In this epic novel, Ennis gives ample evidence that political and religious corruption in early-16th-century Italy makes anything vaguely analogous look like Sunnybrook Farm.
At the center of this swirling unscrupulousness are several key historical figures, most notably the ruthless Duke Valentino of Romagna; his equally merciless father, Pope Alexander VI; a brilliant military engineer and draftsman named Leonardo da Vinci; and Niccolo Machiavelli, who bases his political theory of power on the machinations of the aforementioned duke. The first narrator in this labyrinthine tale is Damiata, whose son is kidnapped by his grandfather, the pope, in a raw display of power and privilege. (Perhaps it’s not necessary to mention that these are all Borgias, so in Renaissance Italy, raw displays of power are as common as segreto sauce.) Damiata is one of the “cortigiane oneste” or “honest courtesans”—or even more colloquially, a whore with the proverbial heart of gold. If political intrigue is not enough, there have also recently been some serial killings in which the victims were dismembered and decapitated. Enter Leonardo, who plots the found body parts on a map of Imola, the city in which the gruesome murders occurred, and discovers that the points correspond to those consistent with an Archimedean spiral. The narrative switches over to Machiavelli, who reminisces about the events of 1502 in which Italy is in turmoil, owing at least in part to the assassination of Pope Alexander’s beloved son, Juan, brother to the duke and lover of Damiata. Enlisting the help of Machiavelli in solving this murder mystery, she and Machiavelli become both lovers and fellow detectives.
This is a dense narrative, permeated by the sights, sounds and smells of Renaissance Italy, and one that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, with which it is sure to be compared.