While reading this fictionalized account about Pope Alexander VI (who ascended to the papacy in 1492) and his children (who included Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia), I kept googling to check on the facts, because what Dunant wrote seemed too outrageous to be true. Alas, not only does she adhere meticulously to the historical record, but when there is ambiguity, she gives the characters the benefit of the doubt. She fleshes out what is known with imagined dialogue, but her story draws so heavily on the known historical record that it hardly seems like fiction at all. More is the pity, unfortunately, because, as one of the characters observes, the Vatican in those days was more like a bordello than a court. Moreover, children, money, and cardinalships were scandalously traded for political gains. Enemies of the papacy were routinely poisoned or dumped into the Tiber River.
One of this Pope’s weaknesses was perceived to be his great love for his children, although Dunant makes the case that in addition to his parental affection, the Pope relied on their loyalty in the treacherous atmosphere of 15th Century Rome to support his (and their) advancement. To that end, he first married off his favorite son Juan, but Juan was murdered in 1497, possibly by the jealous second son Cesare. Cesare was made a cardinal by his father at age 18, and after Juan’s death, became his father’s chief advisor. The Pope’s daughter Lucrezia was married off to secure a political liaison when Lucrezia was 13. A younger brother Jofre was married off at age 12. All of these arrangements were made to consolidate the power of the Pope.
Lucrezia ended up being married three times; her first two husbands were deemed expendable after changes in the balance of power, and they were done away with, again probably by Cesare.
You may be wondering how it is that Pope Alexander VI, originally Rodrigo Borgia, had all these children. Mistresses were common at the time, and indeed, many of the cardinals in Rome evinced the tell-tale blush of syphillis. [The first written records of an outbreak of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1494/1495 in Naples, Italy, during the French invasion. After the departure of the French, the Italians – visiting the same prostitutes, became infected with the “French Disease” in turn. Cesare Borgia was among the cardinals who suffered from the disease.]
Dunant follows the family (and all of its extensions) over the ten years following Borgia’s election as Pope. The machinations of the family have inspired a large number of books and movies, for good reason. [It should also be noted that Niccolò Machiavelli, the author of the famous 16th-century political treatise, The Prince, based some of his principles of the effective uses of power on the policies of Cesare Borgia. Thus, not surprisingly, “Machiavellian” became an epithet for someone known for treachery, ambition, and ruthlessness.] In the life of the Borgias, and in this book, there is plenty of sex, violence, intrigue, scandal, betrayal, and just all around bad behavior. In other words, there is never a dull moment. If it hadn’t been pretty much true, I would have declared it absurdly unrealistic. I’m still disappointed I can’t do that.
Evaluation: This is a fascinating and eye-opening look at the unsavory and infamous goings-on behind the Vatican doors at the end of the 15th Century and beginning of the 16th. Dunant also has a sequel to this book.
Published by Random House, 2013