Sarah Dunant

Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

In this room the various councils of the Florentine republic would have met during the renaissance. And off to the left was the little cubicle where we think Machiavelli might have worked. Until he was called upon to sit in on the discussions…

Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

‘So, members of the council, it is agreed, yes? As long as Florence is under the protection of the French King we stand firm against any hint of Borgia aggression or pressured overture of friendship.’

In his seat in the corner, Under-secretary Niccolò Machiavelli notes down the general murmur of approval. Piero Soderini, the elected leader of the republic, is an honourable and principled man, and it is impossible not to respect him. In another era, one of honour and principle, Niccolò thinks, he would make a most successful politician.

‘Under-secretary: if you would stay behind for a moment.’

High on the frescoed wall of the council chamber St Zenobius, the first bishop of Florence, stands with open arms, giving his blessing to good government, a glimpse of the cathedral’s famed dome peeking out from a pillar behind. It pains Niccolò every time he sees it, for this city that he so loves has changed dramatically in the years since the great Domenico Ghirlandaio stood with his brushes on the scaffold. Once respected everywhere for her wealth and stability, she now spends her diplomatic life looking nervously over her shoulder, like a young virgin on the street at night. To survive with her name, if not her purity, intact, what is needed is a government that can temper republican honour with a more pliant pragmatism. But these are not the thoughts that he is paid to deliver. Unless directly asked.

‘Do I gather you have some issue with the decision of the council, Niccolò?’

‘I am its under-secretary, not an elected member, Gonfaloniere. It is my job to advise, not conclude.’

‘Except with you one cannot always tell the difference. So speak your mind.

This extract from In The Name of the Family: A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias

Hidden Treasures

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For the first time in its history the Uffizi has an exhibition dedicated to a woman renaissance artist. Took them long enough right? But the story gets better. This woman spent her whole adult life in a convent. And it was there that she taught herself to paint. For those who have read The Birth of Venus this might have the ring of fiction to it. Indeed when I wrote that novel I had heard the name Plautilla Nelli but knew little more. But then there was little to know.

Not any more. Thanks to pioneering work by art historian Jonathan Kent and by Jane Fortune and her Advancing Women Artists Foundation.

Plautilla is firmly on the map. In a Workshop near Porta Romano a 3-metre long last supper which she painted is currently under restoration. My somewhat wobbly images all come from that astonishing work (so much sheer physical labour… women with muscles or the odd man to help mount it on the wall ? So many questions)

When it is finished it will get a permanent home in the museum of the great Santa Maria Nuova church. All it takes to change art history is the work of a dedicated restorer, some passionate advocates and a drip feed of cash

The most wonderful thing about history and women is that when generations of us hold hands we can change the past. And Florence is a fine place to get it done.

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Details from Plautilla Nelli’s The Last Supper

Read more about the Uffizi exhibition
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Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

When Niccolò Machiavelli crossed this bridge every day to work there was no upper story and certainly no tourists. Instead it was a rough cobbled path leading through blood and offal…. This is what he might have seen…

January 1502

His journey takes him down Via Guicciardini on the south side of the city and across the river Arno via the Ponte Vecchio. A maverick winter snowfall has turned into a grimy frost and the ground cracks like small animal bones under his feet. On the bridge fresh carcasses are being unloaded into the butchers’ shops. Through the open shutters he catches glimpses of the river, its surface of the water a silvery apricot under the rising sun. A feral dog streaks across his path, going for a gobbet of offal near the wheel of a cart. It earns him a kick in the ribs for his daring but his jaws remain firmly clenched over the prize. Scavenging opportunist! Stick a feathered hat on him and give him a sword and you’ve got half the country.

Across the bridge, he passes by the side of San Pier Scheraggio church into the open space of the Piazza della Signoria. The great bells from the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore sound out, marking the starting hour of the day and his thoughts move briefly to the cathedral workshop where a Florentine is chiseling into a block of flawed marble, commissioned by the state to produce a great statue of David to be placed on the façade of the cathedral. Nine months he’s been at it with no one allowed near the work, though the leaked gossip talks more of its size than its beauty. It remains to be seen whether it will be powerful enough to shield the city from the Borgia Goliath.

