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by Sarah Bower

Pub Date: March 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4022-5963-0
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

A surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Renaissance clan who gave meaning to the term “Machiavellian,” narrated by a lady-in-waiting to Lucrezia Borgia. The Showtime drama based on the book premiers April 2011.

Esther, who left Spain after Ferdinand and Isabella ordered the expulsion of the Jews, followed her father to Rome, losing her mother on the journey. Her father, a moneylender to the Vatican, arranges, for his daughters’ protection, to have her join the court of Lucrezia, one of Pope Alexander VI’s many illegitimate noble children. The Borgias require that Esther be baptized Catholic. Later, Lucrezia’s dashing, unscrupulous brother, Duke Valentino, known as Cesare, sardonically nicknames Esther “Violante” (promise-breaker). Despite the Duke’s dangerous reputation as an assassin and womanizer, Violante is violently attracted to him. He toys with her affections, but when Violante follows Lucrezia to the province of Ferrara where she is to wed its ruler, Duke Alfonso d’Este, Cesare stays away. Lucrezia settles into her relatively happy marriage to Alfonso. (It's her third politically expedient union to be negotiated by the Pope: Previous husbands were shed, one fatally, when they no longer served Alexander’s interests.) Violante exchanges romantic confidences with her fellow lady-in-waiting Angela (Lucrezia’s cousin), who has affairs with two of Alfonso’s brothers. On a visit, Cesare deflowers and impregnates Violante. He’s long gone, besieging other Italian city states and perpetrating all manner of treachery, when Violante gives birth to a son, Girolamo. Lucrezia, though her love for Cesare is more than sisterly, appears to share in Violante’s hope that Cesare will propose marriage. Much plotting, dungeon-languishing (but, oddly enough, no poisoning, at least not of humans) later, this ponderous tome lumbers to a close. The confinement of the point of view to Violante narrows the scope of the novel to her observations of the pageantry of life among the great, and although her descriptions are lush and detailed, the Borgias and their enemies emerge as mere figments of history, not fully fleshed characters.

Like a tapestry of the period, decorous but two-dimensional.