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

Like most historical figures that interest me, I was first introduced to Lucrezia Borgia and her awesome, psychotic family through historic fiction. In high school I read The Borgia Bride by Jean Kalogridis, which was told from the perspective of Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, Sancha of Aragon. It was awesome (and, as I now know from reading this book, pretty accurate) for several reasons: first, lots of sex, which to a fifteen-year-old is a great recommendation in itself; second, it was full of poisonings, backstabbing both figurative and literal (I recall that Sancha carried a dagger in her gown and used it several times), political intrigue, and general skullduggery. Also the author decided that, yes, the rumors were true and Lucrezia was sleeping with both her father and her brother Cesare, so there was that additional bit of escandalo. It was an awesome read, is what I’m saying, and when I saw this in a bookstore I decided to buy it on a whim and find out more about the real Lucrezia Borgia.

The first half, when her father is Pope and is gaining power (and then at the height of it), is fascinating. There are murders, wars, scheming, teenage mistresses, bastard children, and other classic Renaissance-style fun (and syphilis). What I learned from this segment of the book is that the Borgias’ bad historical reputation is well-earned – Alexander basically bribed his way into the papacy and, despite being a religious person, had no problem keeping a mistress and being a power-hungry, murderous jackass in order to keep his power; his son Cesare wanted to take over Italy and came pretty damn close; and one of the Borgia children was murdered, probably by his own siblings, and found dead in a river. The only thing that’s missing is the incest, which Bradford adamantly insists did not happen. I’m inclined to agree (after all, Cesare and Alexander could sleep with literally any women they wanted, so it’s not like they were so desperate for tail they resorted to banging their sister/daughter), but in the interest of fairness and rumor-mongering, Bradford doesn’t really offer up any compelling evidence that Lucrezia didn’t sleep with her father or her brother. Just sayin’.

In fact, there aren’t many claims made in this book at all, which is one reason it loses a star. Bradford isn’t really making any specific points with this book, aside from setting out to show us that Lucrezia was a) not sleeping with her family members and b) not nearly as villainous as she’s portrayed, and was actually very intelligent and sympathetic. Many of the other characters are more interesting that she is, particularly her fascinating and totally evil brother Cesare, who deserves a book of his own (I’m sure there are several already, but at times it felt like he was the one Bradford really wanted to be writing about). Sancha also makes a few appearances (she’s known as Sancia here) and the little bits of information that Bradford reveals about her actions are tantalizingly brief. She’ll mention offhandedly “Sancia was now Cesare’s mistress” and then a few chapters later, “Sancia was no longer with Cesare and was now the mistress of so-and-so” with nothing in between. This made me want to find a biography of Sancha, because she sounds cool as hell. Equally so is Lucrezia’s other sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este (the sister of Lucrezia’s third husband), who becomes an important character in the second half of the book.

Unfortunately, that’s where it gets boring. Once Lucrezia marries Alfonso d’Este and moves away from Rome, she’s away from the center of the papal goings-on, which means the reader is too. Then Cesare and Alexander die, and there are no more cool characters doing batshit crazy things. Instead, it’s just chapter after chapter of “Then Lucrezia got pregnant again and had another miscarriage. Then she wrote this letter to this person. Then Alfonso went to war and Lucrezia was in charge of Ferrara, and here’s some stuff she did.” Once the crazy Borgias are gone and it’s just Lucrezia, the story stops being interesting. It doesn’t help that Bradford’s writing style is so dry and dull already, even when describing poisonings and ruinous affairs, and she makes Lucrezia’s later life intolerably boring. Also Bradford’s writing can be very confusing and oddly-structured, as evidenced in this bizarrely-constructed sentence that I had to read three times before I understood what it was trying to say: “That very day, alone in charge at Ferrara since Alfonso was away in camp and Ippolito also, Lucrezia, despite Sanudo’s report of panic, kept her head, informing Alfonso of all she was doing to help, including sending a spy to Venice to find out whether the Venetians were arming forces and, if so, of what kind.”

What? There has got to be a better way to phrase all that.

Verdict: two out of five stars

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