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'The Borgias': A renaissance on Showtime

Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia and Lotte Verbeek

Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia and Lotte Verbeek as Guilia Farnese are seen in Episode 4 of Showtime's "The Borgias." Credit: Showtime

It is often true of public figures that they are judged by what their enemies and competitors say about them, sometimes even more so than by the words of friends or neutral sources.

Of course, it is human nature to lend an ear to juicy tales rather than to positive or balanced accounts.

In the case of Rodrigo Borgia, elected Pope Alexander VI in 1492, his family name has become a byword for corruption and scandal (and that started during his lifetime). But that same family also produced a saint, Francis Borgia, Rodrigo's great-grandson.

While great evil and shining goodness fascinate us, most humans lie in the murky area between, and that conflict can produce compelling drama.

On Sunday, Showtime offers the two-hour premiere of the 10-episode first season of "The Borgias," a sumptuous account of the Spanish family that stormed Rome during the Western Renaissance -- the time of Christopher Columbus, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and the Medicis -- beginning with the election of Rodrigo (Jeremy Irons) to the papacy.

The series also marks the first TV role for Irons since 1981's "Brideshead Revisited," which ironically also examined sin and temptation against the background of Roman Catholicism.

Also starring are François Arnaud as Rodrigo's son, Cesare, whom his father forced into the clergy; Holliday Grainger as daughter Lucrezia; Sean Harris as the assassin Micheletto; and Colm Feore as Rodrigo's chief rival, Cardinal Della Rovere.

Ireland's Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game") is creator, executive producer and writer (along with director for the two premiere episodes).

"The whole contradiction that lies within the character, I found very interesting," Irons says. "He's a man who uses all the things we've seen used by American presidents or anyone in power. Power does corrupt, and the difference for Rodrigo is, he's aware he's the head of the Christian church. He knows. That vibration between what you do and what you know you shouldn't do is really interesting.

"So often, dramatic characters are given a really simplistic line. They're either good or they're bad. I'm interested in the people who are doing their best. They're failing; they behave badly in some cases, but it doesn't mean they're bad people, nevertheless."

And it's not as if Rodrigo's ascension to the throne of Peter was met with unqualified joy and acceptance.

"Once Rodrigo Borgia was elected pope," Jordan says, "he was immediately under threat from all sides, from all his enemies. His family was under threat, so they had to survive by any means necessary. The story of the first season, really, is the story of their survival, how they managed to survive these threats.

Rome, never the most tranquil of cities at the best of times, doubled down during the Renaissance, reaching great heights of artistic achievement while also indulging in man's baser instincts such as debauchery, drunkenness and murder.

"The Borgias were Spaniards," says Jordan, "and they were outsiders. They had nobody to rely on but each other, so they became this little paranoid unit, really."

At the same time, most people in Renaissance Rome had religious faith, and that included Rodrigo Borgia. He may have been a deeply flawed man and a frequent, if conflicted, sinner, but he was not a poseur pope.

"If you know history," Jordan says, "it says that once Rodrigo Borgia was elected pope, he was suddenly overawed by the responsibility. He bought his way into the thing, and you feel, of course he expected to win.

"But he never really imagined what it would be like to stand where St. Peter's bones were, and where every pope before him stood, and to be genuinely -- as he believed and everyone believed at the time -- God's representative on Earth."

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