Book Review: The Vatican Princess by Charles Gortner

Lucrezia Borgia was the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattenei. She had three brothers, Cesare, Juan, and Gioffre. The elder two, Cesare and Juan were depraved monsters by any standard.

Rodrigo probably should have hesitated before naming his daughter after a legendary Roman woman who was raped.

Lucrezia’s father became Pope in 1492 after allegedly having bought off a number of cardinals. In this book Lucrezia is utterly devoted to her father and to her older brother Cesare, until she comes to realize their true natures. Lucrezia is repeatedly a pawn in her father and brother’s quests for power. She is married off at the age of 13 to Giovanni Sforza in order to cement an alliance with Milan. The marriage is annulled several years later on the grounds of non-consummation, despite the fact that Lucrezia is with child and has taken refuge in a convent. In Gortner’s version of events, she was raped by her brother Juan.   Scandal and rumor abound, but the truth is shrouded in mystery. Eventually, the Pope claims that the child is his by a mistress and the child is raised by Lucrezia’s mother Vannozza.

Cesare Borgia, the brother of Lucrezia is handsome, charming and entirely without scruple. He adores Lucrezia, to the point where she must discourage his advances. She must deal with his jealousy when she weds Alfonso of Aragon, her second husband whom she loves.

There was constant rivalry and hostility between Cesare and his younger brother Juan, aggravated by the fact that their father, the Pope openly favored Juan. Cesare believes, correctly, that he is the more talented and adept of the two at military command, and resents being relegated to becoming a priest, even though he is appointed a Cardinal at eighteen. When Juan’s body is dragged from the Tiber, having been stabbed nine times, Lucrezia suspects that the killer may have been Cesare. When she enquires about it he replies that if he had been the killer, Juan’s body would never have been found. In any case, after Juan’s death, Cesare is released from his priestly vows and appointed gonfalonier, leading the Papal armies, and promptly sets out to bring all of Italy to heel. His ambition soars, his motto is “Caesar or nothing.” Lucrezia’s beloved husband, Alfonso of Aragon, is terrified of Cesare, believing that the day the Borgias decide that they don’t need an alliance with Naples will be his last.

Cesare Borgia was Machiavelli’s model in The Prince. It is clear that both he and his father subscribed to the notion of “The end justifies the means.” One wonders how the Catholic Church descended so far from its original concept that they allowed a Pope to be elected who not only had at least four illegitimate children but put them on display, promoted them to prominent posts, and showed absolutely no shame about it, to say nothing of the corruption and ostentation manifested at all levels. It’s as though the church were begging for Martin Luther’s reformation. It seems that the Church in those days was divided into fanatics like Isabella of Castile who favored the inquisition, and corrupt functionaries like Rodrigo Borgia.  Queen Isabella expelled all Jews who wouldn’t convert to Christianity from her kingdom. Pope Alexander’s solution to the problem of Jewish refugees from Spain was to have the Jews of Italy pay large ”donations” to  resettle them in the Ghettos. He had no problem with Jews as long as his dealings with them were profitable.

Machiavelli’s work held up a mirror to the church of his time, which may have been the real reason the Church banned his work   I’m almost inclined to believe that Machiavelli was not in earnest but was promoting a Swiftian satire.

The Vatican Princess is a fascinating account of a most shameful period in the history of the Catholic Church.

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