It premiered on April 3, 2011, at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime in the United States and 10 p.m. Eastern (UTC−04:00) on Bravo! in Canada, and received its first major television network premiere on June 21, 2011, on Canada's CTV Television Network. The second season premiered on April 8, 2012. On May 4, 2012, Showtime ordered a third season of 10 episodes, which premiered on April 14, 2013.
On June 5, 2013, Showtime canceled the series, a season short of Jordan's planned four-season arc for the series. The cancellation was implied to be due to the expense of production, with plans for a two-hour wrap-up finale also scrapped. A fan campaign was started in an attempt to convince Showtime to revive the series. On August 12, 2013, it was announced that the two-hour series finale script would be released as an e-book, after it was determined that a movie would be too expensive to produce.
The series follows the rise of the Borgia family to the pinnacle of the Roman Catholic Church and their struggles to maintain their grip on power. The beginning of the first season depicts the election of Rodrigo Borgia to the papacy through simony and bribery with the help of his son, Cesare. The triumph in the papal conclave of Borgia, who becomes Pope Alexander VI, enrages his rivals in the College of Cardinals, some of whom decide to plot against him. With the help of his family, Alexander takes on his enemies while striking alliances with other European powers to strengthen his position.
Meanwhile, Alexander's great rival, Cardinal Della Rovere, travels across Italy and France to seek allies to depose the pope. He manages to persuade King Charles VIII of France to assist him in removing Pope Alexander in exchange for supporting the King's claim to the throne of Naples, an ally of the Borgias through marriage. Season one culminates with Charles and his army, accompanied by Della Rovere, marching to Rome and finally coming to a head with the Borgias.
Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia / Pope Alexander VI: An ambitious clergyman and head of the Borgia family. He uses his position to acquire power and influence, becoming pope in 1492. Shrewd and scheming, he is utterly devoted to his family, but also enjoys the company of beautiful women. The Pope, despite his corruption and cunning, believes he is doing what is right, but often questions himself and his actions when innocents are caught in the crossfire. His daughter Lucrezia is the one person he believes he can completely trust, so much so that he leaves her on the Throne of Saint Peter when he is away.
François Arnaud as Cesare Borgia: Son of Rodrigo, he is his father's consigliere in the church. However, he desires to leave the priesthood, preferring warfare to the clergy. He has a violent streak, killing anyone to help the family's cause or eliminate romantic rivals. His devotion to his sister Lucrezia is his one soft spot. He becomes a hardened man after the torture and death of his lover, Ursula Bonadeo and the brutal treatment of his sister by her first husband and brings terrible vengeance to the perpetrators of both crimes.
Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia: Daughter of Rodrigo, and the apple of her father's eye. From its onset, the series hints of an emotionally incestuous relationship between her and her brother Cesare. Her first love is Prince Cem, and when he is murdered, she is truly heartbroken, having dreams about him trying to tell her his "secret" (the true manner of his death). These dreams continue even after she marries. Beautiful, clever and brave, she is betrothed at a young age to the abusive Giovanni Sforza, and suffers from an unhappy marriage. While married to Sforza, she has a passionate affair with Paolo, a servant, and has a child by him, but he too is murdered. When Lucrezia and Giulia are captured by the French king, she charms him with her wit and beauty to save Rome. She rejects her father's attempts to get her to remarry, before eventually accepting Alfonso of Aragon as her new husband. Their marriage is a failure, and drives her into Cesare's forbidden arms.
Joanne Whalley as Vanozza Cattaneo: Courtesan and mother of the pope's children. Her position as the matriarch of the family is threatened by the Borgias' newly acquired powers and the pope's new mistress.
Lotte Verbeek as Giulia Farnese: Mistress to the pope. An independent and wise woman herself, she earns the trust of Pope Alexander and becomes a close friend and mentor to Lucrezia.
