After Showtime’s The Borgias began in 2011, we podcasted the first few episodes of the series, and we raved about the gorgeous late 15th-century costumes designed by Gabriella Pescucci, the riveting script by Neil Jordan, and the scrumptious cast lead by Jeremy Irons. We went on to watch the entire series (which ended in 2013) and reveled in the totally absorbing, and rather sexy, tale loosely based on the life and family of Rodrigo Borgia aka Pope Alexander VI.
Little did we realize at that time, there was a similar TV series called Borgia: Faith and Fear, produced almost concurrently (from 2011 to 2014) in Europe. This French-German-Czech-Italian show was filmed in English, and it premiered in Italy and France and was made available on Netflix in the U.S. Faith and Fear covers the same historical story as the Showtime series, with Rodrigo Borgia and his family being the central characters. Both TV shows are explicit with plenty of violence and sex, but … that’s where the similarities end.
Let’s put it this way: Showtime’s The Borgias is a brand-new Ferrari, speeding along the highway, while Borgia: Faith and Fear is a dinky little Fiat, puttering down the back streets. Where The Borgias has a rich, luscious historical look and engaging story with experienced, nuanced acting, Faith and Fear has cheap, flimsy costumes worn by people speaking wooden lines and randomly indulging in sex and gore.
Borgia: Faith and Fear Summarized
I’ll admit, I could not make it through the entire run of the show. I watched one and a half seasons and found it stupefyingly boring. OH THE EXPOSITION!!! There’s a little principle in storytelling of “show, don’t tell,” where the story should let actions unfold instead of having characters literally stand there and tell you what’s going on. But here, American actor John Doman, who plays Rodrigo/the Pope, is given the task of explaining everything that’s taking place. ‘We must defend Rome against invading forces. Now I will position my defenses at the walls. Look, they are defending Rome.’ And on and on for 10 minutes, a couple men standing there talking about how we’re defending the city, instead of, oh I don’t know, defending the damn city. It’s like watching a chess game where each player announces what move he’s going to make along with how that move will affect the other player’s move. Just play the game!
The emotional qualities of the show unfold the same way — through a lot of talky-talk, usually by someone who is telling a character what they feel (because it’s not obvious to the audience, I guess). ‘You are afraid, you must face your fear.’ ‘You are melancholy, this potion will help your melancholy.’ Blah blah blah. Subtlety and expression are for wimps! We have to label every emotion and scream it from the rooftops.
And then, as if to further explain these oh-so-complicated details, each episode begins with a tedious recap of the previous episode — which lasts for a minute and a half, featuring maps, diagrams, dates, and there will be a quiz at the end of each season which counts for a quarter of your grade. Except for the second season, where each episode begins with a gratuitous minute-long Biblical parable, and you have to do 10 Hail Marys and five Our Fathers at the end of the season as penance for watching this mess. I will do a lot for Frock Flicks, but I couldn’t bear to watch through every single episode and suffer all those sins.
But hey, to make it a little more interesting, writer and series creator Tom Fontana throws in some blood and nudity! You might see menstruation, you could see someone getting their bowels slit open. Maybe you’ll be shown naked, fat, old men getting humiliated or having sex (with young girls, natch) or taking a dump. Sometimes you watch hot young men flagellating themselves or getting in bloody bar fights. Maybe we’re shown a birth with a closeup of the crowning. Or one time we’ll see an orgy, or we get closeups of a lot of nice, plague-y, puss-filled boils. Too bad Borgia: Faith and Fear didn’t take the Game of Thrones trick and combine the random sex and gore with all the exposition. Might have made for a less dull show. (Speaking of Game of Thrones, John Bradley who plays reluctant Cardinal Giovanni De Medici in this Borigas, now plays good-guy Black Watch brother Samwell Tarly.)
For a show that often begins by spewing a Wikipedia page at you, there’s surprisingly little context for the sex and violence. It’s just background noise — maybe that’s the difference between a European vs. American production? In a U.S. cable show, sex and violence are used as fancy wallpaper to dress up a show and make it more attractive. In Faith and Fear, the sex and violence make the show uglier and duller.
