On This Day – 13 September (or thereabouts) 1475

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13 September 1475 is the generally accepted birth date of Cesare Borgia – although sadly for us the actual date was never written down, historians think it was between 12-14 September 1475 and April 1476.

Cesare was born to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and his mistress Vanozza Cattanei. Whilst his career began in the Church, following the murder of his brother he threw off his Cardinals robes and began a military career. He passed away just outside Viana on March 12, 1507. Cesare’s life was one full of drama and controversy – whilst many of his contemporaries believed him to be evil and incestuous (a viewpoint that has come down to us even today), it must be noted that he was a man of his time and we cannot judge his exploits from our own modern viewpoints.

Here’s to you, Cesare. Happy birthday.

 

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[Review] The Vatican Princess by C.W.Gortner

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For fans of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, bestselling author C. W. Gortner effortlessly weaves history and drama in this captivating novel about one of the world’s most notorious families. Glamorous and predatory, the Borgias fascinated and terrorized fifteenth-century Renaissance Italy, and Lucrezia Borgia, beloved daughter of the pope, was at the center of the dynasty’s ambitions. Slandered as a heartless seductress who lured men to their doom, was she in fact the villainess of legend, or was she trapped in a familial web, forced to choose between loyalty and survival?

With the ascension of the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI, a new era has dawned in Rome. Benefitting from their father’s elevation are the new pope’s illegitimate children–his rival sons, Cesare and Juan, and beautiful young daughter Lucrezia–each of whom assumes an exalted position in the papal court. Privileged and adored, Lucrezia yearns to escape her childhood and play a part in her family’s fortunes. But Rome is seductive and dangerous: Alliances shift at a moment’s notice as Italy’s ruling dynasties strive to keep rivals at bay. As Lucrezia’s father faces challenges from all sides, the threat of a French invasion forces him to marry her off to a powerful adversary. But when she discovers the brutal truth behind her alliance, Lucrezia is plunged into a perilous gambit that will require all her wits, cunning, and guile. Escaping her marriage offers the chance of happiness with a passionate prince of Naples, yet as scandalous accusations of murder and incest build against her, menacing those she loves, Lucrezia must risk everything to overcome the lethal fate imposed upon her by her Borgia blood.

Beautifully wrought, rich with fascinating historical detail, The Vatican Princess is the first novel to describe Lucrezia’s coming-of-age in her own voice. What results is a dramatic, vivid tale set in an era of savagery and unparalleled splendor, where enemies and allies can be one and the same, and where loyalty to family can ultimately be a curse.

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, mulling over just how I would put it into words. As you will all know, mainly because I keep harping on about it, I’ve been delving into Borgia novels (and television adaptations) as part of my ongoing research into the Borgia family and how they are portrayed in the modern day media. I was recommended this book on twitter and set about reading it, hoping that it would be a tale that would wow me as much as Sarah Dunant’s fantastic novels.

Suffice to say I was hugely disappointed.

The story itself is a coming of age tale – it’s the story of how Lucrezia Borgia grows from a young, naive girl into a mature and confidant young woman. It goes through her trials and tribulations of growing up in the public eye and her disappointing first marriage. It goes through her relationship with her family – how she was close to her brother Cesare, and her father, Rodrigo; how she was not close with her mother or her other brother Juan. And I will give it one thing – it’s well written in many ways, making it a quick and easy read.

However, the research that went into this novel is utterly non existent in my opinion. Gortner portrays many characters who were not villains as villains in their own right. Take for example her first husband, Giovanni Sforza. We know from the history that he was a bit of a weak man who proved himself to be less than useful to the Borgia family, but he was certainly no villain. But Gortner makes him out to be an awful human being – and it’s boring. It’s boring and it’s repetitive and it started to become a chore to get through the parts of the story that involved him. And then there is the character of Vanozza who is made out to be a nasty piece of work who cares nothing at all for her family, only for herself. Her character was boring and really quite one dimensional.

