Prince of Foxes: Samuel Shellabarger

★★★★½

Shortly after I finished the excellent Blood & Beauty, this historical novel about Renaissance Italy popped up in my automatic recommendations. The author and title were both unfamiliar and, when I realised that it was again about the Borgias, I was tempted to pass: I had no plans to read another novel on the subject so soon. However, as the reviews were glowing, I persuaded myself to give it a chance; and I can honestly say that I’ve loved every minute of it.

Unlike Blood & Beauty, this shows us the Borgias through the eyes of those who served them, living in their shadow and carrying out their orders in the hope of lands and favour in return. Set in the years immediately around 1500, it focuses on a fictional character who is nevertheless so engaging and plausible that he could very well have been real (yes, a comparison with Lymond is unavoidable). While the key people and place are fictional, however, Shellabarger knows his Renaissance well, and the book is rich with Machiavellian realpolitik: ambition, half-truths, bluffs and double-bluffs. Alongside that there are the familiar motifs of the adventure novel, which in this case are much more subtle and successful than usual. We have daring disguises, secret identities and hair’s-breadth escapes, with a soupcon of romance: not the saccharine kind, but one involving two people of such charm and charisma that you genuinely believe they’d be drawn together. The whole thing feels like the kind of escapade that Sabatini might have dreamed up over a bottle of Barolo with Baldassare Castiglione. I will be coming back to it again; and again.

Part of the problem with Renaissance historical fiction, in general, is that it restricts itself to the same old class of characters: we find ourselves following members of the same families to and fro through the well-worn pathways of their lives. Shellabarger, however, introduces us to a man who has risen on his own merits as a soldier and who, consequently, still has to dirty his hands now and then with the less elegant aspects of Renaissance politics. We first meet Andrea Orsini in Venice, as an admirer of art and music: a handsome, suave and sophisticated gentleman.

He is in the process of completing his duties as a captain in Cesare Borgia’s service, before moving on to his new role as a Captain of Guards under Duke Ercole d’Este of Ferrara. The position fools no one: it is quite clear that Messer Andrea is to be a Borgia spy in Ferrara and that his purpose is to negotiate a marriage between Ercole’s son and heir, Alfonso, and Cesare’s much-bartered sister Lucrezia. The d’Estes are no fools: they don’t wish to publicly insult Cesare, but nor do they wish to welcome Andrea Orsini to Ferrara – which would be little better than bowing to the Borgia yoke. That would hurt their pride. Andrea Orsini, therefore, must be quietly disposed of.

They decide to solve the problem in the usual way but, unfortunately for the d’Este family, a quick death and an obscure disappearance in the Grand Canal don’t fit with Andrea’s own plans. Instead, utilising his quick wits and brute force, he manages to make an ally of the man hired to kill him – the fencing master and assassin Mario Belli. Together they head to Ferrara, where Andrea begins his embassy, spurred on by a promise made to him by Cesare. If he succeeds, he will be installed as lord of the little Marche hill-town, Città del Monte (as soon as Cesare takes it), with its present lady, the beautiful Camilla degli Baglione, as his wife.

But these are shifting times. For all his virtù, Andrea will soon discover that Fortune is a fickle mistress and the favour of the Borgia family is no less variable. He will have to start to make choices between honour and success; between policy and personal desire; and even between renown and love. In a world where nothing is quite what it seems, it will take all his imagination and resourcefulness to stay alive.

‘I have rarely met anyone more finished. But think: a soldier who knows art, a Neapolitan who speaks like a Florentine, an Orsini unrelated to the Orsini, a servant of the Borgia in the service of the Borgia’s enemies. A contradiction. He has too many faces.’
‘I find him interesting.’…
‘I hope you may not find him dangerous, Madonna.’

