But, as the title suggests, The Borgias is about much more than just Rodrigo. Holliday Grainger stars as Lucrezia Borgia, the new Pope's young daughter - but is she a wide-eyed innocent or a master manipulator? Digital Spy caught up with Holliday to find out more!
How much did you know about the Borgias before this show?
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing, had never even heard of them! And then I was highly embarrassed when I started researching it for the audition and realised that I really should have known about them. It's so ridiculous that we learn about the stock British history in history lessons, and everything that went on in the rest of Europe, I never learn about. But yeah, [it was] a fascinating period [and a] fascinating family."
Were you aware of Neil Jordan's work beforehand?
"Yeah, I'd already seen The Crying Game and was aware of Neil Jordan, so it was exciting to get to go and meet him."
"Yeah, it's quite rare to have strong females [in a historical drama] but actually it wasn't rare in Renaissance Italy. As much as they were used as marriage tools, women did play very strong roles in society. They were still governesses and patrons, and if the men went off to war, the women would rule the town. They would rule their principalities, and Lucrezia was acting Pope for a while as well! They were given a lot of power and authority, so it shouldn't be that odd to be playing a strong female in a period role."
Some past portrayals of the Borgias have depicted Lucrezia as a villainess. Did you enjoy playing a more sympathetic take on the character?
"Yeah. All of my favourite biographies that I read were written by women - the Sarah Bradford one and Maria Bellonci - and both of them have taken Lucrezia's reputation and gone, 'Right, that is probably a load of bull, and this is what we probably think is true'. You've got the polar opposites of historical views of Lucrezia as the adulterous, incestuous villainess, the Machiavellian manipulator, and then there's [the view that she's a] very passive victim who was just a pawn in her family's game. They're completely contrasting views and I think Neil's similar to me in wanting the middle ground. Yes, Lucrezia does have a strong moral grounding and she was quite religious, but she's also a Borgia! So she's got to go out and do the best for her family, and for herself as well, and make decisions that maybe aren't completely based on Christian morals!"
You mentioned incest - Lucrezia has a particularly interesting relationship with her brother Cesare (Francois Arnaud)…
"It's interesting! We wanted to play [the hints of incest] and Neil wanted to play it. They've got a very sweet relationship actually, on one level, because they genuinely care about each other. It's a very tender and honest relationship, which is maybe one of the only tender and honest relationships in the whole show! There's no falsity or manipulation between the two of them. So it was lovely to show that, but then obviously there's the question of 'Is it just brotherly / sisterly [affection] or do they love each other a little bit too much?'."
"Pretty much, in that they were all filmed in the same day! A full day of rape! But it was fine, because they were all very short scenes. Long scenes of emotion are quite difficult - you've got to build up to them and make sure you're in the right emotional space. But as soon as they said 'Cut', I was right out of character and having a laugh and joke with Ronan [Vibert, who plays Giovanni Sforza], so I wasn't at all traumatised by the experience. I just needed a big glass of wine at the end of the day!"
The Borgias have been billed as "the original crime family" - do think comparisons to The Godfather are justified?
"Showtime's tagged it as the 'original crime family' because they were. They had the legitimate front of being papal rulers, but there was so much manipulation and corruption going on underneath. So of course it's very easy to link them to Mafia families, but personally I think the tone's quite different to something like The Godfather, even though it's a similar context."
How did it feel to be renewed for season two before the first season had even finished?
"It was good, it was nice to hear. It's good to hear that people have been enjoying it."
"Yeah, yeah! I can't wait to get into the section where's she's Acting Pope! There's so much later on in her life that really excites me, so we'd better go to seasons three and four, because I want to play that! As she was Acting Pope, she did all the negotiations herself for her third marriage, and that marriage was incredibly interesting, because she was basically having a love affair with her husband's worst enemy, and she played them off against each other to save her principality."
Now that the show's a hit, what do you think it is about it that appeals to a modern audience?
"Everything, I think. I think The Borgias is quite good because it does stick quite steadfastly to historical fact, so a lot of people who are interested in the historical element will love watching it, but they were also a ridiculously dramatic family. So much happens - there's lots of drama and tension, and I think everyone's intrigued by political corruption. I think it works on two levels - it is essentially about a domestic family life, but placing that in the wider political world, so depending on what sphere you're interested in, there's lots to cover. There's lots of violence and fighting, and a little bit of love and sex as well, so I think it covers a massive range of issues that aren't just solely of the period. There's still political corruption and emotional manipulation going on today, so it's not like it's anything new!"
The Borgias begins on Saturday, August 13 at 9pm on Sky Atlantic.