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"No history is accurate, not even the very best we have."
March 25, 2014 2:13 PM   Subscribe

In How History Can Be Used in Fiction historian Ada Palmer explores how two TV series about the Borgia family succeed or fail at conveying a period feel, where and why modern sensibilities influence the shows, and how the characterization of a protagonist whose age is historically uncertain can be affected by making him younger or older. It finally concludes with a discussion of why communication can be more important than accuracy and why some changes from historical fact strengthen fiction and others weaken it.

This piece originally appeared on Palmer's excellent Renaissance Italy-focused blog Ex Urbe. Previously on Metafilter (though it was anonymous then).
posted by Wretch729 (61 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes, this Ada Palmer.
posted by Sokka shot first at 2:30 PM on March 25


This is glorious. Thank you so much for this.
posted by Sara C. at 2:38 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


This is wonderful. I actually started the non-Showtime series by mistake, meaning to watch the one starring Jeremy Irons, and had no plans to revisit it, but now I definitely will as soon as I finish watching Irons ham it up.
posted by padraigin at 2:42 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


This is a reprint of an article she wrote on her blog Ex Urbe. Then she was pseudonymous, but she's recently uncloaked herself. Previously.

I love her writing, especially as the rather lapsed art historian with a focus in early Renaissance Italy that I am/was.
posted by PussKillian at 2:42 PM on March 25


I will never get past, "You took your elephant to your brothel!" Oh, Julius, you scamp, you.
posted by PussKillian at 2:43 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


Man, I sure hope they do get to do a 4th season of The Borgias – I quite like that show and did not know about the cancellation troubles. Apparently I will have to find a way to watch Faith And Fear as well.

I also love Ex Urbe possibly the most of all blogs.
posted by furiousthought at 2:49 PM on March 25


Am I the only one who chooses which period dramas to get into based on how committed they are to authentic hairstyles?

I really wanted to like that BBC Robin Hood show, but the hair was just so, so wrong. I have similar concerns about Vikings, which I have not yet seen, but the stills and gifsets I have seen look pretty good.

I like that both Downton Abbey and Mad Men are willing to let their stars look ridiculous in the name of costume authenticity.
posted by Sara C. at 2:50 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


I have not watched either show, and yet I enjoyed this article very much, especially the broader points made about the proper role of historical accuracy in period pieces.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:51 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Watching this scene, I, with my professional knowledge of the place and period, notice that there are implausibly too many candles burning, way more than this pub could afford, plus what they paid for that meal is about what the landlord probably earns in a month, and the prostitute isn’t wearing the mandatory blue veil required for prostitutes by Bologna’s sumptuary laws. But if I showed it to twenty other historians they would notice other things: that style of candlestick wasn’t possible with Italian metalwork of the day, that fabric pattern was Flemish, that window wouldn’t have had curtains, that dish they’re eating is a period dish but from Genoa, not Bologna, and no Genoese cook would be in Bologna because feud bla bla bla. So much we know. But a person from the period would notice a thousand other things: that nobody made candles in that exact diameter, or they butchered animals differently so that cut of steak is the wrong shape, or no bar of the era would have been without the indispensable who-knows-what: a hat-cleaning lady, a box of kittens, a special shape of bread. All historical scenes are wrong...
This is just an unbelievably brilliant take on the idea of historical accuracy in modern media. Especially when you consider that set decorators, prop masters, and costume designers would have almost no way of even knowing about any of this, let alone having the time and attention to detail to get it 100% right every single time. And things about numbers of candles or curtains on windows have much more to do with the necessary lighting of the shot than anything about history at all -- my guess is that basically all period media set before electricity would look insanely brightly lit to an actual person of the period.
posted by Sara C. at 3:03 PM on March 25 [11 favorites]


DevilsAdvocate, follow Genevieve Valentine's blog too. She makes hilarious commentary on dresses from "historical" series.
posted by sukeban at 3:04 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


I wonder how people would feel about a show that was authentic in its depiction of dental health? There's a reason for the shortage of toothy grins in Renaissance portraiture.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:04 PM on March 25


Gah, the whole blog is fantastic. New internet crush.
posted by the bricabrac man at 3:10 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


In a real historical piece, if they tried to make everything slavishly right any show would be unwatchable, because there would be too much that the audience couldn’t understand. The audience would be constantly distracted by details like un-filmably dark building interiors, ugly missing teeth, infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with, crush, and throw away, and Marie Antoinette relieving herself on the floor at Versailles. Despite its hundreds of bathrooms, one of Versailles’ marks of luxury was that the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day, and always more than once a week.
Wait, pooping on the floor? Whaaat?? Can somebody explain? (beyond "everybody poops")

Metafilter: the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:18 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


There's a reason for the shortage of toothy grins in Renaissance portraiture.

