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The New York Times: "THE POPE'S DAUGHTER ... stands as an evident tribute both to its much maligned heroine and to Franca Rame, in all her beauty and fiery dignity.”

Date: Aug 14 2015

Last year, at the venerable age of 88, the Italian comic Dario Fo took on a new creative challenge. The veteran of more than 60 years as an actor, painter, director, stage designer and playwright (as well as the recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature), he had in recent years begun to deliver delightful public lectures on artists — Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Picasso — and architecture, including the Romanesque cathedral of Modena. But up to 2014, he had never written a novel. That changed with “The Pope’s Daughter,” now translated into English, although needless to say for this wild man of the theater, the word “novel” is not quite enough to encompass his lightly fictional labor of love for, of all people, Lucrezia Borgia. “The Pope’s Daughter” is also a picture book, illustrated with some of Fo’s own colorful paintings, most based on Renaissance originals. It has since become a full-blown theatrical script. (Meanwhile, Fo has finished a second illustrated novel, inspired by an 18th-century Danish prince, Christian VII.)

A self-described jester, Dario Fo is best known for his fiercely political play of 1970, “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” its somber message peppered with a frenetic staccato of interjections and onomatopoeia — sound itself made to speak Italian — so that the spoken language is as explosively anarchic as the play’s sometimes violent physical action. Like any great comic from Aristophanes to Woody Allen, Fo, deep down, is dead serious, not only about his own art but about the arts in general, and this seriousness emerges more urgently in his later work.

“The Pope’s Daughter,” as it turns out, originates in a stern outrage at the cheapening of a human life by the cheapening of human art. Fo described his first novel to the Italian news service ANSA as “a grotesque tragedy. When I began to write I didn’t have a novel in mind. What emerged was a book that moves around dialogue. The characters talk, interact, fight among themselves. I did nothing but search for the truth.”

The subject of that search for truth is Lucrezia Borgia, the Roman-born daughter of the Spanish cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who reigned as Pope Alexander VI from 1492 to 1503. Lucrezia was 12 at the time of her father’s election. Her brothers Giovanni and Cesare were in their teens; a third brother, Goffredo, was 11. Popes and cardinals were frequently fathers in that era (Julius II also had a daughter, and Paul III had several children); celibacy apparently meant renouncing marriage, not sex. As cardinal, Rodrigo Borgia had been a smart, efficient administrator of the Vatican’s financial arm, the Apostolic Chamber, but his election to supreme office stirred the jealousies of his Italian colleagues. Most dangerous of these rivals was the powerful, ambitious Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere, who would succeed him as Julius II in 1503, and do as much as anyone to smear the Borgia family’s reputation.

A pawn himself in the Great Game between Spain and France that was fought out on Italian soil, Pope Alexander and Cesare Borgia (a brilliant, dissolute chip off his father’s manipulative block) used the nubile Lucrezia as political capital; by the time she was 22 she had been married three times to serve their changing agendas. Her first marriage, at 13, to Giovanni Sforza, was annulled amid humiliating, trumped-up allegations of the groom’s impotence. (It was he who made the first accusations of incest between Lucrezia and her father and brother.) Lucrezia dearly loved her second husband, Alfonso of Aragon, married in 1498, but when he was assassinated in 1500, the Roman rumor mill blamed her brother Cesare. In 1502, she married Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, to whom she would bear 10 children (only five of whom survived infancy) before her own death from puerperal fever in 1519; Fo captures the shifting ground of their relationship with great sensitivity.

Although she may have been a pawn, Lucrezia Borgia was never a passive presence. Both her father and her third husband appointed her to govern their respective states in their absence, confident of her judgment and administrative ability. Most contemporary accounts of the pope’s daughter speak with unusual affection about her kindness and gentle manners — her vain, catty sister-in-law, Isabella D’Este, sent her major-domo to report all the negative news about Duke Alfonso’s new bride in 1502 and was regaled instead with tales of Lucrezia’s charms. She did carry on two passionate romances during her time in Ferrara, with the Venetian poet and scholar Pietro Bembo and the Mantuan warlord Francesco Gonzaga, but she was known above all as a beneficent presence in the city and within the family she created there with Duke Alfonso. Their son Ippolito, who became a cardinal in Rome, built the beauteous Villa d’Este in nearby Tivoli. “The Pope’s Daughter,” then, seeks to recreate a woman whose beauty was interior as well as exterior, who met the cruelty of her family and her times with a gentleness that was authoritative rather than meek.

Both Fo and his versatile translator, Antony Shugaar, give Lucrezia and those around her long, rather formal speeches, which is largely the way we now hear 16th-century voices. Our most revealing sources for the period are careful works of literature rather than raw conversation; it is only a few decades later that police reports begin to fill in our knowledge of language as it was spoken on the street.

Lucrezia’s letters, especially to her lover Pietro Bembo, are discreet in the extreme. As a dramatist, however, Fo allows her to loosen up, and say things to Isabella d’Este that she might never have said, but that bring her character alive to us:

“ ‘So you’re saying that you too saw me as a man-eater on the prowl, a brazen woman out for whatever she could get.’

“ ‘I have to admit that’s indeed how things stood.’

“ ‘Well, the fact that you’ve come to see me today might suggest that I’ve managed to change your mind. . . .’

“ ‘Certainly!’ laughed Isabella.”

The exchange may be colloquial, but its lines have a weight more suitable to spoken performance than to quick reading; it is not surprising that the next step in the creative trajectory of “The Pope’s Daughter” was a theatrical script.

Lucrezia Borgia has received a lurid negative press ever since the late 15th century, fueled by her father’s rivals for the papacy (Julius II chief among them) and by the violent antics of her two older brothers, the one, Cesare, brilliant and ruthless, the other, Giovanni, a spoiled thug. In this guise she has inspired plays (Victor Hugo), operas (Gaetano Donizetti) and more recently a pair of television dramas, Neil Jordan’s “The Borgias” (2011-13) and Tom Fontana’s “Borgia” (2011-14). It was Fontana’s series, which also appeared in Italy, that drove Fo to write “The Pope’s Daughter.” In a television interview, speaking with scrupulous care, he noted that in spite of the attractiveness of the actors and the production itself, “there was a certain amount of falseness, of fabrication, to beguile and amaze the public on a rather squalid level.” The adjective he chose, laido, actually implies something fouler than squalor; it means dirty, filthy, obscene. It is a potent word for an uninhibited comic to use, but he had his reasons.

Following hard on the richly costumed blood, sex and intrigue of the successful television series “The Tudors” (2007-10), both “Borgia” and “The Borgias” reveled in all the old rumors and invented more of their own, adding rape to incest. (Fontana, notoriously, crowed to The Hollywood Reporter, “Don’t want to miss a good rape,” as he filmed a scene that never happened involving Giovanni Borgia and Lucrezia.)

For Dario Fo, there is no such thing as a good rape. In 1973, his wife and longtime onstage partner, Franca Rame, was kidnapped in Milan by five neo-Fascist thugs who tortured and raped her for several hours before dumping her back on the street. When she died in 2013, she and Fo had worked together for more than six decades. They were just short of their 60th wedding anniversary. “The Pope’s Daughter,” the story of Lucrezia Borgia as a living, feeling woman rather than just another bodice waiting to be ripped, stands as an evident tribute both to its much maligned heroine and to Franca Rame, in all her beauty and fiery dignity.