First published in 1947, the book does have a slightly old-fashioned tinge. A modern writer would probably be inclined to take a more nuanced view of Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia. Indeed, so soon after reading Sarah Dunant’s elegant take on them in Blood & Beauty, they felt slightly like stage villains here. There was no real attempt to give them depth, although they certainly had impact. This was emphasised in part by Shellabarger’s admirable decision to keep Cesare off-stage for most of the novel. Since so much of the book is dominated by fear of Cesare and his network of informants, it’s rather effective that we see only the man’s influence rather than the man himself. When he does finally make an entrance, it’s all the more impressive for it.

But, if these ‘villains’ lack complexity, Shellabarger compensates for it in the characterisation of Andrea and Belli. Both (initially at least) combine a roguish lack of conventional principles with a strong sense of individual morality, and are much more appealing for it. I grew rather fond of Belli, who joins my literary ranks of stiletto-wielding bravi; and of course I could hardly fail to warm to Andrea, who was quite the Renaissance man. Naturally his talent for painting was a particular highlight for me and the closing scene left me grinning with pleasure: it was by no means the kind of ending I’d envisage for a book like this, which made it all the more enjoyable.

Returning quickly to the Borgias, I should add that Lucrezia and her cousin Angela suffered from being slightly underdeveloped, but I felt that this was largely because Shellabarger didn’t have any particular emotional investment in them as characters. It certainly isn’t due to any lack of skill in writing about women: I found his Camilla to be completely delightful, mingling grace with courage and impish humour. While these protagonists were the most worked-up of the characters, even some of those with more minor roles were given a strong sense of individuality: Camilla’s elderly husband Varano, for example, or her companion and confidant, Alda.

Shellabarger’s true strength, however, is in his dialogues. I can’t remember the last time I read a book quite like this, in which virtually every conversation is a subtle joust of wits and daring. The high-flown Renaissance praises and expressions of regard are mere confections within which the characters hide warnings, threats or gentle reminders of where the power really lies; and no one pays attention to the actual words which are spoken, but to that which simmers underneath, unsaid. If these dialogues are meant to keep the characters on their toes, then Shellabarger finds no less amusement in teasing his readers. There are a couple of occasions, which I shan’t describe in any detail (for fear of spoiling them), where I suddenly realised what was going on – late enough to appreciate Shellabarger’s skill in setting up the situation, but early enough that I was fully primed to enjoy the moment when the truth was revealed.

I’m convinced that this book would have a fairly wide appeal and can happily recommend it in the broadest possible way. If you enjoy Sabatini or The Prisoner of Zenda, this has much the same daring spirit, grounded in a grittier and more morally ambivalent setting. If you were swept away by Blood & Beauty, then you might well consider reading this while you wait for the sequel – since it carries on more or less from the point where Sarah Dunant’s novel stops. Last of all, and I’m aware that it is risky to make such comparisons, Dunnett aficionados might well find something to enjoy in this lively, playful, but intelligent story, with its imaginative, talented hero and its delicately veiled verbal duels. Naturally, if anyone has read it, please let me know what you thought. Similarly, I’d love to know about other books by Shellabarger which are worth reading; I’ve become aware of his novel The Captain from Castile, but I’ve no idea if it lives up to this, nor if he wrote anything else. Do tell!

And, even while writing this post, I’ve become aware that Prince of Foxes was made into a film in 1949, with the dashing Tyrone Power in the leading role as Andrea, and Orson Welles as Cesare Borgia. This is serendipity itself (its tagline: ‘A Saga of Scoundrels in a Century of Infamy!’). It must be seen!

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12 thoughts on “Prince of Foxes: Samuel Shellabarger

  1. The Idle Woman says:

    Ooh, thanks for the link! Some rather splendid acting from Mr Welles there. He doesn't look remotely like Cesare Borgia but his manner is wonderful and extremely subtle. However it's interesting to see that the film obviously takes a different approach to the book and lays all its cards out on the table from the beginning. As I said, we don't see Cesare until well into the book, whereas here he explains all his plans to his captains… Just because it's different, though, doesn't mean at all that it can't be jolly good fun in its own right. It's just that it isn't quite faithful to the spirit of the book.

