I’ve just read Ingrid D. Rowland’s ‘review’ of the television series, currently in the middle of its season one run, The Borgias, in the New York Review of Books blog. The review starts with an average level of stupidity, criticising the television series for not being close enough to historical reality. The mark of a lazy useless review of a television program or a film is to complain that is it not close enough to the literary original, if it it is a an adaption of a literary text, or to complain that it is not close enough to historical reality if it is historical basis. This is pure stupidity, a fiction film or television program is not the equivalent of a book report, or a historical documentary. By that reasoning, we would have to condemn Homer and the Ancient Greek Tragedians for their inaccuracies about Greek history.
Rowlands adds insulting chauvinism to stupidity by attributing things she does not like to the Irish Catholic background of the ‘director’ Neil Jordan. Jordan is in reality credited as as the executive producer. Rowlands tries to refer the reinvention of Fifteenth-Century Italian history to Jordan’s background and does not even try to explain how that would produce the reinterpretation in question.
Her ‘review;’ is no more than showing off of her knowledge of the various ways in which the series differs in historical details from known history. Apparently she is some kind of specialist in Renaissance art history. Her academic scholarship is expressed in at least one bizarre claim, with regard to Machiavelli, the political thinker and historian, who was a Florentine civil servant and diplomat for a period. Rowland claims that Machiavelli was an adviser to Cesare Borgia, the famous and notorious Renaissance prince, conspirator, and son of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia). It is it true that Machiavelli was a Florentine envoy to Borgia for a few month, but that is hardly the same as adviser, and while I am no specialist in Renaissance history, or in the biography of Machiavelli or of Borgia, I have read quite a lot about Machiavelli and Renaissance republican theory, and I can safely say that Machiavelli is not normally described as an adviser to C. Borgia, or as an influence of any kind on him, though he certainly relates some of Borgia’s ruthless methods for pursuing power with his usual grim relish. Rowland does not say anything directly about Machiavelli as a political thinker, but she indirectly adds to the black legend of Machiavelli the advocate of cynical tyranny. It seems the struggle to rescue Machiavelli from this image will never end, but I will say a few words about why this is wrong. Machiavelli was the admirer or the Ancient Republic of Rome, and wished to take that as a model for a modern state, including all the most democratic elements of Ancient Rome. Evidently there is a part of Machiavelli that relishes dirty deeds done to further political ambition, and state interests, but then so are most of us. That is why programs like The Borgias are made. Other historians and political thinkers have emphasised the need for violence where political actors live in a violent world, without acquiring Machiavelli’s demonic reputation. The Ancient Athenian general and author of The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides springs to mind; as does the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant who aimed for universal peace, and based political principles on ethical principles, but who also believed political action should be based on pragmatism not moral principles. Machiavelli, himself, believed that the state and its leaders are only justified if they serve law and the common good. A careful reading of The Prince (which Machiavelli clearly indicates only represents one part of his political thought, as it applies to principalities rather than republics), will show that he is trying to constrain the princely figures he is partly addressing in this way; and this becomes even more clear in his longest book, Discourses on Livy, which refers to the Roman Republic, and republics in general.
I was planning to write at least one post on The Borgias and its portrayal of Machiavelli, and I shall return to that without regard to Rowland’s piece of stupidity and windbaggery. The only excuse I can find for it is that perhaps it is deliberately stupid in a provocative way to attract traffic and comments. Traffic baiting is however an ignoble pursuit for the NYRB and the grand tone in which it implicitly claims to authoritatively synthesise current culture and thought for its readers.