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A gem despite its age
on October 14, 2001
Years ago I saw a series on Cesare Borgia that intrigued me greatly. The pomp and pageantry, the dissolute state of the papacy, the treachery and violence
of the time and the political intrigues arising from diverse interests attempting to unite various parts of the post classical world into some semblance of a nation
made for exciting entertainment. Among all of the players the only one whose name was well known to me, as probably to others, was that of Lucretia Borgia,
the famous "poisoner." A more recent television program, however, provided me with more information on this lady, and I discovered to my surprise that what
little I thought I knew about her was actually more myth than reality. It is often said that it is to the victors the privilege of writing history is given, and it was
obviously to the enemies of the Borgias that the privilege of writing Italian Renaissance history was given. Lucretia did not come out of it unscathed. Since
seeing this last production, I have looked for books about the Borgias, particularly Lucretia, but had not found one until Ferdinand Gregorovius' volume. The
book is old--the dedication was dictated March 9, 1874--but has apparently stood the test of time, as the first English publication by translator John Leslie
Garner was copyrighted in 1904, and the present edition is dated 1999. I can honestly say I can see why it has endured.
The book is superb research. The author has created a masterful portrait of his subject using primary sources taken from documents, paintings, letters and
diaries of the time, identifying the sources and their (then) location. Furthermore, he quotes the sources extensively when doing so furthers the story and
includes the Latin or Italian version in footnotes should the reader wish to verify his translation. The author covers the Borgia saga far more thoroughly than
many modern biographical works are inclined to do. The fortunes of Lucretia's ancestors, her contemporaries and her descendants are covered, and though
at times confusing, the fortunes of many of the other players on the political scene of her time and place.
A colorful recreation of Lucretia's world, through first hand descriptions of the Vatican, of Papal Rome, of courtly processions, personal finery, and the
entertainment, arts and literature of the time, immerse the reader in the reality of the Renaissance during the Papal period of Alexander VI. It also reveals a
world in transition, where the papacy itself has become secularized and is part of a larger chess game among world powers. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain
and Henry VII of England are among the more generally recognizable of the participants. The story is also an intimate drama of sorts, with intrigue, sudden
death, battles won or lost, children's futures determined by political agendas, family loyalties, and personal passions.
The work reads rapidly, does not have that archaic flowery style that makes other authors of the period so difficult to get used to, is well researched, and
except for the obvious limitations of 19th Century perspective--alot has happened since 1874--is still worth reading. In fact, unless one makes a concerted
effort to recall it, one is inclined to think in terms of a modern day work. It is only when a building is quoted as "still standing" or a document "still exists" in
someone's library, that one wonders, "Is/does it?" The author is also inclined to see his own time as "above it all," less ruthless, less malleable with respect
to ethics and morals. He may be right, although I doubt it. History has not had the last say about the 19th Century either.