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The Borgia Bride
By Jeanne Kalogridis
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Jeanne Kalogridis
All rights reserved.
I am Sancha of Aragon, natural daughter of the man who became Alfonso II, King of Naples, for a year and a day. Like the Borgias, my people came to the Italian peninsula by way of Spain, and like them, I spoke Spanish at home and Italian in public.
My most vivid childhood memory was formed at the end of my eleventh summer, on the nineteenth of September, the year of our Lord 1488. It was the Feast Day of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples. My grandfather, King Ferrante, had chosen that particular date to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his ascension to the Neapolitan throne.
Normally, we royals did not attend the event held in Gennaro's grand Duomo, the cathedral built in his honour. We preferred to celebrate in the comfort of the Chiesa Santa Barbara, the church enclosed within the magnificent walled grounds of the royal palace, the Castel Nuovo. But that year, my grandfather deemed it politic to attend the public ceremony, given the anniversary. Thus, our large entourage processed into the Duomo, watched at some distance by the zie, the aunts, di San Gennaro, the wailing, black-clad women who pleaded with the Saint to protect and bless Naples.
Naples needed blessing. It had been the site of many wars; my family of Aragonese royalty had won the city through bloody battle only forty-six years prior. Although my grandfather was peacefully handed his throne by his father, the revered Alfonso the Magnanimous, Alfonso had violently wrested Naples from the Angevins, supporters of the Frenchman Charles of Anjou. King Alfonso was beloved for rebuilding the city, for constructing grand palaces and piazzas, strengthening the walls, restocking the royal library. My grandfather was less loved. He was more interested in maintaining a strong hold on the local nobles whose veins held Angevin blood. He spent years in petty wars against different barons, and never came to trust his own people. In turn, they never came to trust him.
Naples had also been the site of earthquakes, including one witnessed in 1343 by the poet Petrarch, which razed half the city and sank every ship in the normally placid harbour. There was also Monte Vesuvio, which was still prone to eruptions.
For these reasons, we had come to beseech San Gennaro that day, and, with luck, to witness a miracle.
The procession into the Duomo was no less than grand. We royal women and children entered first, escorted by blue-and-gold clad guards to the front of the sanctuary, past the black-clad commoners who bowed before us like wheat beneath the wind. Ferrante's Queen, the nubile Juana of Aragon, led us, followed by my aunts Beatriz and Leonora. They were followed by my then-unmarried half-sister Isabella, who had been assigned the care of myself and my eight-year-old brother, Alfonso, as well as Ferrante's youngest daughter, my aunt Giovanna, born the same year as I.
The older females were dressed in the traditional garb of the Neapolitan noblewoman: black gowns with full skirts, tightly-laced bodices, and sleeves narrow at the shoulders then blossoming to the width of church bells at the wrist, so that they draped downward well past the hip. We children were allowed colour: I wore a gown of bright green silk with a brocade bodice laced tightly against absent breasts. Around my neck hung pearls from the sea, and a small gold cross; on my head was a veil of black gossamer. Alfonso wore a pale blue velvet tunic and breeches.
My brother and I walked hand-in-hand just behind my half-sister, careful not to trip on her voluminous skirts. I did my best to look proud and self-assured, my gaze restricted to the back of Isabella's gown, while my brother stared freely out at the assembly. I allowed myself one sidewise glance, at the great cracks in an archway between two large marble columns; above it, a round portrait of Saint Dominic had split in two. A scaffolding stood just beneath it, marking the last of the repairs from an earthquake that had ravaged the Duomo two years before Ferrante came to power.
I was disappointed to have been left in Isabella's care, and not my mother's. My father usually invited my mother, Madonna Trusia Gazullo, a ravishing golden-haired noblewoman, to all functions. He particularly delighted in her company. I believe my father was incapable of love, but certainly he must have come close to it in my gentle mother's arms.
King Ferrante, however, declared it unseemly to bring my father's mistress as part of the royal entourage inside a church. Just as strongly, my grandfather insisted that my brother Alfonso and I come. We were children, not to be blamed for the accident of our parentage. After all, Ferrante himself was of illegitimate birth.
For that reason, my brother and I had been raised as royal children, with all rights and privileges, in the Castel Nuovo, the king's palace. My mother was free to come and go as my father wished, and often stayed at the palace with him. Only subtle reminders from our half-siblings and more pointed ones from our father reminded us that we were lesser creations. I did not play with my father's legitimate children, as they were several years older, or with my Aunt Giovanna or Uncle Carlo, both close to my own age. Instead, my little brother Alfonso and I were inseparable companions. Though my father's namesake, he was the opposite: golden-curled, sweet-faced, good-natured, his sharp intelligence remarkably free of guile. He had Madonna Trusia's pale blue eyes, while I resembled our father to such a striking degree that, had I been a son, we would have been twins separated by a generation.