And then there are the rumours of incest. Rather than trying to write a novel based on the TRUE story and how the incest was nothing more than rumour, Gortner wrote the rumours into the story. And not in a good way. Not to spoil it for anyone, but there is a rather horrendous scene in which Juan forces himself upon his sister. That and he twisted the existence of the Infans Romanus into being fathered by Juan. Many of you will probably say “It’s just a novel, what does it matter?” but in all honesty it made me feel really quite sick to read it.

Novels such as this are often stepping stones into history but, like with television dramatisations, they are often treated as fact. It doesn’t help that in the authors notes at the back, he says that Rodrigo Borgia was killed by poison. This has never been proven and in fact was more likely to be malarial fever, which was rampant in Rome at the time of his death. To make out such things are fact is incredibly sloppy.

Despite this book being well written, I would not recommend this novel at all. It turns Lucrezia’s story into a rather trashy soap opera, twisting the rumours to suit the plot of the story. It’s certainly not one I’ll be going back to.

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The Best Borgia Novels

I’ve been on a bit of a fiction kick lately – mainly because I needed a bit of a break from the heavy non fiction that I’ve been looking at whilst researching for my current work in progress. It’s not been all Borgia/Renaissance novels either – I recently finished a wonderful book set mainly in 1940’s England, a tale told by an elderly woman who once worked as a servant in a large country house and I’m currently reading a murder mystery set during the Great Plague of 1665. However, as I was sat in bed last night I had a thought – I’ve read a lot of novels set around the time of the Borgia family, some of them excellent and some of them utter tripe, so why not do a blog post in and around the best of them. So here we are! Below are the best (in my opinion) novels set during Renaissance Italy and the time of the Borgia family.

The Borgia Chronicles – Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s Borgia Chronicles is made up of two novels, both with Giulia ‘La Bella’ Farnese as the main character and heroine. In these novels we read of Giulia’s journey from mistress to Pope Alexander VI, to an independent woman in her own right. We also have the stories of Leonello, a dwarf who is pulled into the service of the ruthless Cesare Borgia, and Carmelina, a young cook who has run away from her family in Venice. These books have been meticulously researched, winding fiction in with fact in a fast paced manner that truly draws you in from the first word you read. I thoroughly enjoyed reading both of these and highly recommend the both of them.

The Borgias: Two Novels in One Volume (Madonna of the Seven Hills & Light on Lucrezia) by Jean Plaidy

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The Borgias – made up of “Madonna of the Seven Hills” and “Light on Lucrezia” – was the first ever Borgia novel that I read. Originally published in the 1950’s, these two novels tell the story of Lucrezia Borgia and, looking back on it now, I’m actually surprised that Plaidy doesn’t use the myth of incest and make out that it’s true. The novels are exceptionally well researched and wonderfully written. I would say that this book (or the two separately) are the perfect read for someone new to reading Borgia fiction – it’s a great, perfectly and easily readable, stepping stone.

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

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Where should I begin with this utter joy of a novel? Sarah Dunant’s Blood & Beauty tells the story of the Borgias from the beginning of Cesare and Lucrezia’s lives. Dunant has really put in her research for this book and damn, you can tell. This has to be the most historically accurate Borgia novel I have ever read – and it’s my absolute favourite.

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant

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In the Name of the Family is the sequel to Sarah Dunant’s “Blood & Beauty” – Dunant set the bar seriously high with her previous Borgia novel and, dare I say it, she has surpassed herself in this excellent work. This novel tells the story of Cesare and Lucrezia’s later lives and involves characters such as Niccolo Machiavelli, who witnessed Cesare’s rise to Prince of the Romagna. There are some incredibly sad moments in this novel – death stalks the characters and, if you know the history, it will truly bring tears to your eyes. This is another brilliantly researched piece of work and it truly makes you feel as if you are there, in Renaissance Italy, with these truly interesting people.

