THE SCARLET CITY by Hella S. Haasse


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Another historical epic from Dutch writer Haasse. In a Dark Wood Wandering (1989) dealt with the Hundred Years War; this one also melds personal melodrama with historical sweep, focusing on the Italian Wars (1495-1527) between French (Francis I) and Spanish (Charles V) forces, with the Papacy trapped between them. Protagonist Giovanni Borgia, ""the child of Rome,"" uncertain of his heritage, spends much of the book in search of his roots. Captured at the Battle of Pavia, fighting for the French, and rescued, he is taken to Rome and becomes a speechwriter for the Vatican (""The papal household is a tangled mass of functionaries, spiritual and secular, all with their own retinues, relatives, friends, favorites, servants, and hangers-on""). Is Giovanni the son of Pope Alexander VI, or the brother of Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia (a partisan of the French whose ""policy was at the bottom of everything""), or Cesare's son (Giovanni believed this as a child), or not a Borgia at all? To find the answer, the story alternates personal narratives, providing a wealth of realistic detail and the perspectives of Michelangelo and Machiavelli, among others. Chief players include Vittoria Colonna, whose family fought for the Spanish Emperor, and courtesan Tullia d'Aragona (Giovanni sleeps with her, but "". . .each time [he] was a stranger to her anew. . .the brief moment of intimacy. . .never brought a feeling of empathy. . .""). The tale chronicles the emergence of Europe from the Middle Ages and feudalism to nationalism, but Giovanni himself, his identity a mystery, can never rest, his lineage ""a source of torment"" not completely resolved or assuaged by book's end. Even so, Haasse once again serves up a historical page-turner with enough dramatic detail to satisfy readers of her previous book.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Academy Chicago