Basically, you can sum up most any Borgia: Faith and Fear episode like this:
- 50% Exposition
- 20% Sex and random nudity
- 20% Violence (torture, fighting, murder, etc.)
- 7% Flagellation / other self-abuse
- 3% Putrid illness
I’m not opposed to any of these things other than the exposition. I just wish that they were worked into the plot better and not merely sprinkled around like so much garnish on an undercooked entree.
Borgias: Faith and Fear Costumes
This series’ costume designer is Sergio Ballo, who has worked on a bunch of films and TV movies in Italy, but nothing I’d heard of before this. While he seems to have done a few historical costume movies, his costumes for Borgia: Faith and Fear aren’t the most historically accurate nor are they particularly fun to look at. The Showtime version may take historical liberties, but at least the costumes appear consistently fantastic. This one? Meh. The young actors are attractive, but their costumes don’t add anything to the picture. The clothes seem like bland, Italian-Renaissance rental stock with A LOT of big metal grommets (and we all know what that means, right?).
The women’s gowns mostly have low-square necklines, round waistlines, and giant puffy sleeves reminiscent of Bronzino portraits from the 1540s. That’s a nice Florentine style, but it’s 50 years off and the wrong place for the Borgias’ story. Randomly, in the third season, the women’s gowns start to look like Regency / 1810s styles with an overall narrower silhouette, a higher waist, and fitted sleeves — but in the same dark velvets and brocades to indicate “Italian Renaissance.” I don’t understand the change there. The Showtime version definitely has more accurate clothing shapes and is more consistent.
Plus, Faith and Fear has a lot of little problems with costume accessories. Nothing new, all stuff we’ve mentioned before that movies and TV get wrong about historical costume sigh. Women’s hair is often hanging down — unless she’s an Old Lady (like Juan, Cesare, and Lucrezia’s mom) or maybe a Very Unhappy Lady (like Juan’s wife, who he beats up). Sometimes women do wear veils, as most women did in the Italian states, but then those are worn with silly metal circlets that look very celtic-fantasy-faire. There’s a weird inconsistency in when a woman does or does not wear a smock / chemise with her gown, so I expect some very chafed boobs under those grommeted bodices.
Many of the male characters are wearing standard-issue Catholic church robes, so nothing strikingly bad (or good). Cesare leaves his shirt open frequently or strips entirely — servicing the lay-dees in the audience, of course. Btw, the Irish actor playing Cesare, Mark Ryder, totally reminds me of some 1980s pop star or actor, but I’m drawing a blank on specifically who — Andrew McCarthy in Pretty in Pink? George Micheal circa “Careless Whispers”? Help jog my memory here!
Alright, how about we compare some of the main characters’ costumes in each series?
Rodrigo Borgia in
Showtime’s The Borgias vs. Borgia: Faith and Fear
It’s not fair to compare John Doman to Jeremy Irons as actors. Dorman has had a decent career, mostly in police procedurals like Law and Order and The Wire, but he’s not an Oscar and Emmy winner of prominence like Irons. Ultimately though, it’s the script that fails Doman, not giving him much to work with. Anyway, I guess each gentleman fills out his pope’s robes alright. Much like the script, Irons is given better quality robes to wear.
Lucrezia Borgia in
Showtime’s The Borgias vs. Borgia: Faith and Fear
One review of German actress Isolda Dychauk’s performance as Lucrezia said it was like watching a teenage girl read aloud a poem she’d memorized. Yeah, not the most heart-rending stuff. Dychauk might have promise, but, rather like Lucrezia herself, a lot is asked of her that she doesn’t seem up to yet. The historical character had three marriages, all arranged, none particularly happy, and the TV series gives her plenty of scenery to chew. Dychauk mostly cries, whines, has sex, or looks like a deer caught in the headlights, sometimes all at once, all while wearing fairly unimpressive Italian Ren outfits.
Holliday Grainger in Showtime’s The Borgias has more depth of emotion and a better wardrobe, undoubtedly. I admire how Grainger gave Lucrezia strength and showed more growth of the character. While her relationships with different family members had weird tensions, they made sense in the context of her world and Grainger’s performance.