Mostly that the artists thought it made the subjects look grotesque, unserious, and déclassé.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:32 PM on March 25


yeah that poop thing, uh
posted by vibratory manner of working at 3:34 PM on March 25


It was a common complaint that Versallies had too few bathrooms, and a couple of the more old school royalty would just piss themselves out of habit.

Certain staircases where supposed to reek of piss but that was more "trying to find a place to pee after your huge party." kinda thing.

Although I don't remember anyone talking about actually shitting on the floor. There where chamber pot attendants for that. Rooms used to be a lot more mobile, the furniture would be moved around and now the bedroom is an office, etc.
posted by The Whelk at 3:36 PM on March 25


You haven't lived until you've messed the floors at Versailles.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:39 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


I wonder how people would feel about a show that was authentic in its depiction of dental health?

I've been lead to understand that without a lot of sugar teeth can get retry gnarly but not like when you have ample sugar AND no real density.

The smells tho, no wonder people tied little vials of perfume around thier outfits, it's not just to encourage bugs to drown themselves in it!
posted by The Whelk at 3:40 PM on March 25


When I was last at Versallies someone nearby had a gas issue that made me think there was a sewer line break on site so I like to think I got an extra historical experience.
posted by The Whelk at 3:41 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


The fourth season of The Borgias isn't happening, but Neil Jordan assembled what he wanted to happen into a screenplay ebook that you can purchase on Amazon.

The Canal+ series was still on Netflix last time I checked. I want to give it another go - I found John Doman's flatly American accent so grating, but I love Assumpta Serna and I've heard such good things about the series as a whole that I'd like to try and get past my one little issue with it.
posted by angeline at 3:43 PM on March 25


I recently had to costume some Vikings, and was lent a pair of extremely nice period Viking pants which had bold white and orange stripes about two inches wide. I know enough to realize how perfect they were, and that both the expense of the dye and the purity of the white would mark them as the pants of an important man, but that if someone walked on stage in them the whole audience would think: “Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?”
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 3:46 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


In fact, Cardinal Shocked-all-the-time, according to the writers you are supposed to be none other than Giuliano della Rovere. Giuliano “Battle-Pope” della Rovere! You have a mistress! And a daughter! And a brothel! And an elephant! And take your elephant to your brothel! And you’re stalking Michelangelo! And foreign powers lent you 300,000 ducats to spend bribing other people to vote for you in this election! And we’re supposed to believe you are shocked by simony? That is not historicity. It is applying some historical names to some made-up dudes and having them lecture us on why we should be shocked.
This is so great. I can still hear the sound of my jaw hitting the floor in the Brad Pitt Troy, where our noble all-American hero Achilles is just horrified that women are being raped. Wat.

BTW if you're in the UK and have the BBC iPlayer you can watch the Plantagenets documentary where there is some serious Game of Thrones shit going down. Fact leaves fiction far behind when it comes to shock.
The superb HBO series Rome, which does an absolutely unparalleled job presenting Roman social class, slavery, and religion, nonetheless left me baffled as to why a studio making a series about the Julio-Claudians would feel driven to ignore the famous historical allegations of orgies and bizarre sex preserved in classical sources and substitute different orgies and bizarre sex. The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient!
On my RSS feed now, thank you!
posted by Erasmouse at 3:51 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


“Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?”

the Tiffany Problem! Tiffany is a legit middle ages European name but you can never use it in historical fiction cause no one would buy it.
posted by The Whelk at 3:56 PM on March 25 [9 favorites]


Tiffany is a legit middle ages European name but you can never use it in historical fiction cause no one would buy it.

Unless you're Terry Pratchett.
posted by Wretch729 at 3:59 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


(Admittedly I'm stretching the term "historical" more than a bit.)
posted by Wretch729 at 4:00 PM on March 25


You haven't lived until you've messed the floors at Versailles.

Versailles, Versailles? How did Versailles get into this?

