The Borgia Confessions
by Alyssa Palombo
Expected publication: February 11, 2020, from St. Martin’s Press
Though the Borgia family is one of the most notorious political families in European history, the reality is they were no more or no less corrupt than any other powerful political family of their time. They suffered from the simple fact that they were a wealthy and powerful family of Spanish descent living in Italy at the end of the fifteenth century. Rodrigo Borgia was elected Pope in 1492, taking the regnal name of Alexander VI. He elevated his eldest son Cesare to the rank of Cardinal and placed his second son Giovanni (often referred to by his Spanish name, Juan) into the papal army as Gonfalonier and Captain-General of the Church. His daughter, Lucrezia, was married off to a succession of powerful men of various Italian states for political gain.
Rumors regarding the Borgia family’s dark deeds have abounded for 500 years, and while allegations of an incestuous affair between Cesare and Lucrezia are almost certainly false, those regarding the rivalry between Cesare and Juan are true. Cesare long desired to be a military leader and not a leader of the church. Juan was granted all the titles Cesare desired but had none of the skills to pull it off, leading to a series of humiliating defeats for the papal army. When Cesare finally divested himself of his position in the church, he showed he had a rare talent for military strategy and the ruthlessness that would earn him immortality in Niccolo Macchiavelli’s The Prince. If not for his early death in 1507, Cesare might have united the fractious city-states, kingdoms, and republics of the Italian peninsula 400 years earlier than it actually did.
“God’s teeth, how sick I was of our family name resting solely on Juan’s incompetent shoulders. And in that one awful moment of rage and envy and spite, deep down, I wished Juan would never return. That he would fall on the battlefield. For surely that was what would be best for the reputation of the house of Borgia.”
In her fourth novel, Alyssa Palombo tells the story of Alexander VI’s first years as pope as seen through the eyes of the very real Cesare Borgia along with a fictional counterpoint in Maddalena, a young woman who moved to Rome from the countryside and found a job as a servant in the Vatican. A chance meeting brings Maddalena to Cesare’s attention and into his sister Lucrezia’s service. Maddalena quickly becomes enthralled by the darkly handsome young cardinal, and soon Maddalena finds herself in the role of secret-keeper for the Borgias, for the siblings speak freely to each other whether their servants are in the room or not.
While Maddalena’s life seems idyllic for a while, the arrival of the beautiful Sancha of Aragon deepens the rivalry between the Borgia brothers, while the arrival of the French army threatens to destroy everything the Borgias have built– and everything Maddalena holds dear. And when events come to a head, Maddalena must choose between love or salvation, while Cesare must come to terms with his limitless ambitions.
The Borgias have been the subject of endless fascination since they dominated Italian politics in the 1490s, spawning endless rumors, books, films, and television shows that portray the family with varying degrees of truth. Palombo sticks with historically accurate accounts, going so far as to list her sources at the end. Maddalena and the other lower-class characters are the fictional ones, though they are believable in the parameters of the story. Their emotions– especially Maddalena’s– are just as real as Cesare’s. What separates them are their ambitions: Maddalena wants to marry a kind man who loves her. Another servant wants to keep his job in the city and not be forced to return to his family’s vineyard. While earlier historians overlooked the lives of the commoners in favor of the Great Man, authors of historical fiction often take great joy in imagining what the lives of seamstresses, servants, farmboys, and shopkeepers might have been like. The successful novelist makes these simpler lives as compelling and dramatic as those of kings and queens. Despite her country upbringing and early naivete, Maddalena is just such a character. She feels like she could have been a real person.
Palombo succeeds with her portrayal of the Borgia family, too, taking these notorious figures off their pedestals and turning them into characters– not caricatures– as subject to envy, desire, and happiness as the common folk below them. She even addresses the scurrilous rumors that have plagued Lucrezia’s reputation for 500 years.
Where The Borgia Confessions stumbles is in the pacing. The story flits back and forth between Cesare and Maddalena’s perspective. The chapters are short, leading to a feeling that the characters are rushing through their lives. Fewer, longer chapters would have served the story better, allowing the reader to sink into the dual stories Palombo is telling.
Overall, though, The Borgia Confessions tells a more truthful story of a fearsome figure from history, bringing him down to human levels while lifting up the everyday lives of the common men and women of Renaissance Rome.
Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free egalley in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.