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Customer Review

11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful book - with some flaws, 20 Jun. 2013
This review is from: The Borgias: History's Most Notorious Dynasty (Hardcover)
This beautiful book about the Borgia family - defined in the subtitle as "History's Most Notorious Dynasty" - is written by Mary Hollingsworth, who is an expert on the history of the Renaissance and the author of The Cardinal's Hat (2004, 2006).

Her book is large and long. The format is 23 x 27.5 cm, and there are more than 350 pages. The main text is divided into ten chapters which follow a chronological line, year-by-year, from 1414 to 1520 and beyond. The book concludes with the following items:

* Two maps and a family tree
* A bibliography and notes with references
* An index
* Picture credits and acknowledgements

The illustrations are numerous and fabulous. They are in colour and the quality is high. In many cases one illustration gets a full page; in some cases one illustration gets two full pages. This means you can actually see details of a large painting, which you would not be able to see if it was scaled down to something like 10 x 15 cm. Each illustration is accompanied by a useful caption which connects the illustration with the main text. Picture editor Caroline Hotblack has done an outstanding job in finding material to illustrate the text.

The Borgia dynasty is closely connected with the Catholic Church. Several members of the family became cardinals and three of them became popes.

The first Borgia pope, who took the name Calixtus III, is the subject of chapters 1-2. The second Borgia pope, who took the name Alexander VI, dominates the account. His rise to power is described in chapters 3-5 and his reign as pope in chapters 6-8. The third Borgia pope, who took the name Innocent X, appears in chapter 10.

Lucrezia and her brother Cesare, daughter and son of Alexander VI, both outlived their father. The last years of their lives are presented in chapter 9.

I like this book, in particular the fabulous illustrations, but I have to mention a few things which bother me:

(1) The chronological structure of the book can be considered a strong or a weak aspect, depending on your point of view. The strength: it is easy to read and understand. The weakness: it is basically a list of events. There is no analytical or theoretical approach; no interpretation. The text may become fragmentary, as it does occasionally. For some of the early years the relevant material is limited. There is not a lot to go on, and it shows:

1461 = 6 lines
1465 = 7 lines
1467 = 7 lines
1470 = 6 lines
1487 = 5 lines

To illustrate my point I can use Columbus, who pops up from time to time:

Page 158 = 3 lines
Page 168 = 5 lines
Page 172 = 2 lines
Page 178 = 3 lines

These thirteen lines about the Italian explorer belong together, but because the author follows the chronological approach, they end up as four separate fragments.

She tries to make up for this weakness by inserting frequent sidebars with additional information, often quotations from contemporary and primary sources. The sidebars help, but do not solve the problem.

(2) There are many rumours about the Borgia family. Are they true? On the dust jacket the publisher claims the author is "carefully sifting fact from fiction." Perhaps she is, but she certainly does not invite the reader to observe the process. I noticed only one case in which she tries to evaluate the evidence: the murder of Juan Borgia, which took place in 1497 (pp. 222-224). In a sidebar she asks: "Who killed the Duke of Gandia?" But there is no answer. At the end of this chapter (page 228) she says he was "the victim of a brutal - possible fratricidal - murder." In other words, the verdict is left open.

(3) Regarding Lucrezia, the author mentions the frequent rumours of depravity (pp. 280-281), but the issue is not explored. Are we dealing with fact or fiction? There is no attempt to discuss the credibility of the sources for these rumours.

(4) Lucrezia is the subject of a painting on page 319 (which is repeated on page 350). This painting by Bartolomeo Veneto is known as "Flora," but many observers believe it shows Lucrezia. Whatever the truth, it also appears on the front cover of the book. If you look closely, you will notice that the two illustrations are not identical. The version used on the front cover is more "decent" than the real version inside the book!

(5) The author may be an expert on the history of the Renaissance, but it seems she is not so familiar with ancient Roman history. The caption on page 39 mentions "Emperor Constantine, who adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313."

This is a common misunderstanding, but it is not true. What Constantine issued in 313 was decree of tolerance. Christianity was not adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire until the reign of Theodosius I (379-395).

The misunderstanding is repeated in the caption on page 306 where she talks about "Constantine, whose victory over Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge [in 312] established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire."

(6) The so-called donation of Constantine is mentioned twice (pp. 30-31 and 60-61). The author never explains that the donation is merely a legend created by the Catholic Church long after Constantine's death in 337. Constantine was not baptised by Pope Sylvester in Rome, as the legend claims. He was baptised in Nicomedia by Eusebius on 22 May 337, just before he died.

Taken one by one, these flaws may seem minor. Taken together, they become a serious problem. The illustrations are fabulous. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the text. Therefore this book can only get a rating of four stars.
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 24 Jun 2013 01:49:30 BDT
Miketang says:
Excellent review - though it has now caused me some perplexity as to whether to buy the book!

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Jun 2013 02:15:47 BDT
Last edited by the author on 24 Jun 2013 02:21:03 BDT
To Miketang:

Thank you for your message. I am glad you like my review.

If you look at the other reviews, you will see that they only talk about the illustrations, how beautiful the book is. I agree with this. But I also want to say something about the text.

I do not mean to scare you (or anybody else) away. I simply wish to point out that there are some flaws with regard to the text. But I still give the book four stars.

When you consider the price, I think you get a lot for 16 British pounds. Large picture books are often more expensive than this.

The decision, of course, is yours.

Best regards,

Torben Retboll

Posted on 7 Apr 2014 12:52:35 BDT
Last edited by the author on 7 Apr 2014 12:52:57 BDT
K. Harvey says:
Thanks for an excellent and informative review. I feel that if I now go ahead and buy the book I won't be disappointed in the occasional flaws in the content.

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Apr 2014 13:39:32 BDT
To K. Harvey:

Thank you for your kind words.

Torben Retboll

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Apr 2014 05:42:47 BDT
Last edited by the author on 13 Apr 2014 05:44:10 BDT
To K. Harvey:

One more comment for you:

If you are interested in the Borgias and the Italian Renaissance, you may wish to visit the website of Sarah Dunant. She also has a blog with some discussions about these topics. Sarah Dunant is the author of Blood & Beauty (hardcover 2013, paperback 2014).

Best regards,

Torben Retboll

Posted on 21 May 2014 21:58:17 BDT
K8P says:
Re your comment regarding "Who killed the Duke of Gandia" and the "verdict left open" - well, of course the verdict is open as nobody knows who killed him. Yes, there has been much speculation over the centuries but the bottom line is we do not and never will know!

You also seem very hung up with nit-picking and trivia. Yes, there are two versions of the painting which purports to be of Lucrezia, one with her rather more covered and one with a naked breast but so what?

In reply to an earlier post on 22 May 2014 08:55:57 BDT
Last edited by the author on 22 May 2014 09:05:02 BDT
To K8P

The author says there are many rumours about the Borgias, but she never tells us if she believes them or not. As a professional historian she should present the evidence and give us her verdict:

Option 1: it is true

Option 2: maybe, maybe not

Option 3: it is not true

A reviewer has to mention the positive and negative elements of a book. This is what I have done. It seems you only wish to hear about the positive elements.

Torben Retboll
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