With Versailles, after all, we are talking the country that gave the world the bourdeloue, named for the vicar Louis Bourdeloue whose interminable sermons were too much for the refined bladders of the distaff aristocracy.

(Assuming this isn't all made-up because it is so louche and entertaining.)
posted by BWA at 4:15 PM on March 25


This kind of history-melds-with-dramaturgy is my sweet spot for happy.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:15 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


I couldn't deal with The Borgias, it just came across as really boring and disappointing. Which is a shame, since I devour books on medieval murder and intrigue, but it just seemed so blah. In fact, that's been my reaction to pretty much every Showtime series — "Oh, you'd like to be HBO, but just can't pull it off, huh?"
posted by klangklangston at 4:15 PM on March 25


MetaFilter: The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient!

This thread is going to be gold for this kind of thing, like three balls of gold gold.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:33 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


I'm bookmarking the article for a later read, but as someone who came thisclose to going into the pro history game (the great medieval history boom of the 90s did not pan out, alas), my attitude toward a bunch of these shows is that if they get enough historical truthiness in it--hugely subjective--I'm okay with it. Poking holes in the details, though, is half the fun for me.
posted by immlass at 5:28 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Let's Kickstart a movie that has Marie Antoinette casually shitting on the floor of Versailles. We can work out the rest of the plot details later.
posted by kanewai at 5:31 PM on March 25 [6 favorites]


Really interesting.

In the realm of today-I-learned wtfery:

infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with

I...is that real...
posted by threeants at 6:25 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


I also wondered why Vikings decided to go with a totally made up culture that was boring and cliche instead of the perfectly interesting and pretty novel one that would have been more accurate.
posted by bleep at 6:29 PM on March 25


Honestly, I couldn't get into ROME because of the costumes. I was told by everyone how "accurate" it was, but I guess this didn't apply to the costumes: the togas were rubbish and the womens' costumes often crossed over into fantasy.

So yeah, it's almost easier for me to watch a more outlandishly inaccurate show like SPARTACUS because I can then more easily pretend it's set in an alternate dimension.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 7:14 PM on March 25


John Doman's American accent works - it marks him as separate, an outsider who'll always be an outsider no matter how much power and wealth he accrues.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:28 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Yeah, my go-to example for this problem is the Queen Victoria biopic Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown, which appears to have been scripted on the principle that anything resembling historical fact should be carefully ignored. But many of the big-picture deviations from what we know are, as Palmer says, shaping the "historicity" and the historical argument--so I can forgive them. It's harder to forgive a reference to "Lord Tennyson" in the 1860s, because that's just sloppy.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:33 PM on March 25



Honestly, I couldn't get into ROME because of the costumes. I was told by everyone how "accurate" it was, but I guess this didn't apply to the costumes: the togas were rubbish and the womens' costumes often crossed over into fantasy.

So yeah, it's almost easier for me to watch a more outlandishly inaccurate show like SPARTACUS because I can then more easily pretend it's set in an alternate dimension.


Well in the Spatacus series they rarely wore much of anything. You can't argue with linen thongs, and while ROME took Huge huge (Huuuuuge) liberties, it did get the feel of a wildly alien culture with a really small clutch of super-rich, super-privileged folk. It's like when I saw a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar set in a really tiny soviet republic. Suddenly the sheer power one person could hold and the super tiny community they lived in made sense.

(and yeah if something is SUPER inaccurate you can just say well this is fantasy and not propitiating to be real, it's the Just-almost-accurate stuff that really galls and chafes)
posted by The Whelk at 7:51 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


< Let's Kickstart a movie that has Marie Antoinette casually shitting on the floor of Versailles
I'm pretty sure I saw that come up in the 'porn site search term' feed featured a while ago, but go ahead. The market is there.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 7:54 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


I wonder how people would feel about a show that was authentic in its depiction of dental health?

That's one of the reasons I loved "Rob Roy." Everyone had bad teeth and they used chamber pots.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:00 PM on March 25


I like Rome a lot better when seen through a lens of "historicity" or "truthiness" as opposed to Historically Accurate. It's not perfect, but it's got a lot more texture and nuance than something like I, Claudius, at least.
posted by Sara C. at 8:46 PM on March 25


Let's Kickstart a movie that has Marie Antoinette casually shitting on the floor of Versailles. We can work out the rest of the plot details later.

