The Borgias: The Poisoned Chalice/The Assassin

The Borgias: The Poisoned Chalice/The Assassin


The House of Borgias
The Borgias were a Spanish papal family who rose to prominence through their involvement in ecclesiastical and political affairs during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They were made famous for their corruption through Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope in 1492. Rodrigo was said to have bought his way to the papal throne via bribes, and was also accused of nepotism and lechery. Now Showtime (US) and Bravo (Canada) are re-telling this fascinating tale of papal intrigue, sexual trysts and political backstabbing in their new series The Borgias.

“The Poisoned Chalice/The Assassin” (Episodes 1 and 2)

“You will fight like dogs over this corpse I leave, for this throne of St. Peter’s … but it was pure once. We have sullied it with our greed and lechery.” – Pope Innocent VIII

1492, Rome. Pope Innocent VIII languishes on his deathbed. The College of Cardinals comes to pay their last respects and vow to clean up the corruption from the throne of St. Peter.

A cleric is having sex with a woman while a girl spies on their tryst. Enter Cesare Borgia (played brilliantly by François Arnaud) Cardinal Rodrigo Borgias’s eldest son and a bishop! The spy? His little sister Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger). Cesare confides in his sister his hopes of abandoning the Church and becoming a soldier once their father becomes Pope.

So, we know clerics had clandestine affairs, kept concubines and had bastard children – awesome! I thought this was going to be dry but it’s turned into a papal version of The Sopranos much to my glee!

Innocent dies, and Rodrigo rushes to tell Cesare to keep their family safe during the upheaval that will surely follow until a new Pope is elected. Rodrigo has a mistress, Vanozza dei Cattanei (Joanne Whalley), the mother of his four children, Cesare, Juan (David Oakes), Lucrezia and Gioffre (Aidan Alexander). He also imparts directions as to what his son must do to aid him in obtaining the papal seat. Cesare is to wait and see if the first vote brings his father to power. It fails, and Rodrigo sends further instructions via dove (because no outside contact is permitted for the Cardinals) telling Cesare to extend benefices and titles to those Cardinals who did not vote for him. This is the crime of simony – the practice of paying for sacraments, holy offices or positions within the Church. Rodrigo finds out in a rather sneaky way what Cardinal is eating which meal and relays this to his son. Cesare and his brother then stuff the letters in the food of each Cardinal, and Rodrigo’s plot goes undetected.

“I do tend to win whatever battles I fight. But what talk we of fighting? It is all in God’s hands” – Rodrigo Borgia

Another election takes place and there is still no clear victor, a majority is required to declare a Pope. Another trick is up Rodrigo’s sleeve and he has Cesare empty the Borgia’s church coffers of gold and ornaments and then distribute them to the Cardinals who didn’t vote for him.

I loved this part of the episode – it was very mafia-esque, the plotting and scheming to get votes. It was brilliant when they stuffed notes in the meat carcasses going to the Cardinals’ private quarters. The extent to which Rodrigo will go to get votes is incredible, the guy just doesn’t give up! Jeremy Irons is very convincing as the calculating Rodrigo Borgia.

Habemus Papam. Rodrigo Borgia is now Pope Alexander VI. Rodrigo’s final ploy proves fruitful and he is declared Pope amid some outcry by a few of the Cardinals, who accuse him of simony, namely Cardinal Orsini (played by Derek Jacobi of Brother Cadfael fame) and Cardinal Della Rovere (played by Colm Feore, starring in the upcoming movie Thor). After undergoing a rather interesting ritual where Rodrigo sits on an open seat and gets groped to prove he’s male, they declare he’s got two testicles and he’s well hung so he’s good to go as Pope. Other than this brief moment, the majority of the show lacks comedic relief. Thats is my only complaint thus far. It is very interesting, but very complex and heavy.

The Cardinals make mention of the fact that he has four bastard children by his concubine but one of the Cardinals makes a pointed comment, “Let him without children cast the first stone”. This was apparently fairly common in ecclesiastical circles in Italy at the time. His youngest son, Juan, celebrates in a whorehouse and gets called a bastard by one of the whores and flips right out. He grabs the whore by the hair and proceeds to dunk her head under water screaming that he is his son. It’s a strange position; they’re bastards but paraded openly and move freely in high circles. Lucrezia is illegitimate but it is mentioned that her hand will be sought after because she is the Pope’s daughter. Cesare is a bishop and everyone knows he’s the Pope’s son. The children are not shunned as bastards as would be expected in most cases; in fact, they are treated with respect because of their father’s position.

“You placed this collar around my neck father. You made God my calling, but the sins I’ve committed for you must convince you surely that the church is not my calling … I beg you now to release me from my vows” – Cesare Borgia

Now that his father is Pope, Cesare begs him to release him from his vows so that he can become a soldier to better protect the family. Rodrigo refuses saying that one Borgia must be in the Church and one must be a soldier, and that duty falls to his younger (and inept) brother, Juan. Earlier in the episode, Juan gets in a street fight, and Cesare embarrassingly rescues him while dressed in his bishop’s robes. Cesare resents the role being foisted on him when he knows he’s the better soldier.

Next move … Rodrigo tells Vanozza that he can no longer been seen with her in public because he is now the Pope and must be seen being chaste even if it is known throughout Rome that he has children.

“God has chosen us as a new broom to seep the Vatican clean of corruption” – Rodrigo Borgia

Indeed … of all the people to sweep corruption out of The Vatican, I’m sure Rodrigo Borgia wasn’t at the top of God’s list!

