Scarlet City: A Novel of 16th Century Italy

Scarlet City: A Novel of 16th Century Italy

by Hella S. Haasse
In The Scarlet City, Hella Haasse takes us to 16th-century Italy, which is torn by savage violence of war and sinister intrigues for power.

The novel centers around Giovanni Borgia, a mysterious figure known in history as the infans Romanus, or child of Rome. Although he bears one of the most notorious names in all of Italy, Giovanni doesn't know his


In The Scarlet City, Hella Haasse takes us to 16th-century Italy, which is torn by savage violence of war and sinister intrigues for power.

The novel centers around Giovanni Borgia, a mysterious figure known in history as the infans Romanus, or child of Rome. Although he bears one of the most notorious names in all of Italy, Giovanni doesn't know his parentage. Is Cesare Borgia his father or his brother? Or is he no relation at all? Is Lucrezia Borgia his mother or his sister -- or possibly both? Hella Haasse uses the ferment and intrigue of the Italian Wars -- during which French, Swiss, Spanish and German armies surged into Italy -- as a backdrop for Giovanni's agonizing quest for his identiy.

Giovanni's search introduces us to some of the most intriguing people of the times: Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna and Lucrezia Borgia. hella Haasse draws each with great depth and brilliant color.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This frustrating historical novel, first published in Holland in 1952, opaquely treats the early 16th century: the machinations of papal and imperial forces have divided all of Italy into scheming factions, and mercenary soldiers gather to sack Rome. Haasse ( In a Dark Wood Wandering ) chooses a nonlinear approach: various historical figures alternately narrate a series of complicated events. A bastard bearing the Borgia name diarizes his fruitless search for the identity of his parents; Niccolo Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini exchange letters; among the other literati heard from are Pietro Aretino and Vittoria Colonna. This structure bleeds the narrative of its intrinsic drama: critical episodes invariably take place offstage, characters enter and exit abruptly, and the single-minded concerns of the individual protagonists overshadow the central action. Those who don't know much about this thorny patch of history will be thoroughly adrift; on the other hand, anyone familiar with even a snippet of the works of the figures incarnated here will chafe at Haasse's shallow and simplistic interpretations. 50,000 first printing; BOMC and History Book Club alternates. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Against the turbulent backdrop of the Italian Wars (1494-1559) Haasse traces the lives and struggles of some of Italy's most famous citizens--Michelangelo Buonarroti, Niccolo Machiavelli, Vittoria Colonna--in chapters interspersed with the diary of soldier/adventurer Giovanni Borgia. Though raised in the Borgia retinue, Giovanni is uncertain of his true parentage and travels from one rival family to another seeking the key to his identity. Fear and mistrust abound, however, and the truth eludes him. As leaders war, intrigue, and shift alliances, the turmoil in Italy is reflected in each of the characters as they seek meaning in their lives. Like Italy itself, they can hope for no solution: at best they succeed in identifying the opposing forces that war within them. A brilliant picture of an uncertain age by the author of In a Dark Wood Wandering (LJ 9/1/89). BOMC and History Book Club selections. --Cynthia Johnson Whealler, Cary Memorial Lib., Lexington, Mass.

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Chicago Review Press, Incorporate
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The Scarlet City

A Novel of 16th-Century Italy

By Hella S. Haasse, Anita Miller

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1952 Hella S. Haasse
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-453-7


Giovanni Borgia


Borgia am I; two, perhaps three times a Borgia. To others, my lineage is a riddle; to me, it's a secret — no, more than a secret — a source of torment. In Italy, for a quarter of a century, no name has had a more evil sound than Borgia; if I didn't already know this, I would discover it anew every day. Anyone who wants to curse wholeheartedly says Borgia! Anyone who wants to sum up the wretchedness of these times, the corruption in Rome, the decline of Italy, spits out his bitterness: Borgia! Deceit, decadence, fornication, black arts, murder and manslaughter, incest: Borgia! Quarrels and dissension, endless discord among towns and principalities, invasions by rapacious foreigners in North and South, hatred, avarice, failure, hunger, disaster, pestilence and approaching doom: Borgia! To grasp fully all the connotations of the word Borgia, I had to come back to Italy.

God knows that in France — at least during the last years of my stay there — I was proud of my name. If the court secretly slandered me and my lineage behind my back, I wasn't aware of it. The King was well-disposed toward me: after all, I was considered to be a protege of the House of Este of Ferrara, and in those days France had no better friend and ally in Italy than Alfonso d'Este, Lucrezia's husband.

