Book Review: The Vatican Princess
by C. W. Gortner
Ballantine Books, 2016
CW Gortner, in the Afterword to his new novel The Vatican Princess, briefly explains some of the reasons why he decided to become the 1,178th author to rise in defense of Lucrezia Borgia’s reputation in the last 100 years. “Lucrezia, in particular, has come to personify evil through her long-established and erroneously attributed role as a malignant seductress,” he writes, adding, “Research reveals she was nothing like her legend.” In his brief bibliography, he cites Sarah Bradford’s justly famous 2004 biography of Lucrezia Borgia, and although this is a spot-on recommendation, it can raise awkward questions. Bradford is not only a skilled biographer (her biography of Queen Elizabeth II remains the best life of that Windsor immortal), she’s also an appealingly dramatic writer – and if skilled biographer who’s also a dramatic writer tells the story of Lucrezia Borgia’s colorful life, a reader might justifiably ask: what need is there for a novelist to tell that same story?
That question certainly hasn’t stopped a century’s worth of novelists from telling that story anyway, all of them seeking what Gortner seeks here: to redress the slanders begun 500 years ago by anti-Borgia propagandists and save Lucrezia from the black reputation of being a debauched poisoner and to put her before readers as the woman she really was: the lovely daughter of the Spanish Pope, Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, used by him as a dynastic chess piece, a young woman very acquainted with tragedy and beloved for her goodness and charity even while her brother Cesare was becoming a feared (and, once the syphilis ate away half his face, fearsome-looking) warrior on the Continent.
It’s incredibly rich material for a novelist, and Gortner (whose 2011 novel The Tudor Secret was quite good) dramatizes it with a fine and consistent ear for that wronged and very human vulnerability that has made Lucrezia Borgia such a figure of fascination from her day to our own. The Vatican Princess opens when Lucrezia is still only a little girl living under the tyrannical caprice of her mother, and the narrative follows her turbulent early adult life at a reserved, almost stately pace. Gortner’s place-settings can sometimes sound like a tired matter of atmospheric box-checking:
Night had fallen, blanketing the city in mist, but the narrow lanes and piazzas were awash with thieves, whores, and swaggering condottiere seeking diversion under the low eaves. Acrid smoke wafted from torches carried by armed footmen. The doors and shutters of the taverns were flung wide open to let out raucous laughter and the din of tankards.
But there’s a convincing assurance to his delvings into the dynamics of this famous family, and although Lucrezia is very firmly the star of the proceedings, Gortner’s portrayal of Cesare and especially Rodrigo is uniformly strong. And the novel’s pace is fascinating to watch; scenes between our main characters, always seen from Lucrezia’s point of view, are nicely realized – like the moment when it first dawns on Rodrigo that giving away his daughter to a Renaissance prince like Giovanni Sfora means she’ll no longer be livening up the Vatican:
“My farfallina,” he said. His breath was sour – a rarity for him – and his eyes, usually so lucid, were red-rimmed. “I never thought I’d see the day when I must relinquish my most precious jewel to another.” His voice caught in his throat. For a paralyzing moment, I thought he might start to weep. Papa had never been reticent in his emotions, but neither had he said or done anything to indicate my marriage was more than a political arrangement, which would scarcely alter the established pattern of my life. Having taken strength in his nonchalance, now I faltered …
The Vatican Princess puts on stage the most outrageous and violent years in Lucrezia Borgia’s life perhaps wisely declines to double its length by following its subject into her third marriage with its years of matronly respectability (sixty years ago, the mighty Jean Plaidy tried to craft a gripping narrative out of those final years, and Light on Lucrezia is notoriously uneven in its success). Instead, Gortner concentrates on the often violent passions of the men in young Lucrezia’s life, of course including Cesare, who’s utterly compelling in every Lucrezia Borgia novel ever written but has received only a fraction of such novels himself. Maybe he should have started a rumor or two about poisoning people.