“When dos her sorrow become strategy? Not for a while.”
Dunant breathes life into the desiccated bones of the Borgia pope Alexander VI, Spanish-born Rodrigo Borgia achieving the pinnacle of his grand design for power in 1492 Rome: “God’s next vicar on earth will be decided as much by bribery and influence as by any saintly qualifications for the job.” It is his plan to build a dynasty; eldest son Cesare is already pledged to the Church, Juan a resource for a political union, and twelve-year-old Lucrezia a gem to be bartered for her beauty and family connections. The die is cast, Alexander VI an opportunistic pope in a corrupt hierarchy, known for his appreciation of female pulchritude (Giulia Farnese, his stunningly beautiful and youthful mistress awaits his pleasure at night). Dunant describes a corpulent, arrogant man without the scruples one might expect of the head of the Church. Rather, religion, politics and war are equal parts of this pope’s worldview, one he shares with Cesare as they map out the future for the family.
A brilliant strategist, Cesare Borgia is ill-fitted for a life in the Church, happy to be his father’s most trusted confidant but jealous of his younger brother who, though nearly as handsome as Cesar, has not the military training, discipline or wits to fulfill his mission on behalf of the family. Both as a tactician and soldier, Cesare is extraordinarily skilled, but the mind of a sociopath renders him at times inhumane, irredeemable but for his affection for his sister, Lucrezia. For her part, the adolescent Borgia daughter exudes innocence and naiveté, her adoration for father and brother rendering the girl a willing pawn in the game of politics. None of the Borgia children have close relationships with their mother—not even the youngest, Jofre, whose parentage is in question. All of them have been raised with Rodrigo, shaped by his purposeful attention.
This new papacy is fueled by wars, back-door deals and the usual machinations of wealthy men. Rodrigo acts more like a monarch than a pope, interacting with heads of state and kings, juggling the powerful cardinals and their families, infiltrating Spanish and European courts, secure in the knowledge that kings will at some time need the assistance of a pontiff to accomplish their goals. He revels in his power, with Cesare as Rodrigo’s right hand even after donning the cardinal’s hat (another triumph in the dynastic plan). Both Lucrezia and Jofre’s marriages further their father’s ambitions, Lucrezia attempting a happy union with an inappropriate mate. Her second union is more fulfilling, but it brings with it a newfound maturity that casts both Rodrigo and Cesare in a different light. Cesare especially is unable to control his conflicted feelings about Lucrezia’s new role as wife.
Besides the attrition of time, fate and greed, Alexander’s schemes do nothing to protect him from betrayal, loss or grief. God is the accoutrement of his position, the robe with which he covers his flawed humanity. It is his children who test Rodrigo: Juan flaunts his entitlement as Cesare grows ever more antagonistic toward Juan, chafing against the religious vows that keep him from extending the family’s influence through a political marriage. A French invasion has infected Italy with a new plague, an illness whose scourge has yet to be truly understood. The Borgia dynasty is threatened but victorious, Rodrigo vigilant in the face of those who would undermine the fruits of his papacy.
The ruthless Cesare inspires Machiavelli’s seminal The Prince, but Lucrezia garners her own reputation: “A lovely Borgia wife. That is what she will always be. A poisoned gift.” There are ugly forces at work, murder and betrayal commonplace in the corrupt streets of Rome and the Vatican, Christ’s church a beehive of ambition, greed and hypocrisy, the papacy and opportunity for unimaginable power. Alexander hides a mendacious soul beneath the cloak of spirituality, his most beloved children bred as players in a game of overweening ambition and infamy.