The Borgias - The most infamous family in history
By Sarah Dunant (9th November  2021)

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Murder, poison, corruption and incest: all perfect ingredients for the modern tabloid press rather than an arts lecture dealing with events of five hundred years ago. However, in an age known for its brutality and church corruption, the Borgias were the family that dominated the Papacy and Italian politics during the last decade of the 15th century. It appears that whilst Popes were encouraged to adopt vows of chastity, which didn’t necessarily include celibacy.

This presentation by visiting lecturer Sarah Dunant, gave members of The Arts Society Alton the inside story of the real Borgias and set their story in the times in which they lived.

Were they so bad? The audience were given the facts, delivered in a well-structured and lively, and authoritative presentation that lacked many of the salacious details members may have recalled from the BBC mini-series of 40 years ago. The charismatic figure of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) is one of the most controversial of the Renaissance Popes, partly because he acknowledged fathering several children by his mistresses. The members learned that he enjoyed living in sumptuously decorated apartments, were introduced to the career of his son, Cesare, one-time Cardinal, General, employer of Da Vinci and the model for Machiavelli’s The Prince. Finally, the speaker explained the journey of Lucrezia Borgia from ‘the greatest whore in Rome’ to a devout and treasured Duchess of the city of Ferrara, including the fate of her three husbands, all by the age of twenty-one, all the way to her death at the age of 39 in 1519, just ten years after the accession of King Henry VIII in England.

Sometimes truth is more intoxicating than myth as this lecture showed. Illustrated with appropriate images from many art collections, members rated the lecture as excellent, encouraging some to seek the books written by the speaker who also encouraged them to linger in Pope Alexander’s apartments when they next visit The Vatican, rather than walk briskly through to the Sistine Chapel.

Tony Cross