The Showtime television extended series ''The Borgias'' is to worthwhile drama as cotton candy is to a healthy, balanced meal. It's not what it should be, but it still can be a lot of fun.
Like firecrackers, historical fiction can be an entertainment and a delight, but if you're not careful, it can blow off your fingers.
There is a basic truth behind the series. It is based upon a real family which began in Spain and moved to Italy, to become involved in the papacy and in the politics of Europe. The historical Borgia family is known as among the most immoral in history, although as is always the case in history, what ''everybody knows,'' and what actually happened are often far apart.
The four children of Pope Alexander VI, as portrayed in the television series “The Borgias.” Clockwise from upper left, are David Oakes as Juan, Francois Arnaud as Cesare, Aidan Alexander as Gioffre, and Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia.
Since Showtime likes to attract audiences in their season of programs, it takes the worst rumors and embroiders on them, changing historical fact boldly when it seems confusing or fails to uphold the scandals. And yet, by watching the series, it is possible to learn a great deal about history and about our culture, including the fact that no story, from the legends of the Borgias to the latest attack ads of contemporary politicians, can be accepted as wholly true, if true at all, without a great deal of research.
We have an unusually large number of ''Winks'' this week, so let's examine briefly the Borgia family's history, and then the television series, which has recently been released on DVD. A second season of the series has been announced, but the Showtime website only says ''Coming in 2012,'' so we don't know when to expect it, or what it will contain, at this time.
THE FACTS, SOMEWHAT
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is often quoted as having said ''History is written by the winners.''
That is usually true. The Borgias were rich and powerful in their day, but they did not win their struggles in the long run, so what we know about them has passed through the hands of the people who hated them, which means that wise readers and viewers take everything with a substantial grain of salt.
It might help to explain some background. The Borgias were Spaniards, who lived in Italy, and we learn about them in English. Therefore most of the names concerning them can be quoted in Spanish, Italian or English. Juan Borja, Giovanni Borgia and John Borgia are all the same person, for example. The television series uses whichever name is best known by the general public.
The Borgia family originally lived in or near Valencia, Spain's third-largest city. Valencia was part of the Kingdom of Aragon, in those days, a country whose royalty had inter-married with the royal family of Naples, the part of Italy which resembles a human foot, wearing a high-heeled shoe.
Moving to Naples, the Borgia family found that probably the greatest source of wealth and power in Italy was the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. In the TV series, Rodrigo Borgia takes the leg of one of his mistresses and demonstrates that Italy resembles her leg. Naples would be her foot, Rome and the areas controlled by the Pope were located about at her lovely knee, and Milan was located at an even more interesting latitude.
The television series focuses on Rodrigo. In 1492, he was a cardinal, the equivalent in the church of a prince in political structure. That year, Pope Innocent VIII died, and Rodrigo was elected to replace him. When someone is elected pope, he typically chooses a new name, by which he is known from that time on. Rodrigo chose to call himself Pope Alexander VI.
The new pope was the father of four children, which he officially recognized as his, and there were a number of others whose mothers claimed they were his. Alexander had a plan, whereby each of his children would help him to gain and to keep power. History disagrees about which of his sons was the elder. Most of the books I own say Juan was older, but in the television series, Cesare (CHEZ-uh-RAY) is the oldest, and one thing which shocked me a bit, the computer sites nearly all now say that Cesare was first born. That's why I like books.
Juan was trained as a soldier, and was supposed to expand the lands controlled by the Church, in the hope that someday most or even all of Italy could be turned into a single kingdom, ruled by the Borgia family, so they wouldn't need to keep winning elections to the papacy.
Cesare was made a cardinal at the age of 18, and his father expected him to manipulate and threaten the college of cardinals, so that his power would not be challenged, and perhaps in the future, to follow his father - and his great uncle, by the way - to the papacy.
Lucrezia (loo-KRET-zee-uh) was third-born, and had the reputation for being extremely beautiful, although if she had a face like a mud fence, it would have been dangerous to describe her as less than gorgeous. She and her youngest brother Gioffre, were expected to marry people chosen by their father, to bring alliances with other powerful and wealthy families.
