The Borgias returns to Showtime this week, reminding us what it was like 500 years ago, when sin and the sinful ruled the Vatican.
The lavish costume series, so lush you can practically smell the incense, starts Season 2 Sunday (10 ET/PT) with Pope Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons as the devilish Rodrigo Borgia) still up to no good: plotting to extend his considerable secular power and to manipulate his quarreling children into high church positions or advantageous marital alliances.
"In Season 2, we start to see the effects of what happened in Season 1 on the children, and the main thrust is how I (as the pope) deal with my children who are growing up in different ways," says Irons, the Oscar-winning British actor. "It's fairly modern in a way."
Maybe not so modern. This is a pope with children and many mistresses; a pope who could order someone tortured, murdered or raped; a pope so corrupt, he makes previous corrupt popes look like pikers.
Not that this was uncommon in the Renaissance church. "It was sort of acceptable, rather like Edwardian Britain, when you could do anything as long as you didn't 'do it in the streets and frighten the horses,' " Irons says.
This season, the Borgias become more like their legends, Irons says. "Lucrezia (the pope's daughter, played by Holliday Grainger) will have to become murderous to defend her newborn child. Cesare Borgia (the pope's son, played by Fran?ois Arnaud), who Machiavelli described as the supremely cruel prince of all time, will become that character."
"The whole noir-ish, criminal, gangster ethic of this story can emerge much more in the second season and get much darker," says creator/writer Neil Jordan, the Oscar-winning Irish filmmaker and novelist who is working on his first series.
Still, the Borgias were real people, which makes writing a series complicated, unlike fictional families such as the Sopranos. "We try to stay accurate to the broad strokes of history," says Jordan. "I want to tell a story about power, family and religion, and one specific family and what it does to them."
The Borgias, often called the first Mafia crime family, were Spanish-Catalan, not Italian. But by 1492, when Rodrigo became pope by bribing the voting cardinals, the Borgias had adapted fully to the murderous customs of Italy's ruling clans.
So far, not a peep of protest from the Vatican. Says Irons, "I had dinner with an archbishop in the Vatican some months ago, and he's seen and enjoyed it in much the same way the queen might watch (Shakespeare's) Richard III— a pretty appalling king — and not see that as a threat to her."