The Borgias are one of history’s most notorious families. Rodrigo Borgia, eventually the corrupt Pope Alexander VI, was the patriarch, father of several illegitimate children including sons Giovanni (Juan) and Cesare, whose sibling rivalry may have turned murderous. His daughter Lucrezia was known for her seductive but toxic beauty. The Borgias inspired their contemporary Niccolò Machiavelli's book, The Prince, and have provided ample material to creative artists ever since, to everyone from Victor Hugo to Donizetti to Showtime. They even star in a video game.
Many of the stories told about the Borgias were invented later as their reputations grew, but certainly not all of them. The challenge for a historical novelist is to avoid going over-the-top with wild tales that seem too fantastic to be believed while still preserving the colorful and often outrageous nature of this family. Choosing what to leave out can be as important as deciding what to keep.
Gortner wisely avoids giving an exhaustive catalogue of Borgia offenses. He sticks to what reveals his subjects’ temperaments, doing an admirable job of bringing humanity to these larger-than-life characters. (There is a central plot point that is not supported by the historic record, but it is at least plausible and compatible with what we do know.)
The story is told from Lucrezia’s perspective, making her a sympathetic and believable character in the midst of all the mayhem. This depiction probably gets fairly close to the truth. Lucrezia was no innocent, but she was also a victim of her circumstances, used as a pawn in political marriages starting at the age of 13. Surviving in that environment would have taken a fair amount of scrappiness and adaptability.
This portrait of St. Catherine of Alexandrea in a fresco by Pinturicchio may be Lucrezia Borgia (Photo from paradoxplace.com).
Late 15th century Italy was a vibrant (and violent) place. This book captures the interactions of Italy’s power centers without getting bogged down in minutiae at the expense of the story. In Renaissance Italy, several powerful families held sway over different regions and cities. In this novel, we see how the Orsini, della Rovere, Sforza, Medici, d’Este, and other families constantly jockeyed for power, with the upstart Borgias jumping right into the fray.
View from the Castel Sant'Angelo looking towards St. Peter's Basilica. The brick structure running between them is the passetto through which Rodrigo Borgia escaped when the city was invaded by Charles VIII of France in 1494.
The papacy was as much a political and military power as a religious one. Rodrigo Borgia deployed his children strategically to secure his dynasty (a strange concept when acting as a non-hereditary ruler). It was an era of change in art and science, political friends and foes could be swapped as borders were re-drawn, and the Reformation waited just around the corner. The Borgias bent the rules to suit them in uncertain times, but their unscrupulous volatility had devastating consequences to everyone around them.
“Era desso il figlio mio” from the opera Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti
A copy of this book for review was provided by Random House/NetGalley.