Shocking story of incredible corruption in 15th century Vatican of Pope Alexander VI
I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.
A few years back, my scant knowledge of the Borgia family was watered with an excellent family portrait led by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia in an HBO film. I knew some bits and pieces of bribery, murder, and out-right corruption, but the film opened my eyes as wide as imaginable. I recently came across a fiction version of the family, Lucretia Borgia by John Faunce. While I could not connect the film to Faunce’s novel, I read page after page that recalled many incidents in the film. I found it incredible that Rodrigo was able to thoroughly corrupt and kill many cardinals and other heads of state who did not bow to Pope Alexander VI.
Faunce’s version is narrated by Lucretia, the daughter of Rodrigo and brother to the gold-obsessed Cesera Borgia. While Rodrigo was stocking the Vatican library with hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and books, the young Lucretia became curious and determined to learn to read and write Greek and Latin. Faunce writes, “Odd, I thought, how these paper and leather objects do so easily and pleasantly what the Inquisition’s fires, frequently fed with similar books, have never done. Ink puts out even hellfire. I pray, as daily I pick up my quill, this book before me might have such reforming powers for some other blond. Moonlight made my book reading slow and there were thousands of books. I couldn’t go the nights of the New Moon, since my reading lamp those nights had fled the sky. But I learned gradually to love the flipping pages of books, their smell, dust and everything about them” (48). More than 500 years ago, people had a reverence for paper and books.
The worst part of this corrupt crew involved Pope Alexander VI himself. Faunce writes, “Papa didn’t care much about Savonarola, Ascanio Sforza told me. // ‘Will the Medicis not toast me this quarrelsome priest”’ Papa’d said casually over bruschetta to the Florentine Ambassador. // ‘It would help our lawyers, Holiness, if you’d excommunicate him.’ // And, of course, he did. So they did, subjecting Savonarola to the ‘Trial by Fire,’ in which he was burned at the stake. The ‘Trial’ part being that if he were truly innocent, the fire shouldn’t burn him, of course. This seemed fair and satisfied everyone, including the subsequently incinerated monk himself” (99-100). The hypocrisy of this punishment is baffling. I cannot imagine the men who ordered the stake set on fire really believed it would ever find anyone innocent.
I find it hard to believe the innocent mask Lucretia drew for herself. Faunce writes, “I recall one day in particular in those years. I was reading on a chaise in Giovanni’s great room. He had few books, but what he had were surprisingly good, especially the ones in Greek. He told me they’d been salvaged from a ship of Byzantine pirates and scholars, who’d shipwrecked below our castle, all of them drowned or killed by rocks or shark-men. Bibliophiles and pirates? I wondered. The modern age is full of learned men in the oddest places. As I was reading Pliny’s account of the destruction of Pompey, fire-belching Vesuvius reminding me of my dragon tapestry wedding-gift that now hung behind me” (100).
My head could only shake at the cruelty, the greed, the lust for power and gold these “Men of the Church” displayed toward their fellow humans. Lucretia Borgia by John Faunce is a story which should not be forgotten. 5 stars.
Likely Stories is a production of KWBU. I’m Jim McKeown. Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!