Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy" by Sarah Bradford

For years I have been both fascinated and repelled by what I thought I knew of Lucrezia Borgia. I saw her as a powerful and selfish murderess, on the slightest whim poisoning anyone who stood in her way, not concerning herself in the least with trifles such as morality. Topped off by the suggestion that she had an incestuous relationship with both her father and her brother, Lucrezia just about made my eyes pop out of my head.

As it turns out, my impression was completely wrong. It's understandable that I had such an unfavorable opinion of the poor girl, as the intervening years have been unkind to her; even some of her contemporaries painted her as a villainess and a whore. Though some of the malicious gossip was a result of jealousy, most can probably be attributed to guilt by association. Her father, Rodrigo Borgia--though he became the Pope--was not especially pious, to say the least; her brother, Cesare Borgia, apparently deserved every bit of his notoriety.

But Lucrezia herself really wasn't such a bad person. Those who knew her by more than reputation found her modest, astute and wise. Many who had at first believed the reports of poor character thought of her much more favorably after meeting her.

This book does not give a clear and vivid picture of Lucrezia Borgia, but rather a negative image created by the world that surrounded her. You can see her outline, but there's a Lucrezia-shaped hole in the story, especially in the years preceding her third and longest marriage.

I suppose that fault was unavoidable in a work of non-fiction. There's nothing in this book that was not derived from research. No filler, no fabrication, no embellishment. In my opinion, this is both good and bad. Good in the sense that the book relates pure history; bad in the sense that it doesn't bring Lucrezia's personality and motivations to life like I'd hoped.

Slight disappointment aside, I was impressed by the scope of the research that went into this book. And I was amazed by the amount of personal correspondence still in existence! Didn't these people have mothers to teach them that they should only put in writing what they wanted the whole world to read?

This book has dispelled the mystique surrounding Lucrezia Borgia in my mind. She was not vile, evil, or scandalously naughty. She had her share of extramarital affairs, but no more than any other person of nobility during the Italian Renaissance, and she handled them discreetly. While I'm left feeling like I don't have a complete picture of the woman, I'm also convinced I have as complete a picture as is possible after the passage of five centuries. Sarah Bradford has done a remarkably thorough job with the resources available.

Too bad my former conception of Lucrezia Borgia, though much more salacious than the reality, was also much more fun.


Kristi said...

Too bad her life wasn't as salacious as expected. :) Lives of the nobility are fascinating to me because it is so outside of the scope of my own experience. I'm with you on the letters. I'm shocked by what some people back then shared in them. It's nice that they did so that we have insight into their lives though. I really need read more non-fiction.

Stephanie said...

This sounds like an intriguing novel. The only book I ever read about Lucrezia Borgia went against the tide and portrayed her as a sympathizable character. It's interesting that this novel did the same thing.

Kathy said...

Kristi--I'm with you about needing to read more non-fiction. My fiction:non-fiction ratio is incredibly high. But fiction just tends to be so much more fun . . .

Stephanie--Do you remember what book you read about her? I can't remember if there were others I've read, but the only other one that sticks in my mind is Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire, and Lucrezia was definitely a villainess in that one!