Equally important to me was the good will of another blood relative: Luisa — or Louise as she was called there — Cesare's daughter by his French marriage. Since I still believed then that Cesare was my father too, I set great value on the influence of this woman whom I thought was my half-sister.

Luisa was four or five years younger than I; we shared the same mixed feelings toward our lineage. On the one hand, pride, inborn Spanish pride in the fact that we both belonged to a race that had dared to challenge kings and emperors; but on the other hand, a secret gnawing doubt, a sense of shame which neither she nor I could put into words and which we both tried to hide behind a great show of arrogant self-confidence. This was easier for me than for Luisa, because she was cursed outwardly as well: sickly, thin, her face disfigured by scars ... living proof of the truth of the rumors circulating about Cesare before his marriage to Charlotte d'Albret. By now everyone knows that he suffered from the illness that the Italians call the French disease — a high price to pay, in my opinion, for the pleasures of love. He poisoned Luisa's blood with it — and, they say, the blood of most of his bastards. I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that I've been spared physical infirmities. My suffering is invisible: my soul has been poisoned.

So in France I could — in spite of certain earlier events — still maintain my self-respect. When I came to the court of Francis I, Cesare had been dead for more than ten years. People seldom talked about the last period of his life in Navarre, and never — in my presence — his inglorious end. If his name came up, it was usually in connection with current Italian politics: compared to my other countrymen who supported the French cause, Cesare appeared in a favorable light: he, at least, had shown himself to be hardi homme — a man of courage.

At those times I was always struck at how strongly his name, his personality, still held the imagination. Even then Cesare was more than a memory; he was a legend. In him good and evil had assumed dimensions that went beyond the powers of human judgment. In speech and in writing he was always referred to by his French titles; it was not forgotten either that his escutcheon bore the lilies of Valois and that his daughter Luisa was married to one of the greatest lords of the kingdom.

All this tempered any possible negative connotations of the Borgia name. In addition, I had been presented at the French court by Alfonso d'Este himself, and further, I wasn't officially called Borgia, but Duke of Nepi and Camerino. An imposing title, but a hollow one, nothing more than a string of names, because the possessions and the rights that went with them had been taken from me when Julius the Borgia-hater became pope; he returned the territories to the former owners — the Varano and the Colonna. For my fine titles, worthy of a prince of the blood, I have Pope Alexander to thank, the father of Cesare and Lucrezia. As the bastard of the illegitimate son of a former vicar of Christ on earth, I could in a certain sense consider myself to be a member of a dynasty.

In my first years at the French court, I lived in the customary style. I had a permanent place among other young nobles in the King's retinue. I held an honorary post and received an annuity. But the office and the salary were purely symbolic. Most of my companions served the King for the honor of it; they had solid backgrounds: money, castles, lands — and they bore ancient illustrious French names — their escutcheons were unblemished. I was poor, a foreigner. I had no fortune, no income beyond the handful of ducats doled out to me each year in the King's name, and gifts sent by Lucrezia. After her death in 1519, I received nothing more from Ferrara.

I kept a horse, a valet and a groom; beyond that all I possessed was a trunk with clothes, books and a few valuables. I rode in the royal hunt, sat at the banquet tables, indulged in my share of diplomatic intrigue and amorous adventure, like everybody else. In the halls and parks of Chaumont, Poissy, Chambord and Fontainebleau, life whirled past in a kind of happy intoxication. It was all a game — we knew that. We played against each other with courtly flourishes: move, countermove, attack and retreat ... as much in love affairs as in the unending struggle for rank and precedence in the King's good graces. But all this was carried on with ceremonious restraint; the intrigues and maneuvers were like the movements in a ballet, executed with compliments and bows and well-chosen words. To be deeply serious or openly passionate was considered tasteless. At first my mixed Spanish and Italian blood played me false; eventually I managed to adapt.

I never forgot that the world extended beyond palace walls and the borders of a royal park. How could I? I carried the memory of my youth, of the early years with Cesare in the Romagna and at the Castel Sant'Angelo, of isolation in the Castle of Bari and the long period of wandering after that. I remembered events and faces — at night, especially. My childhood passed before me — a furious cavalcade lit by torches; most of it was lost in blood-red smoke, but sometimes a glaring light played upon an image that I recognized: the angel Michael on the Citadel of Rome silhouetted against an angry sunset ... a series of flags hanging from the ledge outside the great hall of the Castle of Camerino ... a landscape filled with heaps of rubble, scorched black and still smoking, seen from the window of a palanquin ... hollow-eyed heads on pikes, grinning above a city gate....

