Blood & beauty a novel o.., p.1
Blood & Beauty: A Novel of the Borgias,
Also by Sarah Dunant
IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN
THE BIRTH OF VENUS
MAPPING THE EDGE
UNDER MY SKIN
SNOW STORMS IN A HOT CLIMATE
THE WAR OF THE WORDS: THE POLITICAL CORRECTNESS DEBATE (editor)
THE AGE OF ANXIETY (co-editor with Roy Porter)
Published by Hachette Digital
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © Sarah Dunant 2013
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
Blood & Beauty
Table of Contents
Also by Sarah Dunant
PART I: We Have a Pope
PART II: Love and Marriage
PART III: Invasion
PART IV: Rivalry
PART V: A Father’s Grief
PART VI: A Very Papal Divorce
PART VII: Throwing off the Purple
PART VIII: Women at War
PART IX: A Family Sacrifice
PART X: Leaving the Family
About the Author
To Anthony, who has made the present as rich as the past.
By the late fifteenth century, the map of Europe would show areas broadly recognisable to a modern eye. France, England, Scotland, Spain and Portugal were on their way to becoming geographical and political entities, run by inherited monarchies. In contrast, Italy was still a set of city-states, making the country vulnerable to invasion from outside. With the exception of the republic of Venice, most of these states were in the hands of family dynasties: in Milan the House of Sforza, in Florence the Medici, in Ferrara the Este and in Naples and the south the Spanish House of Aragon.
In the middle of all of this sat Rome, a bearpit of various established families jockeying for position, but also, more importantly, the seat of the papacy. While the Pope’s earthly territories were modest – and often leased out to papal vicars – his influence was immense. As head of the Church, the man himself, usually Italian, controlled a vast web of patronage throughout Europe; and as God’s representative on earth, he could and did wield spiritual power for strategic and political ends. With Catholicism reigning supreme and corruption in the Church endemic, it was not uncommon to find popes amassing wealth for themselves and favouring the careers and well-being of those in their family. In some cases, even their own illegitimate children.
Such was the situation in the summer of 1492, when the death of Innocent VIII left the papal throne in Rome empty, ready for its new incumbent.
We Have a Pope
He is the age when Aristotle says men are wisest: robust in body, vigorous in mind, perfectly equipped for his new position.
SIGISMONDO DE CONTI, PAPAL SECRETARY, 1492
August 11 , 1492
Dawn is a pale bruise rising in the night sky when, from inside the palace, a window is flung open and a face appears, its features distorted by the firelight thrown up from the torches beneath. In the piazza below, the soldiers garrisoned to keep the peace have fallen asleep. But they wake fast enough as the voice rings out:
‘WE HAVE A POPE!’
Inside, the air is sour with the sweat of old flesh. Rome in August is a city of swelter and death. For five days, twenty-three men have been incarcerated within a great Vatican chapel that feels more like a barracks. Each is a figure of status and wealth, accustomed to eating off silver plate with a dozen servants to answer his every call. Yet here there are no scribes to write letters and no cooks to prepare banquets. Here, with only a single manservant to dress them, these men eat frugal meals posted through a wooden hatch that snaps shut when the last one is delivered. Daylight slides in from small windows high up in the structure, while at night a host of candles flicker under the barrel-vaulted ceiling of a painted sky and stars, as vast, it seems, as the firmament. They live constantly in each other’s company, allowed out only for the formal business of voting or to relieve themselves, and even in the latrines the work continues: negotiation and persuasion over the trickle of ageing men’s urine. Finally, when they are too tired to talk, or need to ask guidance from God, they are free to retire to their cells: a set of makeshift compartments constructed around the edges of the chapel and comprised of a chair, a table and a raised pallet for sleeping; the austerity a reminder, no doubt, of the tribulations of aspiring saints.
Except these days saints are in short supply, particularly inside the Roman conclave of cardinals.
The doors had been bolted on the morning of August 6. Ten days earlier, after years of chronic infirmity, Pope Innocent VIII had finally given in to the exhaustion of trying to stay alive. Inside their rooms in the Vatican palace, his son and daughter had waited patiently to be called to his bedside, but his final moments had been reserved for spatting cardinals and doctors. His body was still warm when the stories started wafting like sewer smells through the streets. The wolf pack of ambassadors and diplomats took in great lungfuls, then dispatched their own versions of events in the saddlebags of f
Of course, in such a web of gossip each man must choose what he wants to believe; and different rulers enjoy their news, like their meat, more or less well spiced. While few will question the cat claws of the cardinals, others might wonder about the blood, since it is well known around town that His Holiness’s only sustenance for weeks had been milk from a wet-nurse installed in an antechamber and paid by the cup. Ah, what a way to go to heaven: drunk on the taste of mother’s milk.
As for the conclave that follows, well, the only safe prediction is that prediction is impossible: that and the fact that God’s next vicar on earth will be decided as much by bribery and influence as by any saintly qualifications for the job.
At the end of the third day, as the exhausted cardinals retire to their cells, Rodrigo Borgia, Papal Vice-Chancellor and Spanish Cardinal of Valencia, is sitting appreciating the view. Above the richly painted drapery on the walls of the chapel (new cardinals have been known to try and draw the curtains) is a scene from the life of Moses: Jethro’s daughters young and fresh, the swirl of their hair and the colour of their robes singing out even in candlelight. The Sistine Chapel boasts sixteen such frescos – scenes of Christ and Moses – and those with enough influence may choose their cell by its place in the cycle. Lest anyone should mistake his ambition, Cardinal della Rovere is currently sitting under the image of Christ giving St Peter the keys of the Church, while his main rival, Ascanio Sforza, has had to settle for Moses clutching the tablets of stone (though with a brother who runs the bully state of Milan, some would say that the Sforza cardinal has more on his side than just the Commandments).
