ROME — Showtime’s papal intrigue skein “The Borgias” bowed boffo in Italy this weekend, sparking protests from Catholics as cardinals from around the world flew in to elect the next pope.

Free-to-air terrestrial broadcaster TV La7 premiered the historical skein, in which Pope Alexander VI bribes his way to the throne, on its website on Saturday and in primetime on Sunday, nabbing a strong 4.7% audience share, well above the slot’s usual ratings.

Interest was stoked by the fact that Catholic TV viewers’ advocacy group Aiart complained loudly in the media about the timing of the “Borgias” preem, which La7 said was purely coincidental, given Pope Benedict XVI’s unexpected decision to step down.

Aiart’s attempt to pressure the web into postponing the launch was unsuccessful.

La7 made the most of its multimedia savvy with “The Borgias,” pulling out all the stops to promote it online and on-air thanks to the fact that, unlike most other countries, the Showtime skein did not bow first on pay TV.

“Because it had not previously played on pay, we had a great opportunity to launch it with no restrictions or limitations to a virgin audience,” said La7 multimedia chief Gianluca Visalli.

“What we are seeing is that when our content plays on different media it enriches the viewing experience and also performs better on TV.”

Going forward, La7 will offer all “Borgias” episodes in free on-demand streaming as catch-ups after they air. It also launched a dedicated website, Facebook page and Twitter feed for the show.

The news comes as La7 owner Telecom Italia announced Monday that it has sold the web to Urbano Cairo, a former Mediaset exec whose Cairo Communications already sells La7 ads.

Despite being a small player, La7 is an alternative to the duopoly held by commercial network Mediaset and pubcaster RAI.