When it comes to representations of powerful women in history, those responsible for recording the events in their era have a great deal of explaining to do. So often the women, if they’re mentioned at all, bear the burden of guilt – for war, death, the downfall of dynasties etc. – as they’re continuously depicted as promiscuous (think Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard), murderous (Catherine De Medici), treacherous, mad and/or bad. What’s worse in some ways is when they’re completely elided from history, as if they never existed. Even Samuel Pepys, the greatest diarist in history, barely rates his wife, Elizabeth, a mention, except when he notes an argument or something trivial. Kudos, then, to C.W. Gortner who, like Philippa Gregory and other writers, in The Vatican Princess, seeks to reclaim the life of Lucrezia Borgia. In retelling at least seven years of her life, he offers readers an alternate way of perceiving major events of the period and the woman at the centre of them.
Best remembered by popular history as the illegitimate daughter of a pope who indulged in incest with both her father and at least one of her brothers (depending which accounts of her and that period you read), as well as using poison to despatch her enemies, Gortner uses primary and secondary sources to reconstruct Lucrezia’s life and offer a different version.
In this novel, far from being an arch seductress and powerbroker, Lucrezia, though no innocent, is a pawn in deadly political and sexual games, ones that limit her choices and freedoms. Proud of her familial heritage and the Borgia blood that flows in her veins, nothing prepares young Lucrezia for the constant threat that hangs over her and the terrible sacrifices she must make for the sake of her family. But it’s when she comes to understand that the enemies her brothers and father – and those in league with them – fear most are actually within the family and not without, that she learns her fate is not a matter of free will but the strategic determination of the manipulative men she most loves.
Written from Lucrezia’s point of view and using historical sources to guide him, Gortner has done a terrific job of recreating a volatile and corrupt period as well as salvaging Lucrezia’s voice and offering an alternative to the “facts” about her that circulate.
A great read for lovers of history, Italian culture, women’s roles and Renaissance Europe.