Who hasn’t heard of the Borgias? There’s even a TV series for those who don’t like to read, and I’m sure there’s a Horrible Histories version for children as well. Bottom line: they’re a well-known family, especially in the use of murder to fulfill their desires. In this series the author weaves truth with fiction so masterfully that it’s hard to tell one from the other. The end result is an extremely powerful story that sweeps the reader into becoming a part of it.
Giulia Farnese was the pope’s concubine, recruited and sent straight to the Pope’s bed by his cousin, her mother-in-law. I haven’t read Book 1, so I can’t speak for her feelings when this happens, but she continues to treat the lady with respect. Giulia appears to be truly like the Madonna she’s referred to, retaining an innate innocence. She’s like a drink of cold water on a hot summer day, seemingly content with the daily absolution for her sins of adultery and fornication by the Pope himself. She has all of Rome at her feet but never strays from her Pope, even though the entire Borgia family plays musical beds around her. Would she have been content in her place and position even as she saw the winds of change with Rodrigo’s blind faith and love of his family? Perhaps! Until the Pope uses her as a tool to send a message to a frothing priest by ordering her to strip to nothing in his audience chamber in the presence of the entire college of cardinals on the pretext of modeling for the artist Botticelli, who has renounced his art as a vanity.
Leonello, her bodyguard, is a dwarf deeply devoted to his mistress but also obsessed by the murder of a tavern girl who once befriended him. His desire for revenge brings him center stage into the dangerous world of Cesare Borgia until he almost loses himself in the cesspool.
Carmelina is the cook in Giulia’s household, having escaped a nunnery with a sacred relic. She is a very colorful character with her superstitions and her rise to ruling Giulia’s kitchens, despite her being a woman. Her interactions with Bartolommeo, apprentice-turned-lover-turned-rival, are light and thoroughly enjoyable in what is otherwise a pretty dark and intense story. She contributes in her own earthy style the evolution of food and flavors, especially in the dialogues and differences between her and her impudent apprentice.
In the voices of these three characters and their experiences, we get an almost three-dimensional view into the world that existed at the time. Ruthless ambition saw Rodrigo become the Vicar of Christ, where he turned a blind eye to ability and appointed his family into positions of power. He and his sons ruthlessly suppress opposition through whatever means necessary, including the expedient use of fear and murder. Nothing that stands in the way of their vanity or ambition is beyond the pale.
As the story unfolds, I find myself experiencing strong emotions of hate and pity. Lucretzia’s husband grants her a divorce, agreeing to a charge of impotence at knife point, even as his wife is delivering his baby so that she can marry someone with better political connections. Rodrigo is so blind to his son Juan’s faults that he actually strings up one of his guests at a party because the nobleman told a truth that is not acceptable to Juan. Cesare Borgia draws his sword and kills one of the Pope’s messengers in the Pope’s audience chamber to protect the secret that his sister had birthed a baby. Rodrigo sanctions the murder of Giulia’s husband to avenge himself of the insult of him being the possible father of Giulia’s daughter.
At the end it’s hard not to reflect on how things could have been different had Rodrigo used his considerable intellect and skills in strengthening the Catholic church instead of using his position for personal and family gain. With all the recent revelations and scandals associated with the church, it’s hard not to wonder if they are a result of acts throughout history hidden under a mask of piousness. As I read some of the scenes in the Pope’s audience chambers or his private residence, I’m glad that I visited these places before I read the book, because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to view them with the same sense of reverence I experienced at the time.
As the cherished concubine of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, Giulia Farnese has Rome at her feet. But after narrowly escaping a sinister captor, she realizes that the danger she faces is far from over—and now, it threatens from within. The Holy City of Rome is still under Alexander’s thrall, but enemies of the Borgias are starting to circle. In need of trusted allies, Giulia turns to her sharp-tongued bodyguard, Leonello, and her fiery cook and confidante, Carmelina.
Caught in the deadly world of the Renaissance’s most notorious family, Giulia, Leonello, and Carmelina must decide if they will flee the dangerous dream of power. But as the shadows of murder and corruption rise through the Vatican, they must learn who to trust when every face wears a mask . . .
Read an excerpt. (scroll down)