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Borgia’d Up for my Birthday

So. Today marks the day when I turn 30 years old. I’ve been dreading it, to be perfectly honest. But that’s by the by – it’s just a number, right? It’s just two lots of 15…

Anyway, as has become somewhat of a tradition on my birthday, I’ve gone and got myself another Borgia inspired tattoo. Last year I had the Borgia coat of arms done and this year I’ve gone and had Cesare’s signature inked on my skin.

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It’s positioned so it sits nicely underneath Cesare’s motto “Aut Caesar Aut Nihil”, almost looking as if he’s signed off on the quote himself. And it’s really inspired me to get cracking on my talk for September and my next book!

I must say I am absolutely in love with this latest bit of inkwork. Arran at Asgard Southampton has done an absolutely tremendous job with it and I couldn’t be happier with the result.

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The Real Alias Grace

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Grace Marks

The other day I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s novel “Alias Grace”, after thoroughly enjoying the Netflix adaptation – I hadn’t realised before I a) started reading and b) started watching, that the story is based on a real double murder and that Grace Marks was a real woman. I was immediately intrigued by this and began having a dig around for the real story behind Grace Marks and the gruesome double murder of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery.

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Grace Marks was a servant of Thomas Kinnear, living in his house just outside of Toronto. James McDermott, also a servant of Kinnear’s, also lived in the property. Both Grace and McDermott were Irish Immigrants – Grace had travelled to Canada with her alcoholic father and multiple siblings, whilst her mother had died on the trip over and had been buried at sea.

Following the murders – Kinnear had been shot twice in the chest whilst Montgomery had been struck in the head with an axe and then strangled – Grace and McDermott fled the house having stolen a number of Kinnear’s possessions. Montgomery’s body was found crammed beneath a tub in the basement of Kinnear’s home and it was later found that she was pregnant at the time of her death.

Their disappearance from the Kinnear home was immediately treated as suspicious. The two were found in Lewiston, New York, not long after the murders had taken place and were arrested. The two were taken back to Toronto where they were put on trial – McDermott was found guilty of first degree murder whilst Grace was found guilty of being an accessory to murder.

They were both sentenced to death.

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Grace and McDermott at the time of their trial

Grace was spared the hangman’s noose, however and her sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. But whilst many of the witnesses at the trial gave differing statements, neither Grace nor McDermott confessed to being totally innocent of the crime. Grace insisted however that McDermott had forced her into helping him kill Kinnear and Montgomery and said that she had tried to run away from the house – McDermott shot at her and witnesses testified to finding a bullet from a pistol lodged in the kitchen door. McDermott, whilst standing on the scaffold where he would meet his maker, made out that Grace had been happy to help him and had even been the one to strangle Montgomery with a piece of cloth.

Grace Marks was imprisoned for a total of 29 years. 15 months of that were spent in the Lunatic Asylum before she was returned to Kingston Penitentiary. During her incarceration, many petitioned for Marks’ release. She was released from prison in 1872 and moved to New York – however after that point, Grace Marks disappears completely from the historical record. Perhaps she changed her name, got married and let herself fade into obscurity – after all, she had been the subject of much discussion and spent a good portion of her life locked away in a prison – the conditions of which can’t have been very nice.

One last question was asked of her before she was released back into the world – what has been the cause of the crime for which you have been sent to the Penitentiary? She answered clearly, and in my mind gave an answer that showed her innocence – “Having been employed in the same house with a villain.”

Atwood’s “Alias Grace” is of course a work of fiction – there is much about Marks’ life that is unknown and so Atwood has had some room to manoeuvre with artistic license. The book is absolutely wonderful, with a narrative that truly hooks you and reels you in. I lost many hours of sleep, just wanting to read that little bit more and know more of Grace’s story. Atwood gives us a character who you can truly sympathise with – Grace’s story is a sad one, her life full of awful events that have shaped her, and Atwood shows us a young woman who has been manipulated into helping with a crime so awful that it hardly bears thinking about. The Netflix series also shows this and is a wonderful adaptation of Atwood’s work.

Further reading:

George Watson, The Trials of James McDermott and Grace Marks for the Murder of Thomas Kinnear and his Housekeeper Nancy Montgomery

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