Il Valentino ‘made by’ Francois Arnaud and Mark Ryder

  • Posted by : Sophie Swerts Knudsen
  • 15 November 2021

All Borgia children were blessed with an exceptional physical attractiveness and we have it on more than one authority that Cesare, Rodrigo Borgia’s oldest son with Vannozza dei Catanei, was considered ‘the handsomest man in Italy’. Yet even today, we are still not sure if those handsome looks were truly ‘good looking’ (the notion of ‘handsome’ in the Italian Renaissance was quite different from today’s standard of beauty) because all paintings, frescos or busts with Cesare’s portrait were either destroyed or they disappeared in the mists of time after his downfall. Some medals have survived but they only depict a fairly rough picture. Although most people believe the Altobello Melone painting to be a portrait of Cesare Borgia, only the Giovio pen drawing is most likely a true authentic portrait we have of him. The gorgeous anonymous painting in the palazzo Venezia with Cesare in profile, black hair in a net, scroll in hand, and extremely fine facial features is most likely based on the Giovio pen drawing. And then there are the Leonardo da Vinci’s charcoal drawings of a face that likely belongs to Cesare as well. That face is older, heavier and shows signs of fatigue.

Seeing how so many people in the world adore both series about the Borgia family, and in particular enjoy Cardinal Borgia, slash warrior, slash heartthrob, I decided to devote a ‘nutshell’ blog post on the actors who play Cesare in the two shows and elaborate a little on how well I personally feel they resemble the real Italian Prince in looks and personality. For a long semi-scientific elaboration on Cesare’s personality and looks, you will, however, have to wait until my historical biography on Cesare is published. But it will be worth the wait! 😊

So we have two productions that tell the tale of the Borgia Family. For practical sake, let’s call them the American production (The Borgias made by showtime and written by Neil Jordan) and the European production (Borgia, made by Canal Plus, a few other European production houses, and written by Tom Fontana).  Both of them were made around the same time, approximately from 2011 to 2014. The American version with far bigger budget never finished the story of Cesare Borgia owing perhaps to too few viewers, whereas the far less expensive European series finished with a rather ‘unhistorical’ ending. But that is food for another blog.

First of all, let there be no doubt that the casting directors of both series definitely did their homework in terms of Cesare’s overall looks. It seems they were well aware of the fact that Cesare Borgia was called one of the most handsome men of his times. Both Arnaud and Ryder, young actors with handsome symmetrical faces display some of the typical features that are known about Cesare Borgia: a well-trimmed body, a head full of hair and aristocratic, aquiline noses, and apart from the fact that Cesare supposedly may have resembled a Caucasian Christ figure (and Ryder is no doubt best here), they are strikingly good looking like Cesare once was. They are both excellent in portraying the charismatic Cesare as a young man.

In the American production, Cesare is played by Canadian actor Francois Arnaud. In the beginning of the series, 26-year-old Arnaud portrays a 17-year-old Cardinal Valencia, aka Cesare Borgia, who sleeps around with girls and frolics on the lawn with his sister Lucrezia. Arnaud’s face is clean shaven, his hair is not yet shoulder length but it is black and slightly curly. Cesare at that age is known to be a very pleasant young man[2]. He’s sportive, intelligent and he has ‘sprezzatura’, a characteristic coined by Baldassare Castiglione[3], the author of ‘the Book of the Courtier’. Today we call it charisma. Cesare apparently has charisma galore, and Arnaud does a perfect job. He wears the cardinal robes with style and dignity and never turns Cesare into a tedious ‘priest’ but skillfully radiates Cesare’s notorious self-confidence, intelligence, power and strength. Up to now, the American series’ clothing and looks of Cesare Borgia are fine.

The European series tackles young Cesare from a different angle. Also Mark Ryder portrays young Cesare in an excellent way. He is a pale and blond Cesare who struggles with his religious devotion. This is quite accurate because Cesare did experience a period of extreme religious devotion when he studied in Perugia as a 14-year-old but this devotion disappeared when he started at the University of Pisa a few years later. Also here, Mark Ryder plays the perfect dandy who made Pisa unsafe when he sat on the university benches. The blond hair of Mark Ryder is also not be a coincidence. Cesare was called ‘bello and biondo’ by several of his contemporary chroniclers[4]. Luca Signorelli, a painter who knew Cesare personally, painted him with blond-auburn curls and beard in his fresco ‘The Preaching of the Anti-Christ’ in the Cathedral of Orvieto.

