Sarah Dunant

Extract From Blood & Beauty: The Borgias

August 11, 1492

Blood and Beauty
Dawn is a pale bruise rising in the night sky when, from inside the palace, a window is flung open and a face appears, its features distorted by the firelight thrown up from the torches beneath. In the piazza below, the soldiers garrisoned to keep the peace have fallen asleep. But they wake fast enough as the voice rings out:


Inside, the air is sour with the sweat of old flesh. Rome in August is a city of swelter and death. For five days, twenty-three men have been incarcerated within a great Vatican chapel that feels more like a barracks. Each is a figure of status and wealth, accustomed to eating off silver plate with a dozen servants to answer his every call. Yet here there are no scribes to write letters and no cooks to prepare banquets. Here, with only a single manservant to dress them, these men eat frugal meals posted through a wooden hatch that snaps shut when the last one is delivered. Daylight slides in from small windows high up in the structure, while at night a host of candles flicker under the barrel-vaulted ceiling of a painted sky and stars, as vast, it seems, as the firmament. They live constantly in each other’s company, allowed out only for the formal business of voting or to relieve themselves, and even in the latrines the work continues: negotiation and persuasion over the trickle of ageing men’s urine. Finally, when they are too tired to talk, or need to ask guidance from God, they are free to retire to their cells: a set of makeshift compartments constructed around the edges of the chapel and comprised of a chair, a table and a raised pallet for sleeping; the austerity a reminder, no doubt, of the tribulations of
aspiring saints.

Except these days saints are in short supply, particularly inside the Roman conclave of cardinals.

The doors had been bolted on the morning of August 6. Ten days earlier, after years of chronic infirmity, Pope Innocent VIII had finally given in to the exhaustion of trying to stay alive. Inside their rooms in the Vatican palace, his son and daughter had waited patiently to be called to his bedside, but his final moments had been reserved for spatting cardinals and doctors. His body was still warm when the stories started wafting like sewer smells through the streets. The wolf pack of ambassadors and diplomats took in great lungfuls, then dispatched their own versions of events in the saddlebags of fast horses across the land: stories of how His Holiness’s corpse lay shrivelled, despite an empty flagon of blood drained from the veins of Roman street boys on the orders of a Jewish doctor, who had vowed it would save his life; how those same bloodless boys were already feeding the fishes in the Tiber as the doctor fled the city. Meanwhile, across the papal bedclothes, the Pope’s favourite, the choleric Cardinal della Rovere, was so busy trading insults with the Vice-Chancellor, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, that neither of them actually noticed that His Holiness had stopped breathing. Possibly Innocent had died to get away from the noise, for they had been rowing for years.

Of course, in such a web of gossip each man must choose what he wants to believe; and different rulers enjoy their news, like their meat, more or less well spiced. While few will question the cat claws of the cardinals, others might wonder about the blood, since it is well known around town that His Holiness’s only sustenance for weeks had been milk from a wet-nurse installed in an antechamber and paid by the cup. Ah, what a way to go to heaven: drunk on the taste of mother’s milk.

As for the conclave that follows, well, the only safe prediction is that prediction is impossible: that and the fact that God’s next vicar on earth will be decided as much by bribery and influence as by any saintly qualifications for the job.

At the end of the third day, as the exhausted cardinals retire to their cells, Rodrigo Borgia, Papal Vice-Chancellor and Spanish Cardinal of Valencia, is sitting appreciating the view. Above the richly painted drapery on the walls of the chapel (new cardinals have been known to try and draw the curtains) is a scene from the life of Moses: Jethro’s daughters young and fresh, the swirl of their hair and the colour of their robes singing out even in candlelight. The Sistine Chapel boasts sixteen such frescos – scenes of Christ and Moses – and those with enough influence may choose their cell by its place in the cycle. Lest anyone should mistake his ambition, Cardinal della Rovere is currently sitting under the image of Christ giving St Peter the keys of the Church, while his main rival, Ascanio Sforza, has had to settle for Moses clutching the tablets of stone (though with a brother who runs the bully state of Milan, some would say that the Sforza cardinal has more on his side than just the Commandments).

Publicly, Rodrigo Borgia has always been more modest in his aspirations. He has held the post of vice-chancellor through the reign of five different pontiffs – a diplomatic feat in itself – and along with a string of benefices it has turned him into one of the richest and most influential churchmen in Rome. But there is one thing he has not been able to turn to his advantage: his Spanish blood. And so the papal throne itself has eluded him. Until now, perhaps; because after two public scrutinies there is deadlock between the main contenders, which makes his own modest handful of votes a good deal more potent.

He murmurs a short prayer to the virgin mother, reaches for his cardinal’s hat, and pads his way down the marble corridor between the makeshift cells until he finds the one he is looking for.