England, at this time, was deeply embroiled in the bloody civil war known as the War of the Roses. Germany was divided into more than 100 tiny states, loosely ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor. The emperors had their hands full with the Turks, who had put an end to the old Roman Empire in 1453, and were advancing on Vienna at the time.
The two ''super powers'' needing to be dealt with by the pope were Spain and France. The same year Alexander won the papacy, Ferdinand and Isabella had conquered back the last of what is now Spain, from the Islamic rulers who had held all or much of Spain for centuries. The royal couple needed the pope's support in two important areas.
Christopher Columbus returned that year from his first voyage to America, bringing wonderful new discoveries and stories of vast lodes of gold, silver and precious stones. The Spanish rulers wanted to seize all the wealth they could and to enslave or kill off the native population, in order to get it. Other countries, wanting that wealth for themselves, were beginning to make moral objections. It would be good if the church decided that Spain was on the high moral ground in making their claims.
Also, there were many people in their new kingdom who found the Muslim rulers to have been more gentle and that business was more successful before the Spanish takeover. It would be very helpful to the royal couple if they could set up an Inquisition, to find out who truly supported their rule, and who might be willing to betray them. With a large population to breed soldiers, the wealth of the Americas flowing into their ports, and close ties between Ferdinand's family and the royal family of Naples, it was very important to the Spanish rulers that the pope be someone who recognized how right they were. To the Pope, Spain had wealth and power, but was beginning to stretch itself too thin, taking over an empire which stretched from Florida to Argentina.
Meanwhile, France was technically still embroiled in the 100 Years War with England. Since England had largely dropped out, this left the French king Charles VIII with a large army and a gathered war chest, and spare time on his hands. He officially announced he was going on another crusade, to win the land where Christ had lived from the Muslims, but in fact, he rather imagined himself becoming the owner of Italy, which was a lot closer to home.
And, of course, Martin Luther was nine years old in 1492, although the Borgias were gone by the time he grew up and started his reforming efforts. Still, the challenges to the Pope's authority were already beginning to grow.
Rumors surrounding the Borgia family include that Juan was eventually murdered by Cesare - which might be true.
It's said that the pope was accidentally poisoned to death by Cesare, when the wrong dishes were served at a dinner to the wrong person. That probably isn't true, according to my sources, because the symptoms of the pope's final illness more closely resemble malaria than arsenic.
It's said that Lucrezia made way for even more useful marriages by poisoning her four husbands, which probably isn't true, although her second husband was probably murdered by Cesare, or by assassins in his pay, over her desperate protestations.
It's said that Lucrezia had love affairs, either with her father, her brother, or both. That probably isn't true, according to my source, but it isn't something someone would have written down, to be discovered by later historians.
Needless to say, real life was colorful enough, yet the series still chooses to alter and embroider upon it.
The Showtime series was written principally by Irish director Neil Jordan, who is best known for his film ''The Crying Game,'' in which a seductive female character turns out to be a man. Jordan also directed two of the nine episodes in the first season.
The greatest strengths of the series is that it is almost completely a feast for the eyes and ears.
The music by Trevor Morris is built around the fact that the chants and the echoing acoustics which would be appropriate for the many scenes in cathedrals and palaces, is also wonderfully evocative of fear. Think of the sound track of ''The Exorcist,'' for example.
The series was filmed largely in Hungary, where prices are cheaper and there are many very old palaces and stone fortifications which haven't yet had parking lots nor satellite dishes installed.
The cast is strikingly good looking, and they are dressed beautifully.
Actor Jeremy Irons couldn't look less like the fat, diseased Rodrigo Borgia, but he gives the role such a sense of hunger for power, visibly warring inside him with intellectual understanding of just how wrong his behavior has become, that it doesn't matter. He also brings a sense of world weariness, which always makes us see a man who is living on auto pilot, neither excited nor threatened by anything.
