The Scarlet Contessa: A Novel of the Italian Renaissance

The Scarlet Contessa: A Novel of the Italian Renaissance

by Jeanne Kalogridis

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312576240
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/05/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 395,579
Product dimensions: 5.38(w) x 8.26(h) x 1.26(d)

About the Author

Jeanne Kalogridis is the author of numerous dark fantasy and historical novels, including The Devil's Queen, The Borgia Bride, and I, Mona Lisa.

Wanda McCaddon has won more than twenty-five AudioFile Earphones Awards, including for The Seamstress by Sara Tuvel Bernstein, for which she also earned a coveted Audie Award. AudioFile magazine has also named her one of recording's Golden Voices. Wanda appears regularly on the professional stage in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Read an Excerpt

The Scarlet Contessa

A Novel of the Italian Renaissance

By Jeanne Kalogridis

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Jeanne Kalogridis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2256-2


At dusk the screams came — outraged, feminine, shrill. We would never have marked them had it not been for the smoke and the singers' sudden silence. I heard them eight days before Christmas as I stood in the loggia, gasping in stinging cold air from the open window, brusquely unshuttered by a quick-thinking servant.

A moment earlier, I had been sitting in front of the snapping hearth in the duchess's quarters while one of her chambermaids roasted pignoli on a wood-handled iron peel — treats for the ducal heir, seven-year-old Gian Galeazzo Sforza, who stared blankly into the flames while his nurse brushed out the straw-colored curls covering his frail shoulders. Beside him sat his six-year-old brother, Ermes — thick-limbed and thick-waisted, slow to move or think — with a straight cap of dull red hair. To their left sat their mother, Duchess Bona, a sheer white veil wrapped about her coiled, muddy braids, her lips pursed as she squinted down at the needle and silk in her plump hands. She was twenty-seven and matronly; God had dealt her a stout frame, squat limbs, and a short, thick neck that dwarfed her broad face. Though her features were not unpleasant — her nose was short and round, her skin powder-soft and fine, her teeth small and fairly even — she had a low forehead with thick, overwhelming eyebrows. Her profile was flat, her eyes wide set, her small chin lost in folds of fat, most of it acquired after the birth of her first child; yet at the court of Duke Galeazzo, to my thinking, there was no lovelier soul.

To Bona's left sat the duke's two natural daughters, results of his dalliance with a courtier's wife. The elder, Caterina, was, at thirteen, an example of physical perfection, with a lithe body that promised full breasts, clear skin, and a straight, well-proportioned nose, though her lips were rather thin. Two attributes propelled her past mere attractiveness into true beauty: full, loose curls of a gold so pale and bright it glittered in the sun, and eyes of a blue so intense that many who met her for the first time let go an involuntary gasp. The effect was enhanced by the natural confidence of her gaze. That afternoon, however, her gaze was sullen, for she had no patience with the needle and she hated sitting still; she paused often in her embroidery to glare at the fire and emit sighs of vexation. Had it been summer, she would have ignored the duchess's insistence on a sewing lesson and joined her father on the hunt, or gone riding with her brothers, or chased them across the sprawling courtyard. No matter that such activities were exceedingly inappropriate for a young woman, already betrothed and certain to wed within three years. Caterina had no fear of the duchess's wrath, not just because Bona was disinclined to anger, but also because her father the duke favored her and rarely allowed her to be punished.

The same could not be said of her nine-year-old sister, Chiara, a rail-thin, timid mouse with bulging brown eyes and a narrow, sharp-featured face. For all the attention the duke showed Caterina, Chiara — a slow-witted, obedient girl — received only his unwarranted abuse; she rarely met another's gaze and kept close to Bona's side. For Bona's heart was so great that she treated all the duke's children equally; her own son, Gian Galeazzo, who would someday rule Milan and all her territories, was shown the same tender kindness as Caterina and Chiara, both living proof of her husband's philandering. She was also good to his two bastard sons, who were then almost men, off in Milan learning the military arts at their stepfather's home. Although she had encouraged all of us children to address her as our mother, Chiara alone called her Mama. Caterina called her Madonna, my Lady; I called her Your Grace.

Bona was kind even to me, a foundling of murky origin. She claimedpublicly that I was the natural child of one of her disgraced cousins in Savoy, and therefore related to the king of France. I had only the vaguest memory of a beautiful raven-haired woman, her features blurred by time, who murmured endearments to me in French; surely this had been my mother. I had recollections, too, of kindly nuns who cared for me after the raven-haired woman had disappeared. But when I pressed Bona privately on the subject, she refused to give any details, hinting that I was better off not knowing. She adopted me as her daughter — if a lesser one, fated to spend my days as her most coddled lady-in-waiting. I was grateful, but ashamed of my origins. And being ashamed, I imagined the worst.

