I am not sure at what point in my research on Blood & Beauty I discovered the Borgia apartments, but I do know that nothing was the same afterwards.
Disputation of Santa Caterina
History is a fragile thing. While dates and facts may end up in books (though as you’ll know if you have followed my blogs, with a family like the Borgias even “facts” can be contested), the physical imprint is often the first thing to go. Clothes rot, diaries or letters get lost, images get painted over and buildings catch fire or get torn down or altered beyond recognition. Rome at the turn of the 15th century was a city with a lot of building going on. You may think St Peters is old, or that the Sistine chapel is indelibly Michelangelo, but when it came to imagining the conclave of 1492, that great chapel where the cardinals met was so new that Michelangelo had yet to get his hands on it, while St Peters was a crumbling old basilica which would soon be reduced to rubble as a new one took its place.
In the fever of renaissance creativity, each pope set out to make his own mark, often to be altered or obliterated by the one after. So it was a definite shiver–down-the-spine moment when I discovered that the private apartments that Rodrigo Borgia had had built and frescoed to celebrate his papacy had, against all odds, escaped the attrition of time.
Pope Alexander looking up at the the risen Christ
Never a man to hide his light – or wealth – under a bushel, Rodrigo, now Alexander VI, built a tower and appropriated a set of rooms nearby, bringing in the most fashionable painter of the day to decorate everything in time for the his daughter, Lucrezia’s wedding. Frescos were the order of the day, and while much of the subject matter was religious, inside the stories there was always room for a few family portraits. The few images I managed to find had me salivating.
In April 2011 my partner and I took a plane to Rome. I had picked the date carefully. London was giddily celebrating a royal wedding, and it seemed like the perfect weekend to get away. Maybe everyone had the same thought, since it was almost impossible to book a hotel room. It was only when we got there I realised why. Forget royalty, the Catholic Church was busy with sainthood: a weekend of ceremonies to start the beatification process of Pope John Paul. The city was heaving. As we found ourselves swept in a crowd across St Angelo bridge all I could think of was how history never stops: take away plastic water bottles, jeans and sunscreen and these could have been pilgrims flocking to Rome for the Jubilee of 1500.
The queue for the Vatican was appalling. Once inside, we forged through the strict one-way system, airbrushing out anything and everything built after 1503 (it helps that my partner is architect). The tour route saves the most famous bit till last, so this great river of people was all flowing towards the Sistine chapel. The Borgia apartments are close by. Given the family’s reputation, the Vatican museum has been historically wary of glorying them. They were boarded up until the beginning of the 19th century and recently they have been used as a gallery to show off more contemporary religious art. I prepared myself for more airbrushing. It was much worse than that. The rooms were closed. Further restoration apparently.
I think I may actually have wailed. Nothing had been said at the barrier or at the entrance! The guard in the room outside listened as I poured my heart out in passionate broken Italian. I HAD to go in there.
Sorry, but there was nothing he could do. Maybe if I wrote to the Director?
But how long would that take? Wasn’t there anyone I could see today?
No. It was Saturday morning on beatification weekend and everyone was off.
Blue tiles on Vatican floor
Behind the barrier I could see the glow of dense blue tiles on the floor. I knew them so well. They came from Naples, made in the Spanish style to remind the pope of his original home in Valencia In the corner of one room there would even be the date: 1496.
The barrier was high enough to duck under. I shot a look at my partner. He frowned, but he understood. After a while he started chatting to the guard, pointing out something on the other side of the room. I took a deep breath and went for it.
Possibly I shouldn’t continue with this story in case, in lawyers’ speak, I might incriminate myself. So let me just put it this way: the few photos I managed to take were lousy, but it didn’t matter, my memory was snapping fasting than my hand.
It was indeed a treasure trove, each room a renaissance jewel, every inch decorated and glowing with colour, and all so perfectly preserved that it is indeed like walking back through time. And just in case you should have any doubt which family was responsible for it all, the Borgia family crest is everywhere.
As I slipped unnoticed back under the barrier, my partner had to stop tell me to stop smiling in case the guard saw me again and guessed. A few months later, thanks to the friendship of a young PHD scholar in Rome who had good relations with a number of the Vatican guards, I was back, this time with a free hand to wander though the rooms at will.