David Oakes as Juan Borgia: Son of Rodrigo and Gonfalonier of the Papal Armies. He behaves recklessly and arrogantly but is an inept coward. In the aftermath of slaying Lucrezia's beloved Paolo, he comes to fear his sister's cunning wrath (she encourages his fear, constantly toying with him and making him paranoid to avenge Paolo). After learning of abysmal behavior during his failed siege of Forli (which Juan had covered up, Cesare and Micheletto discreetly murder him after he leaves an opium den.
Sean Harris as Micheletto Corella: Cesare Borgia's devoted follower and 'hit man'. He carries out ruthless killings under the order of Cesare to keep the Borgia family in power. He secretly engages in homosexual trysts, which ultimately becomes his downfall in the final season, when Micheletto takes a lover who happens to be a spy for the Sforza family, and, after being ordered to kill him, a heartbroken Micheletto abandons Cesare.
Aidan Alexander as Joffre Borgia: The barely pubescent youngest son of the pope. He is married to Sancia of Naples by the pope to secure an alliance with the kingdom to consolidate his papacy.
Colm Feore as Giuliano della Rovere: A powerful cardinal in the church. After losing the papal election to Rodrigo Borgia, he devotes himself to deposing the new pope, whom he sees as lewd and blasphemous. Della Rovere's first attempt, by aligning himself with the King of France, is ultimately unsuccessful, when the Pope outmanoeuvres the French and persuades them to pass through Rome peacefully. His second attempt, to get a young man to become the Pope's taster, and then poison him, almost succeeds, but thanks to Lucrezia's ingenuity, he is unsuccessful, and because he chose to be at the Pope's deathbed, he is promptly arrested by Cesare, and faces torture and painful execution, but a rebellious cardinal releases him, and Della Rovere escapes Rome.
Ronan Vibert as Giovanni Sforza: The Lord of Pesaro, picked as the husband of Lucrezia by the pope in exchange for support from the Sforza clan. A cold and brutish man, he rapes Lucrezia repeatedly at the beginning of the marriage, but breaks his leg after falling off a horse thanks to a scheme by Lucrezia. The household staff all hate him and several of them side with Lucrezia and aid her in her affair with Paolo. He betrays the alliance with the Borgias by refusing to support them against the impending French invasion. He is later humiliated by the Borgias, who convene the College of Cardinals to have his marriage to Lucrezia annulled on the grounds of impotence. When Sforza denies the charges, the Pope declares that he must prove it before the College and two overweight, unattractive prostitutes are brought in. Sforza, unable to bear the humiliation, declares that he is impotent and is sent from Rome in disgrace. Later, after making snide comments about Lucrezia to Cesare, who is on a visit to Forli to negotiate peace with his cousin, Caterina Sforza, Cesare attacks and kills him, igniting a war between Rome and Forli.
Simon McBurney as Johannes Burchard: The Vatican Master of Ceremonies and a scholar with impeccable expertise on canon law. To keep his position (and life), Johannes remains deliberately ambiguous about his loyalties, at times assisting both Pope Alexander VI and his enemies in their scheming.
Augustus Prew as Alfonso II of Naples: The eldest son of King Ferdinand I of Naples. His father was old and senile, leaving himself as the effective ruler of Naples. He is eventually tortured to death by King Charles VIII, who blamed him for the plague that swept Naples, and his body is placed in his father's gruesome "Last Supper" as Judas Iscariot.
Luke Pasqualino as Paolo: The young servant of Giovanni Sforza. He is outraged by his master's treatment of Lucrezia and sabotages Sforza's saddle, causing his master to suffer a serious injury. He and Lucrezia later have an affair, and he fathers a child with her. After this discovery, he helps her escape from the Sforza household, at the cost of a violent whipping from his master. He travels to Rome to search for her, naively befriending a prostitute whom Juan Borgia employs to follow him. With the help of Cesare and Micheletto, he is reunited with Lucrezia and his child for one night. Shortly after he is murdered by Juan, who hangs him to make it look like a suicide. Lucrezia is heartbroken by his death and forces her father to give Paolo a Christian burial, while also having her revenge on Juan for Paolo's murder.
