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.
Praise for The Vatican Princess
“In a literary exploration riven with Shakespearean quantities of murder, lies, deceptions, and treachery, Gortner’s narrative gains veracity with his atmospheric exploration of fashion, architecture, and art on the stage of ‘loud, filthy, and dangerous’ Rome. Gortner has imagined Lucrezia Borgia’s life from a feminist perspective.”—Kirkus Reviews
“[Gortner] has invested his novel with impressive historical detail that is woven neatly into the threads of the story, and his afterword and references offer excellent insight.”—Historical Novels Review
“Assiduously researched and expertly crafted, this novel takes readers inside the treacherous world of the Borgias—one of history’s most dysfunctional ruling families—and brings to life the sympathetic and freshly imagined character of their leading lady, Lucrezia. This unholy plunge into Rome’s darkest dynasty is wholly engrossing.”—Allison Pataki, New York Times bestselling author of Sisi: Empress on Her Own
“The world of Renaissance Italy is vividly brought to life—I’m captivated by this knowledgeable author’s take on the controversial Borgias.”—Alison Weir, New York Times bestselling author of Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen
“Impressive research, a lush background, and deft characterization of these turbulent times make for a fascinating read.”—Margaret George, New York Times bestselling author of Elizabeth I
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
C. W. Gortner holds an MFA in writing, with an emphasis on historical studies, from the New College of California and has taught university courses on women of power in the Renaissance. He is the internationally acclaimed author of Mademoiselle Chanel, The Queen’s Vow, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, and The Last Queen, among other books. Gortner divides his time between Northern California and Antigua, Guatemala. To learn more about his work and to schedule a book group chat with him, please visit his website.
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Reading Group Guide
Lucrezia Borgia: Fiend or Scapegoat?
C. W. Gortner
Centuries after their spectacular rise and fall, the Borgias continue to enthrall historians, filmmakers, and novelists alike. They are perhaps the most famous, if misunderstood, family in history—their grisly deeds and glamorous personalities giving rise to a myth that can be traced to the lack of information we have about what went on behind their closed doors.
Of the Borgias, Lucrezia’s plunge into a maelstrom of political intrigue in fifteenth-century Rome has arguably made her the most controversial. She is known as the quintessential femme fatale, luring men to death with her arsenal of poisons, and reputed to be the lover of both her father and her brother Cesare. How much of her sordid reputation is true? Was Lucrezia a fiend or a scapegoat?
Lucrezia was only twelve when her father, Rodrigo Borgia, ascended the Holy See as Pope Alexander VI. It was 1492: a pivotal year that witnessed Queen Isabella of Castile’s defeat of the Moors in Spain and the dispatching of Columbus to discover a new world. Like Isabella, the new pope was Spanish. The Borgias—or Borjas—were a prominent family from Valencia who’d fought for the Spanish Crown of Aragon during the Moorish crusades. Rodrigo Borgia, destined to enter the priesthood, earned a doctorate in divine law in Bologna. At the age of twenty-six, he went to Rome under the auspices of his maternal uncle Pope Calixtus III, who appointed him as vice-chancellor of the Church. Such nepotism was common in the hallowed halls of the Vatican, and Rodrigo proved adept, working for his uncle and subsequent popes while amassing a fortune and earning a reputation for genial ruthlessness before he finally won the See for himself.
The Borgias were detested by many, including the conspiring families who dominated Italy’s fractured landscape, all of whom craved the Vatican’s power for themselves. Rodrigo was envied for his suave political maneuvering and rapacious taste for opulence and women—he was one of the few popes who was open about his appetites—and of course, he was excoriated for his foreign blood. The fact that a Spaniard had won the papacy over various Italian-born cardinals—each as scheming as him—did not sit well among his rivals. But Borgia was adored by the people, and his favorite children, Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Gioffre, were allocated roles in his elaborate gambit to forge a dynasty that would succeed him. His ambitions were not uncommon to his era, yet these too were cited as proof of his venality. In his bellicose attitude and contemptuous disregard for propriety, Rodrigo sowed his own terrible reputation.