Almadea, she named me: soul of God. Over the years, I came to be called simply Dea, but Bona made sure I never lost sight of my soul. She was a pious woman, given to prayer and charity, eager to raise her children to serve God. Since Caterina took no interest in the invisible world, Gian Galeazzo was destined for a secular fate, and Chiara was slow, I alone was the diligent recipient of her ardent religious instruction.

The duke, who praised Caterina to the skies and cursed poor Chiara, had little to say to or of me. I was strictly Bona's project — although I, four years older than Caterina and often her chaperone, had many opportunities to be in the presence of His Grace, who doted on his blue-eyed, golden-haired daughter and paid her frequent visits. At those times, his eyes belonged to Caterina, and in those rare instances when his gaze strayed and caught mine, he quickly averted it.

On that eighth day before the Feast of the Nativity, the castle at Pavia — the duke's favorite country lodgings — was bustling. Every servant's expression was one of harried determination, every courtier's one of eager anticipation. In two days, the entire court of several hundred would make the daylong procession to the city, Milan, and the majestic Castle of Porta Giovia. There, on the day before Christmas, the duke would address the people, issue pardons, and distribute charity; when the sun set, he would ceremonially light the ciocco, the great Yule log, for his staff and servants in the great banquet hall. The fire would be faithfully tended throughout the night. The duke had never lost his childhood love of the holiday, so he also privately celebrated the ciocco ritual with his family each Christmas Eve, followed by a lavish banquet.

On that particular afternoon, in a festive gesture anticipating the annual pilgrimage, the duke sent a quartet of carolers to his wife's chambers. These were members of Duke Galeazzo's choir, the most magnificent in all Europe. The duke took only a vague interest in the arts, leaving the acquisition of books and paintings to his underlings, but music was his passion, and he took great care to seek out the most talented vocalists and composers in all of Europe.

Gian Galeazzo, Ermes, Duchess Bona, Caterina, Chiara, and I sat facing west before the fire, with the open doorway to our left, while the carolers — two men and two lads, the latter chosen by the duke for their pretty bodies as much as their talent — stood just left of the hearth, lifting their amazing voices in song. Behind us, two chambermaids were busy packing Bona's Christmas wardrobe into two large trunks. Sitting on the floor by his elder brother's feet, Ermes dozed while little Gian Galeazzo sat dutifully enduring his nurse's brush as he stared into the fire and listened; Duchess Bona hoped that the boys would catch their father's passion for music. She and Chiara were distracted by their embroidery, and Caterina by a wooden ball at her foot, a toy belonging to her younger half-brothers. She slyly nudged it with her toe until it rolled a short distance and gently bumped the nose of the dozing greyhound coiled at Bona's feet. The dog — three-legged and, like me, one of Bona's rescues — opened one eye and promptly returned to its nap.

The duchess's chamber was of comfortable size, with a large arched window, vaulted ceilings, and walls paneled in dark, ornately carved wood. Unlike the duke's, it consisted of a single room that featured a sitting area in front of the fireplace, a dressing area shielded from view by several garderobes, and a platform upon which rested a mahogany bed, its brocade curtains drawn. Near it were three cots, one of which I occupied on those nights my husband traveled. Bona's chamber resembled most of the other rooms in Castle Pavia, which consisted of a two-story stone square large enough to comfortably house five hundred souls. Each corner of the square was marked by a great tower, and these corner suites were reserved for the most important personages and functions. On the upper floor, the northeast tower housed the duke's suite of rooms, the northwest, his heir's; the southeast and southwest towers served as the chancery and the library, respectively. On the ground floor, the tower rooms held the reliquary and the prison. Except for the duke's, all rooms opened onto a long common hall, or loggia, overlooking the massive interior courtyard; the loggia on the first floor, which housed the servants, lesser visitors, butchery, prison, bathhouse, laundry, and treasury, was open to the elements. For the comfort of the duke and his family, however, the upper loggia was bricked in, though there were windows to catch summer breezes, with shutters to close out winter winds.

As a girl, I used to race down the long, seemingly endless halls, barely avoiding collisions with the servants who filled them. One day I determined to count every room on both floors: There are eighty-three if you include the saletti, the little sitting rooms that protrude from the chapel, the chamber of rabbits, and the chamber of damsels and roses, the last two named for their murals. My favorite was the first-floor chamber of mirrors, with a floor of glittering mosaic and a ceiling of brightly colored glass.