Derek Jacobi as Cardinal Orsino Orsini (fictional character): One of the cardinals who plotted against Pope Alexander. Poisoned to death at the instruction of Cesare Borgia.
Ruta Gedmintas as Ursula Bonadeo/Sister Martha: A noblewoman who engaged in a passionate extra-marital affair with Cesare Borgia. After Cesare murdered her husband, she rejected his love out of guilt and joined the nunhood, receiving the new name of Sister Martha. She is killed when the Convent of Saint Cecilia is destroyed by Charles VIII, on his way back to France after retreating from Rome. Her death fills Cesare with a vengeance, and he leads a band of mercenaries to raid and destroy the French army, ultimately destroying their entire war machine.
Elyes Gabel as Prince Cem (Djem or Jem): A rival to the Ottoman throne, who was banished by his brother, the Sultan. Pope Alexander accepted the Sultan's offer to host Cem in exchange for financial reward. The handsome and good-hearted young man easily wins over the Borgias, especially Lucrezia. It is heavily implied that Cem and Lucrezia fall in love, but do not consummate their relationship. Cem was eventually killed by the Borgias, who used the much more substantial reward to pay for Lucrezia's dowry.
Montserrat Lombard as Maria, a maid in the Orsini Palace during Giulia Farnese's stay there who is willing to testify on her indiscretions with the Pope and pays the price for it.
Emmanuelle Chriqui as Sancha of Aragon: The illegitimate daughter of the King of Naples. When a marriage to the Borgias was proposed, Juan refused to marry her due to her illegitimacy. She was married instead to Joffre, but Juan became struck by her beauty and began an affair with her.
Gina McKee as Caterina Sforza: Cousin of Giovanni Sforza and well-known military leader, Caterina Sforza is legendarily known as the "Tigress of Forli." Like the rest of the Sforzas, she refused to support the pope against the impending invasion by the French. Following their victory over the French, the Papacy round on the Sforzas, and Cesare is sent to Forli to persuade Caterina to come to Rome and bow down before the Pope, and she instead takes him into her bed. After he murders her cousin, Giovanni, to avenge Lucrezia, a war is started. Caterina is able to make allies, who defeat Juan Borgia outside Forli, but her son is captured and taken to Rome, before being released by Cesare. Undeterred, Caterina attempts to forge an alliance with some of the Borgias' enemies, who are subsequently won over by Cesare. Her remaining allies are defeated and her son is assassinated by Cesare, and the sulphur needed to make gunpowder dries up all over Italy when the Pope, through a Jewish trader and ally, manages to buy the entire supply, which he then grants to Cesare. With an alliance of the Papal armies and his French allies, Cesare lays siege to Forli, ultimately taking control of the city. Deciding she would rather die than surrender, Caterina attempts to commit suicide by hanging, but the rope is shot by one of Cesare's generals, and she is taken prisoner. Cesare then humiliates her by organising a grand arrival into Rome with her on display in a jaded cage, wearing an extravagant, tiger stripe dress.
Peter Sullivan as Ascanio Sforza: A powerful cardinal who becomes chancellor in a deal with Rodrigo Borgia to elect Borgia as pope. Sforza arranged the marriage between Lucrezia Borgia and his cousin, Giovanni.
Julian Bleach as Niccolò Machiavelli: A senior official in the Republic of Florence and adviser to the Medici family, he carefully considered the offers of alliance by Cardinal Della Rovere and Cesare Borgia. Della Rovere pushes for Florence to give free passage of the French army on their way to Rome. He was upset when the Medicis yield hopelessly to the demands of the King of France in the face of total destruction of Florence by the French armies, He later allies with Cesare Borgia, providing advice on the matter of Savonarola and the location of Medici gold transports for Cesare to steal.
Ivan Kaye as Ludovico Sforza: The brutish Duke of Milan, also known as "il Moro," who seized the throne and imprisoned his own nephew in the process. Despite an alliance of the Sforzas and the pope, he allowed the French army free passage through Milan on the way to Rome.
