Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Monday, March 7, 2011

Guest Author, Sarah Bower on the History Behind SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA

Today I would like to welcome guest author Sarah Bower to History Undressed. I am in the midst of reading Ms. Bower's book, SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA right now and thoroughly enjoying it. I've asked Ms. Bower if she'd give us a bit of history on her research for the book, and any unique or intriguing findings.  I hope you enjoy her post as much as I did! Thank you Ms. Bower for your wonderful post!


Let me begin by thanking you for inviting me to guest on History Undressed, and for all the great comments your readers made in the competition to win a copy of SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA. Really hope the winner – and everyone else – enjoys the book.

I’ve been researching the Borgias since I was fourteen and developed a major crush on Cesare after reading Jean Plaidy’s Madonna of the Seven Hills and Light on Lucrezia. Handsome, clever, wealthy, successful and just a frisson of danger thrown in for good measure. What’s not to like? The next book I read was Machiavelli’s The Prince, and you could say I’ve been researching the Borgias ever since, though, over the years, my interest in Lucrezia has grown. Both brother and sister are fascinating, contradictory characters, but coded letters of Lucrezia’s revealed by Sarah Bradford in her book Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy show that the traditional view of her as a pawn in her father and brother’s games is short of the mark. I’ve tried, in SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA to show her acting independently and demonstrating just as much political skill and acumen as the Borgia men.

This is one reason why I chose to set the novel mainly in Ferrara, where Lucrezia went on her third and final marriage to Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara. A visit to that beautiful town on the River Po quickly reveals how differently their famous duchess is regarded there to the image of helpless girl or the scheming adulteress beloved of Donizetti and Victor Hugo. To the Ferrarese, she is a great patron of the arts, the dedicatee of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, and a heroine of the city’s resistance to an invasion by Papal forces in 1509. Most fiction about Cesare and Lucrezia focuses on their early years in Rome, when they were beset by scandal and sensation, but I found myself more interested in finding out about the people they became after they grew up, their capacity for survival and endurance, what – I suppose – has made them stay in history’s consciousness when so many of their equally brilliant contemporaries have faded.

The key that unlocked all this, however, was discovering Violante. Among the entourage which accompanied Lucrezia to Ferrara was a converted Jewess called Violante. This is recorded, as is her betrothal to an unknown man around 1503, but the rest is a blank for the novelist to fill in, and suddenly, a plot began to fall into place. In 1492, the year Lucrezia’s father became Pope Alexander VI, the Jews were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella. In that diaspora I found my starting point, the event that would, eventually, cause Lucrezia’s and Violante’s paths to converge.

It’s important to me to have a strong sense of place for the settings of my novels, which meant spending some time in Ferrara, just twenty minutes by train from Venice and, perhaps because of that, unjustifiably overlooked. Little of the city Violante would have known is left after an earthquake in 1570, but the castle in which she would have lived is largely intact.

What really brought her world to life for me was not the grand public rooms, most of which have been rather poorly restored, but a tiny dungeon in the castle’s basement, the door so low I had to bend almost double to enter a room no more than a couple of feet wide and about eight feet long and without any natural light. It lies below the level of the moat and, even on a warm March afternoon, was freezing cold and damp. This is where one of Alfonso d’Este’s brothers was imprisoned after unsuccessfully plotting against him. Standing there in the dark, thinking about his fate, I was forcefully struck by the darkness which underlies the glories of the Italian Renaissance.

Let’s take a peek at a letter written by Isabella Gonzaga, Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, to her husband, Francesco, who was obliged to stay away from the wedding by a recurrence of syphilis. ‘Yesterday,’ she complains, ‘we all had to remain in our rooms until the twenty-third hour[approximately six in the evening] because Donna Lucretia [sic] takes so long to rise and dress herself...’ Elsewhere Isabella jealously itemises pieces of the Este family jewels worn by Lucrezia at the wedding celebrations – a diamond and ruby necklace, a headdress loaded with spinels, diamonds, sapphires and other precious stones and some ‘very large’ pearls. It’s almost as if she knew the elegant Roman girl, with her glamorous style and decadent manners, was destined to become the love of Francesco’s life.

Underneath all this glitz and glamour lies a dark region of violence, superstition and disease. Murdered enemies were displayed in ritual ways worthy of the grisliest crime fiction – hung in cages from battlements, laid out on the executioner’s block with the axe still embedded in their necks, tied back to back and garrotted. Virulent malarial plagues swept Ferrara every summer. Of the four children of Pope Alexander VI and Vannozza Catanei, only Lucrezia survived her mother. One son was murdered, another died in battle, the third of a fever. Lucrezia herself endured nine pregnancies and gave birth to five living children, two of whom died in infancy. She died in childbirth in 1519, the last of the House of Borgia.

Leave a comment for your chance to win a copy of SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA. (US/Canada only)

A Notorious Duke
An Infamous Duchess
An Innocent Girl

Violante isn’t supposed to be here, in one of the grandest courts of Renaissance Italy. She isn’t supposed to be a lady-in-waiting to the beautiful Lucrezia Borgia. But the same secretive politics that pushed Lucrezia’s father to the Vatican have landed Violante deep in a lavish landscape of passion and ambition.

Violante discovers a Lucrezia unknown to those who see only a scheming harlot, and all the whispers about her brother, Cesare Borgia, never revealed the soul of the man who dances close with Violante.

But those who enter the House of Borgia are never quite the same when they leave—if they leave at all. Violante’s place in history will test her heart and leave her the guardian of dangerous secrets she must carry to the grave.


Donna Goode said...

What a fascinating tale, Sarah. It's definitely one I can't wait to read. Thanks for sharing this "behind the scenes" story with us.

Stephanie Dray said...

Interesting. I know nothing about the Borgias. I'm interested in learning!

Crystal said...

ooooh that sounds like a most excellent read!! If I don't win it you'll need to let me know where to get it!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

WOW - I am blown away by your accounting. I love history and remember seeing a documentary on the Borgias. I can imagine the time you spent getting the facts and creating the stories must have been fun as well as taxing. I am definitely going to put your stories on my to be read list.

Nice meeting you today. Good luck with lots of sales.

Marg said...

I really enjoyed Sarah's debut novel which was a medieval novel, so I am looking forward to reading this one.

I am not eligible for the giveaway.

Renee Vincent said...

I do not know much about the Borgias, but wow, what an account you tell. It amazes me that people could endure that kind of strife.

All the best to you!

She said...

I also have been fascinated with the Borgias for at least 20 years. They are an interesting family and so many rumors abound about them. It is good to know Lucretia wasn't just a pawn.