When it comes to the costuming for either of these series, it’s all about Lucrezia. She’s the star of the show, she’s the pretty pretty princess of this psychosexual family political drama. In the Showtime series, Lucrezia Borgia’s gowns show how high waists can be flattering, and the designs fit the aesthetics of the 1490s period (particularly with references to paintings of Domenico Ghirlandaio). Also, the hairstyling in Showtimes The Borgias is spectacularly good — Lucrezia’s hair is worn down as she’s young and unmarried, but she starts to wear it up in the elaborate styles of the period. In Faith and Fear, we get two seasons of not very exciting 1540s-ish dresses, then for a finale, Lucrezia wears some high-waist outfits that don’t reference a very specific period. But at least these last ones are pretty.
Cesare Borgia in
Showtime’s The Borgias vs. Borgia: Faith and Fear
As historian Ada Palmer points out, each series takes a different point of view with Cesare — history is unclear about whether he was born before or after his brother Juan. Faith and Fear makes Cesare the younger brother, while Showtime makes him the older brother, and this changes the family dynamic. That doesn’t change all of his ruthless actions, just some of their motivations. I found myself strangely fascinated by Mark Ryder’s portrayal in a way that I wasn’t by François Arnaud’s (but maybe that’s because I can swear Ryder looks like some ’80s pop star! seriously, who can it be now? is it all in my mind? help a sista out!).
Costume-wise, both shows take wild liberties with Cesare’s wardrobe because, duh, he’s the hot stud of the show. Wrap him up in leather or strip off his shirt, whatever it takes to draw in a coveted female demographic. Equal time to balance all the bare women’s breasts.
Other Characters in
Showtime’s The Borgias vs. Borgia: Faith and Fear
All of the women’s costumes fall in line with Lucrezia’s clothes in both shows, so key characters, like the pope’s mistress Giulia Farnese, wear pretty similar gowns. Italian actress Marta Gastini plays Giulia in Faith and Fear, where the character has a somewhat diminished role compared to Showtime’s The Borgias, where she is played by Lotte Verbeek (who is currently featured as Geillis Duncan in Outlander). Same for the pope’s old lover (and mother of his grown children) Vannozza Catanei, played by Joanne Whalley (recently Catherine of Aragorn in Wolf Hall) in the Showtime series and by queen of Spanish film and TV, Assumpta Serna, in Faith and Fear. Also, the women’s hair in the Showtime series is fantastically done in historical fashions, while not so much in the other show.
Both series are currently available on Netflix and Amazon, so if you’re curious, you can compare for yourself. You can also check out this YouTube channel of Borgia Scenes from Faith and Fear.
Have you seen both The Borgias and Borgia: Faith and Fear? How do you think they compare?
Whew! That is A LOT of ill-fitting bodices and metal grommets in Borgia!
I’m sorry we missed this during Snark Week!
„What is that thing on her head?”
“No, seriously, WHAT is on her head?!?!?”
Well it’s called “ferroniere” and I’m not quite sure why you are asking. It’s hardly possible to imagine that you have never seen the portrait by Bartolomeo Veneto: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hen-magonza/6685174329/
“Faith and Fear has some nice locations, at least (filmed in the Czech Republic).”
You know, this caption exactly below this picture is unintentionally funny. Because, FYI, many scenes of “Faith and Fear” were filmed not in the Czech Republic but on the original historical locations in Italy. In particular, this shot shows the very famous Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola:
As for the question which show I find better: yes I have watched them both, from the beginning to the end, and in my personal opinion “Borgia Faith and Fear” is better, and by far. Because of much, MUCH more history( and under “history” I mean NOT torture, nope), the show’s boldness and originality, the complexity of its plotlines, the interesting written characters and their development , and lots of talented actors( no in this case “talented” means NOT anyone’s likeness to’80s pop stars).
But I virtually have no doubt that if the only things I cared about were pretty dresses and pretty faces, Jeremy Irons’ sex appeal and a brother/sister incest I would seriously prefer “The Borgias”. :-)
1 — Have you seen the full portrait? http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bartolomeo_Veneto_001.jpg It’s idealized (the hair is not realistic, the flowers & jewelry are symbolic), it’s not Lucrezia Borgia (among other things, it was painted around 1520 & she died in 1519), & it’s certainly not anything a woman actually wore (hi, it’s mostly nude!).