As the last chimes die away, a series of contorted male shrieks rise up from somewhere nearby; a late coupling between the sheets or a few early knife thrusts into a belly? Niccolò smiles. Such are the sounds of his beloved city, the sounds indeed of the whole of Italy.

This extract from In The Name of the Family: A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias

LUCREZIA BORGIA

A BLOODSTAIN ON THE CANVAS OF HISTORY

Lucrezia BorgiaImagine history as an enormous pointillist painting, the whole swirling chaos of the past represented through millions of coloured dots. Close to, it makes little sense, but step back and your eye finds shape and meaning, an epic narrative that sets out to explore and explain the journey so far.

Except that for the longest time there was so much missing from it. And the most egregious absence was that of women. Up until as little as sixty/seventy years ago while there were queens, mistresses of kings, a few saints, witches, female revolutionaries and a clutch of heroines – usually nurses or troublemakers – the smell lifting off the paint was predominantly that of male sweat and male aftershave.

Now, thanks to generations of historians and writers (the majority of them women, and I include the work of Virago here) the picture is changing dramatically. It’s far from finished – you could make exactly the same argument from the perspective of race – but we’re getting there.

On this Women’s Day though, I want to highlight a figure that’s been on the canvas for centuries, but a dot so badly painted that she is virtually unrecognisable from the truth.

Her name is Lucrezia Borgia.

You will almost certainly know her by the colourful insults that have dogged her throughout history: wicked, siren lovely, lascivious, incestuous and murderous, with a predilection for poison. Some of that slander started in her life time, then rolled effortlessly on; a novel by Victor Hugo, an opera by Donizetti, sensational films by deservedly forgotten directors, right up to recent television series which painted her as a bright little vixen, pulled inexorably into the arms of her handsome brother.

But for the sake of truth, a beleaguered commodity in this time of Trumped up fabrications, I offer now a more nuanced, though no less extraordinary, story of her life.

Lucrezia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia, was a cardinal and vice chancellor of the church when she was born (the rules demanded celibacy, but word proved blurry when it came to chastity). His only daughter by a long-term mistress, she was adored, educated and protected, but her childhood ended in 1492 when he became pope and the Borgia project of dynasty building began in earnest with her marriage. She was thirteen years old.

By twenty-one she was on to husband number three. Number one lasted only a few years (they needed her for a new alliance), the marriage annulled on the grounds of his impotence, despite the fact that his earlier wife had died in childbirth. In furious revenge he announced that he had “known her an infinity of times and that the pope only wanted her back for himself.” Thus the slander of incest was born and sixteen-year-old Lucrezia became “the greatest whore in Rome.”

Number two was the illegitimate son of the King of Naples. Their union was sweet but violently short. She gave birth to a son and showed herself to be politically capable, acting as governor for two papal towns, even running the business of the Vatican while the pope was away. For a while her life lights up with joy. But Naples falls out of favour and since annulment can’t do the job this time, her jealous, psychopathic brother, Cesare, takes matters into his own hands. Her husband is attacked on the streets and then, as he lays wounded in a Vatican bedroom, is finished off by Cesare’s bodyguard.

Engulfed by grief, the dutiful daughter now starts to rebel. To survive her family she needs to find a dynasty as powerful to protect her. When a union with the old house of d’Este in Ferrara is mooted, she does everything she can to make it happen, though she knows she will not be allowed to take her son with her. In 1501 she leaves Rome, never to return.

Her battles are not over. In Ferrara she finds a miserly father-in-law and an indifferent, philandering husband. She charms both, surviving malaria and miscarriage to become duchess of the city, securing herself a place long after the Borgia project fails. She alone carries on the family line; she runs a vibrant renaissance court, takes over the reins of government when her husband goes to war and even manages a love affair or two of her own. Later she becomes quietly religious, protecting and endowing convents, and when she dies, painfully young (39) in childbirth, she is mourned by the whole city.

This then is the real Lucrezia Borgia; resilient, brave, clever, adaptable: a woman for all seasons. No poison, no incest, no siren seduction (it’s always been as easy to damn women as ignore them), instead a remarkable story of survival, proof that whatever life delivered many still triumphed over the huge odds against them. As we celebrate Women’s Day 2017, Lucrezia’s repainted dot, along with many others on the canvas, is evidence that not only is feminism changing the present, it is also changing the past.

In the Name of the Family: A novel of Machiavelli & the Borgias is out now