Sunday, December 28, 2014

Movies and the US Constitution: Comparisons with the Roman / Spanish Empire: The Borgias

This is part of a series of posts following this summary of movies that provide a chronological history of the U.S. Constitution.  Here's the summary.

Depictions that Compare and Contrast the British-US constitutionalization with Roman
Empire-legacy Political Economies

21. The Borgias: the Original Crime Family (Showtime series, 2011) set in 1492 to 1503

Relevance to the US Constitution

A. Rule of Law

There are several ways in which this show illustrates a contrast and comparison between the British and US constitutionalization, and the Roman and Spanish Empire versions.

The Pope is elected, as was the Holy Roman Emperor, which would seem to give a lawful democratic or republican basis to the leadership, particularly more so than the methods of inheritance and warfare used in Britain up to the 1688 Glorious Revolution, however, the basis of this election only in men, such as the College of Cardinals, who have been ordained with "divine rights" from a male deity (i.e. "God") and then giving the Pope authoritarian power means there is effectively no legal boundary on the leaders.

The movie shows that when Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia was elected Pope, he was considered to have bought the Papacy.  The efforts to deal with this, even thought there are canon laws to the contrary, including laws that a Pope may be charged with simony and with "public lechery" (a Pope's private sexual relationships are not against canon law, while his public ones are) are ineffective, because of the authoritarian power he then holds.  (The Cardinals are depicted as not really caring about the sexual relationships, but do look to see if there is law regarding them they can use to oust the Pope.)

This is a contrast to the Magna Carta forming more effective boundaries on abuse of power in England in the reigns of John and Henry VIII and his children.   While Henry VIII did kill his wives on false claims, not something addressed in the Magna Carta (a single woman could be a "freeman" under its language but not a married woman when combined with laws of coverture imported in the Norman Conquest), efforts to disinherit any of his children by him or others as established by law, were not circumvented.

What ends up happening is the Pope uses the law entirely for his own ends in application to others, but it is not applied to him.  The frustration among the Cardinals about Borgia (Pope Alexander) mounts and he is abandoned by his Cardinals when Cardinal Della Rovare convinces King Charles of France to invade the Vatican.

The Pope thus appears not to have absolute authority over any of the Cardinals or King Charles, but in the end he does have such absolute authority as King Charles later submits to him in exchange for forgiveness and absolution for his crimes.  The Cardinals, including Cardinal Della Rovare, then return to Rome and Pope Alexander, although Della Rovare continues to challenge Pope Alexander’s authority, albeit not the institution of the Papacy itself and its lack of legal boundaries that led to Pope Alexander's abuses.   Pope Alexander then calls upon Cardinal Burkhardt, who  is shown being the custodian of and advisor on canon law.  He is asked by Pope Alexander to locate a precedent for his requiring the Cardinals who abandoned Alexander to show penitence by appearing in sackcloth and ashes.  Again, the Pope is able to use the law for his purposes but not to be subject to it himself.

Pope Alexander would later endorse the Spanish Empire's importation of slaves and the institution of slavery.   By 1625, the Spanish Empire involuntarily transported approximately 475,000 enslaved Africans to the Spanish Americas and Brazil—more than the number of Africans who disembarked in British North America and the United States during the course of the entire transatlantic slave trade.

Over the course of the Catholic Church's history, some Popes condemned slavery, while a number of others have endorsed it in keeping with Thomas Aquinas' teaching, including Pope Pius in 1866, just as the US constitutionalized clear prohibitions on slavery after the Civil War, almost 80 years after some US states (PA, NJ, CT, MA, NH, NY) outlawed it in 1787-88 (and others shortly thereafter, VT in 1791 and OH in 1903, with a number of other states also outlawing it prior to the Civil War) and decades after the British outlawed it in 1833 .

This is another illustration where a "good Pope" is still a very different thing than a constitution that sets a boundary on the leaders.  If you give a "good Pope" authoritarian power, you also give a "bad Pope", such as Alexander, such power.   Alexander was considered a "good Pope" by several of his successors (Sixtux V and Urban VIII considered him one of the most outstanding Popes since Saint Peter).

B.       Use of the term “person”

The view of "rights of man" and "responsibilities of woman" that is still set forth in constitutions in Roman Empire (and Spanish Empire) legacy countries, such as those in Italy, Ireland, Mexico, Central America, South America today is very visible in Borgias.  As noted, the the British constitution and the US Constitution do not use these words after 1688, when only the word "person" is used.

These rules originated with Octavian, the successor to Julius Caesar in the conversion of the Roman Republic to a Roman Empire, who imposed the rules of single women no longer holding public status, prohibiting contraception, in an effort to get Rome's ruling classes to have more children.  It didn't work to get the ruling classes to have more children, but it did cause the poor to have many, many children and many generations of such, relegating them and future generations to poverty.  Eventually in succeeding centuries, Rome would be sacked and all that would be left was the Catholic Church.

These rules are still in place in the late 1400s of The Borgias as well as they are today in the Vatican and its canon law.  Women in The Borgias are shown as being allowed only to be married or to enter a convent.  The women who do not do this are "courtesans", such as the mothers of Borgia's children.  A woman on her own, even a widow, is not otherwise depicted, in contrast with the widows of Britain recognized in the Magna Carta, or the single women that Elizabeth I would represent when she holds the throne a few decades later.  Under the laws of coverture in England imported in the Norman Conquest, a married woman lost her rights but a single woman could still hold them, functioning as a freeman, as outlined in the Magna Carta.

Women also required dowries in Rome in contrast with the Norse model in Vikings where the parents of both the bride and groom contribute to the wedding and the wife retains her agency and ability to earn, own land, and provide, following the wedding, as we saw with Lagertha and Ragnald.

Pope Alexander had a number of children, some of which he acknowledged while others he did not.   He begins to include his four children with Vannozza (Giovanna) dei Cattani in many of his dealings. One of these is his daughter Lucrezia.  To raise her dowry, one of her brothers kills an Ottoman Prince who has a bounty on his head by another Ottoman ruler.

At the wedding of Lucrezia, her mother Giovanna dei Cattani is not allowed to attend on Pope Alexander's determination that she is a courtesan, and he brings another mistress, Giulia Farnese.

Then there is an illustration of how the sexism becomes reversed when Pope Alexander is seeking to get Lucrezia out of the marriage to Lord Giovanni Sforza, who had also not been willing to defend the Pope when the army of King Charles of France was marching on him.  She is depicted as being visibly pregnant with another man's child, however, this view that Lucrezia gave birth to a "secret child" at this time is not certain historically.   In the depiction, Pope Alexander calls upon Cardinal Burkhardt, the custodian of and advisor on canon law.  Cardinal Burkhardt uses canon law authority to find an annulment of the marriage of Lucrezia and Sforza on grounds of nonconsummation (in several previous scenes of Sforza and Lucrezia are shown having sex).  Lucrezia, shielded behind a screen so no one can see her visible pregnancy, lies and says Sforza is impotent.  Burkhardt says Sforza could demonstrate potency with Lucrezia in front of canon lawyers.  Or Sforza could demonstrate potency with courtesans in front of canon lawyers and public of Rome.  Pope Alexander says a demonstration in front of the Cardinals would be acceptable as well. The courtesans come in and Sforza says he wants a divorce (i.e. he is unwilling to have public sex with the courtesans), that he could not and did not consummate the marriage and that he has always been impotent.  Pope Alexander then declares the marriage annulled.

Previous:  Comparisons with the Roman / Spanish Empire: Rome Miniseries [to be completed]

Next:  Comparisons with the Roman / Spanish Empire: The DaVinci Code [to be completed]


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