Inside, somewhat drained by the temperature and the politicking, sits a young man with a small Bacchus stomach and a pasty face. At seventeen, Giovanni de’ Medici is the youngest cardinal ever to be appointed to the Sacred College, and he has yet to decide where to put his loyalty.

‘Vice-Chancellor!’ The youth leaps up. The truth is one can only wrestle with Church matters for so long and his mind has wandered to the creamy breasts of a girl who shared his bed in Pisa when he was studying there. There had been something about her – her laugh, the smell of her skin? – so that when he feels in need of solace it is her body that he rubs himself against in his mind. ‘Forgive me, I did not hear you.’

‘On the contrary – it is I who should be forgiven. I disturb you at prayer!’

‘No . . . Not exactly.’ He offers him the one chair, but the Borgia cardinal brushes it away with a wave of the hand, settling his broad rump on the pallet bed instead.

‘This will do well enough for me,’ he says jovially, slapping his fist on the mattress.

The young Medici stares at him. While everyone else is wilting under the relentless heat, it is remarkable how this big man remains so sprightly. The candlelight picks out a broad forehead under a thatch of tonsured white hair, a large hooked nose and full lips over a thick neck. You would not, could not, call Rodrigo Borgia handsome; he is grown too old and stout for that. Yet once you have looked at him you do not easily look away, for there is an energy in those sharp dark eyes much younger than his years.

‘After living through the election of four popes I have grown almost fond of the – what shall we call it? – “challenges” of conclave life.’ The voice, like the body, is impressive, deep and full, the remnants of a Spanish accent in the guttural trim on certain words. ‘But I still remember my first time. I was not much older than you. It was August then too – alas, such a bad month for the health of our holy fathers. Our prison was not so splendid then, of course. The mosquitoes ate us alive and the bed made my bones ache. Still, I survived.’ He laughs, a big sound, with no sense of selfconsciousness or artifice. ‘Though of course I did not have such a remarkable father to guide me. Lorenzo de’ Medici would be proud to see you take your place in conclave, Giovanni. I am sincerely sorry for his death. It was a loss not just for Florence but for all of Italy.’

The young man bows his head. Beware, my son. These days Rome is now a den of iniquity, the very focus of all that is evil. Under his robes he holds a letter from his father: advice on entering the snakepit of Church politics from a man who had the talent to skate on thin ice and make it look as if he was dancing. Few men are to be trusted. Keep your own counsel until you are established. Since his death only a few months before, the young cardinal has learned its content by heart, though he sorely wishes now that the words were less general and more particular.

‘So tell me, Giovanni . . . ’ Rodrigo Borgia drops his voice in an exaggerated manner, as if to anticipate the secrets they are about to share, ‘how are you holding up through this, this labyrinthine process?’

‘I am praying to God to find the right man to lead us.’

‘Well said! I am sure your father railed against the venality of the Church and warned against false friends who would take you with them into corruption.’

This current college of cardinals is poor in men of worth and you would do well to be guarded and reserved with them. The young man lifts an involuntary hand to his chest, to check the letter is concealed. Beware of seducers and bad counsellors, evil men who will drag you down, counting upon your youth to make you easy prey. Surely not even the Vice-Chancellor’s hawk eyes are able to read secrets through two layers of cloth.

Outside, a shout pierces the air, followed by the shot of an arquebus: new weapons for new times. The young man darts his head up towards the high, darkened window.

‘Don’t fret. It’s only common mayhem.’

‘Oh . . . no, I am not worried.’

The stories are well known: how in the interregnum between popes Rome becomes instantly ungovernable, old scores settled by knife-thrusts in dark alleys, new ones hatched under cover of an exuberant general thuggery that careers between theft, brawling and murder. But the worst is reserved for the men who have been too favoured, for they have the most to lose.

‘You should have been here when the last della Rovere pope, Sixtus IV, died – though not even Lorenzo de’ Medici could have made his son a cardinal at the age of ten, eh?’ Rodrigo laughs. ‘His nephew was so hated that the mob stripped his house faster than a plague of locusts. By the time conclave ended only the walls and the railings remained.’ He shakes his head, unable to conceal his delight at the memory. ‘Still, you must feel at home sitting here under the work of your father’s protégés.’ He lifts his eyes to the fresco on the back wall of the cell: a group of willowy figures so graceful that they seem to be still moving under the painter’s brush. ‘This is by that Botticelli fellow, yes?’

‘Sandro Botticelli, yes.’ The style is as familiar to the young Florentine as the Lord’s Prayer.

