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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