It'd have to be slapstick, I think. They don't call them "french heels" for nothing. Walking down a hallway or up stairs in high heels on slick floors covered in piss sounds like a nightmare, let alone while trying to balance a massive wig on your head?! I hope those women had a lot of natural grace, because otherwise they had to have been covered in bruises.

That is to say, I'd watch it!
posted by rue72 at 10:05 PM on March 25


Fun history fact: in the 18th century, high heels were menswear!
posted by Sara C. at 10:12 PM on March 25


"It's not perfect, but it's got a lot more texture and nuance than something like I, Claudius, at least".
Woah there SC. Wah-ooh..

LIVIA
-Claudius, I want to be a god.

That is ambition.
posted by qinn at 3:06 AM on March 26


"It was a common complaint that Versallies had too few bathrooms, and a couple of the more old school royalty would just piss themselves out of habit."

Wait wait....people just peed their pants? And whatever furniture they were sitting on? I ... how did any furniture or clothing survive? How on earth did people get laid if they smelled like pee? Perfume is not covering that up.

I can almost get going in the hallway...but peeing yourself????
posted by sio42 at 5:05 AM on March 26


Actually a lot of the history we have is accurate. Here's some:

George Washington was President of the United States.

The more extensive and more speculative a history becomes, the more it tends to diverge from perfect accuracy...but that's very different.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 5:32 AM on March 26


They don't call them "french heels" for nothing. Walking down a hallway or up stairs in high heels on slick floors covered in piss sounds like a nightmare, let alone while trying to balance a massive wig on your head?!

It's possible that one of the reasons they wore high heels was to try to elevate themselves a few inches out of the muck. I know that in the Middle Ages in Italy women often wore these weird platform shoes for that exact purpose.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:19 AM on March 26


Oh - and if anyone's looking for more historic comment upon history dramas, you definitely wanna read Past Imperfect. It's an anthology of about 60 essays, each written by a different historian about a different movie. They pretty much follow this same structure: "Here's what actually happened, here's what the movie says happened, here's what they got wrong." Sometimes they also get into "and here's what was happening at the time the film was made, which can explain why they spun the drama in this particular way."

It's fascinating. It makes you think of storytelling, history, and cinematography and filmmaking in a whole new light. You also will not believe how egregiously fast and loose some people have played with history (in They Died With Their Boots On, apparently the film tries to imply that Custer was trying to protect the Sioux). You also may find a couple of little-known movies that you really wanna see (whoever wrote about one of the Vietnam War films mentioned something called Go Tell The Spartans in passing, and I've been meaning to track it down based on the strength of his recommendation).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:28 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


Gah, the whole blog is fantastic.

I've been really digging that sympathetic review of career of Machiavelli, who deserved a bit of sympathy more than some people would think.
posted by ovvl at 8:39 AM on March 26


Actually a lot of the history we have is accurate. Here's some:

George Washington was President of the United States.


That's what they want you to think, SHEEPERSON!
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:02 AM on March 26


Actually a lot of the history we have is accurate. Here's some:

George Washington was President of the United States.


Sure. But let's say I'm making a movie about George Washington.

What fabric should the curtains in George Washington's house be made from?

How many different costumes should Martha Washington wear over the course of the film, and would she ever repeat outfits? What color would her shoes be?

In this scene set in Valley Forge, would Washington, his officers, and rank-and-file soldiers be eating the same meal at mess, or would higher ranking men have better rations?

Which cherry varietals were most common in colonial Virginia? Please provide several location options for plantations with cherry orchards in period varietals within three miles of this other location we are hoping to shoot on the same day.
posted by Sara C. at 9:15 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: What this brothel needs is an elephant!
posted by jonp72 at 9:18 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Is this chick watching Reign, by any chance? I'd love to hear her take on that show.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:55 PM on March 26


She's not, but Genevieve Valentine, mentioned/linked above, is, and it's a beautiful, beautiful thing.
posted by Sara C. at 2:02 PM on March 26


Actually a lot of the history we have is accurate. Here's some:

George Washington was President of the United States.

Sure. But let's say I'm making a movie about George Washington.

What fabric should the curtains in George Washington's house be made from?

How many different costumes should Martha Washington wear over the course of the film, and would she ever repeat outfits? What color would her shoes be?

In this scene set in Valley Forge, would Washington, his officers, and rank-and-file soldiers be eating the same meal at mess, or would higher ranking men have better rations?