Michel Muller as Charles VIII: King of France and commander of one of the most feared armies in Europe, Charles VIII is ruthless, cruel and insecure. He claimed the throne of Naples, and was enticed by Cardinal Della Rovere to pursue those claims, in return for deposing Pope Alexander. Insecure about his height, looks and faith, he was charmed by the clever and beautiful Lucrezia Borgia on his way to seizing Rome, and later talked into an alliance by the pope, who agreed to recognize him as King of Naples. After discovering that Naples has been sacked by plague, he has Prince Alfonso II killed, but ends up catching the plague himself.
Darwin Shaw as Augustino, a childhood friend of Micheletto. The two briefly resume a passionate and intense romance, but Augustino's betrothal to a baker's daughter deeply hurts Michelotto.
Thure Lindhardt as Rufio. Rufio is a ruthless assassin working under Caterina Sforza, as a student of the art of death. He is sent to Rome by his patron to bring about the Borgias' downfall, and he tries to enlist Cardinal Sforza's help in doing so.
The series is an international co-production, directed by an Irishman, filmed in Hungary, and produced in Canada. Filming in Hungary mainly took place at the Korda Studios in Etyek, just west of Budapest.
Jordan was trying to direct a film about the Borgia reign for over a decade and the project had many times come close to fruition, with stars such as Colin Farrell and Scarlett Johansson attached to it. In 2010, Steven Spielberg, the head of DreamWorks Pictures (now a producer of The Borgias), suggested the film turned into a cable drama and Jordan took the idea over to Showtime executives who, wanting to fill the void historical series The Tudors was going to leave after its final season, commissioned the series. Jordan has stated that the ideal would be a series of four seasons so he can span at least the period of Rodrigo Borgia's papacy (1492–1503).
For the role of Rodrigo Borgia, Jordan turned to Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons, known for roles of villains and anti-heroes. The actor initially had second thoughts about his being suitable for the role who is in history described as an obese, dark-complexioned Spaniard, but Jordan wanted him to focus on the aspects of the character's obsession with power and life, which the actor could play to the hilt.
The first season consists of nine episodes; the premiere encompassed two episodes, with the remaining seven episodes being first-aired each week following. The second season consisted of ten episodes, the first half of which were written by show creator Neil Jordan, whereas the latter half was written by noted English writer-director David Leland, who joined the series' staff as co-showrunner and producer and directed its last two episodes. The finale of season 2 was written by Guy Burt, who also helped storyline the season. Season 3, the show's final season, again consists of ten episodes, four of which were written by Burt, while the other six, including the final episode, were again written by Jordan.
The show's first season received generally favorable reviews in the United States, scoring 66 out of 100 based on 25 critics on Metacritic. Robert Bianco of USA Today said, "... seen from a safe distance, captured by a sterling cast led in marvelous high style by Jeremy Irons, and presented with all the brio, flair and sumptuous design TV can muster, the infamous family is almost addictively entertaining". Linda Stasi of the New York Post gave the season a 3.5/4 rating, remarking "'The Borgias' (the series) makes 'The Tudors' look like a bunch of amateurs with bigger lips.
However, it was met with a more mixed reception in the United Kingdom. Rachel Ray of The Daily Telegraph called Irons's performance "disappointingly undiabolical". She added that the show is "for history buffs, not for viewers looking for another Godfather". Sarah Dempster of The Guardian mocked the show's dialogue and visual style: "The ridiculousness mounts. The opening double bill features impromptu palazzo brawls between priapic gadabouts in bejewelled codpieces ("Back to Spain, Borgia!") and flocks of miffed cardinals gliding along darkened corridors like motorised pepperpots". Sam Wollaston recalled the 1981 BBC miniseries of the same name, which had been widely panned, and said there was "more thought to this  version, and attention to character. And Irons is proper".The Independent's Holly Williams praised Irons, but said elsewhere, "the acting and script feel about as substantial as a communion wafer. With power struggles, sex, assassinations and sibling rivalries, it should, at least, be racy and fun. Yet the storyline often feels curiously ungripping".