Lucrezia dwelled in the shadow of her father’s dominance. The scandals surrounding her mounted when her first marriage was abruptly annulled due to claims that her husband was impotent. He, in turn, fired off the accusation that the marriage was being annulled so the pope “could have her for himself.” It is true that Rodrigo adored his daughter, when it suited him, but no evidence has been found to prove that his love for Lucrezia was incestuous. However, the Borgias’ status and Spanish provenance, coupled with their public displays of affection and luxuriousness, worked against Lucrezia, who bore the brunt of the calumny. Her second marriage, by all accounts a loving one, ended at the hands of Cesare, already a suspect in the mysterious death of their brother Juan. By the time Lucrezia escaped Rome for her third marriage and the Borgia reign collapsed, she was dragging behind her the weight of her family’s sins.
In 1883, Victor Hugo wrote his play Lucrèce Borgia, loosely based on stories about Lucrezia; it became the basis for Donizetti’s famous 1834 opera. These artistic, highly fictionalized accounts added to her dark reputation. But in their authors’ defense, rumors were mostly what they had to go by. The first scholarly account of Lucrezia did not appear until many years later; even then, little was left behind by the Borgias to shed light on this enigmatic woman who’d navigated the heart of familial chaos and survived it. And to this day, though we lack credible evidence that Lucrezia killed anyone, her legend persists—a story so fascinating, we find it nearly irresistible. We’ll never know who the Borgias truly were, which can account for their ongoing appeal, but it is inarguable that they were dangerous, even lethal at times; and, like many of their contemporaries, intent on securing their legacy at any cost.
It is the untold story of Lucrezia’s dramatic youth that inspired me to write The Vatican Princess. Of all the novels I’ve written, this one was the most challenging. Years of research, including time spent in the Vatican Archives, yielded more questions than answers, despite ample documentation of pivotal events. In searching for Lucrezia, I had to rely on my inner understanding of how a privileged young girl may have reacted to the powerful people around her, none of whom had her best interests at heart. It is the story of how family defines and binds us, and how, ultimately, loyalty can be a curse.
The truth may never be ascertained, but one thing is clear: Lucrezia has become the Borgia scapegoat, though she did nothing to deserve it.
1. In The Vatican Princess, C. W. Gortner’s goal was to portray Lucrezia Borgia, one of history’s most infamous and maligned personages, as a multifaceted human being, beholden to the strictures of her era and her family. Does he succeed? Is Lucrezia sympathetic to you? If so, why? If not, why not?
2. History has condemned Lucrezia as a poisoner and incestuous with both her brother and her father. New research, however, challenges this centuries-long perception of her. How much of her reputation do you think she deserves? Why do you think history blackened her reputation?
3. Lucrezia opens the novel by saying that “Infamy is merely an accident of fate.” What does she mean? Discuss how she reaches this conclusion. What does it say about her personality and how she feels about her family, both at the start and at the conclusion of the novel?
4. Discuss how Lucrezia’s life transforms after her father is elected to the Holy See. What kind of childhood did she have and how do you think it shaped her? What are her expectations of her future compared to what actually happened? What kind of obstacles did she come up against and how does she react?
5. Lucrezia’s relationship with her brother Cesare is a key component in this novel. How would you describe their relationship? Do you think Cesare loved his sister, and how do his actions influence her? Do you feel as if you understand Cesare Borgia? If so, why? If not, why not?
6. Italy during the Renaissance was very different from the country of today. Discuss these differences. How do you feel about the Holy See and how a pope exercised power in Renaissance Rome? What are some of the differences that you found most interesting? Were you surprised by how the Vatican operated during this era? Do you see any parallels to today?
7. Discuss Lucrezia’s marriages. How much of a choice did she have? What are the differences between her first and her second marriage? Do you think she was in love with Alfonso of Aragon? How do you feel about her choice to keep secrets from him?
8. How does this novel present the dilemmas and limitations that Renaissance women faced? What surprised you the most about how women of this era lived?