Isabella led us to an aisle at the front of the sanctuary which had been roped off; even after we had settled into our place in the Duomo, my brother and I continued to clasp hands. The great cathedral dwarfed us. High overhead, the distance of several Heavens, was the massive, gilded cupola, rendered dazzling by the sunlight that streamed in through its arching windows.
The royal men came next. My father — Alfonso, Duke of Calabria, that sprawling, rustic region far to the south, on the eastern coast — led the way. Heir to the throne, he was renowned for his ferocity in battle; in his youth, he had wrested the Strait of Otranto from the Turks in a victory that brought him glory, if not the people's love. His every move, every glance and gesture, was imperious and forbidding, an effect accentuated by his severe costume of crimson and black. He was more beautiful than any woman present, with a perfect straight, thin nose and high, upward-slanting cheekbones. His lips were red, full, sensuous beneath his thin moustache, his dark blue eyes large and arresting beneath a crown of shining jet hair.
Only one thing marred his handsomeness: the coldness in his expression and eyes. His wife, Hippolyta Sforza, had died four years before; the servants and our female relatives whispered she had given up in order to escape her husband's cruelty. I remembered her vaguely as frail with bulging eyes, an unhappy woman; my father never failed to remind her of her failings, or the fact that theirs was a marriage of convenience because she came from one of Italy's most ancient and powerful families. He also assured poor Hippolyta that he took far greater pleasure in my mother's embrace than in hers.
I watched as he moved in front of us women and children, forming a row directly in front of the altar, to one side of the empty throne that awaited the arrival of his father, the King.
Behind him came my uncles: Federico and Francesco. Then came my father's eldest son, named for his grandfather, but affectionately called Ferrandino, 'little Ferrante'. He was nineteen then, second in line to the throne, the second most handsome man in Naples but the most attractive, for he possessed a warm, outgoing nature. As he passed the worshipers, feminine sighs echoed in his wake. He was followed by his younger brother Piero, who had the misfortune to resemble his mother.
King Ferrante entered last, in breeches and a cape of black velvet, and a tunic of silver brocade embroidered with fine gold thread. At his hip was the sheathed, jewelled sword given him upon his coronation. Though I knew him as an old man with a limp exacerbated by gout, on this day he moved gracefully, without any hesitation in his gait. His good looks had been eroded by age and indulgence. His hair was white, thinning, revealing a scalp burned pink by the sun; he had a ponderous double chin beneath his trimmed beard. His eyebrows were dark and startling, especially in profile, due to each thick hair's attempt to launch itself in a different direction. These stood above eyes strikingly like mine and my father's — an intense blue with hints of green, capable of changing colour depending on the light and hues surrounding him. His nose was red, pock-marked, his cheeks covered with broken veins. But his bearing was straight, and he was still capable of silencing a crowd simply by walking into a room.
His solemn expression, upon entering the Duomo San Gennaro, generated pure ferocity. The crowd knelt even lower, and waited for the King to settle himself upon a throne near the altar.
Only then did they dare rise; only then did the choir begin to sing.
I craned my neck and caught a glimpse of the altar, where a silver bust of San Gennaro wearing his bishop's mitre had been placed in front of burning tapers. Nearby stood a marble statue, slightly larger than life, of Gennaro in full regalia, two fingers of one hand lifted in blessing, a crosier resting in the crook of his arm.
Once the King was situated and the choir had fallen silent, the Bishop of Naples emerged and gave the invocation; his assistant then appeared, bearing a silver reliquary in the shape of a lantern. Behind the glass was something small and dark: I could not see clearly from my position, being too short — my view was blocked by the backs of my black silk-clad aunts and the men's velvet capes, but I peeped in between. I knew it was a vial containing the dried blood of the martyred San Gennaro, tortured, then brutally beheaded on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian over a thousand years before.
Our bishop and the priest prayed. The zie di San Gennaro let out sonorous wails, beseeching the saint. Carefully, the priest, without touching the glass, turned the reliquary end-over-end, one time, then two.
An eternity seemed to pass. Beside me, Isabella had lowered her head and shut her eyes, her lips moving in a silent prayer. On my other flank, little Alfonso had lowered his head solemnly, but was peering out from beneath his curls in fascination at the priest.
I believed fervently in the power of God and the saints to intervene in the affairs of men. Deeming it safest to follow Isabella's example, I bowed my head, squeezed my eyes closed, and whispered a prayer to Naples' patron saint: Bless our beloved city, and keep it safe. Protect the King and my father and mother and Alfonso. Amen.
A murmur of awe passed through the crowd. I caught a glimpse of the altar, of the priest proudly displaying the silver reliquary, holding it up for the crowd's scrutiny. 'II miracolo e fatto,' he proclaimed.