Publicly, Rodrigo Borgia has always been more modest in his aspirations. He has held the post of vice-chancellor through the reign of five different pontiffs – a diplomatic feat in itself – and along with a string of benefices it has turned him into one of the richest and most influential churchmen in Rome. But there is one thing he has not been able to turn to his advantage: his Spanish blood. And so the papal throne itself has eluded him. Until now, perhaps; because after two public scrutinies there is deadlock between the main contenders, which makes his own modest handful of votes a good deal more potent.
He murmurs a short prayer to the virgin mother, reaches for his cardinal’s hat, and pads his way down the marble corridor between the makeshift cells until he finds the one he is looking for.
Inside, somewhat drained by the temperature and the politicking, sits a young man with a small Bacchus stomach and a pasty face. At seventeen, Giovanni de’ Medici is the youngest cardinal ever to be appointed to the Sacred College, and he has yet to decide where to put his loyalty.
‘Vice-Chancellor!’ The youth leaps up. The truth is one can only wrestle with Church matters for so long and his mind has wandered to the creamy breasts of a girl who shared his bed in Pisa when he was studying there. There had been something about her – her laugh, the smell of her skin? – so that when he feels in need of solace it is her body that he rubs himself against in his mind. ‘Forgive me, I did not hear you.’
‘On the contrary – it is I who should be forgiven. I disturb you at prayer!’
‘No… Not exactly.’ He offers him the one chair, but the Borgia cardinal brushes it away with a wave of the hand, settling his broad rump on the pallet bed instead.
‘This will do well enough for me,’ he says jovially, slapping his fist on the mattress.
The young Medici stares at him. While everyone else is wilting under the relentless heat, it is remarkable how this big man remains so sprightly. The candlelight picks out a broad forehead under a thatch of tonsured white hair, a large hooked nose and full lips over a thick neck. You would not, could not, call Rodrigo Borgia handsome; he is grown too old and stout for that. Yet once you have looked at him you do not easily look away, for there is an energy in those sharp dark eyes much younger than his years.
‘After living through the election of four popes I have grown almost fond of the – what shall we call it? – “challenges” of conclave life.’ The voice, like the body, is impressive, deep and full, the remnants of a Spanish accent in the guttural trim on certain words. ‘But I still remember my first time. I was not much older than you. It was August then too – alas, such a bad month for the health of our holy fathers. Our prison was not so splendid then, of course. The mosquitoes ate us alive and the bed made my bones ache. Still, I survived.’ He laughs, a big sound, with no sense of self-consciousness or artifice. ‘Though of course I did not have such a remarkable father to guide me. Lorenzo de’ Medici would be proud to see you take your place in conclave, Giovanni. I am sincerely sorry for his death. It was a loss not just for Florence but for all of Italy.’
The young man bows his head. Beware, my son. These days Rome is now a den of iniquity, the very focus of all that is evil. Under his robes he holds a letter from his father: advice on entering the snakepit of Church politics from a man who had the talent to skate on thin ice and make it look as if he was dancing. Few men are to be trusted. Keep your own counsel until you are established. Since his death only a few months before, the young cardinal has learned its content by heart, though he sorely wishes now that the words were less general and more particular.
‘So tell me, Giovanni…’ Rodrigo Borgia drops his voice in an exaggerated manner, as if to anticipate the secrets they are about to share, ‘how are you holding up through this, this labyrinthine process?’
‘I am praying to God to find the right man to lead us.’
‘Well said! I am sure your father railed against the venality of the Church and warned against false friends who would take you with them into corruption.’
This current college of cardinals is poor in men of worth and you would do well to be guarded and reserved with them. The young man lifts an involuntary hand to his chest, to check the letter is concealed. Beware of seducers and bad counsellors, evil men who will drag you down, counting upon your youth to make you easy prey. Surely not even the Vice-Chancellor’s hawk eyes are able to read secrets through two layers of cloth?
Outside, a shout pierces the air, followed by the shot of an arquebus: new weapons for new times. The young man darts his head up towards the high, darkened window.
‘Don’t fret. It’s only common mayhem.’
‘Oh… no, I am not worried.’
The stories are well known: how in the interregnum between popes Rome becomes instantly ungovernable, old scores settled by knife-thrusts in dark alleys, new ones hatched under cover of an exuberant general thuggery that careers between theft, brawling and murder. But the worst is reserved for the men who have been too favoured, for they have the most to lose.
‘You should have been here when the last della Rovere pope, Sixtus IV, died – though not even Lorenzo de’ Medici could have made his son a cardinal at the age of ten, eh?’ Rodrigo laughs. ‘His nephew was so hated that the mob stripped his house faster than a plague of locusts. By the time conclave ended only the walls and the railings remained.’ He shakes his head, unable to conceal his delight at the memory. ‘Still, you must feel at home sitting here under the work of your father’s protégés.’ He lifts his eyes to the fresco on the back wall of the cell: a group of willowy figures so graceful that they seem to be still moving under the painter’s brush. ‘This is by that Botticelli fellow, yes?’
‘Sandro Botticelli, yes.’ The style is as familiar to
‘Such a talented man! It is wonderful how much… how much flesh he gets into the spirit. I have always thought that Pope Sixtus was exceedingly lucky to get him, considering that three years before he had launched a conspiracy to kill his patron, your own father, and wipe out the whole Medici family. Fortunately you are too young to remember the outrage.’