Strathern’s (The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance, 2016, etc.) latest venture into Renaissance Italy proves just as exciting as his previous histories.
Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503), his son, Cesare, and daughter, Lucretia, are the central characters, following in the footsteps of Rodrigo’s uncle, Pope Callixtus III. Rodrigo was by all accounts rich, charming, and an excellent administrator, but he was also impious, avaricious, and cruel. Callixtus appointed him Vice Chancellor, giving him the power of the purse in the Vatican. He held that post through multiple papacies until he became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He had one ambition: to unify Italy under a Borgia hereditary papacy centered in Rome. Cesare was groomed to take his place, first as a cardinal and then as head of the Papal Forces. Alexander’s diplomatic machinations and Cesare’s brash but effective soldiering made that a possibility. Alexander’s diplomacy came down to being friendly to both Spanish and French forces as they fought over Naples and supporting Venetian, Florentine, and Siennese governments while undermining everyone else. Rodrigo even married Cesare to a woman raised at the French court of Louis XII. With Louis’ help and the Papal Forces, Cesare managed to take almost all the Romagna under his protection. Strathern points to an “inappropriate closeness” in the family. Rodrigo trusted Lucretia above everyone; he not only put her in charge of a province, but also let her administer the papacy in his absence. Cesare’s manic jealousy of Lucretia was powerful, and rumors of his siring of her child and murders of her lover and husband complete that picture of a dangerous man. One of the author’s great strengths has always been his ability to keep the many assorted players from confusing readers, and that holds true in his latest.
Strathern’s smooth narrative and comprehensive insight bring the Borgias to life for scholars and amateurs alike.