The miracle is accomplished.
The choir led the congregation in singing the Te Deum, praising God for bestowing this blessing.
From my vantage point I could not see what had occurred, but Isabella whispered in my ear: the dark, dried substance in the vial had begun to melt, then bubble, as the ancient blood once again became liquid. San Gennaro signified that he had heard our prayers, and was pleased; he would protect the city which he had served as bishop during his mortal years.
It was a good omen, she murmured, especially for the King on his anniversary. San Gennaro would protect him from all enemies.
The current Bishop of Naples took the reliquary from the priest and stepped down from the altar to the throne. He held the square, silver-and-glass box before King Ferrante and waited for the monarch to unseat himself and approach.
My grandfather neither rose nor knelt in the presence of such a marvel. He remained settled on his throne, forcing the bishop to bring the reliquary to him. Only then did Ferrante yield to ancient custom and press his lips to the glass, beneath which lay the sacred blood.
The bishop retreated to the altar. The royal males of Aragon then approached one by one, my father first, and kissed the holy relic in turn. We women and children followed — I and my brother still firmly clinging to each other. I pursed my mouth against the glass, warmed by the breath of my relatives, and stared at the dark liquid housed inside. I had heard of miracles, but never before seen one; I was amazed.
I stood beside Alfonso as he took his turn; afterwards, we processed back to our assigned places.
The bishop handed the reliquary back to the priest and made the sign of blessing, two fingers of his right hand slicing a cross through the air, first over my grandfather, then over the assembled royal family.
The choir broke into song. The old King rose, a bit stiffly. The guards left their positions about the throne and preceded him outside the church, where carriages waited. As always, we followed.
Custom required the entire congregation, including royals, to remain in place during the ceremony, while each member came forward to kiss the relic — but Ferrante was too impatient to be kept waiting for commoners.
* * *
We returned directly to the Castel Nuovo, the trapezoidal hulk of mud-coloured brick built two hundred years earlier by Charles of Anjou to serve as his palace. He had first removed the crumbling remnants of a Franciscan convent dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Charles had valued protection over elegance: each corner of the castle, which he called the Maschio Angiono, the Angevin Keep, was reinforced by vast cylindrical towers, their toothy merlons jutting against the sky.
The palace stood directly on the bay, so close to the shore that, as a child, I often stuck an arm through a window and imagined I caressed the sea. On that morning a breeze rose off the water, and as I rode in the open carriage between Alfonso and Isabella, I inhaled with pleasure the scent of brine. One could not live in Naples without being in constant sight of the water, without coming to love it. The ancient Greeks had named the city Parthenope for the ancient siren, half-woman, half-bird, who for unrequited love of Odysseus had cast herself into the sea. According to legend, she had washed up on Naples's shore; even as girl, I knew it was not for love of a man that she had been lured into the waves.
I pulled off my veil to better enjoy the air. To get an improved view — of the concave lunar crescent of coastline, with dusky violet Vesuvio to the east, and the oval-shaped fortress, Castel dell'Ovo, just to our west — I rose in the carriage and turned round. Isabella reseated me at once with a harsh tug, though her expression remained composed and regal, for the benefit of the crowd.
Our carriage rumbled through the castle's main gate, flanked by the Guard Tower and the Middle Tower. Connecting the two was the white marble Triumphal Arch of Alfonso the Magnanimous, erected by my great-grandfather to commemorate his victorious entry into Naples as its new ruler. It marked the first of many renovations he made to the crumbling palace, and once the arch was in place, he rechristened his new residence the Castel Nuovo.
I rode beneath the lower of the two arches, and stared up at the bas relief of Alfonso in his carriage, accompanied by welcoming nobles. Far above, his hand reaching beyond the towers, an exuberant, larger-than-life statue of Alfonso gestured toward the sky. I felt exuberant, too. I was in Naples, with the sun and the sea and my brother, and I was happy.
I could not imagine that such joy could ever be taken from me.
Once inside the inner courtyard with the main gate closed, we climbed from the carriages and entered the Great Hall. There, the longest table in the world held a feast: bowls of olives and fruit, all manner of breads, two roast boars, their jaws propped open with oranges, roast stuffed fowl, and seafood, including succulent little crayfish. There was much wine, too — the Lachrima Christi, the tears of Christ, made from Greco grapes cultivated on the fertile slopes of Vesuvio. Alfonso and I took ours diluted with water. The Hall was adorned with flowers of every variety; the vast marble columns were draped with swags of gold brocade, trimmed in blue velvet, to which were fastened wreaths of blood-coloured roses.
Excerpted from The Borgia Bride by Jeanne Kalogridis. Copyright © 2005 Jeanne Kalogridis. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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