To celebrate, Rodrigo and Cesare are invited by their archnemesis, Cardinal Orsini, to his home for dinner. Cesare, ever the intelligent son, brings a pet monkey to the feast. When the wine is poured, Cesare allows his monkey to taste it. The monkey lives and they know it is safe to drink. Suddenly, Cesare notices the server hurriedly making his way towards the kitchens and finds it strange so he pursues him. He sees the server grinding a powder, most likely poison, to put in the food that would be served to his father and confronts him. The monkey, meanwhile, eats the powder and promptly dies, confirming Cesare’s suspicions that Orsini is trying to kill his father. The server-assassin tells him it was meant for Cesare as well. Cesare takes the powder, dumps it into the flagon of wine and commands the assassin to pour this into Orsini’s wine glass. He takes this man under his wing and tells him he will pay him double to work for his family. The assassin accepts and serves Orsini the wine; he dies of poisoning almost immediately as the rest of the Cardinals look on aghast. Cesare rushes his father out of the house and puts him in a coach to be taken to safety. He tells him about the plot against their lives and Rodrigo is shocked and vows revenge.

I didn’t understand how Rodrigo was surprised by the attempt on his life. He thought that poison was beneath them as a means to kill a person of his position. Really?!? The entire time watching this, I knew that someone would try to assassinate him at some point. Rodrigo is so hated by Orsini and Della Rovere that it was unbelievable that some kind of attempt would not be made. Cesare was the smart one here – he brought a taster-monkey because he knew his father had made many enemies and that murder was a very real possibility.

“I need someone I can trust … I can trust these wounds of yours” – Cardinal Della Rovere

Meanwhile, Cesare’s new assassin tells him the danger isn’t over yet, that they have to rush to the Borgias’ home because Orsini sent assassins to murder the rest of the Borgia family. They arrive in the nick of time to halt the assassins. The assassin hired by Cesare tells him his name is Michelotto. Juan arrests him and is about to torture him for information when Cesare saves him. He tells Michelotto to lie low and his next job is to get close to Cardinal Della Rovere. Michelotto tells Cesare to whip him to make the torture believable. Michelotto goes to Della Rovere and he is questioned by him but it seems he passes his inspection and Della Rovere asks him to assemble the Cardinals who hate the Pope in absolute secret.

The more I watch this, as impressed as I was by Rodrigo’s initial plotting, I’m becoming more enamoured by Cesare. He’s sly and knows enough about intrigue to hire an assassin and bring a taster-monkey. He’s becoming more interesting to watch than his father and seems to be out-scheming him.

“I fear I may lack your Holiness’s will … I am still young your Holiness and my body I’m sure, could find and give much happiness if my soul could find peace” – Giulia Farnese

A beautiful woman comes to Rodrigo for confession. Enter Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek). She complains of her husband, saying she hates him and aborted his baby. She seeks forgiveness and penance. Rodrigo finds her beautiful and offers her safe haven in deceased Cardinal Orsini’s palace and shows her the secret tunnel from Orsini’s to The Vatican, should she need “spiritual counsel”. *cough cough* Rodrigo then proceeds to give her said counsel by having sex with her. That’s some counsel. 😉 A servant hears their lovemaking and we know that this foreshadows that this affair will not bode well for Rodrigo.

Della Rovere meets with his Cardinals and seeks to depose the Pope. He is looking for a legal means to get rid of Rodrigo and finds that a Pope who publicly keeps a concubine can be unseated.

“You told me that the Pope can love God but to be seen to love anyone else would be impossible, that the Pope must be chaste, and he must be seen to be chaste. Don’t you want them to hear that you have a new whore?” – Vanozza dei Cattanei


Rodrigo has Giulia’s portrait painted. While having her portrait done, she meets and befriends his daughter, Lucrezia. Lucrezia tells her mother about meeting Giulia in the Pope’s private rooms and Vanozza knows immediately that Rodrigo is having an affair. She confronts him, in hysterics, in front of the cardinals giving Della Rovere his much needed ammunition to proceed with proving the Pope is lecherous. He has the staff questioned and finds the serving girl who overheard them having sex.

Michelotto tells Cesare about the attempt to depose his father through accusations of lechery and Cesare tells him to ‘silence’ the evidence. Ahhh, a Renaissance “hit”. Cesare is definitely Mafia material. Michelotto gets rid of all the servants, speaks to the maid, has torrid sex with her, and stabs her to death in Della Rovere’s bed.

Meanwhile, Rodrigo finds out about the clandestine meeting of the Cardinals. He goes to see The Vatican expert on Canon Law and finds that if he increases the number of Cardinals by thirteen, he can prevent them from deposing him. He announces this at their next meeting sparking protests and outrage. Adding fuel to the fire, he announces that his son, Cesare, bishop of Valencia, has been raised to the position of Cardinal. In a rage, Della Rovere seeks to prove Rodrigo is keeping a concubine and runs out of the room to find the maid. He finds her bloody body in his bed. OH SNAP! His plot to depose Rodrigo is an utter failure and we’re left waiting until the next episode to find out what happens.

Things seem to be unravelling for our “papal hero”. He is being sloppy and his affair with Giulia has been uncovered. At the end of this episode, I have to admit that between Rodrigo and Cesare, Cesare is the better manipulator. If it weren’t for Cesare’s astute machinations, Rodrigo would be deposed and their family murdered or in exile. Della Rovere’s set up was brilliant. Now he looks like he’s been keeping a concubine and what’s more, she was murdered in his bed making him the suspect. He is now in no position to challenge Rodrigo on the count of lechery. The twists and turns of the plot are getting more complex but it hasn’t become dry or overburdened by detail. However, at the end of two episodes, I’m left more interested in watching what Cesare does instead of Rodrigo.

Photo Courtesy of Showtime

About Sandra

Sandra Sadowski graduated from the University of Toronto with a B.A. in Medieval History and English Literature. She is currently the Editor of and, and resides in Toronto.