    And, especially after Orson Welles's beautifully-modulated speech, I was just a teeny bit disappointed in Tyrone Power's Orsini… but it's true that in this scene he hardly has a chance to show his quality. And it's foolish of me to find his American accent distracting, when Welles's British accent is just as historically inaccurate. (Wouldn't it be fascinating to see a film about the Italian Renaissance filmed in Italian with all the different dialects, to get a real idea of what they would have sounded like? Sounds like the kind of thing Mel Gibson would try…) 🙂

  2. Anonymous says:

    I've read all of his historical fiction but it was at least 25 years ago. I took a look at CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE recently and found it still very readable, and now you're encouraging me to pick up PRINCE OF FOXES again. They were my two favorites of his. He wrote a bio of Bayard, and more novels, one I know I read and remember absolutely nothing about: LORD VANITY. There was at least one more, TOLBECKEN, which I probably read, but also remember not.

    I read them approximately the same time period I discovered Dunnett's Lymond, and they were compatible at that time.

    Elaine T

  3. Heloise says:

    What, there was someone else in that scene besides Orson Welles? *watches the clip again to check* . – And yeah I think it's a bit unfair towards Tyrone Power, not sure any actor could have held his own against Orson Welles with a soliloquy like that.

    And lol about the Italian Renaissance filmed in Italian – I'm quite confident that this has already been done, and probably more than once… by Italians. 😛 – If I didn't know better I'd now suspect you of being an American… 😉

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Happy New Year, Elaine! How lovely to hear from you. Thank you.

    Yes, of course, if I'd had half a brain I would have read his Wikipedia entry and learned about his books that way, rather than asking for other people to fill me in; but it's so much more fun to ask all of you for recommendations. 🙂 How interesting that you mention a biography of Bayard, which suddenly makes a lot more sense of that character's significant cameo in this novel. What a fun kind of cross-reference! Thanks too for endorsing “The Captain from Castile”, which is sounding more and more like something I should try.

    I can completely understand that reading this would fit well with Dunnett. I should emphasise, which perhaps wasn't clear in the above post, that I am NOT saying Andrea Orsini is as rich a character as Lymond – because that would be impossible, as we all know – but he's cut from a very similar kind of cloth. And the fondness for disguises, set-pieces and the odd prank also reminded me a bit of some of Dunnett's novels. So, as you say, they certainly are compatible even if Shellabarger doesn't get anywhere near Dunnett's particular brand of fizzingly intellectual intoxication.

    I must try to find out more about these other two you mention, “Lord Vanity” and “Tolbecken”, and see whether they might be worth tracking down as well. But I'll probably go for “The Captain from Castile” first and see whether I continue to be charmed by Shellabarger when he's left my favourite historical setting behind. 😀

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    I've just decided to compile my previous three comments into one, because I realised that, as they stood before, they made no sense – and besides, this gives the impression that I actually thought this through before writing them. 😉

    First, you are right to pick me up on the Italian film aspect. I wasn't precise enough in what I meant. The kind of film I was thinking of is one that would never be funded, because it would only appeal to historians and strange people like me. I was imagining a film not in modern Italian, but in one which utilised the different Renaissance dialects of Tuscan, Milanese, Neapolitan, Roman and so forth, to give an idea of how people from the different city states would have spoken and how easy it would have been for them to understand one another, and how far Tuscan was a lingua franca, etc… It'd be in the same kind of antiquarian spirit as Apocalypto or The Passion – something that tries to be historically accurate linguistically. Now, it is entirely possible that something like that has already been done in the Italian film industry, which would be absolutely intriguing; and I would love to know about it. But I suspect it might be a bit too esoteric. 🙂

    As it stands, I haven't seen many Italian films set in the Renaissance and so this is an open call for any recommendations. I've seen “Artemisia” and “Caravaggio”, of course, set in a slightly later period; and I've seen Pasolini's “Decameron”, but I'm not sure that counts. I'm sure there's one or two I've forgotten, but most of the Italian films that are well-known over here in the UK tend to be set either in the modern day or around the Second World War.

