christopher Hibbert. And it’s the first major biography of the family, including the famous Borgia pope, in about thirty-plus years. And fans of the Showtime show with Jeremy Irons will love this, because it gives them the background, especially political background, that the show doesn’t quite do. Because the show focuses a lot on the personalities, and why not? These are people who are larger than life, they live in palaces that are larger than life, and they dress really fine.

MELISSA BENMARK: So, for those of us who are a little deficient in ancient Italian history, give us the quick version of this family and why they were so important and famed.

RAPHAEL: They were a semi-noble family of Spanish origin that rose in Rome to have two popes, to have lots of power. It helped that one of the popes had a family, so he married his kids off and made alliances. And it is the perfect book of politics to end the summer with because, you read about what’s going on in 15th century Rome, and you think, “Well, they probably had more executions than we do now, but these people don’t seem very different from how we play the game of politics.” Their jewelry is probably more elaborate, and their sense of ceremony, ditto, but these people will not seem alien to you. You will feel like, “I know these people, I’ve seen them, I read about them, and they are equally prone to making mistakes as our own politicians are.” And that’s what’s fascinating about it, because here you have this pope, his son is a cardinal—that sentence in itself is really great.

BENMARK: Well, I was going to say, because there was a period of time when popes were allowed to marry. Was this that time?

RAPHAEL: Well, it wasn’t that they were allowed to—

BENMARK: They just did.

RAPHAEL: They did, or they had mistresses. This is really a fascinating story of corruption, and Hibbert is one of the best popular historians we’ve had. He gives you a readable, funny, fascinating book. He takes very complicated matters—political jockeying between France and Naples and Spain and the Vatican—and it’s all crystal clear. And that’s something that you don’t often find when you talk about politics.

BENMARK: It is also interesting in light of some of the economic strife in Europe right now, and the Euro zone and that kind of thing, that we forget how interconnected many of the power structures of the European countries were hundreds of years ago.

RAPHAEL: Absolutely, and how they shifted depending on who was being married off to whom. I think the biggest discovery is that the arch-villainess of all time, Lucrezia Borgia, actually turns out to be not so bad a person in this book. And I guess it’s time for her to have her spinoff show.