Popes, Queens, and the Impossible Poison

May is Renaissance History Month, or so it would seem by the books I’m reading, since they all have to do with historical figures from the High Rensaissance. I think it has something to do with the fact that I recently finished watching season two of The Borgias.

I am currently in the midst of The Life of Cesare Borgia by Rapaael Sabatini and Two Queens by Julia Fox, which details the lives of Catherine of Aragon (Henry VIII’s first wife) and her sister Juana (known as ‘The Mad’).  Up next is Lucrezia Borgia by Sarah Bradford, and I recently finished Leonardo’s Legacy by Stefan Klein.

Thus far, The Life of Cesare Borgia is pretty interesting, but it feels like Sabatini is desperate to prove that the Borgia family wasn’t all that bad. Granted, they weren’t the incestuous poisoners that popular history proclaims them to be (impossible poisons that linger in the system and kill weeks later? Not so much), but even in their own era (an admittedly licentious one) they were pretty terrible, in that historically fascinating way. I’m sure that for it’s time- 1912- Sabatini’s scholarship was impeccable; he condemns the ‘historians’ who pass rumor on as fact, and the writing is as lovely as any piece of nonfiction I’ve read, but it just feels weirdly biased.

As for Two Queens, I’m not terribly far into it, but it’s good so far. The scholarship is sound, it doesn’t feel biased, and the writing is solid. Best of all, Bradford sticks to her topic- Catherine and Juana- instead of wandering about  the family members and taking a third of the book to discuss her subjects (Sabatini spends a good hundred pages talking about the Borgia family fifty years prior to Cesare’s ascendance in Roman politics). It’ll be interesting to see how the story unfolds.

Leonardo’s Legacy was a marvelous little book that was a little less a biography of da Vinci, and more an analysis of his work after about 1490. Since his journals were so intimate, though, a discussion of the work invariable becomes a discussion of the man and his thought processes. It’s a fascinating read, even if you’re not as big a fan of da Vinci as I am.


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