    Your comment led me to do a bit of digging on the IMDB and I was interested to see that there's actually an Italian biopic of Machiavelli coming out later this year. The director, Lorenzo Raveggi, is also due to release films about Amerigo Vespucci and Botticelli in the next 18 months. Such a profusion of films, all on a similar theme, makes me wonder whether they're not feature films at all but perhaps a set of linked TV dramas. (Interestingly, Raveggi has cast himself as Michelangelo in the Machiavelli film.) There isn't much info just at the moment, but you can see what there is here:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2400403/?ref_=nm_ov_bio_lk1

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Overnight I've been thinking of the question of accents in historical films – it just came into my mind when I was going to sleep. When I said about Tyrone Power, it wasn't his American accent per se which distracted me, but the fact that there was no consistency (why should Cesare Borgia have an English accent while his captains are American? Is Hollywood *that* committed to having a British villain?). I ask this slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the multiplicity of accents is something that has sometimes been very distracting in films, especially when people who are meant to come from the same place speak in a range of different accents. (Yes, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”, I am looking at you.) Actors *should* be able to put on a different accent if required. It's part of their craft.

    However, this is something which has been tackled a bit in more recent historical films and it's an interesting approach which really has worked well. Since we can't emulate what historical people actually sounded like, we have to choose a contemporary parallel and stick to it. For example, “The Eagle” made a very effective choice: the Roman characters all have American accents while the native characters all have British accents. All are equally historically inaccurate but they have consistency and, just as you would have at the time, you're able to tell which group people belong to by their accents. Similarly, although I have complex and strong feelings about Oliver Stone's “Alexander”, you can't deny that it's interesting to give the Macedonians Irish accents, while the Greeks have English accents. Again you get that sense of division and consistency. Once again, in “The Vikings”, there is an attempt to distinguish the Vikings, with their Scandinavian lilt, from the British communities they're attacking.

    It's an interesting thing… Sorry for the long comment. I should just have written a post about this. 😛 Still, you got me thinking…

  7. Heloise says:

    Oh lol, I'm actually feeling a bad about it now, to have been the unwitting occasion for this much commenting – but on the other hand, as you rise whole host of interesting points there, my pangs of conscience aren't too bad. 😛

    I have to admit, I never thought about accents in historical movies before – for the main reason that I tend to simply not notice them much. My spoken English is nowhere near as good as my written one, and that extends to listening comprehension – I might notice that one character is speaking somewhat differently from another but unless it's really, really pronounced I can't really relate it to a specific place.

    Now that I'm aware of the subject, however, I am finding myself in agreement with you that consistency is what one should aim for as absolute authenticity is usually not possibly and likely not desired. At least that way it is clear that the moviemakers have put some thought into the matter, and in turn give the reader something to think about, which is definitely a good thing. The American/English thing in the Prince of Foxes movie was probably just sloppy – like when in an English historical novel about the Borgias where everyone is supposed to be speaking Italian the author feels the misplaced urge to appear particularly authentic by throwing some bits of actual Italian into the dialogue…something which has been cause for many a headdesking. 😉

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Goodness, don't feel bad. I've enjoyed thinking about this whole issue a bit more. 😀 Oh; and I should warn you that there are odd bits of Italian in that fashion in “Prince of Foxes”. But I know what you mean about that. *Grins*

  9. Helen says:

    This popped up in my recommendations too about a year ago (either on Amazon or Goodreads – I can't remember which) but there were no affordable second-hand copies available and I had forgotten about it until seeing that you were reading it. I remember thinking at the time that it sounded like a book I would probably enjoy and your mentions of Sabatini, Dunnett and The Prisoner of Zenda confirm it. I've managed to find a copy on Amazon today so I'll be able to read it soon and find out!

  10. The Idle Woman says:

    Well – fingers crossed that you enjoy it after all that waiting! I think you probably will like it, considering your fondness for Sabatini and all that sort of thing, but I shall be on tenterhooks to hear your opinion. 🙂

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