The Vatican Princess
Author: C. W. Gortner
Innocent or Femme Fatale?: The Plight of Lucrezia Borgia in C. W. Gortner’s The Vatican Princess
Review by Rita Bourke
The year 1492 was arguably the most historically important year in Spanish history. Within that twelve-month period the world was witness to the defeat of the Moors at Granada, the exile of Jews who refused to convert, and the return of “Christofero Colon (sic)… in triumph to announce his discovery of the new world.” It was also the year that Lucrezia Borgia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia, ascended the papal throne. In an effort to solidify his grasp on power in those tumultuous times, the newly-appointed pope arranged for the betrothal of his twelve-year-old daughter, Lucrezia, to Giovanni Sforza, powerful member of the House of Sforza.
There’s no way to know if the picture C.W. Gortner paints of Lucrezia in The Vatican Princess is real or not. Did this girl of Spanish origin “suffer repeated washes of ash and lemon juice to bring out the gold in (her) hair?” Was she raped by her brother, Juan Borgia, and did she become pregnant because of that single encounter? Did she then allow her father to claim paternity of the child, thus giving credence to the rumor that Lucrezia had slept with her father?
Was her love for her older brother, Cesare, as innocent as she professed?
The historical record is silent on these matters. The truth is unknowable. But recent studies suggest Lucrezia was not the femme fatale she has been portrayed. Rather, she was a pawn used by her family to advance their political standing.
In The Vatican Princess, Lucrezia is well-educated, perceptive, and intuitive. A true Borgia, she is as capable of intrigue as are those around her, yet there is within this slender girl a core of integrity and morality that will not bend. While she values family more than anything else, she is not willing to sacrifice her own happiness to advance the power and prestige of her father and brothers.
Throughout the book, it is striking how closely Lucrezia observes the people around her. What she sees in their eyes is often an indication of their true motives, their intent, their secret plans and yearnings. For C. W. Gortner and the character he has created, the eyes are indeed the mirror of the soul.
Of Rodrigo Borgia, Lucrezia’s father, she says: “His eyes were intensely alive despite their small size, examining me as if for visible wounds.”
Of her brother Juan: He “shot her an insolent grin, his blue-green eyes gleaming in his swarthy face.”
Of Michelotto, the mercenary employed by Sforza: “He had strange eyes, neither blue nor gray but a subtle color in between, like dusk.”
Again and again, the author focuses on that feature: “his slitted eyes displaying the contempt,” “gazing into his magnetic, dark eyes,” “eyes shining in illicit excitement,” “a small trim man with protuberant eyes,” “her eyes stalked him,” “his eyes gleamed ebony-black,” “his eyes, usually so lucid, were red-rimmed,” “his cat-green eyes gleamed,” “eyes closed as if in ecstasy,” “eyes at half-mast…”
Such careful observations redound to the character Gortner has created: the reader sees the world as Lucrezia sees it. We sympathize with her; we rejoice when she rejoices, we mourn when she mourns.
Though still a child, Lucrecia accedes to her father’s wishes: in a lavish ceremony she weds Giovanni Sforza. Five years later, the marriage is still not consummated, Lucrezia is hidden away in a convent pregnant with her hated brother’s child, and the Sforza family is out of favor. Lucrezia’s father secures for his beloved daughter an annulment.
She is quickly betrothed to another man, and this one is to her liking. Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso of Aragon is another attempt on the part of the Borgias to solidify their power and extend their control over warring parts of Italy. But times are unsettled. Alliances are broken. Loyalties change. Power slips away. Alonso is condemned as a traitor, and he dies at the hand of Lucrezia’s brother.
“He was laid to rest in the chapel of Santa Maria della Febbre near the basilica, under a slab of stone, the funeral Mass and tapers mocking the very faith they purported to exalt.” Lucrezia leaves Rome, believing she has “left nothing behind, that Rome, with its savage entanglements and lethal secrets, held no more power over me.”
Safe in the castle of Nepi, she devotes herself to the child fathered by Alfonso and to healing: “Grief is selfish,” she says. “It enshrouds us, clutches us to its desiccated breast like an anxious mother.
“I suffered every night as darkness encroached, after the servants cleared dinner from the table and then heaped kindling on the fire… before finally leaving me with the castle dogs at my feet. I made myself remember, no matter how much it hurt. I wanted to feel every moment, from that day I first saw (Alonso) on the road, his smile resplendent, dazzling all who beheld him.” The book ends there, with Lucrezia in her castle, but her story goes on. She is a Borgia, and though she has renounced her family, Borgia blood still runs in her veins. There will be a third marriage, again arranged for political advantage, and other children.
Lay out the known historical facts about Lucrezia’s life, and it is difficult to see how she could ever be portrayed as a sympathetic character. Witness the scene when she lay with her beloved brother, and she felt passion rise within her. The idea of incest is so anathema to us we shudder at the thought, yet it is an integral part of the story.
Put down the book and consider the times. Picture a young girl who kept a kitten in her room for company. Think of how she idolized her older brother, would do anything to please him, and her carnal love for him is less reprehensible. Think of the later scene where Cesare admits he had his brother, Lucrezia’s rapist, killed. Consider his final visit to Lucrezia, his face pockmarked with syphilitic sores, his sorrowful reminisces of a time when they were both innocent children, until they were “shaped with (their father’s) illusions, his flaws, never once realizing that what he created was only a distorted reflection of his own self.”
C.W. Gortner has set about in this book to rescue Lucrezia from the harsh judgment of history: that she was a murderer, a whore, a witch. That she slept with her father. That she was as ambitious and unscrupulous as either of her brothers.
By his careful intertwining of known historical facts with fictional techniques, Gortner has created a narrative that would seem to more accurately reflect who Lucrezia Borgia really was. He has made Lucrezia’s story more complete that it might ever have been, more complicated, and utterly fascinating.
Rita Bourke’s debut novel, Kylie’s Ark: The Making of a Veterinarian, was a Kirkus Best Indie Book of 2017. She’s published over forty stories in literary magazines, including North American Review, Cimarron Review, Louisiana Literature, Shenandoah, Witness, Black Warrior Review, and Southwest Review. This review first appeared on Rita Bourke’s website.