Faces of the men and women of Cesare's retinue: his mother, Madonna Vannozza, stout, faded, with a shadowed upper lip, but regal in bearing and gesture; the shy, quick-tempered Gioffredo, his youngest brother, who was comfortable only with children and animals; his fortress-builder and engineer Messer Leonardo da Vinci, that man with the penetrating eyes, who could use a lead marker to create landscapes and figures from mildewed blotches on a damp wall; Micheletto, Cesare's advisor and right hand; Agapito, his secretary — and finally, the children, my playmates: Camilla, Carlotta and of course Rodrigo, the confidant and bosom friend of my youth.

I was five or six years old then. I knew that we were in danger, but the how and the why were beyond me. Much later it all became clear to me. In the silence of the night, in antechambers and alcoves of French royal palaces, lying sleepless next to tossing, snoring French nobles with whom I had to share a bed, I had plenty of time to connect the facts I had learned over the years with my memories — the shreds and fragments of what I had heard and seen as a child.

* * *

There are reasons why I want to write all this down here: the adventures of my youth, my life in the French court and the experiences which I've had since then and still have every day. A man who feels himself threatened and spied upon from all sides, who knows that he can't confide in anyone and that there's no security anywhere, has to keep his own counsel. To speak one's thoughts, even to whisper them, is out of the question. The Vatican galleries are as crowded as the streets on market day; the walls have eyes and ears here and anyway, only fools, prisoners or madmen talk to themselves out loud. My writing doesn't attract any attention; it looks to be part of my work. Nearly every day I stand at a desk in the papal library, covering sheet after sheet with words: drafting letters and speeches to oblige the lesser diplomats of His Holiness Clement VII. Papal scribe: a curious occupation for one who was brought up as a nobleman, who has fought for France in Navarre and before Pavia.

They probably think here that I aspire to the purple — or at least to a red hat. Considering my lineage, anything is possible, I suppose. Of course there's nobody in the court of Rome who would dream of asking me openly what my intentions are. No one dares — at this stage — to show himself either for or against me. My name creates space, a no-man's-land between me and the others. Borgia — it's like the warning sign on the door of a plague-stricken house. They keep their distance; I still can't quite tell why. All I have are my suspicions, because whatever might be planned against me remains cloaked in darkness for the moment. I'm left in peace because they think I'm in the good graces of His Holiness's favorites. But I know perfectly well that I have to make good use of this quiet time, this respite. Uncertainty makes one vulnerable ... Now, first of all, I have to find out why people are avoiding me. The poison is hidden in the name: Borgia. They don't know who I am, what I want, what connections I have, what friends and relatives I protect, what enemies I can hurt. They know less than I do, and what do I know myself?

I'm not certain of the exact day and year of my birth, any more than I know who my father and mother were. There must be records of my birth in Ferrara, but I haven't seen them. I'm roughly twenty-eight years old, my name is Giovanni Borgia, or — to employ the Spanish title which is mine by right — Don Juan de Borja y Llancol. When I was still a child, I thought Cesare was my father, probably because no one said he wasn't, and because I lived in his immediate entourage with two of his other bastard children, Camilla and Carlotta. Later, Lucrezia's son Rodrigo joined us; we knew that Cesare had taken pity on him because Alfonso d'Este refused to have the boy at his court in Ferrara; he didn't want to be reminded of his wife's previous marriage.

Cesare took the four of us everywhere with him; we had a secure place in his retinue with the women appointed to look after us. I spent the first years of my life in palanquins and coaches, in tents, in halls of newly captured or hastily abandoned castles in the Romagna. I no longer remember names. Later I heard about Imola and Forli, Cesena, Senigallia — I've probably been there, too.

I remember Camerino only because when Cesare took possession of it, I played a role in the solemn ceremony that was performed there. The previous owners of the castle and estates, the Lords Varano, had been murdered or driven away by Cesare; Pope Alexander issued a bull that made me, the male heir of the Borgia family, Duke of Camerino. At the same time, I received also the castle and lands of neighboring Nepi, which had belonged to the Colonna family — almost half of the Romagna. At that time I was scarcely — if at all — aware of the great honor which had befallen me.