Now I could really study the fresco of Christ rising from the tomb with Rodrigo Borgia himself, in full regalia, kneeling in witness. Clearly a portrait taken from life: an imposing figure whose hook nose, bull frog chin and full girth seems to have done nothing to detract from his charm when it came to women. In his bedroom I could trace his name engraved on the stone fireplace and wonder if the images of the Virgin might, as some have suggested, been modelled on the face of his 17 year mistress Giulia Farnese.
Lucrezia as a young girl
What we know for sure is that his daughter Lucrezia is here: posing as St Catherine disputing her faith with the Emperor at the court of Alexandria; a painfully young woman with a mass of fair hair and a hint of childish double chin, while among the courtiers there are likeness of her brothers Cesare and Juan, the Muslim hostage Prince Djem and even a self portrait of Pinturrichio himself.
But the most potent place to linger is the room where, in 1499, Lucrezia’s second husband lay badly wounded, nursed by his wife and sister, after a vicious attack on the Vatican steps. (What happened next was as shocking as anything in Papal history, but no novelist gives away the best of their plots).
So much history and drama, so many meetings with ambassadors, so many intimate family dinners, so many words lifting like clouds of dust into the air, to lodge in the corners or cling to the surface of the walls. I could barely wait to get back to the keyboard.
A year on from my last visit, I hear the apartments are still closed. It would seem that change moves at a slow pace inside the Vatican. So for now you will have to make do with words.
… has been a patchwork of airports and hotel rooms to talk about history and Blood & Beauty. Unlike rock bands, authors travel solo with just a notebook (public version known as Twitter) for company. I offer now a few visual scribbles.
In Vancouver the weather came out to greet me. God, I love this city! A spectacular summer had warmed the ocean so when the cool air came in, a thick fog rolled over the water and the beach, wrapping everything in grey gauze like some epic installation by the artist, Christo. I shook off the jetlag on a long walk on Jericho beach (last visited in high summer for the folk festival eighteen months ago), and my encounter with the heron was the nearest I will come in my life to being David Attenborough. Unless someone wants to offer me a gorilla that is…
The rest was bonfire mounds of autumn leaves, great value sushi and a lively platform at the Vancouver writers’ festival on the past in fiction. Once again I think of the old Jackson Brown refrain. “The only time that seems too short is the time that we get to play.” So much still left to say….
Toronto, in contrast, was crisp and shiny. There has been an epidemic of condo building since my last visit and the infrastructure around the dock areas is creaking under the onslaught of so many new commuters. On my walks I encountered a few wonders and horrors: a massacre of language in a hotel lobby…
… the inimitable architectural imagination of Daniel Libeskind at the Royal Ontario Museum and a reminder of renaissance wealth seen through a bank door.
Daniel Libeskind at the Royal Ontario Museum and a reminder of renaissance wealth
At the offices of my publishers, Harper Collins in Toronto, I did an illustrated talk on finding characters in the renaissance in front of an invited audience which was a huge pleasure for me at least…. Indeed the only disappointment of the whole trip was the public reading at the Fleck Dance Theatre. While it was a delight to sit back stage with Margaret Atwood and Rachel Kushner, (writers don’t often meet each other) it felt more like a school assembly than a festival, as we were marched on stage one at a time to read from our books. I can’t help thinking that Toronto audiences are perfectly capable of reading for themselves, and that it would have been much more illuminating – and fun – to have had a conversation with them. Ah well. Another year maybe
I leave you with sartorial matters. On a long brisk walk before getting on the plane and in the spirit of fabric research (history isn’t just politics, right?), I visited some great vintage stores on West Queen’s Street and bought this wonderful 50’s winter coat at Cabaret (Cabaretvintage.com)
Of course I had to wear it for the plane home. It was only as a stood in the queue at the security gates that someone pointed out that I still had the sales tag hanging off the back. Elegance. Despite my best intentions it has always rather defeated me.
My latest book Blood & Beauty - Schoonheid en Schande - was launched in the Netherlands last week. Here are a few photos from the trip. One of the surprise pleasures of Amsterdam is the vintage clothes shops. Checkout the berets!
Sarah Dunant in Amsterdam
Italian dessert in Amsterdam. The Borgias could not have eaten better
- Amsterdam – Schoonheid en Schande
Amsterdam for the launch of Schoonheid en Schande (Blood & Beauty)
This week Blood & Beauty is published in America and Canada. Yeah! The cover is different from Britain (I love them both, but it seems different cultures have different tastes), but the words – bar a few north American spellings – are exactly the same.