The second season's premiere was met with much more positive reviews, and currently holds a Metacritic score of 81/100, based on six reviews. Curt Wagner of RedEye has stated, "Based on the first four episodes of the new season, I'd say Jordan has figured things out. The Borgias still overflows with delicious intrigues, sex and deadly politics, but it now has an energy and constant forward momentum the first season lacked." Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter has stated, "Borgias retains the intrigue and conniving family politics that made season one such a pleasure ride, but it all has more snap now, with Jordan spinning the plates with aplomb."
This series is in the historical fiction genre, and there are deliberate diversions from actual history, including events that never happened or persons created that never existed for dramatic purposes:
Prince Cem died in 1495 while in the custody of the French king, but he probably was not murdered. Lucrezia's dowry had nothing to do with Cem's death. The Pope tried to convert Cem to Christianity, without success.
The music that plays during Lucrezia's wedding is the motetVidete Miraculum, composed by Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585), a Tudor court composer.
In the season two episode "Stray Dogs", a portrait of King Francois I of France is seen hanging on a wall. Francois I was only three at the time of the events depicted in the episode and would become king only eighteen years later.
Girolamo Savonarola was executed in Florence, not Rome as seen in the series. He was also executed by hanging, and his body burned posthumously; he was not burned alive at the stake as seen in the series.
Cesare Borgia also did not murder Ludovico Sforza and Caterina Sforza's son, as seen in the third season. They both outlived him, Ludovico by a year and the other by 16 years.
Niccolò Machiavelli entered the public service of Florentine republic in 1494 only after the downfall of Medicis. He became the Chancellor and Secretary to the Second chancery only in 1498. He was not present at Medici court during the time of Charles VIII's invasion of Italy.
Lucca was not sacked in 1494 by the invading French. The French passed by independent Lucca and sacked the Florentine stronghold of Fivizzano in a manner similar to that depicted in the show.
It was Sultan Beyazit who gifted the Holy Lance to Vatican, not the Jews of Constantinople who were seeking refuge in Rome. In fact, Jews of Constantinople never sought permission to live in Rome to escape Turks.
The series depicts Michelleto as being illiterate, however the real Michelotto Corella was educated at the University of Pisa. It is believed he met Cesare there. He was also not Italian, but Spanish like the Borgias.
During the invasion of Naples French king Charles VIII was a twenty-four-year old, though in the series he looks much older. Reportedly, this monarch was a "caricature of a man, hideous and grotesque as a gargoyle".
When Juan is suggested to have caught syphilis, he claims the disease might lead to dementia. In fact, syphilis was only discovered as a cause for mental illness in early 20th century Vienna, a discovery to which a young neurologist named Sigmund Freud was a contributor.
^Stile Antico, Puer natus est. Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas, Harmonia Mundi USA, 2010,
^An eyewitness account by the Piagnone Luca Landucci in A Florentine Diary from 1460 to 1516 trans. Alice De Rosen Jervis (London, 1927) pp. 142-143.
^'Donna Sancia, a natural daughter of Duke Alfonso of Calabria [son of Ferdinand I of Naples]'; see F. Gregorovius. Lucretia Borgia: According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day. (New York 1904). p. 65.
^'Don Alfonso, Prince of Salerno, younger brother of Donna Sancia and natural son of Alfonso II' was betrothed to Lucrezia in 1498. See Gregorovius, Lucretia Borgia, p. 110.
^These death dates are a matter of record. For an example of sources, see Gregorovius, Lucretia Borgia, which lists Sforza's death as July 27, 1510, p. 330; see also F.B. Corvo, The Chronicles of the House of Borgia (London 1901), which describes Cesare Borgia's death in battle in 1507, p. 274.
^Machiavelli's The Prince and introduction by W.K. Marriot.