What a time to be in Italy! With the publication of my novel Blood and Beauty, the Borgias, just weeks away, I am here collecting material for a BBC radio documentary on Syphilis, the sexual plague which arrived here in the 1490’s and becomes its own character in the novel as it spreads like forest fire through Italy and Europe infecting rich and poor alike and counting among its victims rulers, bankers, priests and cardinals.
The talk then was all about a divine punishment from God on a country ripe with sin. In the city of Ferrara where I have come from, the son and heir of the ruling family d’Este (a man soon to be the next husband of Lucrezia Borgia) was so ill – and his face so disfigured by pustules – that he couldn’t attend his own wife’s funeral, while in the Vatican cardinals were dying in screaming agony. Immortality it seemed was everywhere.
520 years later and Italy is in the grips of another crisis of corruption. As I write this this morning there is no functioning government and no Pope.
Though the official version is that the Pope Benedict resigned because of age and ill health everyone you talk to on the streets says the same thing: he went because he knew he did not have the stamina to fight the corruption, sexual and financial, that is deep inside the Vatican and the church. Meanwhile, in secular politics last week’s election showed a deep vein of disgust with contemporary politicians; men like Silvio Berlusconi who promised everyone he would refund an increase in house taxes if they voted for him (I got a personally addressed letter from him when I arrived in Florence last week). It didn’t get him back into power. Instead the power brokers of any new government will come from the party of the comedian Grillo who stood as a protest against contemporary politics – a kind of Italian version of the Occupy movements in Britain and the US. As I write this no one knows who they will support or what they will do.
In the 1490’s you could tell sexual corruption from the bodies and faces of those affected by this new and terrifying plague. Today in Italy there are no such obvious outward signs of corruption. But there is no doubt that this is a country in crisis – both inside and outside the church.
History has much to tell us about how we live now. It makes me realise yet again, that in writing historical fiction I am sometimes writing as much about the present as the past. How exciting!