The Many (Manga) Portrayals of Cesare Borgia

The Borgias, the first and the original crime family, has come back into spotlight again with the new Showtime series on air this spring. It is no surprise given that they were the most notorious of all Renaissance dynasties. Not just because of corruption, murder and scandal – other dynasties were involved in those areas too – but the height in which their corruptness had reached: the papacy. No wonder Mario Puzo was highly fascinated that he spent nearly two decades towards the end of his life in writing a novel about them.

But that aside, the family was filled with interesting characters and was highly dysfunctional by modern standard: the father who was in the cloth had 12 illegitimate children and 4 whom he openly embraced while continued to collect new lovers, a brother rumored to have killed his own brother, and a sister who might have been in a relationship with her own kin.

The juicy bits of those stories might actually had come from their many enemies who concocted or exaggerated their already stained image to the extreme. The Borgias definitely did not do much to put us in doubt either, and the rumors was circulated for centuries after their death. Given that Cardinal della Rovere, their greatest nemesis, became Pope after their ruling, it would be pretty obvious why we know them for their atrocity and iniquity than anything else.

So, there you go with the perfect formula: a grandeur setting and scheme, intriguing characters, and a big history loophole to do whatever you please.

Neil Jordan, the writer of the TV series, has taken that liberty and the result so far is a beautiful and dramatized version of the family. Jeremy Iron does a splendid job being Rodrigo Borgia, A.K.A. Pope Alexander VI, with François Arnaud as his son and right-hand, Cesare. And in this series, they are more than power-hunger monsters. Rodrigo, who cares for his family just a bit lesser than his ambition, is spot in one of the episode praying for Lucrezia as she is about to be married. Cesare who works both in public and in private for his father suffers silently in each attempt to secure his father’s position and protect his family. That is hardly the first attempt to humanize the Borgias, but it is an entertaining one, and that is what counts for a TV series.

It is no surprise that manga writers would chip in on the Borgias as well, although to a lesser extent than Western writers and comic writers already have done. While the West is fascinated by the corruption in the papacy and the politics of Renaissance, their Japanese counterparts are most interested in the characters and attempt to humanize them to some degree, especially if the said character is Cesare, the enigmatic leader of the papal army and Rodrigo’s most notable son.

You cannot really blame them for being a bit bias as Cesare had a charm that intrigues people across the centuries. He was an obvious bad-boy: arrogant, aggressive, and untrustworthy. But he was also cunning with a strong leadership that even Machiavelli took note. He is said to be a charmer of women, and maybe even of the general public if what is said of his influence on the image of Christ is true.

So far I know of at least three manga on the Borgias. Interestingly all of them come from shoujo(girl)-style artist and only one of them is obviously aiming for male audience. They are all focused on Cesare as one the main characters. His depiction, however, varies considerably depending on what they are focusing on.

Cantarella: You Higuri

This is the first Borgia piece I pick up. It portrays Cesare as the victim to his father’s ambition. He is sacrificed to the devil in exchange for power Rodrigo needs in becoming a pope. We follow him from his birth into his gloomy childhood as a foster son and onward to his life as a cardinal. He feels that he is never loved by his father due to his association with the devil and even attempts suicide once upon entering puberty.

Sounds like the early life of one of the greatest military leader of Italia? Ehhh, no.

The greatest weakness of this series is in the characters. Not just Cesare, but Rodrigo and Lucrezia who are the main focuses of the tales of the Borgias are obviously out of character. Cesare who is supposed to lead the papal army does not have a single bit of leadership to speak about. He is suicidal, constantly depressed and utterly hopeless. There are moments of gleaming hope in the first few volumes when he uses his brain and demonic power to get himself out of thick situations but that hope soon vanishes into thin air when he becomes more and more depressive. After a while, I don’t even recognize him as Cesare, but a device to spatter the story with gloom. He expresses no interest with the rest of Italia if it is not for his father, not a single bit of his own interest to gain power. Why would this man take it to himself to conquer Italia is beyond me.

Rodrigo, the man who sold his son for power, also exhibits no trait of leadership, intelligent, guts, or ambition. He seems like a fool constantly in fear of the consequences of what his son has become. We never get to know what drives him to papacy or what kind of power he obtained from the demon. (If it is supposed to be Cesare’s craftiness then that is an obvious fail.) I suppose Higuri never intended for him to be a main character anyway, since things soon evolves around Cesare, Michelotto, and Lucrezia.