When Cesare becomes a soldier, both actors change wardrobe. Arnaud is given a pair of black boots, black leather trousers, a doublet made out of cloth and leather and a white linen shirt. Yes, the leather pants are cool and sexy, but I’m afraid I have to tell you that the real Cesare never wore them. He wore hoses made out of silk or cloth, his shirts were made out of linen and his doublets were perhaps made of wool or even velvet and damask. Despite the bigger budget of the American production, Ryder has a much more varied and more realistic wardrobe to choose from, but he often wears black as well. The preference for black clothes was not a coincidence and it certainly did not want to reflect evil or darkness. It stood for power and solemnity. On behalf of The Signoria of Firenze, Machiavelli gave Cesare several meters of precious black damask as a Christmas present in Cesena. Also, both actors now have black hair that falls on their shoulders in curls and they both have a beard that is well groomed. Arnaud’s beard, however, is too ‘modern-metro-sexual-weekend-groomed’-like. Ryder wears his beard more in the style of the Renaissance; a full, yet well-trimmed beard.

The more adult Cesare who became Captain General of the Holy Roman Church and Duke of the Romagna has, however, become a very different person from when he was a cardinal, and this showed in his looks. At this point in his life, Cesare is almost at the height of his power, and the ‘youthfulness’ the Ferrarese ambassador Cattaneo mentioned in his letter is no longer there. In fact, we can tell from Leonardo’s charcoal drawings of Cesare how he has aged and how the pressure and danger of his campaigns has taken its toll on his handsome face. Moreover, we should not forget that syphilis, the disease he suffered from, may have caused some scarring in his face as well.  This very tired look and the potential syphilis scarring are not exactly mentioned in either series. There is an episode where Ryder suffers from a tiny reddish spot in his face but real syphilis was of a whole different category than the pimple-size spot we notice in the series. It is known that Cesare’s face showed ‘the flowers’, the euphemistic name for the brownish syphilis rash that covered his face. Neither series show these bouts of syphilis even though they influenced Cesare’s behavior to a high degree every time he suffered from a relapse. Both series want to continue to portray Cesare as the handsome, ruthless, intelligent and dark and dangerous warlord, because let’s face it, why should we be confronted with an atrocious disease that might have left traces on Cesare’s handsome face? And it is here where I believe that the actors were perhaps too young and perhaps not ‘rough’, ‘dominant’ and ‘strong’ enough to portray the characteristics that turned the slightly older Cesare into the amazing Renaissance man he was. We have to realize that condotieri in the Italian Renaissance were no longer ‘youngsters’ when they turned 20, and at the age of 25 (when Cesare entered Rome triumphantly in a parade worthy of an emperor), these warriors were steeled, experienced and seriously tough men.

Cesare was an irresistible cocktail of Italian and Spanish charisma, theatrical mystery, immense power both intellectually and physically, indomitable will power and sky-high self-confidence. His ambitious plans in which he succeeded with enviable ease, turned him into the most feared, respected and the most powerful of all Italian princes. With all my deepest respect for the two fabulous actors, but in my humble opinion, neither Ryder nor Francois came entirely across as the ‘true’ Valentino who was able to – simply by riding up the river bank where his army was supposed to cross, and where chaos had taken over, look at his men and immediately calm them down under his imperturbable gaze, totally silent on his horse.[6] The actors lacked the age, experience and power Cesare radiated. Francois Arnaud was too young and too boyish in his looks. Mark Ryder tried his best to come across as powerful but he did not completely succeed either. Maybe it is because he is built rather petite when we know for a fact that Cesare was a powerhouse and in top shape. With his 1.75 meter, he was taller than most of his contemporaries and able to pin to the floor the strongest peasants in Cesena in a wrestling match.

Having mentioned all of this, I still completely understand the reason why fans all over the world adore both Arnaud and Ryder. After all, they portrayed one of the most striking, most interesting and charismatic figures of the Italian Renaissance. And obviously, they did an amazing job given that both Borgia series were immensely popular. Still, if I were the casting director of a movie on Valentino, I would choose someone else for the role of Cesare.

And if you could, who would you choose? 😊



Picture Mark Ryder, kindly borrowed from:

Picture Francois Arnaud, kindly borrowed from:

Picture pen drawing Paolo Giovio, kindly borrowed from:

Picture Altobello Melone, kindly borrowed from:

Picture Palazzo Venezia, anonymous, kindly borrowed from:

Charcoal Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, kindly borrowed from:



[1] Sabatini, The Life of Cesare Borgia.

[2] Bradford, Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times.

[3] Castiglione, Het boek van de hoveling.

[4] Bradford, Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times.

[6] Chamberlain.

4 Responses

  1. Wonderful article…but my heart and mind can only see Francois Arnaud as Cesare….this is where I fell in love with both men Francois and Cesare….the two are intertwined in my mind…Mark was beautiful to look at but not half the actor Francois is…I am forever a fan of Francois in any part he takes….

        1. Thank for your comment, Paulin. That is a very good but also rather difficult question. It would have to be someone who looks good, but at the same time does not look too young or inexperienced. Someone who looks powerful and charismatic. At the same time, Cesare was charming and had loads of ‘sprezzatura’ so he also needs a twinkle in his eyes. I think that perhaps Al Pacino in his younger days as Michael Corleone in the Godfather might be a candidate for that ‘strong’ yet ‘charming’ look that radiates Cesare’s personality.

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