I’m about to finish Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy, by Sarah Bradford. It’s my first real introduction to Italian history (book history, as opposed to pop culture history). It’s fun to learn about someone from history whose name you’ve been vaguely familiar with for years but didn’t really know anything about. I admit that I picked this book up because I’ve been watching the quasi-factual Showtime show The Borgias. At least one big scene on the show seems to have been entirely fabricated, but it’s an entertaining fiction anyway (and Jeremy Irons is the Pope, so need I say more?). But I’m glad I decided to check out the real history, which is even more interesting than the fiction, and infinitely more complicated. In the first half of the book, Lucrezia is actually a relatively minor character in her own biography, as so much of her early life was defined by her being a pawn in the political intrigues of her family. Just keeping the names and titles of everyone straight takes a lot of concentration. (That’s the thing about European history—everyone has multiple names, like Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, or Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua.) But Italian names are fun to say, so that helps.
The name Lucrezia (or Lucretia) Borgia is one of those “infamous” names of history, but as usual, the real person is more complicated and nowhere near as nefarious as the myth. Her father, Pope Alexander VI, and her brother Cesare, however, were indeed pretty ruthless, so if you’re into war, murder, torture, adultery, corruption, greed, and hypocrisy, there’s plenty of that too. The Borgias probably weren’t “the original crime family”, as the TV show’s tagline goes, but they certainly were as bad as any modern gangsters and would make John Gotti proud.
Next I want to read Nancy Mitford’s biography of Madame de Pompadour, another one of those vaguely familiar names of history. Since I know as little about 18th-century France as I did about Renaissance Italy, that should be fun.