Review: The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior

I think it was pure coincidence that my Kindle came loaded with The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior by Paul Strathern then a few months later The Borgias appeared as a nine episode miniseries on Showtime. For once I could sit down and enjoy a miniseries feeling like I had some idea of whether it was reasonably authentic (Short answer: yes)

Alas, this is not a review of the miniseries, except to say the series is exceptionally well done and I look forward to a continuation of it planned for next year. Yet the book and the miniseries definitely overlap. The miniseries concentrates on Pope Alexander VI, a Renaissance pope of Rome and his corrupt family. It was during a time when priests were still allowed to marry. The book is about the intersection of one of the principle characters of the Borgia family, Cesare Borgia, the eldest son of Pope Alexander and two other prominent people of the time: the artist Leonardo da Vinci and the political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, best known for his groundbreaking book on leaders and politics, The Prince.

If you followed the miniseries, you get an extended encounter with Cesare Borgia at a time when he was not only the son of a pope, but a cardinal in the Catholic Church as well, promoted and installed by his father. In the book, Cesare Borgia’s time as a cardinal is relatively brief. Religious life did not agree with Cesare and he soon convinced his father to let him be what he really wanted to be: more Caesar than Cesare. A passionate, wildly diabolical and cunningly ruthless man, Cesare turns out to be a great leader of men. He was bent on acquiring more power and hoped to do something to Italy not seen since Roman times: unite Italy into a single country. At the time, Italy was divided into a series of kingdoms, dukedoms, and independent states. It is in the Republic of Florence that Strathern introduces us to Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. For a time, the lives of these three pivotal men intersected in and around Florence. The eldest, Leonardo da Vinci was a helplessly gentle gay vegetarian, gifted as an artist but with a heart that overflowed more with passion for invention and a fascination for engineering. Both da Vinci and Machiavelli would be pulled into the young Cesare Borgia’s orbit (he died at age 31) by his power and influence.

Both da Vinci and Machiavelli were citizens of the Republic of Florence. da Vinci was for a time employed by the powerful Cesare Borgia as his military engineer where the peaceful man oversaw the construction of innovative devices designed to kill armies. Machiavelli acted as a Florentine envoy to Borgia, and spent many months hanging around him while sending intelligence back to the Signoria (government) of the Republic of Florence. Simultaneously he earned something like a doctorate in political philosophy through observing Borgia’s amoral excellence at acquiring and wielding political power, and arguably was the founder of what we now call political science. When not observing Borgia, he worked for the Signoria of the Republic of Florence, doing his best to help keep various external forces from overrunning his city.

Certainly the men knew each other, but there is little direct evidence that Machiavelli and da Vinci had a close relationship. Each though was uniquely gifted. The Renaissance, unfolding in particular in Republic of Florence, was an exciting time for gifted men like these to be alive. Strathern reveals the real da Vinci mainly through extensive reading and research into his remaining notebooks. Not only do his notebooks reveal an expansive imagination and engineer centuries ahead of himself, but also a gentle pedophile of boys in a time when it didn’t matter. He was a man who started many projects but completed few of them. His masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, for example, was tweaked periodically throughout his life. It was never officially finished. It hangs today in the Louvre because he spent his last years in France, a patron of its young king, and he took the unfinished painting with his many notebooks with him.

Machiavelli’s seminal book on power and politics, The Prince, was written after he had fallen from power and into disgrace. Cesare Borgia though was his unwitting teacher. While Strathern’s book is about all three men, it is principally about Cesare Borgia, a fast climber whose mini empire devolved on the death of his father. In the miniseries, despite the killings that he commits or orders, Cesare comes across as reasonably civilized. Strathern’s book though reveals a much more powerful and devious side of this Borgia than can be squeezed into the miniseries. Perhaps subsequent seasons will reveal his darker and ambitious side. For a while, it looked like he would succeed in his quest for power, despite periodic invasions by both the French and the Spanish, who claimed titles to lands in Italy and whose forces were vastly superior.

The Italy revealed in this book is a far cry from its current manifestation. It seemed overrun by regular wars as republics and dukedoms expanded and contracted, and as invading armies and shifting allegiances continually altered the political landscape. Even the pope was not beyond having his own armies and states. It was a practical necessity for a pope to have an army. Italy’s invaders were typically Catholic but few of them saw any need to spare Rome from sacking and conquest.

Mostly, Strathern chooses to make this book be a study of Cesare Borgia. One cannot be drawn into his world without being drawn into the eternal conflicts between the many states within it. You may find, as I did, that the politics of the period are a bit overwhelming. So many alliances changed so often it’s a wonder anyone trusted anyone at all, and perhaps they never did. Borgia though did learn how to rule through a combination of ruthlessness and earned loyalty. The latter was earned through treating his subjects with respect and making sure they were governed by just men who shared his philosophy.

While rich in history, this book won’t make you feel like you are seeing historical Italy through the eyes of these characters. This is history that is largely complete, but with significant gaps, so the picture Strathern draws of these men and this time is still incomplete. Frankly, the miniseries is more compelling than this book, but the miniseries can only hint at the complexity of living and governing in this chaotic time. Along the way, you will meet many other interesting characters, some of which appear in the miniseries, including Borgia’s sister Lucrezia (for whom Cesare is overly protective and possibly had an incestuous affair) and the pope’s enemy Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, both of whom appear prominently in the miniseries.

If you were drawn to the miniseries, you may appreciate this book for filling in the many details the miniseries cannot, as well as come away for an appreciation for all these prominent people, now lost in a time some half a millennium in our past.

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