Colm Feore - well-known by lovers of Canada's Stratford Festival, where he often performs - does a masterful job of keeping his role as Cardinal Della Rovere interesting. The Cardinal hated the Borgias, and plotted their destruction, all his life. Grim determination gets boring very fast, but Feore so brilliantly inter-knits self-righteousness and ambition into his portrayal that it's always interesting when he is on screen. Some better dialogue would serve him better, however.
Lovely Holliday Grainger is so gorgeous as Lucrezia it's perfectly easy to sympathize with the characters who think that such a beautiful and perfect face couldn't possibly be less than truthful and good. despite all the evidence to the contrary. Considering the monstrous things Lucrezia did do, one wonders why the series makes the absurd claim that the French king turned aside from the conquest of Rome because she asked him to do so, nicely.
The two adult Borgia brothers, Cesare and Juan, are performed by French Canadian actor Francois Arnaud and British actor David Oakes. The fact that Arnaud looks exotic and sounds slightly French, while Oakes looks English and sounds English, plays up the claims in the script that one of the children isn't really the pope's son, but was introduced into the family by their mother. But since that is supposed to be uncertain, there is too strong evidence that it's true.
Since the ages of the brothers are in dispute, one wonders why the series insists that Cesare is older, then presents Arnaud, who is two years younger than Oakes and looks it in the role.
If you can delight in the beauty and consider the history something which deserves examination, ''The Borgias'' can make for many delightful evenings. God forbid, if you want to believe it, please watch something else.
The very rich and very powerful have always had the opportunity to do much evil. They have also always had enemies who made up even worse things, usually involving sex. People want to believe such things, which makes it easier to lie about them.
Episodes from the first season of ''The Borgias'' are currently being shown on Showtime, and all nine can be watched on the ''by demand'' channels, pretty much any time. The second season will be shown sometime this year, although as of this writing, the date isn't yet certain.
You can get the nine episodes of the series on DVDs or via download, for purchase, or through various rental circumstances, or you can borrow it for free from the video department of the Chautauqua Cattaraugus Library System, although there is only one set of discs available, at the moment, and there is a long waiting list.
"America Unsettled," an exhibit of small sculptures and drawings by Drake Gomez will be shown at the KOA Gallery, at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, opening Friday and showing through Feb. 24.
The artist will be present for an opening reception and talk on Friday at noon, in the gallery's lobby, which is inside Blaisdell Hall, on the university's campus.
Admission is free of charge. The gallery is open at 8:30 a.m., Mondays through Fridays, and closes at 8 p.m., each of those days but Friday, when it closes at 6 p.m.
Buffalo's Burchfield Art Gallery invites the public to a series of special events on Jan. 29 from 1-4 p.m. There will be a drop-in workshop on screen printing.
From 2 p.m. until 3:15 p.m. there will be a panel discussion involving a number of area weathermen, regarding the Lake Effect and its influence on local economy and lifestyles. On Jan. 31, there will be a screening of the classic film ''Citizen Kane,'' at 7 p.m.
The gallery is located on the campus of Buffalo State University on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. For additional information, phone the gallery at 878-3547.
O'Connell and Company is currently presenting a run of the play ''Nunsense: A-Men,'' which is the original script of ''Nunsense,'' except that all the nuns are played by male actors.
Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
The company performs on the campus of Erie County Community College, at 6204 Main St. in Williamsville. That is just beyond the intersection of Route 5 and I-290. Admission is $25 for the general public, with reductions for senior citizens, students, children, and members of the U.S. Military, on active duty. Packages including dinner at nearby restaurants are also available.
Phone 848-0800 or check their website at www.oconnellandcompany.com.
Tickets are now on sale for a performance by comic Ralphie May, who has often performed on Last Comic Standing and other television stand-up programs. The live performance will take place on March 2 at 8 p.m. in Erie's beautiful Warner Theatre.
Purchase tickets and keep up on other performances at various venues in Erie by going to their website at www.erieevents..com.