The Pope’s Daughter is Dario Fo’s first novel, published in Italy last year when the author, a playwright, political activist, and Nobel laureate in literature, was eighty-eight years old. The daughter in question is Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519), once routinely classed among history’s villains: licentious, ruthless, scheming, and cruel. It was said, often enough with anti-papist horror and misogynist relish, that she slept with her father, Pope Alexander VI, and brother, Cesare Borgia, and dispatched her enemies and other inconvenient persons with poison. More recently, however, she has become something of a feminist hero: politically astute, canny in business and charitable toward the poor, a woman of ability, character, and might in the face of the callous machinations of her father and brother — the latter the model for Machiavelli’s The Prince. This is the Lucrezia we find in Sarah Bradford’s biography Lucrezia Borgia (2004), Sarah Dunant’s fine novel Blood and Beauty (2013), and, now, here again in Fo’s high-spirited work, a novel that comes close to a romp.
Rodrigo Borgia, a Spaniard and the future Alexander VI, came to Rome in the train of his uncle, the eventual Pope Callixtus III, becoming under him a cardinal and vice chancellor, positions he held through four pontificates and employed to increase not only his personal wealth and influence but also the power and reach of the papacy. Organizing his own election as pope in 1492, Rodrigo also finally acknowledged his four children by Giovanna “Vannoza” Cattanei: Juan (Giovanni), Cesare, Lucrezia, and Jofré (Gioffre). His political ambitions for his family (“a toad’s nest of horrendous creatures,” as one victim put it) expanded, notably with Cesare, already a bishop since the age of fifteen, whom Rodrigo caused to be made a cardinal at eighteen (with an eye to the papacy in the fullness of time), and Lucrezia, thirteen, whose marriage to Giovanni Sforza he arranged in the interest of forging an alliance with that powerful family.
But, as history shows, and as this novel bears out, nothing was less dependable than an ally in Renaissance Italy. Four years later, the young Charles VIII of France marched from the north, and, as Fo remarks in his merry way, “It’s a well-known fact that in Italy you practically can’t turn around without bumping into people willing to climb onto the bandwagon of the first invader to happen by.” A number of the powerful Italian families, including the Sforzas, allied themselves with the French king, who seized Naples, surrounded Romagna, and, some time later, entered Rome. Alexander VI, determined not to flee, met the king in a seemingly welcoming way — a fact that should have sent chills down the royal spine.
Without going deeper into subsequent events propelled by papal double-dealing and the deep game played by the other European powers, suffice it to say that Charles was driven from Italy by the newly formed Holy League (ostensibly brought together to combat the Turks, “but everyone knew that the most dangerous Turk around came from Paris and was named Charles”). Not long after, the young king died ignominiously, smashing his head against a lintel as he rode through a stone gate at Amboise, “where he had withdrawn to lick his wounds.”
Meanwhile, Lucrezia’s husband, Giovanni, had avoided the worst of the fighting and, as a consequence, found himself on the wrong side of the pope, his position made all the more awkward by the Sforzas having become less useful than previously. It was determined that Giovanni had to go, preferably from the earth, thus opening an opportunity for a more advantageous marriage for Lucrezia — more advantageous for her family, that is. Discovering a plot to murder her husband, Lucrezia helped him escape; his life was preserved, but he was forced to admit to a (notional) inability to consummate the marriage, and it was annulled.
Lucrezia’s next husband was Alfonso, d’Aragon, a man for whom she felt genuine passion, but this union only lasted two years before reasons of state demanded that he too be dismissed — strangled, as it happens. Once again Lucrezia was “tossed into the gaping maw” of her father’s and brother’s interests, this time compelled to marry Alfonso d’Este. It was her final marriage, but she was coming into herself. From the death of her second husband to her own death nineteen years later, she variously served as substitute pope during her father’s absence, put together a powerful army, filled the position of an appeals judge, served as governor of the Duchy of Ferrara, and established a lending institution for poor people.
Dario Fo’s taste for the theatricality and fantastic intrigue of Italian politics is evident throughout. At every juncture he refers to the conceits of commedia dell’arte, a genre that sprang up in the Italian theater of the sixteenth century as a reflection of the period’s political and financial chaos. Thus, he frames the near absurdity of the goings-on in Lucrezia’s world as a series of vignettes, breaking the novel into scenes with such titles as “And at this point we’ll have to come up with a new skit. As long as it’s not clownish,” or “How to survive a grotesque comedy without a mask,” or, my favorite, “The holy about-face.” (The book includes illustrations by Fo, in collaboration with Jessica Borroni and Michela Casiere.) This last introduces us to Alexander’s decision to reform the abuses of the Church: No more selling of offices, holding of multiple benefices, extracting exorbitant revenues; no more living lives of luxury, lubriciousness, and ease. But, of course, Pope Alexander VI was no Pope Francis, and papal reason returned. We find him emerging from deep lucubration to recognize that to abolish such admitted evils and start anew would inevitably bring about something worse; therefore, he concluded, “the only thing to do is to remain exactly as we are.”
The book is as much about the spectacle of papal intrigue and air of impunity that pervaded the Vatican, as it is about Lucrezia — though she, of course, is an instrument in and object of much of it. And so we leave her in the end, a model of sweetness and light, dispensing succor all around. After all, as the last scene’s title has it: “What’s the fun of being rich if you don’t have poor people around to pity?”