So maybe this is the moment to talk about The Borgias, since I know from conversations via Twitter and e-mail that many of you have watched the TV series (I think it has been more of a hit in America than Britain) with varying degrees of passionate response.
I’ll put my marker down fast. I was researching my novel when news of the series came through and I made a decision not to watch any of it while I was writing. Novelists exist in a strange, porous limbo when they are inside a book and access to other people’s ideas and images can infiltrate and infect (for good and for bad). My aim, to separate the truth from all the slur and insult when it came to this most colourful but most slandered of renaissance families, meant that I had my hands full anyway, sifting through reams of diplomatic chit-chat and intrigue to trace how the drip-drip of gossip can burn like acid into history to become established fact. So, it was only when the manuscript was finished that I switched on the television.
What a sumptuous spectacle met my eyes. The settings, the colour, the costumes, the light through stained glass, the weight of velvets, the swish of the silks across tiled floors; visually this was a feast. It actually felt like the past. (No small achievement when too often TV cleans things up). And there was much to recognise in the early episodes. How this Spanish family, interlopers in a city, church and country dominated by Italian families, were forced to take on all comers in their quest to create a new dynasty. No room for kicking back here: the experience of watching smart people thinking on their feet as plots and threats of invasion encircled like planes buzzing around King Kong at the top of the Empire State, was genuinely exhilarating.
But – and here come the ‘buts’ (committed fans can choose to stop reading now) – The Borgias is not history. From beginning to end it skewers facts, confuses dates, changes people and places, repeats slanders, adds things that didn’t happen and takes out much that did. Some things are small. Machiavelli was not the amanuensis to the ruler of Florence in 1494, or indeed ever. Others are larger. Juan Borgia did not lead an army against the French, nor did he besiege the city of Forli (even more problematic since by then he’d been dead for years) and Lucrezia’s husband was never made to demonstrate his manhood with lusty prostitutes in front of the Vatican College of Cardinals. And some just made up altogether. The Turkish hostage, Prince Djem, was in real life neither cute nor lovable, did not have a dalliance with Lucrezia, and was not killed, when, where or by whom they say. I won’t bother you with the real history, because while it’s interesting – especially Djem – you’d have to forgo the sight of some rippling bodies to appreciate it.
And that, of course, is part of the problem. Big budget costume drama is fashioned in 50 minute bursts and comes with its own rules. At least one big star is needed for finance, there must be heartthrobs, male and female, lots of violence, battles, personal vendettas with ideally a bit of torture and lashings and lashings of sex. No sweat you might think. The Borgias tick most of these boxes anyway: they certainly weren’t squeamish about violence and they didn’t mind hopping into the sack whenever possible. You can have all of that and still make it history. Except that over three series the inevitable repetitions – particularly of the sex – means that it all has to be spiced up a bit. So young Lucrezia must have a husband who rapes her, Rodrigo must indulge in a threesome with a transvestite woman painter (did anyone in their right mind really believe that could happen?!). And finally of course, because it is the most irresistible bit of gossip, Lucrezia must sleep with her own brother.
All these – what shall we call them? – “embellishments” come from treating the Borgias as if they were prime time soap opera characters rather than real people. But the fact is, they were real people. It was their actual personalities, strengths and weaknesses that made up the huge drama of their lives, and it seems to me that anyone who cares about history at all has a responsibility to try and get them right. Or at least not wilfully wrong.
This is where my temperature starts to rise. Jeremy Irons is a star actor with huge presence and ageing good looks, but, oh – how loudly can I shout this? – Rodrigo Borgia he is not. It’s a bit like casting Danny de Vito in Julius Caesar as a “lean and hungry… dangerous” Cassius. Jeremy’s Iron’s Pope is a lugubrious, enervated figure mixing sentiment and petulance with bursts of cold rage. In contrast, the real Rodrigo had an ebullience and explosive energy matched only by the size and corpulence of his body. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t capable of being a thug, but, like a twenty-five stone Tony Soprano (oh now there is the actor who could have done it, may he rest in glorious peace) he was clearly a surprisingly engaging one. All the first hand reports say as much. So now imagine that gross old man getting into bed with a teenage mistress. Morally and aesthetically it could turn a modern stomach. Welcome to real history. And welcome to the place where the words can work better than the camera: where you can paint a scene where gradually discomfort, outrage and sly delight collide for an audience in ways they could never expect.