9. Much is unknown about the Borgias’ private life. Do you think the author created a plausible scenario for events that remain a mystery, such as the murder of Juan Borgia and the paternity of Lucrezia’s illegitimate child?
10. Discuss Lucrezia’s relationships with the other women in her life. How did her relationship with her mother affect her? Was Giulia like a sister to her, as Giulia declares, and if so, did Lucrezia reciprocate? How do you feel about Lucrezia’s relationship with Sancia? Was Lucrezia’s life less difficult than these women’s or more so? Which female character did you most identify with? What are your impressions of motherhood in this era?
11. Lucrezia clearly loves her father. Discuss her relationship with him. Was Rodrigo Borgia a good father? How does their relationship evolve?
12. This novel is told in Lucrezia’s voice. Does she express any regret or doubt for actions she’s taken? How does she develop as a person from her early girlhood to the final denouement in the book? Do you think she was affected as much by her emotions as by the events around her? Discuss her choices and how she may have acted differently.
13. Do you think Lucrezia Borgia was a pawn or a conspirator? Does she show both facets in her personality? Of all the Borgias, whom do you feel was the most sincere?
14. What part of this book most surprised you? Which part did you find most engaging or interesting? What have you learned from reading The Vatican Princess about this period in Italian history, and about Lucrezia herself?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Quite a bit different than the t.v. adaptation of The Borgias, but still quite good. I liked the part where Cesare came from his studies in Pisa to see his father become Pope and he said that their mother was probably going to do his dirty laundry herself.
VERDICT: Fascinating presentation of the quite horrible Borgia family with events presented from Lucrezia’s perspective as a young girl entering adulthood. Excellent political and historical context, and descriptions of Rome you will not easily forget. I was hooked from the beginning: if you have never heard about Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519), the opening page is a wonderful shocker: this girl talking mentions her dad as being the pope. Huh? A pope can have a daughter? Well, not really in the best of worlds… but if you get back in time to the Italian Renaissance, their crazy politics , an insane family, and if you take into consideration human weakness, everything is possible! Be ready, you will find more shocking facts and scenes in the book: murders, including inside one’s own family, rape, incest, and more, you have it all!It would have been interesting to film me reading it, as I often was wide-eyed! The book actually only covers 7 years of Lucrezia’s life. Some readers seem to be frustrated by that, but I think this was a smart choice: from 13 to 20, so many things happened to her. She first could not believe what was going on, but the last dramatic event finally made her see her family, even those she considered as her dearest, as what they were. During that period, you can also realize she is not just a pawn, but she starts plotting herself. As I read the book, I often thought of Cromwell, at least the way he is portrayed by Hilary Mantel, and how little by little, after a lot of personal suffering, he became the man using his power to destroy people. Lucrezia’s earlier years were quite formative in this respect! I am not going to give you many more details about the family’s dealings, I only highly encourage you to plunge into this book. It is certainly quite an eye-opener on human nature at its worst: jealousy, revenge, blackmailing, eavesdropping, spying, lies, “simony, nepotism, carnality” (that’s all for the pope himself, Alexander VI, drunkenness too!) Gortner does a fabulous job at retelling the events and the political intrigues between the major Italian families, as well as the conflict with France leading to an invasion by Charles VIII, and another major problem with the Spanish sovereigns and the question of the Jews. When you realize the Borgia are actually of Catalan blood (Borja!), then you have a glimpse at the complexity of their situation. And oh, it’s also the time of Savonarola in Florence! There are also incredible descriptions of the poor, of the streets of Rome, and more than once a great way of eluding to an impending doom. Lucrezia Borgia is a very controversial figure in history. Some see her as quite a victim herself, some as the worst female creature ever. The nice thing for a historical novelist, is that a lot of her life is plunged into the murky waters of rumors and legend, hence a lot of leeway available. Some readers may not agree with the choices Gortner made, but really at this point, we don’t have too many definitive documents proving he is right or wrong.
I really love tv series like The Tudors, The Last Kingdom, and Reign. This book kept me very intrigued all the way to the last page. I will look up other books from this author, since I noticed that his book themes are right up my alley.