2 — All sources say Borgia: Faith & Fear was filmed in the Czech Republic, either on location or on set. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1736341/ If you have an inside source claiming otherwise, do share :)
3 — History, I’m quite the fan. But for entertainment value, I prefer history to be shown & acted instead of recited at me. I can & do read books for that. If I need a soporific, I’ll take a sleeping pill instead of watch the rest of Faith & Fear.
1) No need to explain me how much idealized is Veneto’s painting – I’m not blind and I know enough about it.
Nonetheless, two things are certain:
– whether one believes it’s Lucrezia or not it’s impossible to ignore this portrait – especially because, you know, there is no single portrait of Lucrezia Borgia that is contemporary or reliable;
– the headband in “Faith and Fear” AND on the picture by Veneto is ferroniere, and it was pretty common for ladies’ fashion in the late fifteenth century.
2) Your sources are seriously limited. Here you go:
That’s just a couple of many articles, all free published. As a matter of fact, the team of “Faith and Fear” crossed all Italy in years 2012-2014. And they also filmed season 3 in Croatia. :-)
3) Entertainment factor is very personal and cannot be measured objectively. And I do love the costumes on “The Borgias”; moreover: even if the costumes are not exactly accurate either, they are probably the best thing about this show, imo. But to spend 29 hours drooling over the dresses? And accidentally falling asleep (out of boredom)and waking up in 20 minutes only to discover that I haven’t missed anything aside from a couple of outfits ? Not exactly my cup of tea, sorry. “Borgia Faith and Fear” gives me a lot more for both my mind and soul, even if not always for my eyes. :-)
These are a few actual headbands worn by women in Italian city-states in the 1490s:
Not the random belt-buckle-on-ribbon thing that Faith & Fear gave her. It’s wrong & doesn’t even go with the 1540s (also wrong) gowns she’s wearing. For someone who claims to love the “history” of this show, why do you insist on glossing over the wildly inaccurate costuming? That’s what Frock Flicks is about, btw. (FYI, your links are just ads, nothing else loaded.)
1) Hey, I never said this particular ferroniere were accurate – I KNOW it’s not. Still it’s a ferroniere, that’s obvious. Still, you asked what it is, I answered your question and expressed my astonishment that you had not recognized it – because Veneto’s painting is pretty famous.
2) I’m NOT glossing over the costuming – whether right or wrong, whether pretty or not really, whether on “The Borgias” or “Borgia”. That was exactly my point: dresses are not that important for me.
3) I know Frock Flicks is about costuming. Nonetheless you included in your review many remarks that have nothing to do with the outfits and their accuracy – at all. These remarks are totally subjective and express your personal opinion only. So I allowed myself to express MY personal opinion on two shows which happens to be different. Hopefully you’re OK with the fact that not everyone in this world shares your opinions. :-)
4) URL shortening is a pretty common technique on the www nowadays and alas, I have no idea how to avoid it. In fact, to go to the actual pages one should just click “skip advertising” in the upper right corner.
But regardless if you’re interested in seeing the links: the shot with John Doman you used in your review IS Palazzo Farnese. And Palazzo Farnese IS in Italy, not in the Czech Republic. :-)
1) I critiqued it bec. it’s not accurate & it’s not a “ferroniere” (which is probably not a period term btw, it’s most likely a 19th-c. term for the headband). I never asked what it was — I know Faith & Fear put something stupid & inaccurate on the actor’s head & was being facetious from the start. Sorry you never figured that out!
2) If the costumes are not important to you, then perhaps you’re reading the wrong website.
3) You’re allowed your own opinions, no matter how ridiculous, you bet. You can also get your own website & spout off there :)
4) Try tinyurl.com — it’s been around since 2002, it’s free, & pages load super fast. And still, the credits in season one eps say ‘filmed in the Czech Republic.’
Wow, so much arrogance and rudeness!
Indeed, he doesn’t have the grace to concede on any of the points Camilla took him up on so elegantly. Still, it’s obvious who has and who doesn’t have a clue about presenting an argument and defending it.
Complitely agree with Camilla!