Bona's fireplace rested in the center of the wall adjoining her son's apartment, and so we sat many steps away from either the window or the chamber door. I sat nearest the latter, which was open to allow the servants who were packing the duchess's Christmas luggage easy access.

I should have relaxed in the fire's warmth and simply listened to the singing. One lad's voice was so hauntingly beautiful that when he performed a solo, Bona stopped in her sewing and closed her eyes at its sweetness.

I closed my eyes, too, but opened them immediately at the sudden welling of tears and the unwanted tightness in my throat. For the third time in the last hour, I set my sewing down and — as discreetly as possible, moving behind the seated group — stepped rapidly away from the hearth into the cool shade at the arched window, and looked out.

To my left, the feeble sun was dying behind thick winter clouds that threatened snow; before me stood the formal garden, withered save for spots of evergreen. Straight ahead, to the north, the Lombard plain stretched out, much of it obscured by the bare, spidery-limbed trees in the nearby park where the duke hunted. A day's ride away, beyond the plain and my sight, stood the Alps; to the east, the kingdom of Savoy, where Bona had been born.

My Matteo would not be coming from the north, but court life required me to attend the duchess, and quash all yearning to run southward downthe endless loggia to the library, where I could climb the steps to the southwest watchtower and stare out toward Rome.

Matteo da Prato served the duke as a scribe, occasional courier, and minor envoy. His mother had died giving life to him, and his father had died not long afterward; like me, he had been adopted by a wealthy family and educated. His talent for breaking ciphers and creating impenetrable code had earned him the attention of the duke's top secretary, Cicco Simonetta. I first set eyes on him seven years ago, when I was ten and he seventeen, new to Milan and freshly apprenticed to Cicco; I never dreamed then that we should ever marry.

I had never expected to marry at all.

Back at the hearth, Bona noted my dismay. When the singers caught their breath between arrangements, she called softly, "He will not come today, Dea. I've said a hundred times, there is nothing more certain than delays during winter travel. Don't fret; they've already found lodging and are sitting comfortably right now just as we are, in front of a fire." She paused. "Time to shutter the windows now, anyway. It's growing bitter."

She did not remark on the fact that it had been the coldest winter anyone at court could remember.

"Of course, Your Grace," I said. At my words, a gust of wind stirred the clouds; before my eyes they writhed and reformed into a haunting image: the shape of a man dangling in the darkening sky as if an invisible God held him by one ankle, his opposite leg bent at the knee to create an upside-down four.

The hanged man, Matteo had called him.

I pushed the heavy slatted panels into place and latched them, then hesitated an instant to flick away a tear. When I faced Bona again, it was with a false smile.

Reason, if not the clouds, said that I had no cause to worry. Matteo was a seasoned traveler, and the guests he was escorting from Rome to Milan were papal legates, too precious to risk by traveling in bad weather. Matteo was also armed against bandits, and the legates traveled with attendants and bodyguards. Yet my anxiety would not ease. I had awakened that morning in a peculiar panic from a dream of a double-edged sword pointed downward, dripping blood onto the frozen earth, while a voice whispered flatly in my ear, Matteo is dead.

Before morning mass, I had lit a second candle for Matteo, so that God would be doubly sure to hear my prayers. Bona noted it when she arrived in the chapel, and when I knelt beside her, she set a comforting hand upon my forearm.

"God hears," she said softly, "and I am praying, too."

Her kindness forced me to flick away tears, yet my worry did not lift; in my mind's eye, I saw Matteo suspended upside-down, pale and unconscious.

After mass, I was gratefully distracted by the task of supervising the chambermaids as they prepared the duchess's and children's households for the return to Milan.

At noon, I noted the gathering snow clouds but told myself stubbornly that Matteo, the smartest man I knew, would mark them, too, and hasten his progress; but as the sky darkened, so did my mood, and sunset brought a growing dread. By the time I shuttered Bona's window, I was again fighting back tears.

Yet I returned to my embroidery with a vengeance, and with each jab of the needle uttered a silent prayer: God, protect my husband. Surely God would hear. No one was more deserving of protection than Matteo; no prayers were worthier of being granted than Bona's.

My stitches were large and careless and later would have to be snipped and resewn — not today, though, for the light was failing and soon, when Bona gave the word, all needlework would be retired. The male quartet began again to sing, a lively folk tune that made Bona smile and Caterina keep time with her feet.