‘Such a talented man! It is wonderful how much . . . how much flesh he gets into the spirit. I have always thought that Pope Sixtus was exceedingly lucky to get him, considering that three years before he had launched a conspiracy to kill his patron, your own father, and wipe out the whole Medici family. Fortunately you are too young to remember the outrage.’

But not so young that he could ever be allowed to forget. The only thing bloodier than the attack had been the retribution.

‘Luckily, he survived and prospered. Despite the della Rovere family,’ Rodrigo adds, smiling.

‘My father spoke highly of your keen mind, Vice-Chancellor. I know I shall learn a lot from you.’

‘Ah! You already have his wit and diplomacy, I see.’ And his smile dissolves into laughter. The candle on the table flutters in the wind of his breath and his generous features dance in the light. The younger man feels a bead of sweat moving down from his hair and wipes it away with his hand. His fingers come away grimy. In contrast, the Borgia cardinal remains splendidly unaffected by the heat.

‘Well, you must forgive me if I show a certain fatherly affection. I too have a son of your age who needs counsel as he climbs the ladder of the Church. Ah – but of course, you know this. The two of you studied together in Pisa. Cesare spoke often of you as a good friend. And an outstanding student of rhetoric and law.’

‘As I would speak of him.’

In public. Not in private. No. In private, the cocky young Borgia was too closeted by his Spanish entourage to be a friend to anyone. Which is just as well, since whatever money he put on his back (and there was always a sack of it; when he came to dine you could barely see the cloth for the jewels sewn on to it) a Borgia bastard could never be the social equal of a legitimate Medici. He was clever though, mentally so fast on his feet that in public disputation he could cut to the quick, pulling arguments like multi-coloured threads from his brain until black seemed to turn into white and wrong became just another shade of grey. Even the praise of his tutors seemed to bore him: he lived more in the taverns than the study halls. But then he was hardly alone in that fault.

The young Medici is glad of the shadows around them. He would not like such thoughts to be exposed to daylight. If the emblem on the Borgia crest is that of the bull, everyone knows it is the cunning of the fox that runs in the family.

‘Well, I admire your dedication and pursuit of goodness, cardinal.’ Rodrigo Borgia leans over and puts his hand gently on his knee. ‘It will loom large in God’s grace.’ He pauses. ‘But not, I fear, in the annals of men. The sad truth is that the times in which we live are deeply corrupt, and without a pope who can withstand the appetites of the wolves prowling around him, neither he nor Italy will survive.’

While the back of his hand lies thick as a slab of meat, his fingers are surprisingly elegant, tapered and well manicured, and for a second the younger man finds himself thinking of the woman who graces the Vice-Chancellor’s bed these days. A flesh-and-blood Venus she is said to be: milk-skinned, golden-haired and young enough to be his granddaughter. The gossip is tinged with disgust that such sweetness should couple with such decay, but there is envy there too; how easily beauty snaps on to the magnet of power, whatever a man’s looks.

‘Vice-Chancellor.’ He takes a breath. ‘If you are here to canvass my vote . . . ’

‘Me? No, no, no. I am but a lamb in this powerful flock. Like you, I have no other wish but to serve God and our holy mother the Church.’ And now the older man’s eyes sparkle. They say that while Giuliano della Rovere has a temper fit to roast flesh, it is the Borgia smile that is more to be feared. ‘No. If I put myself forward at all it is only because, having seen such things before, I fear that a deadlock could push us into hands less capable even than my own.’

Giovanni stares at him, wondering at the power of a man who can lie so bare-facedly and still give the impression that his heart is in his voice. Is this then his secret? In these last few days he has had occasion to watch him at work; to notice how tirelessly he weaves in and out of the knots of other men, how he is first to help the elder ones to their cells, or to find the need to relieve himself when negotiations stick and new incentives are called for. A few times the younger man has walked into the latrines and found the conversation fall silent at his entrance. And almost always the Vice-Chancellor will be there himself, nodding and beaming over his large stomach with his tool held loosely in his hand, as if it was the most natural pose on earth for God’s cardinals to adopt in each other’s presence.

Inside the cell, the air feels as thick as soup. ‘Sweet Mary and the saints. If we are not careful we will boil alive as slowly as Saint Cyrinus.’ Rodrigo fans his face theatrically and digs inside his robes, holding out a glass vial with an intricate silver top. ‘Can I offer you relief?’

‘No, no thank you.’

He digs a finger inside and anoints himself liberally. As the young man catches the tang of jasmine, he remembers how he has detected remnants of it – and a few other scents – around the public spaces over the last few days. Does each camp, like a pack of dogs, identify itself by its smell?

The cardinal is making a business of putting the bottle back in his robes while he stands up to take his leave. Then, suddenly, he seems to change his mind.