Very much agreed. The showtime show is a hollow, empty comparison. It’s only edge is beauty, which is inauthentic and unrealistic to the time. Levels of accuracy where not yet as high level as it would lead you to believe. Please note the 2 geniuses in this time were hugely out of place in there time, which any art history course would reveal.
Francois Arnaud PLAYS Cesare Borgia (Showtime), Mark Ryder IS Cesare Borgia!!(Canal +), you’re welcome..
This post was interesting, but I was sad to see the Showtime version treated with such favor. Borgia is much more “historically accurate” (neither are truly historical fact– they wouldn’t be good television if they were) and honestly they accuracy endeared it to me much more than The Borgias, which has the air of a cheap bodice ripper that’s half-off ad infinitum at Barnes & Noble. The intricacies of the papacy are, admittedly, a bit tedious, but Lucrezia Borgia, a blonde?? Redhead suits her delicious historical character so much better. Oh well, maybe I’m the outlier.
Well, my review is (a) about the costumes, in which the Showtime version actually WAS quite historically accurate & ‘Faith & Fear’ was horrifically inaccurate (this blog is all about costume in historical movies, it’s our thing), & b) I found ‘Faith & Fear’ to be incredibly dull as actual televised entertainment, poorly constructed as a supposed drama, with tin-ear acting from much of the cast. So it failed on multiple accounts, not just historical accuracy!
I’m pretty sure all contemporary sources labeled her as a blonde actually. It’s one of her most known traits!
Sorry, I’ve very late to reading this. But, Lucrezia was a blond, she’s always been described as a blond. Why would you change the person’s hair color when it’s known? :/
And maybe I’m sensitive, as a redhead, but “Redhead suits her delicious historical character so much better” is just ridiculous. My husband did his master’s thesis on red hair in literature and this sentence just feeds into what he was trying to point out and counteract. The trope of the sexy, scheming woman having red hair is just tired. Especially when it’s being imposed upon someone who didn’t have that hair color.
“Pretty in pink.” To our modern American eyes, pink is appropriate to show the message of a good princess. But in the Renaissance, pink and other such pale colors were seen as the mark of poverty. To show wealth, the color dyes must be deep and rich. So while the style details of fashion in “The Borgias” are more captivating than “Borgia” (mostly due to Showtime giving it a bigger budget), it’s also historically inaccurate.
I’ve watched both shows. To me, Showtime’s “The Borgias” seems blatantly designed for an American audience (disclaimer: I’m American). In other words, the violence is toned down, the plot lines and points are simplified, and modern sensibilities have changed the story. For example, in Showtime, Della Rovere expresses shock at Rodrigo’s use of bribery and mistresses, and Lucrezia protests arranged marriages. In history, Della Rovere used bribery and mistresses, as did most cardinals at the time, so the shock is out of place, and arranged marriages were the order of the day for the elites. These are examples of Showtime using modern sensibilities to have the audience relate more to the show. I find that “Borgia” has more ‘historicity’ than “The Borgias” and dares to get into the complexities of the Renaissance as well as the harsh reality of the times much more than the Showtime version.
Hate to bust that myth, but pink is perfectly fashionable for the upper-classes in Renaissance Europe, including Italy. There are plenty of period portraits of wealthy women wearing elegant pink gowns & men as well — a summary here from our friend Kimiko http://www.kimiko1.com/research-16th/CostumeMythsWS/myth23.html
For specific Italian Ren portraits, try any of these:
For starters :)
Dark pink was fashionable, but not light pink. The same thing applies for most pastel colors, actually: Pastels to us signify “delicate and innocent”, but at the time they signified, “I can’t afford decent dye.”
Everyone seems to find “Borgia: Faith and Fear” more historically accurate, but did those of you who think it’s better actually SEE the costumes? It combined all the medieval aesthetic stereotypes, sprinkled with some random print, historical architecture motifs and no upper top. Otherwise, they would serve “Once Upon a Time” series fairly well.
And as for the “no light pink! poverty! scandalous! she would have never!…”, here you go:
Borgia has more accurate clothing in terms of the color. The Borgias wouldn’t have worn really really bright colors like they did on the American version.
Dark colors are not automatically more historically accurate. Pale colors were used in the Renaissance by the upper classes — it’s a myth that that only meant bad dye job.