The story of the Borgias is full of challenges like that. Take Cesare. Bad guys don’t come any more fascinating than this. The man is a sociopath: steel cold intelligence matched by a total lack of conscience or empathy, muted only by a dodgy affection towards his mother and sister. He would be a gift to contemporary TV drama series that revel in complex, compromised characters (think Homeland or Breaking Bad). But costume drama demands handsome heartthrobs. So this Cesare must be filled with conflict, must fall in love with a woman who then becomes a nun (great opportunity for steamy stuff) to prove that we know his heart beats like other men’s, until eventually that same beating heart will take him into the final taboo of sleeping with his beloved sister.
On the tick box of sexual excitement we have reached the highest rung. Does it matter that it isn’t true? I don’t know. If I were to tell you that President Obama was actually a Muslim, a possible terrorist sleeper in the white house, would that matter? Of course. So how come getting it right in the past is so less important than the present? That comparison with Obama works for another reason. The slander was the work of his political enemies. Put that level of poison into context and tells you a lot about the state of American politics and culture at this moment. It’s the same with the past. In the cauldron of renaissance Italian politics the stakes were very high and when the Borgias failed, their enemies wrote the history. That doesn’t mean that all the stories about them aren’t true. Far from it. They were a brutal, corrupt family. But they lived in brutal and corrupt times and then, as now, mud thrown has a tendency to stick.
Take that one rumour. Incest. Here’s how it develops. When Lucrezia’s first husband, Giovanni Sforza – once ally now enemy – was forced by the Pope to agree to an annulment on grounds of non-consummation he took out his indignation in vitriol. “I have known her an infinity of times,” he spat out to anyone who would listen, “and the Pope, her father, only wants her back for himself.” Like all gossip, once said, it cannot be unsaid. Like a virus it spread from one diplomatic purse to another and so the idea of the family that slays together also lays together was born. By the end of the year, Lucrezia was known to be Rome’s greatest whore, sleeping with both father and brother, accused of giving birth to an illegitimate child and on her way into history as a woman capable of every depravity from incest to poison and murder. Why bother with the truth when the slander is so delicious?
But let’s turn the question on its head. Why bother with slander when the truth is more unexpected? And after years of research I know that the life and journey of Lucrezia Borgia is a great deal more subtle, intriguing, sad and satisfying than anything you might have heard to date.
Of course no one can get it “right.” Not even historians can do that, and in places there are genuine gaps. We still don’t know who killed Juan Borgia? The Borgias have one version. I have my own. Fair enough. In the end everyone has to work by their own rules. Mine are simple: if the facts are known then I follow them. Not least because they throw you all manner of curve balls and bizarre turns of fate much more original than anything you might make up. As Cesare Borgia moves like a comet through the sky, who would predict that he would fall prey to a new devastating sexual disease that will eventually start to play with his mind as well as his body? This sexual plague, not yet named as syphilis, erupts out of war-torn Naples and sweeps across Europe like some harbinger of the apocalypse, bringing agony, disfigurement and shame and acting as a perfect mirror to the hypocrisy and debauchery of the times. And for Cesare himself, it so marks out inner corruption through the pock-marks on his once flawless handsome face that he takes to wearing a mask. Who would have a heartthrob when you can have a masked sociopath?
Having spent fifteen years writing novels set in this wild, rich period of European history I have come to learn that the more you get the history right, the richer the imaginative rewards. The story of the Borgias is a perfect case in point. The energy that gave the renaissance its creativity and beauty also fuelled huge corruption and brutality. Spin and scandal stalked the land long before tabloids or Twitter got hold and history was written fast by the victors. As family ambition races against the ticking clock of an ever-fatter old man sitting on the Papal throne while the vultures gather ready to savage the corpses, all you need to do is tell is like it is to keep your audience on the edge of their seats.
Perhaps the answer is for TV series to stick to sorcery with the swords and therefore avoid the word history altogether (Game of Thrones, with its echoes of War of the Roses, is making a killing with this strategy). Otherwise, we could employ one of those disclaimers that come at the end of so many movies: “Any resemblance to real life characters, living or dead, is purely co-incidental.” That way we would we know that whatever else we’re getting is novel.
Of course I have my own axe to grind here: getting the history and the story to meld together is what I live for. Why not watch the series and then read the novel? Even if you come out still loving the sensation, at least you will have an alternative reality to help you make up your mind. And we can always talk about it afterwards. Leave your thoughts here and the conversation can start.
(An abridged version of this article first appeared in the Times newspaper: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/arts/books/article3753105.ece)