Long before I thought of writing about the Borgias, I was of course well aware of their notorious reputation. They came trailing clouds of infamy, incest, and impiety. By the time I had finished writing about them, this reek of ill repute still clouded my mind. Yet it had undergone a subtle sea change. Yes, the Borgias were undoubtedly an evil bunch. But they were a lot more than this. They were organized, ambitious, and willing to take risks. They had a vision, which they were ready to pursue at all costs.

Such evil and bravado were all too necessary for success in Renaissance Italy, especially during the last days of the 15th century and beyond, the time when the Borgias attained the pinnacle of their success. Worse still, in Italian eyes, the Borgias were Spanish. The close family guarded their secrets by speaking Catalan among themselves—a language opaque to Italian ears. The Borgias’ detractors labeled them conversos, the name given to Spanish Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity by the Spanish Inquisition. The secret language spoken among the Borgia family was evidently Hebrew, according to inquisitive outsiders.