I am honored today to have Sarah Bower, author of Sins of the House of Borgia on Laura's Reviews today. My questions to Ms. Bower were as follows:
What first got you interested in the nortorious Borgia family? What do you think is the most interesting fact that you learned about them? Will you be watching "The Borgias" on Showtime?
She wrote a fascinating piece about the Borgia family and I loved her novel (my review will be posted next week). So without further ado, Sarah Bower!
The Borgia Family by Sarah Bower
Thanks very much for inviting me to write a guest piece for your blog, and for your lovely, broad questions, which I shall do my best to answer.
You ask what interested me in the Borgias and I can tell you my fascination with the family goes way back to reading Jean Plaidy’s Madonna of the Seven Hills and Light on Lucrezia under the bedclothes at my boarding school. I had never heard of the Borgias before then, and my subsequent research into them has made me admire Plaidy more and more for her ability to transform their history into romance. I have tried and – I hope – succeeded in doing something similar in my own novel, SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA.
My gratitude to Plaidy is, however, a little mixed because the effect of reading these two novels was to throw me off reading fiction entirely for a few years, while I began researching the Borgias in earnest. I read everything I could find, from Pastor’s History of the Popes (well, the relevant volumes – I’m not sure, to be honest, how long the book is in total!) to Rafael Sabatini’s somewhat daft hagiography of Cesare Borgia, in which Machiavelli’s scheming prince is transformed into a hero of the Risorgimento not unlike Sabatini’s most famous swashbuckler, Scaramouche. I managed to temper the extremes with the magisterial The Borgias by Michael Mallett and Sarah Bradford’s beautifully balanced and articulate biographies of Cesare and Lucrezia – far and away, in my view, the best factual books written about these two enigmatic and fascinating figures.
Mallett’s book is subtitled The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Dynasty, and I think one aspect of the Borgias that makes them so attractive is how briefly they held power, yet how absolute that power was while they had it. From the election of the first Borgia Pope, Calixtus III, in 1455, to the death of Alexander VI in 1503 is a period of less than fifty years. The period during which Alexander and Cesare were jointly unassailable as Head of the Church and commander of its armed forces lasted a mere three years, from 1500 to 1503. The dynasty was like a shooting star, glamorous, spectacular and invested with many powers, some real, some imagined and most hedged about with superstition.
Lucrezia, of course, lived on as Duchess of Ferrara until 1519 and helped to perpetuate a distinguished dynasty there. One of her sons was the great Cardinal Ippolito d’Este II, builder of the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Her survival, however, depended on her distancing herself from her notorious relatives and forging a new identity for herself a long way from Rome. When I visited Ferrara for my research, I realised how successfully she had done this. There she is remembered, not as a prominent member of the sensational Borgia clan, but as a loyal wife and devoted mother, who presided over a cultivated court, patronising in particular the poets Ariosto and Pietro Bembo. She also proved herself a gallant defender of Ferrara against a Papal force, under the command of Julius II, even pawning her jewellery to buy ammunition for artillery. At her death, in childbirth, aged only 39, it was discovered that she had been wearing a hair shirt beneath her clothes, possibly for many years. Her tomb, in the Convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara, is, today, a site of reverence.
Perhaps, then it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to me that the Borgia family does, indeed, boast one genuine, bona fide saint. He is San Francisco Borja (the original Catalan spelling of the family name), the grandson of Cesare and Lucrezia’s brother, Juan, who became the third general of the Society of Jesus and was the confessor of Queen Juana ‘La Loca’ of Spain. Cesare’s illegitimate daughter, Camilla, also took to the religious life, becoming Abbess of the Convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara, where she died in her seventies with a reputation for saintliness and good works, as well as a shrewd administrative capacity more likely to have come from her father.
So, I shall be watching Neil Jordan’s new TV series about the Borgias with, I’m sure, huge enjoyment, but also keeping in mind that the family was more complex than their notoriety leads us to believe. There is no doubt that Cesare and his father got up to all kinds of nefarious tricks to gain and hold on to power. In that they were both typical of their time yet set apart by their brilliance and, I think, the fact that the Borgias had come from Spain and made only limited efforts to fit in. They always spoke Catalan among themselves, which exasperated many visitors to the Vatican who struggled to understand what was being said. There is no doubt that Lucrezia, when young, was a great flirt and had a string of admirers. I think it is safe to say Cesare was jealous of his sister’s ‘gentleman friends’ but, even now, not quite safe to speculate as to why; while socially assured, he was emotionally inept, so let’s leave it at that, shall we?
On the other side of the coin, we have San Fransisco, Camilla and several other respected figures in both religious and secular life. It is also worth remembering that, for all his worldliness, Pope Alexander was a devout man who introduced to the Church both the Index of banned books and the custom of ringing the Angelus in honour of the Virgin to whom, ironically, he was particularly devoted.
For me, one small piece of Vatican art sums up the contradictions. In the Borgia apartments, above the door of the Pope’s bedchamber is a devotional painting of the Virgin by Pinturicchio. It has the face of the love of Alexander’s later years, Giulia Farnese, La Bella Giulia, whose brother, Alessandro, also became Pope. What a great illustration of the spiders’ web of devotion, intrigue, sex, nepotism and sheer brilliance that lies at the heart of the Italian Renaissance!
Sourcebooks has been kind enough to offer one copy of Sins of the House of Borgia by Sarah Bower for a giveaway.
If you would like to win a copy of Sins of the House of Borgia, please leave a comment about what intrigues you about the novel or this guest blog.
As part of your comment, you must include an email address. If I can't find a way to contact you I will draw another winner.
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The deadline for entry is midnight, Friday April 1st. (No Foolin'!)