As the 16th century dawns, Columbus has brought word of new lands to Queen Isabella, Savonarola leads a reign of terror in Florence, and Rodrigo Borgia is bargaining his daughter, Lucrezia, to claim the Throne of Peter in Rome.
In an era when priestly vows of chastity were honored in the breach, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia had four children by a mistress. Borgia, who would become Pope Alexander VI, gains his papacy with the support of the troublesome Milanese, particularly Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, whom he names vice-chancellor. Borgia’s 13-year-old daughter, Lucrezia, his farfallina—"little butterfly"—will marry Giovanni Sforza, the cardinal's cousin, in more political payoff. Rodrigo’s patronage, political power, and wealth made Lucrezia a valuable consort because family alliances between the Sforzas, Gonzagas, d’Estes, and Medicis controlled Italy’s city-states. Gortner’s novel is one of character: Borgia pater, of course, but also Lucrezia, intelligent and poised, and her "keen and capable" brother Cesare, named Cardinal of Valencia fresh from seminary. Teenage Lucrezia is mature beyond her years, but she’s only a pawn in her father’s game of thrones. Soon, however, "political convenience" will lead to the annulment of Lucrezia’s unconsummated marriage to Sforza. Later, Lucrezia makes a love match with Alfonso of Aragon, Prince of Naples, but Cesare disapproves of his father’s indulgence, to Lucrezia’s regret. Lucrezia remains a sympathetic character, conversant in literature and philosophy, with every Borgia evil laid at the feet of her father, ambitious and calculating, or Cesare, a brilliant and amoral psychopath with a lifelong near-incestuous love for his sister. In a literary exploration riven with Shakespearean quantities of murder, lies, deceptions, and treachery, Gortner’s narrative gains veracity with his atmospheric exploration of fashion, architecture, and art on the stage of "loud, filthy, and dangerous" Rome.
Gortner (Mademoiselle Chanel, 2015, etc.) has imagined Lucrezia Borgia’s life from a feminist perspective.