Which cherry varietals were most common in colonial Virginia? Please provide several location options for plantations with cherry orchards in period varietals within three miles of this other location we are hoping to shoot on the same day.


So...no absolutely perfect accuracy, then? Which...is what I said?

"no perfect accuracy" != "no accuracy"

The no accuracy whatsoever claim...cool-sounding and awesome-sounding as it is--simply isn't true.

Why on Earth claim that History is bunk on the grounds that it is not accurate to an infinite number of decimal places? Even physics is not held to that standard...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 3:33 PM on March 26


So, "no accuracy whatsoever" is obviously hyperbole, but "no recognizable historical accuracy" is true, so it's not looking for infinite decimal places, it's saying that we can only have, like, whole numbers at best and often not even those.
posted by klangklangston at 3:37 PM on March 26


Sure. But let's say I'm making a movie about George Washington. What fabric should the curtains in George Washington's house be made from? How many different costumes should Martha Washington wear over the course of the film, and would she ever repeat outfits? What color would her shoes be?

I think Fists O' Fury was trying to say "we actually don't know fuck-all so getting all caught up in accuracy may be a hindrance."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:52 PM on March 26


This article perfectly conveys that sense of frustration induced by "historical accuracy" in someone who actually knows the history, and the paradoxical way an author can increase our level of sympathy and understanding of the past by superficially choosing to decrease attempted accuracy.

I especially liked her remarks on nitpicking implausible details which Sara C. quotes. That is exactly why I couldn't appreciate Andrew Bujalski's great new movie Computer Chess. That particular era in microcomputing is one that I know first-hand! And although so much of it is a detail-perfect recreation (at first I thought it was archive footage), Bujalski gets more than a few little things wrong, just technically impossible -- and I'm not talking about the deliberate unreality inherent to the plot either -- that I couldn't stop asking myself "what signal is the filmmaker sending by choosing that ridiculous inaccuracy?" Sometimes it was significant (like the IMSAI that the main character uses) but most of the time it just made me realize that the director views my childhood as ancient history. :-(

I wonder if that's a part of the frustration that Palmer feels. As someone who knows perfectly well what owning a rabbit meant in the Renaissance, she assumes the author does too, and starts building an idea in her head about that character (just like in Mad Men when we hear Betty Draper name-drop Bryn Mawr). Then the cognitive dissonance between her developing mental model and the story on the screen kicks her out of the fun.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 11:44 PM on March 26


I love this essay, because it moves us away from stale debates that assume all deviations from historical authenticity are equally harmful to art. (In this respect, I found the essay similar to my friend Isaac Butler's essay, The Realism Canard).) You can see the author's approach in how she compares the two Borgia series. In the Showtime series, the art is constantly undermining itself by having some character serve as an audience surrogate to say how shocked! shocked! they are by all the depravity going it, while at the same exploiting that depravity to keep people watching. In the UK series, the creators are aware of how the worldview and expectations of their audience differs from the worldview and expectations of the historical characters they represent, but the creators of the series have the skill to use that divergence in attitudes to create shock, suspense, and dramatic tension. Yes, you could say this is an essay just about the Borgias, but I also appreciate the essay because it understands how the demand for "perfect" history can be the enemy of "good" art.
posted by jonp72 at 6:54 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Why on Earth claim that History is bunk on the grounds that it is not accurate to an infinite number of decimal places?

Wait, who said History is bunk?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:08 AM on March 27


Henry Ford.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:52 PM on March 27


Yea, those olden-days interiors have to be lit enough to actually see the characters involved. One of the most authentic-seeming-like period pieces was Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky, with that really dark dank king's throne-room.

So there's a willing suspension of disbelief that can be played with regarding the facts of history, as long as it isn't pushed tooo far, (uh, kinda like the science of Star-Trek?). Henry VIII was a stocky auburn-haired guy, so the producers of 'The Tudors' just hire a skinny dark-haired guy to play him, I guess because they really don't give a fack about anything. So now I know they're just teasing me.


but it's got a lot more texture and nuance than something like I, Claudius, at least.


'Rome' has the better $/production values, but on the other hand, the old 'I, Clavdivs' has a young John Hurt prancing about as the bloodthirsty goddess, so I think I've chosen my poison by now (which is the pretty excellent lower-budget interpretation of the Robert Graves book).
posted by ovvl at 4:37 PM on March 27


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