Such a great read, really couldn't put the book down
Another entertaining read by Gartner. Despite having read other novels about Lucrezia Borgia and knowing the basic history, this version kept me interested and eager to pick up the book each evening. I found the author's character development of Lucrezia to be believable and sympathetic. So much so for 99% of the book that Lucrezia's decision making and/or motivations the final few pages left me a little disappointed. It just seems to me that she would have needed to be coerced or blackmailed somehow into the decision that brought about the finale. Again, I did truly enjoy reading The Vatican Princess.
The Borgias: ruthless, perverted, calculating, infamous! Lucrezia describes the infamy as a “poison in our blood.” Some would say the family of Lucrezia was cursed. However, C. W. Gortner, after meticulous research, clearly places Lucrezia in the middle of a fictional world where her father, Rodrigo, bribes his way to the papacy as Pope Alexander VI and her mother Vannozza appears for the bounty to follow. The whole family seems anxious to marry Lucrezia off to Spain despite the fact that she is really but a child entering her teens, not yet become a “blooded” woman. So who is this young woman: saint, sinner or both? We watch this woman brutally pass from the world of her father’s innocent adoration to eventually realizing just how severely her brothers hate each other and how manipulative her own father was and is in the late 15th Century. Indeed, each member of this family, including the Pope’s mistress, make their own disasters! The hatred between Juan and Cesare clearly parallels the larger turmoil raging across Europe as Spain and France look for the opportunity to invade Italy and destroy the Borgias. Even the cities within Italy are constantly waging civil war and seeking foreign assistance to victory. But the spoils of victory are not necessarily true for the Borgias as the Pope is always borrowing to escape looming debt and bankruptcy of the Vatican. Lucrezia’s first husband, a Sforza, has little money but large expectations; as the reality looms, his true nature is cruelly revealed to Lucrezia along with that of her brother Juan. Shocking scenes are the norm herein but one finds it impossible to stop flipping pages and wondering what in heaven will happen in this hellish Vatican world. Murder, rape, theft and so much more follow within each new chapter. Lucrezia will briefly find great love in her second husband, Alfonso, but her own treacherous silence will test that relationship to the maximum level! Juan, who is worshipped by his father, trusts no one and reveals a force of cruelty and perversion that makes him totally unlikeable and perpetually mistrusted. Cesare, who moves quickly from priest to Cardinal, would rather be a warrior for he also lusts for battle and vengeance. Lucrezia after one particular scene realizes she must stay far away from Cesare. The results of that scene will shock the reader many times as the complex, insane plot continues. While there is a touch of repetitive snarling throughout the story, there are brilliant and potent quotes to savor and remember. The Vatican Princess… is a phenomenal and memorable read that will provoke much talk and controversy in the days to come. Read it and be amazed at the power and depravity of this family that scurrilously left so much pain and passion in its wake.
Many of you may have watched the show The Borgias on TV (I forget what channel). This is not that show. While it may share some characters and events, the way their are treated is very different. Which one is more accurate? I have no idea. I don't think anyone really does. Everything the Borgias did was steeped in secrecy, which leaves much to the imagination. Perhaps this is why the world seems to be fascinated with them. I really enjoyed C.W. Gortner's take on the life of Lucrezia Borgia. We really get to focus on how events shaped and changed her life. And those events were ones that helped make history. While we may never know the reality of what she thought and felt through these years, C.W. Gortner does an amazing job bringing her to life. Lucrezia came back to life in her pages. The corruption, not only in the Vatican, but in all of the religious and political spheres was astounding. Everything was done for a reason, and many of the people in high positions seem to have bought there way into them with favors or money. I'm amazed that the people seemed to be as OK with it as they were portrayed to be. It seemed to be common knowledge, but everyone looked the other way. There are some potential trigger moments in the story - but nothing is described in an overly graphic way. I found the portrayal of her family and the intrigues that she was made a pawn of to be cruel - and her ability to rise against them and try to find happiness was incredible. *This book was received in exchange for an honest review*