Athena in Progress

Ursula Rising: The Female Problem in Renaissance Italy as seen in ‘The Borgias’

Ursula Rising: The Female Problem in Renaissance Italy as seen in ‘The Borgias’

Let’s clarify: Ursula Bonadeo is a fictional character in the greater scheme of Borgia history, meant to be a composition of the women Cardinal Cesare Borgia romanced. However, I have a humongous problem with her. She’s the weakest, most poorly constructed female character on the show. This insight isn’t a criticism of the actress playing her, the lovely Ruta Gedmintas. As an actor doing her job, she’s working as directed.

How the story goes

The show introduces Ursula Bonadeo as a nobleman’s wife. Cesare and Ursula meet at the reception for Lucrezia’s wedding to Giovanni Sforza. They dance together, and the brief encounter intends to be much more. Ursula’s husband, Signore Bonadeo, insults Cesare’s mother, Vannozza, by calling her the “Spanish whore.” With downcast eyes, Ursula’s parting words were “liberate me.” Cesare sees this as a command to tap into his basest urges.

Cesare swiftly plans his revenge on Signore Bonadeo. The revenge is twofold: he will repay Bonadeo for insulting his mother, and Cesare can seduce Ursula. Cesare manages to kill Signore Bonadeo after engaging in a brief sword fight. His faithful condottiere, Michelotto, assists in dumping the body.

During a passionate week-and-a-half affair, Ursula and Cesare make passionate love. Ursula tells Cesare of her reservations about their liaison. I find it impossible that she’s feeling emotionally conflicted when she tells a grown man that you’ve never met to “liberate” you. There’s no turning back from pursuing your forbidden fruit, Ursula. Either own it or don’t.

Eventually, Signore Bonadeo’s carcass washes up on the shores of the Tiber. Ursula quickly understands what has happened and “gets thee to a nunnery!” She becomes Sister Martha, believing she can wash away the guilt of breaking her marriage vows.

Women are complicated

I love Giulia la bella (played by the egregiously beautiful Lotte Verbeek) because she’s unrepentant in her passion. She knew what would happen if she allowed Pope Alexander to pursue her. I prefer a woman who knows how to wield her sexuality to support her worldview rather than anyone else’s. Giulia was unhappy in her marriage but didn’t express those feelings as abruptly as Ursula did.

But men are too

I’m not giving Cesare a pass, either. If he had been more assertive, he would have defied his father and rejected the position of Cardinal. If they had spent some time fleshing that all out, he would have been free to pursue Ursula as his eventual partner without the constraints of religious life. The Pope instilled fearful love in his son, which will stay with him forever.

In the first season, Cesare’s affair with Ursula was meant to serve as a mirror to the Pope and Giulia. Understanding that provides a solid foundation. Even though he carries the Borgia name, Cesare will never be like his father. Those who know their Borgia history know how their family will end. Couldn’t they have found a better way to convey Ursula’s story?

Justice for Ursula!

I find it hard to believe that despite the abundance of scholarship available, writers still resort to the tired and harmful tropes that portray women as uneducated and in need of protection from men or as secretly oversexed Madonnas who need a man to “liberate” them. Women are all too often unfairly blamed for all the sexual advances made toward them.

Given more time to explore Ursula’s complicated life, she could have been a great avatar of an Italian woman of her time. Her storyline needed a chance to breathe.

Published by Guilliean Pacheco

Guilliean Pacheco (she/her) is a Filipino-American full-stack writer by day and raconteuse by night. She earned her M.F.A. in Writing from the University of San Francisco and is an Anaphora Arts poetry fellow. She's also a member of AIR, IWW FJU, and Uproot. She’s a misplaced California girl who lives in Las Vegas normally, if one could call living there normal, on Southern Paiute land.