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.
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.
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.
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.