They may have had bright pastel colors, but I don’t think they were too bright like they were portrayed on The Borgias. I don’t know, but dark colors were also used to show wealth as well as the pastels.
Thank you, Marozia!
Kip Winger. Kip Winger is the man you’re thinking of.
Awfully close, but I’m thinking more like Andrew Ridgely of Wham!, heh
The no-name actors and ugly costumes in “Borgia: Faith and Fear” are probably because of its smaller budget.
If you have a show that has $50 million for 29 episodes vs. another that has $30 million for 48 episodes, then obviously the former is going to have prettier costumes and better production values.
I was never able to get into faith and fear, I tried and tried but could not stand it. Mostly because I watched showtimes first im sure… I had to do a paper on the two and the borgias helped me a lot more than anything else did. But yes you did amazing with this XD
Borgias: Faith and Fear Cesare looks terribly like Sean Penn to me. And his hair is so anti-period I can’t take him the least bit seriously :-(
The Borgias didn’t have really accurate costumes either. Yes they look more Renaissance and pretty than the costumes in Borgia, but the looks were inspired from the 1520s rather than the 1490s. The only really accurate gown from that time period was Lucrezias dark green and dark red one she wore when having her portrait taken. Most dresses from 1490s Italy had V shaped cuts or bodices rather than the square ones she wears a lot of later. Also, as was pointed out, the men have leather pants so that’s definitely not accurate. I know this was made for an American audience and accuracy shouldn’t matter (crying inside), I think it would’ve been nice to see some more authentic clothing being presented.
Hardly any historical costume movie or TV show is perfectly accurate (that’s why this blog & podcast exist!). But Showtime’s The Borgias is at least 400% more historically accurate in costume than the European version, & that’s the point of this post.
Also, please listen to our review of Showtime’s The Borgias for our specific critiques, linked in the first paragraph.
Yes, historical costumes in TV show can’t be 100% accurate and I listened to your podcast, which I thought was very good and informative on what was worn in Renaissance Italy in the late 15th century. I agree that The Borgias had better and more accurate costumes compared to Borgia, but Borgia also did its best, in my opinion, to keep it historical and close to the period. It was also probably the budget they had, which is why some of the costumes looked alittle funky at times.
“I get all my historically accurate fashion tips from Reign and Kate Beaton so this doesn’t look right to me.”
This whole post is a joke. Yeah, a teenaged girl running a duchy then counciling the papacy ia going to make decisions like a teenaged girl. Which is to say, like a grown man but with empathy.
Seriously “what is this head necklace thingy”, did you do a hot minute of research or….?
This site(and the article) is about the costumes of the 2 shows ONLY. It is widely known that in terms of storytelling, The Borgias is MASSIVELY INFERIOR to Borgia. However, due to a huge budget, their costumes have always been dazzling. So when OP claims The Borgias is superior to Borgia, she clearly means it in terms of costumes only.
Well, I personally feel Borgia is a much much much superior TV series than The Borgias in terms of story telling. However, this site and article is about the costumes and I agree, The Borgias is much pleasant visibly and is full of hollow fluff like exotic costumes and visuals to make up for its dumbed down storyline.
I agree with the OP that The Borgias is a superior show to Borgia IF ONLY COSTUMES ARE COMPARED.
I covet all the teal dresses on Showtime’s ‘Borgias’ hardcore, because teal is my favourite colour, but it also helps that they’re really well-made, & just plain stunning.
That one teal-ish looking dress Marta wears… not so much – & if I playing a drinking game JUST with the metal grommets… I’d end up with alcohol poisoning!
*’was playing’, I think
Faith and Fear is a better show.
One of many things Faith and Fear did wrong was not to blow the majority of the meager costume budget on Lucrezia and Rodrigo. They could have put the extras and bit players in head to toe black- which hides cheap fabrics and a lack of costly detail work and also visually makes the point that the Borgia family stood out as colorful, powerful, and wealthy even by the standards of the elite of their day. BTW, while I agree The Borgias is a much more engaging costume drama, it definitely got creative with history. However, it is far more enlightening to watch The Borgias and then read some good books about them rather than slog through Faith and Fear hoping for an actual history lesson.