I sat in front of Cesare on his horse; surrounded by soldiers, we rode through the steep and narrow streets of the town. Cesare's standard was flying from the damaged tower of the castle. Duca! Duca! the people cried, packed together in the alleyways and on the roofs of the houses. Cesare's armored hand lay on my knee.

In a gloomy hall filled with armed men he held me under the armpits and lifted me up high.

"Behold the new Lord of Camerino, the first Duke, by the grace of Pope Alexander!"

He pushed a heavy ring, too wide for it, onto my finger, and told me to make a fist. So for the first — and up to now the last — time in my life, with Cesare's seal which was also mine, I sealed official documents as Duke of Camerino. Coins were struck with my head on them. When I was in France I still had one of those coins, a silver carline with the legend:Joannes Bor. Dux Camerini. But I seem to have lost it somewhere.

In the following year, Pope Alexander — whom I took to be my grandfather — died. With him went Cesare's power in the Romagna and also my dukedom, forever.

* * *

When I came back to Rome two months ago, I didn't recognize the Vatican. The rooms where Pope Clement usually lived were unfamiliar to me. When I went looking for the Borgia apartments, I found only closed doors. The section of the palace where Alexander had lived and where Cesare had spent time now and then, is no longer used. I've heard that no one has entered there since the days of Pope Julius. I haven't requested admittance yet — if only to avoid giving away a long-cherished, secret desire.

Sometimes, standing in the Belvedere court, I look up at the open galleries which circle the outsides of the apartments. The ground floor rooms belonged to Alexander; the floor above was fitted out for Cesare. Whenever he put up at the Vatican for a while, Rodrigo and I lived in a house in the Ponte quarter where two Spanish cardinals looked after us as our guardians.

Of our many visits to the Vatican — Alexander couldn't seem to see enough of us when we were in his neighborhood — all I remember are the papal apartments.

In a room with brightly painted walls which sparkled with gilt and sky-blue enamel, was a fat old man leaning comfortably back against the cushions of a state chair. He permitted us to kiss the ring on his forefinger, and his hand, which was broad, soft and always very warm. Then he bent forward and squeezed us against him, breathing heavily with emotion; his velvet cape smelled of stale incense and musk.

"Are you here again, my boys, my fine, handsome boys, my falcons, my cubs ... You, Rodrigo, from my beautiful Lucrezia, and you, Giovanni, Giannino mio, my little dukes; I'll make you rich and powerful, you'll rule Italy like kings, Borgia kings!"

He kissed us and petted us, put his hand in blessing on our heads, groped in a dish of preserved fruit next to him and scattered sweets over us. Sometimes he threw a ducat, a jewel or something similar between us and watched us romp and scuffle for it. With applause and shouts he urged us on until Rodrigo and I, excited, overheated, paying no attention to our surroundings, rolled through the chamber, dragging carpets with us, knocking over candlesticks. Those present — shadows in the background, prelates, nobles, a handful of servants — smiled and clapped, echoing Alexander's childlike pleasure in our rough housing. But Cesare, who usually came with us on our visits to his father, didn't look at us or give any sign of enjoyment.

Now, after all these years, I know that his unwavering dark look was not for us, but for Alexander. Whenever I think of Cesare, I see him with that expression on his face — a look at once mocking, contemptuous and wryly amused: the sourly indulgent smile of one whose patience has been tested for all too long a time.

These visits to the Vatican must have taken place in the last months before Alexander's death — that would have been in the summer of 1503. I was about six years old then. The summonses calling us to the papal palace which usually came every day from Alexander or Cesare, suddenly stopped. After that our guardians the cardinals barely showed themselves in the house in the Ponte, cool and dark as a tomb, where Rodrigo and I were believed safe from the fevers which rose from the marshes in August.

Finally our nurses came, crying, wailing, repeating rumors about poison: Pope Alexander dying, Cesare seriously ill, the Vatican in an uproar, Rome a place where those who support Borgia will go down to perdition ... The servants' agitation spread to us too. While the doors were being bolted, shutters nailed over the ground floor windows, Rodrigo and I crept away to crouch in deadly terror inside the darkness of the bed curtains, listening to sounds inside and outside the house: muffled voices close by or resounding in the distant galleries; quick footsteps beneath us, above us; chests and pieces of furniture being dragged over the floor; horses snorting in the courtyard.


Excerpted from The Scarlet City by Hella S. Haasse, Anita Miller. Copyright © 1952 Hella S. Haasse. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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