Lucrezia is probably the most annoying character in this series. She is portrayed as an innocent and naive young girl used as a tool by her father for power, much like Cesare. But with Rodrigo being as he is in this series, I don’t quite feel the victim vibe and that only make her damsel-in–distress act the more irritating. It is Cesare who becomes the domineering presence in her life and makes her more-than-brotherly love for him rather unjustified. Things are too forced in this series that eventually nothing makes sense, and sadly I have to stop reading before my fond memory of its beautiful illustrations is clouded.

Kakan no Madonna: Chiho Saito

When I started reading this manga, I have no idea there will be Borgias involved. It starts out with our prima donna Leonora, a peasant girl, got married to a young local nobleman. She definitely is not his obvious choice given their different statuses and Leonora becomes curious. On the wedding night, she finds a painting of her by Leonardo da Vinci depicting her as the lady who holds the secret to a mythical sword that would grant the owner the power to conquer Italia.

Sounds familiar? Try change the setting to Britannia if you will.

Upon realizing that she has fallen victim to this legend, she takes the picture and sets off to find the sword herself in hope of ending the myth for good. Along the way, she met the King of Naples who seeks the sword for his country and Cesare Borgia who seeks it for the heck of it. She, of course, falls in love with the charming king while Cesare becomes his rival in both love and war.

The story is rather interesting at the start but then it becomes duller and duller as it progresses. It eventually revolves around Cesare and the King of Naples competing for the love of the maiden Leonora. The sword, the much hyped element, is forgotten right after it is discovered… and that is pretty much where I stop reading altogether.

It is not that this is a spectacular flop if you like a romance story. After all, this is written by Chiho Saito who is a renowned shoujo mangaka. However, after the sword, the story is just redundant. Any kind of depth in our bad-boy-needed-redemption Cesare we are promised in the first hundred pages is gone pretty fast with Lucrezia exiting the stage. He becomes the stereotypical bad-boy character whose only goal in the story is to get the young lady into his bed. I was hoping to see a bit more of Cesare’s scheme in conquering Italia since Saito had actually made it a prominent force in the development of the story, but unfortunate it was overshadowed with too much romance and too little historical detail.

Cesare: Souryo Fuyumi

This is probably the most recent attempt in anything Borgia from Japan and the only one in the three that aims for male audience. This is obvious from the heavy and realistic illustration. The story focuses on Cesare’s life in the University of Pisa at the age of sixteen. He is a prodigy, a natural leader and a cunning politician with abilities rivaling that of his father. Rodrigo in this story, unlike the other two, is as clever and menacing as he might have really been. Together, even as they are apart, the father and son weaved the web of power for the Borgias and for soon-to-be Pope Alexander VI.

This may be the only manga that portrayed Cesare as the epitome of a Machiavellian leader with several of his historical faulty traits eliminated (and even has Machiavelli as a supporting character). He has the look to die for, the charisma that can charm a Vatican fox, a brain so brilliant it might have been of the devil, and a vileness truly of a Borgia. Cesare in this story is never the victim of men or of fate. His passion for a united Italia governed by his ideologies is what leads the way. He has already gathered a number of allies and enemies that you can’t help feeling you’re seeing a miniature version of the Italy political arena in Cesare’s palm.

And that might be the ruin of the series; Cesare is already so perfect he couldn’t possibly grow so dramatically as a character anymore. Story-wise, there is still a long way to go and many things to tell, but the problem would be how to not become redundant. Lucrezia might be the element. She is just introduced into the series as the young girl who is waiting eagerly for her beloved brother to come home. She can potentially offer us a window to the female side of Renaissance politics. Aside from that, I have no lead whatsoever as to how the series might turn out to be since it is still pretty much in its infancy.

The most surprising thing to me is about the author. Fuyumi is actually a shoujo mangaka, but she leaves no trace at all in Cesare even if you squint really hard. It is portrayed as a seinen-manga through and through and I can’t help but wonder how on earth she could just write something completely outside her element and leave no signature on it at all. Even Yuu Watase left her traces on Sakura Gari. This is truly an interesting bit of talent that I hope she will capitalize on more often in the future.

And after at least three manga, two TV series, dozens of books and comics, and appearances in video games, I still don’t see the end of our fascination with the Borgias. It might be their darkness, their tendency to reap what they desire at whatever price that eludes our understanding, so we continue to speculate and interpret whatever little thread we truly know about them. At the same time, they are just like us in love, hate, and desire that we, somehow, still feel the connection. As much as their actions are unthinkable, we know that in some twisted way we might as well justify ourselves to do so. And so we lose ourselves for a moment in their stories: our fantasies that might have actually happened somewhere in time.

Moreover, why leave a good story wasted? We might as well have some fun.