Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why I Love the Borgias by Sarah Bower

Today we are pleased to welcome British author Sarah Bower who is currently on a blog tour promoting her book The Sins of the Borgias. This book was previously released in the UK as The Book Of Love, which is an interesting change of title. This is her second novel following The Needle in the Blood.

My love affair with the Borgias goes back a long way, to reading Jean Plaidy’s Madonna of the Seven Hills and Light on Lucrezia in my early teens. It won’t surprise you that a fourteen year old girl fell for Cesare Borgia first – handsome, brilliant and clearly in need of taming by a good woman – a perfect foil for a somewhat solitary and dreamy teenager. He’s the reason why, once I’d finished the Jean Plaidy series, rather than going on to more of her wonderfully entertaining fiction, I set out to read The Prince, for whose lucid and hard-nosed exposition of real politik Cesare was the inspiration, and Rafael Sabatini’s romantic hagiography of the man, written at a time when Cesare was enjoying a brief moment in the sun as a ‘hero’ of the Italian Risorgimento. In the space between the two is a fascinating, enigmatic and contradictory human being, who fought bulls but adored his horses, deserted his wife but was devoted to his mother and sister, wrecked swathes of central Italy and then employed Leonardo da Vinci to plan the rebuilding.

Through Cesare, I got to know the rest of his extraordinary family. As well as giving us the legend of the murderous adulteress, Lucrezia, who inspired Victor Hugo’s play and Donizetti’s opera, the Borgias (or Borjas, as they were known in their native Catalonia) gave us two Popes and a saint, a convicted murderer and the man who built the famous Villa d’Este and its garden. This contrast exists best in microcosm in the life of Lucrezia, whose early years were marked by rumours of adultery, incest, extravagant partying and even lying to a convocation of cardinals about her virginity. Yet by the time of her death, she was a much-loved matriarch, a heroine of resistance who sold all her jewellery to buy artillery to defend her home in Ferrara, and a distinguished patron of the arts.

What it’s easy to forget when you list the achievements of these lives, is how short they were. Cesare and Lucrezia’s father became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. His sudden death in 1503 brought his dynasty crashing down; within twelve months Cesare had lost control of the Papal States and three years later, aged just 31, he was dead. The period of Borgia ascendancy lasted a mere nine years, in an age dominated by the great Italian dynasties such as the Medici, the Orsini and the Visconti. They left no cultural legacy, no great paintings or palazzi, yet their name remains far better known than some of the others.

They didn’t need permanent monuments. They had chutzpah, guts, flair, a glorious and flamboyant disregard for what anyone thought of them as they pursued their high, and ultimately impossible, ambitions. They were gallant and brave in the face of treachery, disease, loss and war. When they had power and wealth, they flaunted it, when they lost it, they set out undaunted to get it back.

I do sometimes wonder if the romance would have tarnished if Cesare and Lucrezia had lived to a ripe old age. You know what they say about an early death, and both these two died in their thirties. Perhaps it’s the brevity of their lives that makes them seem so bright, like shooting stars, there, then gone, invested with magical power. Or perhaps, for the novelist, it’s the fact that for every Borgia legend, there’s an opposite. Cesare was obsessively secretive and committed almost nothing to writing. Lucrezia wrote many of her most important letters in codes which remain undeciphered. Over five hundred years, the fog of secrecy has thickened, and it’s a special pleasure for a fiction writer such as myself to grope around in it for the strange, half-readable shapes, the muffled voices and glimpsed faces which are all these mercurial figures have left behind. I love them because I’ve been able, in my novel, SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA, to make them my own.


  1. Fantastic post! I really enjoyed reading this-the author's passion for the subject shines through. Thanks!

  2. I've been reading the UK version of Sins of the House of Borgia. I can attest, its a page turner. Magnificent!