‘Giovanni, it seems to me you are too much your father’s son not to recognise what is happening here. So I shall tell you something I have not made public.’ And he bends his large frame to get closer to the young man’s face. ‘Don’t be alarmed. Take it as a tribute to your family that I share it: a lesson as to how influence moves when the air grows as thick as stinking cheese. Della Rovere cannot win this election, however it may look now.’

‘How do you know that?’ the young man says quickly, the surprise – and perhaps the flattery – overcoming the reticence he hadvowed to hold.

‘I know it because, as well as being able to count, I have looked inside men’s hearts here.’ He smiles, but there is less mirth in him now. ‘In the next public scrutiny the della Rovere camp will pick up more votes, which will put him ahead of Sforza, though not enough to secure victory outright. When that happens Ascanio Sforza, who would not make a bad pope, though he would favour Milan too much for Florence – and you – to ever stomach him, will start to panic. And he will be right to do so. Because a papacy controlled by della Rovere will be one that favours whoever pays it the most. And the money that he is using to buy his way there now is not even his own. You know where it comes from? France! Imagine. An Italian cardinal bought by France. You have heard the rumour, I am sure. Gross slander, you think, perhaps? Except that in this city slander is usually less foul than the truth.’ He gives an exaggerated sigh. ‘It would be disastrous of course: a foreign power sitting in the papal chamber. So, to sink his rival, Ascanio Sforza will turn to me.’

He stops as if to let the words sink in.

‘Because at that point I will be the only one who can stop the water from rushing downhill in that direction.’

‘Turn to you? But—’ I say it again, my son: until you become accustomed, you would do well to make use of your ears rather than your tongue. ‘But I thought . . . ’ He trails off.

‘You thought what? That a Borrjja pope would be a foreigner too,’ he says, resurrecting the hawking guttural of his name. ‘A man who would advance only his family and be more loyal to Spain than to Italy.’ For a moment there is a flash of undisguised anger in his eyes. ‘Tell me – would a Medici pope care less about the Holy Mother Church because he loves his family and comes from Florence?’

‘Cardinal Borgia, it was not my intention—’

‘To offend me? No! And neither did you. Powerful families must speak openly to each other. I would expect no less.’

He smiles, only too aware that the comparison between the two could be read as offence the other way.

‘Yes, I am a Borgia. When I embrace my children we speak in our native tongue. But I defy anyone to say I am less Italian than those who would now put their noses into the French coffers. If the papal crown is up for sale – and as God is my witness I did not start such a process – then at least let us keep the sale inside this room.’ He sighs again and claps him on the shoulder. ‘Ah! I fear I have said too much. See! You have pulled the truth from me. Your father’s blood runs deep in your veins. Such a politician he was! Always with one finger held up wet to the wind so that when he felt it changing he could move the sails to keep his ship of state on course.’

The young Medici does not answer. He is too impressed by the show. The politics of charm. Having grown up with a father who could turn vinegar to honey when it suited him, he knows better than most how it works; but this mix of geniality, cunning and theatrics is new even to him.

‘You are tired. Get some rest. Whatever happens it will not be settled until tomorrow at least. You know, I think my Cesare would look almost as fine as you inside scarlet robes.’ And the last smile is the brightest of all, possibly because there is no dissembling. ‘I can see you both standing together, tall and strong as cypress trees. Imagine what a fire such youth and energy would light under this deadwood of old men.’ And he lets out a gale of laughter. ‘Ah, the foolish pride of men who love their sons better than themselves.’

After he has gone the young man sits examining all that he has heard, but while he should be considering the next public scrutiny, he cannot get the image of Cesare Borgia in scarlet out of his mind. He sees him inside a tight knot of men, striding through the streets of Pisa as if every closed door will open to him before he has to knock, and even then he might not choose to go in. God knows the government of the Church is full of men who have only a passing acquaintance with humility, but however contemptuous or lazy (and he is too much his father’s son not to know his own failings), in public at least they make an effort to do what is expected of them. But never Cesare Borgia.

Well, whatever the Borgia arrogance, his father’s ambitions will fail him. He might be laden with Church benefices, but he will rise so far and no further. Canon law, which they have wasted years of their lives studying, is marvellously clear on this: though there are riches to be had for those born on the other side of the blanket, no bastard – even a papal one – can enter the Sacred College of cardinals.

Outside, people are gathering in readiness for supper. He hears Rodrigo Borgia’s laughter ringing out from somewhere in the main body of the room where the more public canvassing takes place. If the della Rovere camp is to gain votes before losing, then someone must be canvassing for him now, in order to make victory seem secure.

From under his robes he pulls out his father’s letter, the paper limp with a sweat that comes from more than the heat of the room. For the first time since he has set foot in the conclave, when he gets to his knees the prayers come from the heart.

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