The Borja Family: Historiography, Legend and Literature

The Borja Family: Historiography, Legend and Literature

By Eulàlia Duran

Catalan Historical Review, Vol.1 (2008)

Abstract: The Borja family from Valencia (the Italian spelling is ‘Borgia’) have been a constant source of fascination since the 15th century because of the unusual power they came to wield in Italy and Valencia thanks to the ecclesiastical career. They caused much ink to flow in the field of legend all over Europe — mainly in Italy but also in Germany, Great Britain, France and, of course, Valencia — and were ultimately accused of every vice. They also provided a major theme for literature and films. Partly in reaction to this they became, mainly from the last third of the 19th century onwards, a subject for serious historiographical research based on archival documents. In recent years the fifth centenary of the pontificate of Alexander VI has triggered new research. I attempt here to give an overview and to offer explanations for the interest they have aroused.

Introduction: The Borja1 family from Valencia are an unusual case: in the 15th and 16th centuries they reached the highest echelons of ecclesiastical and political power in Italy and established a firm foothold in Valencia. They consisted basically of two popes, who were uncle and nephew, and the nephew’s children. The Borjas acted as a veritable clan and, owing to their power and wealth, were seen as depraved, lawless and incestuous, but also enterprising, dynamic, unhypocritical, and defenders of the church heritage. Their power aroused fear, envy and hatred, and these feelings gave rise to the so-called ‘Black Legend’, which encompassed the whole family and has endured to our own times. Based mostly on scandal, it sought to account for their unusual power. It gradually gained momentum, giving rise to the publication of many controversial and tendentious works in a variety of genres, ranging from mere pamphlets and pasquinades to chronicles, poetry, plays, novels and, eventually, over forty films. Not until the last third of the 19th century do we find the first serious research based on archive sources. This research has gradually been consolidated but has not displaced the literature inspired by the legend, which still flourishes. The Borja family, in short, left no one in Europe indifferent and gave rise to diverse interpretations, most of them coloured by the atmosphere of the age in which they were produced.

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