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Boston Globe: "In his fictionalized retelling of her life, Lucrezia is indeed beautiful and intelligent."

Date: Aug 7 2015

Dario Fo has long had a soft spot for Lucrezia Borgia. The renowned Italian playwright and Nobel laureate has attacked the popular — and enduring — representation of the Renaissance aristocrat as a femme fatale, calling such depictions in TV shows like “The Borgias” near “pornography,” according to the Sunday Times of London. Now Fo, 89, has taken his own step toward rehabilitating one of the most notorious women in European history — making the reputedly incestuous, murderous Lucrezia the heroine of his first novel, “The Pope’s Daughter.”

Lucrezia Borgia has intrigued writers since her death in 1519 at 39. The illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI and his longtime mistress, Vanozza dei Cattanei, Lucrezia was born into the ultimate political family. Her father was infamous for his ruthlessness, even after he became the head of the church, and one of her brothers, Cesare (a cardinal), is thought to have been the model for Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” Lucrezia’s three marriages were all arranged for the family’s advantage: the first ending when the pope, her father, had it annulled, the second when her husband was murdered, possibly at Cesare’s behest. Before she died, from complications following her 10th pregnancy, Lucrezia’s beauty had been immortalized in paintings and poems, and both her passion and intelligence can be inferred from the letters she (and her various lovers) left behind.

These facts go a long way to explaining the crimes imputed to Lucrezia. An illegitimate child, born between her marriages, was explained away during her lifetime first as her brother’s and, later, as her father’s issue (with different women), and this may have been the basis for the rumors of incest. The murder of her second husband — and the politically expedient deaths of many Borgia opponents — helped spread Lucrezia’s reputation as dangerous, possibly a poisoner.

Fo is having none of it. In his fictionalized retelling of her life, Lucrezia is indeed beautiful and intelligent. He makes much of her reportedly briefly handling her father’s church duties and frequently has characters, based on historical figures, expound on her virtues. Often, he seems to be speaking in their voices, as when Duke Ercola d’Este, her future second father-in-law, tells his son, “[U]nlike you, I’ve actually taken the trouble to get to know her a little bit, that good woman whom you dismiss as a meretricious floozy.”

Such declamations are common in this book, which reads more like an extended verbal presentation than a fully fleshed-out novel. Characters are instantly smitten: “I saw your lovely eyes, your harmonious gestures, and I even caught a whiff of your enchanting scent,” says one lover. And even deep-seated hatred quickly turns, as when the pope tells his daughter about his impending reforms for the church and she grabs him, “showering [him] with kisses,” exclaiming, “Until an hour ago, I truly hated you . . . But now I feel a love for you that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.” It’s not a realistic depiction, but it is dramatic.

Perhaps this makes sense. Fo was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1997 for his playwriting, and references to theater abound. After the murder of Lucrezia’s second husband, Alfonso of Aragon, Fo writes, “And here, just like in the Italian improvised theater of the Commedia dell’Arte, the game of masks begins its dance. Everyone takes part . . . First the father claims to be indignant, then he turns a blind eye and preaches peace.”

As in Fo’s dramatic work, much of this book is surely intended as a statement on contemporary times, as when Lucrezia tells Cesare about a play she has seen. The production sounds surprisingly modern: It is an allegorical work, with dogs playing the role of humans. “[T]he reference is to us,” Lucrezia explains, and surely to political rulers today.

Because of its conversational nature, the book is quick reading. There are awkward phrases, which may be the fault of translator Antony Shugaar (the book was written in Italian). And the stagey delivery lacks tension and, thus, real drama, making this more a curiosity, a pet project from one of the most esteemed writers of our time.

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