Saturday, November 27, 2004


By Sarah Bradford

Viking, $27.95, 400 pages, illus.


The last part of the 15th century and the early decades of the 16th largely formed Western Civilization as we know it. This was the era of Columbus, Martin Luther, da Vinci, and Niccolo Machiavelli. Its intellectual center was the Italy of the High Renaissance. It was a time of intrigue and brutal backstabbing.

Italy resembled what the developing world looks like today. It was a mix of proto-states that largely did not look like the nation-states that make up most of the West today. They more closely resembled modern Somalia, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq.

To survive and prosper in that era, a man had to be both cunning and ruthless, but most of all, he had to be a man. This was a world where women were viewed largely as child making machines, concubines, and sexual pawns in the great game of Italian power politics.

This was the world Lucrezia Borgia was born into in 1489. She was the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia). He was the pope upon whose shoulders it fell to divide the New World that Columbus and others discovered and were exploring into Spanish and Portuguese spheres of empire. He was also one of the most decadent and corrupt individuals to ever occupy the Holy See.

His excesses, particularly simony (the selling of church offices and preferments), would be one of the major sparks that that ignited the Reformation. On the surface, it would seem that the beautiful Lucrezia was doomed to be a pawn of men from the beginning, and she was early in her life.

Her powerful father and legendarily-ruthless brother, Cesare Borgia, married her early at the age of 13 for political expediency. She was to be married three times before she died and her brother would have one of her husbands killed. In his book, “The Prince,” Machiavelli famously cited Cesare’s bold military exploits and unscrupulousness, arguing that such qualities were essential if a ruler was to be successful.

However, by all accounts, Lucrezia Borgia was an extraordinary individual who eventually took control of her life and became a major player in her own right. This is the story that Sarah Bradford sets out to tell. Bradford is an accomplished British author whose biography of Jackie Kennedy was well received in this country.

There are two ways two approach a biography of this fascinating woman. The first is to write a sensational bodice ripper that dwells on the lurid. The second is to lay out the facts and let the reader decide. Ms Bradford chooses the latter. Some critics have accused the book of being too detailed. Given the Byzantine circumstances of her life, it is hard to imagine doing justice to the subject without going into the nitty-gritty of the intrigues that surrounded Lucrezia.

Those that criticize this volume for detail should try Maria Bellonci’s treatment of the same subject; it is a book that gives a new meaning to the word “turgid”. Lucrezia lived a fascinating life. She was certainly sexually amoral; she had many affairs, although there is no proof of incest with her father and brother.

She could scheme with the best of them. There is no evidence that she ever met Machiavelli, but he certainly knew of him as he was an acquaintance of her brother, but she and the great schemer certainly learned in the same school.

There is also no hard evidence that she herself ever personally murdered anyone, but she almost certainly was aware of some of the atrocities committed to further her interests. However, in later life, particularly after the passing of her brutal but devoted brother, she became a competent ruler and a devout patron of the church.

She was apparently a good friend, and remained on good terms with her former lovers, at least those who survived, and was by all accounts a good mother. Her third and final husband was the Duke of Ferrara, a warrior ruler of the famous Este family. She played her part in stiffening his troops for battle and appears to have been a capable strategist in her own right. She was also a capable administrator and a patron of the arts.

In the end, she died relatively young at 39, succumbing to the birth of her final child in 1519. She went with her proverbial boots on. She faced death clear eyed and finished up her earthly business efficiently and said her goodbyes bravely.

If High Renaissance Italy has a modern social counterpart, it is Hollywood. The famous people of 15th and 16th century Italy were the beautiful people of their time, the celebrities. The gossip mongers of the Italian street were the tabloids, and Lucrezia was an easy target and her reputation was tarnished by that gossip.

Sarah Bradford does a good job of putting this fascinating personality in perspective. The book is not for everyone, but anyone with more than a passing interest in the era will find it a worthy read.

Gary Anderson is writing a novel of modern Borgias loose in Southern California

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