My eyes were on the pool of white silk in my hands; I did not see what caused the first loud clatter, but I looked up in time to see Francesca's iron peel drop with a resounding clang to the stone fireplace floor, scattering nuts in the flames. Francesca looked down at the carpet in horror, and threw up her hands; the act caused her shawl to slip from her shoulders. One edge spilled into the hearth and ignited, while she, unaware, stared down at a red-hot stone smoldering on the carpet at the very feet of the ducal heir.

Francesca let go a shriek, which was quickly seconded by Bona and the nurse, who dropped the brush at once and lifted her charge, Gian Galeazzo,straight up out of his chair, overturning it in the process. Ermes screamed for his mother. The quartet of singers — the coddled cream of Europe's musical talent, and loyal to the duke's family insofar as their generous salaries were paid — were quickly out the door.

While the area of the hearth filled with smoke and shouts, I rose, determined to stamp out the fire before it caught in earnest, and tried to move toward Francesca. But Caterina, already on her feet, blocked my way. Her blue eyes were wide and blank, her manner that of a mindless, terrified beast. As I pressed toward the fire and she away, she gave my shoulders such a mighty shove that I staggered backward and nearly lost my footing. She ran past me, the three-legged greyhound at her heels, out the door and into the loggia.

Behind her, Bona had gotten Chiara, stiff and weeping with fright, from her chair and was herding her, Gian Galeazzo, and Ermes toward the door. With her charges safe, she moved past me, allowing me to help Francesca stamp out the woolen shawl, now a heap on the carpet, its edges burning steadily, filling the room with the smell of burning hair.


Excerpted from The Scarlet Contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis. Copyright © 2010 Jeanne Kalogridis. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

1. In Italy, Caterina Sforza is well known and regarded as a hero and true Renaissance warrior. Were you familiar with her story before reading The Scarlet Contessa? Many are not, even though Caterina's exploits are the stuff of legend. Why do you think her story has not received more attention?

2. The author's previous books, The Devil's Queen and I, Mona Lisa, were written from the central character's point of view. Why do you think the author chose not to write the story from Caterina Sforza's viewpoint, but instead from that of a fictional narrator, Dea?

3. How do you believe Caterina's coddled childhood and the trauma of seeing her father assassinated shaped her character? How did her character change over the course of the book?

4. Caterina's bold behavior was considered outrageous for a female in quattrocento Italy. Do you believe her brashness was a help or hindrance? What were her most and least admirable qualities? Would you consider her behavior shocking by modern standards?

5. The author took two major artistic liberties in writing The Scarlet Contessa: She created a fictional narrator as well as an affair between Caterina and Rodrigo Borgia. (Caterina and Borgia belonged to the same social circle and were well acquainted; both were libertines.) Everything else-settings, historical events, characters' physical appearances, articles of clothing, and all historical personages (even those who played very minor roles, such as Luffo Numai)-are based on historical records. As a reader, what degree of accuracy do you think is appropriate for a historical novel? What are appropriate "do's" and "don't's" for historical fiction?

6. How would you describe Dea's character? What are her strengths and weaknesses? How does she differ from Caterina-and how are they alike? How did Dea's childhood shape her character?

7. Discuss how Caterina and Dea influenced each other over the years. How did their relationship evolve, and what events caused it to change?

8. Do you believe that Caterina Sforza's decision to stay and fight against overwhelming odds was noble, suicidal, or stupid?

9. Do you sense a trend among readers during times of strife/political upheaval to read more nonfiction or historical fiction than general fiction? Why do you think this occurs? What do you hope to get out of reading a historical novel?

10. "Triumph" cards (now called tarot cards) first appeared in quattrocento Italy in the Duke of Milan's court, and the notion of the Holy Guardian Angel was rediscovered by the Medici as Cosimo the Elder (Lorenzo's grandfather) sent agents to all the libraries and monasteries of Europe to recover ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts. As a result, systems of ritual magic were rediscovered and new systems created based on ancient documents. Do you feel that Dea's beliefs in the angel and in her ability to read the cards added to the story, or did it distract? Do you think that the author intended for you to "believe" in the triumph cards and the angel?

11. What message do you believe the author was trying to convey through Dea and Caterina? Is there a moral to The Scarlet Contessa?

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Scarlet Contessa: A Novel of the Italian Renaissance 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read many books, this is hard to put down! I grab my NOOK whenever I have a moment. I have read mostly historical novels about England and decided to give this a try. I will be reading more by this author!
MsDollie More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly enjoyed reading The Scarlet Contests, my first time reading Jeanne Kalogridis. Now I'm off to purchase the rest of her novels.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it!
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