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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 9 FEBRUARY 2015 — A superb exhibition on the infamous Borgia dynasty, which dominated the history of Italy at the beginning of the 15th century, is currently on view at the Maillol museum in Paris. Under the reign of the Borgias, Rome would supplant Florence, and become the most important artistic centre of the 16th century. The Borgias and their Times, constructed around Pope Alexander VI and two of his children, succeeds in throwing light on this ambitious family, rehabilitating Lucretia Borgia as a beautiful young woman and a patron of the arts, as opposed to the scheming seductress and poisoner legend and various film directors would have her to be.

The story begins with the birth of Alfonso de Borja,* born near Valencia in 1378, a brilliant jurist who became one of the most important advisers of the King of Spain before being  nominated  Cardinal, and then Pope in Rome in 1455, when he took the name of Calixte III. He promptly put members of his family into strategic positions, his nephew**, Rodrigo, being nominated vice-chancellor of the church at the age of 27. Overseeing the appointment of four  popes, Rodrigo himself, who apparently didn’t hesitate to buy a good many votes, became pope in 1492 assuming the name of Alexander VI as a tribute to the Greek emperor, Alexander the Great. The painting by the Venitian master, Titian, representing him presenting the churchman responsible for the Papal fleet defeating the Turks to St. Peter sealed the destiny of the Borgia family.

Titian:Pope Alexander VI presents Jacopo Pesaro to Saint Peter (1502-1510)
Oil on canvas

Alexander VI lived by his own rules, leading the life of a courtly prince rather than a religious aesthetic vowed to chastity, in an age full of unrest. Aware of the importance of music and art in the expression of power, his apartment within the Vatican was extravagantly redecorated by the most important artists of the time, transforming and restoring the prestige lost at the end of the Middle Ages. There, the magnificent frescoes of Pinturicchio, encrusted with precious stones and delicate fabrics, glorify his devotion to the Church. The artist was also commissioned to redecorate and renovate the Castle of Saint Angelo. Churches such as San Giacomo degli Spagnoli were rebuilt, the Place Navona renovated, and the Via Alessandrina, a road linking the Vatican to Saint Peter’s gate was constructed.

Feasts and festivities followed one after the other.  A chaser of women, he fathered no less than nine known children, the most important being the four offsprings of his relationship with Vannozza Cattanei, mother of Cesar and Lucretia, a liason among others which aroused the ire of such personalities as the Dominican monk, Savonarola, forerunner of Lutherism, who was burned to death in Florence six years after Rodrigo came to power, an event which greatly contributed to the legend of a corrupt, unscrupulous and scheming man.

 Portrait presumably of Lucrezia Borgia, 1510  after Bartolomeo Veneto
Oil on wood

Surrounding himself with members of his own clan, he didn’t hesitate to marry off his children to suit his own ambitions. Hence, his daughter, Lucretia, educated as befitted a young princess was wedded to a Monsieur Giovanni Sforza at 13 years of age before a more advantageous match was arranged for her 5 years later to Alphonse d’Aragon, murdered soon after, it was said, by her brother, Cesar, before she was married off a third time to the Prince Alphonse d’Este whose lands she ruled in Ferrare. Less an adventurer than a romantic, she also fell in love with the poet, Pietro Bembo.

Her grace, beauty, wit, and love of the arts has frequently been passed over in favour of a woman without moral scruple, whereas she was one of the most extraordinary women of the Renaissance, although the same cannot be said of her brother, Cesar, an ambitious politician who dreamed of a united Italy under the domination of Rome, his hero being none other than Julius Cesar! His saving grace was his friendship with Leonardo da Vinci, although his interest lay less in his paintings than in his ingenious military devices.  One of his favourite boasts was how, one by one, he had killed five bulls in an arena. Made cardinal at the age of 17, suspected of the murder of his elder brother, Jean, he met his death on the battlefield at the age of barely 30.

Altobello Melone: Cesare Borgia ?, 1513
© Musée Maillol

In truth, the story of the Borgias is more fascinating than the pictures on show, by Bellini, Della Robbia, Dosso Dossi, Titian, and Andrea Mantegna. All the works, especially the portraits, throw light on the Borgias as they were and the impact they had on their epoch. Each of them patronised a great many artists, from Pinturicchio, Luca Longhi, and Raphael to the young Michel Angelo. However, it was the new pope, Jules II, wishing to obliterate the memory of Alexander VI who began to blacken their name, followed by Luther and the Protestants who continued to discredit them. Further damage was done, particularly regarding Lucretia by such eminent writers as Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas who incessantly portrayed her as a fallen woman, beautiful maybe, but dissolute, debauched and depraved. This exhibition partially rectifies that.
*The Spanish name, Borja was latinised into Borgia
**The word ‘nepotism’ originates from the Borgias  

Headline image: Innocenzo Francucci: Vannozza Cattanei

Les Borgia et leur temps
De Léonard de Vinci à Michel-Ange
Through 15 February 201
Musée Maillol
Fondation Dina Vierny
59-61, rue de Grenelle
75007 Paris
Tel: (33) 1 42 22 59 58


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