Talking Bull: Sarah Bower and Kate Quinn chat about The Serpent and the Pearl and all things Borgia
SB: Kate, thank you for finding the time to join me during your busy promotional schedule for The Serpent and the Pearl.
KQ: My pleasure! I’m a fan of your Sins of the House of Borgia – a whole different era in the Borgia timeline than the early years I tackled, and so lushly handled.
SB: Thank you!
Can you tell me what was the origin of your interest in the Borgias? For me, it goes back to reading Jean Plaidy when I was at school, although it took me many years to find my way into writing a novel about them.
KQ: The Renaissance itself is what drew me in—an era with such a flowering of scientific and artistic achievements, which was still so bathed in blood. And the Borgias are the poster children for that; the perfect storm of beauty and violence which draws all eyes, and lives so exciting that no novelist could make up half the things that really happened to them.
SB: I love the idea of the Borgias as ‘poster children’ for the Renaissance’s contrasts! What attracted you to them as a subject for fiction? At fourteen, when other people were mooning over pop stars, I fell in love with Cesare!
KQ: As well you might; he was fascinating! For me the appeal of the Borgias was the wealth of contradiction in their legacy: trying to find the “real” Borgia family is like trying to get a grip on a handful of water. So many rumours swirl around their names that the truth is impossible to discern. Evil Pope and his incestuous brood, or loving paterfamilias and his misunderstood children? I had so much fun looking at all the conflicting evidence and finding my own interpretation on the Borgia legend—and I will admit right off the bat that I have no idea if my version is any closer to the truth than anyone else’s. I love the fact that the Borgias are still mystifying us all after so many centuries.
SB: What challenges did you encounter moving from ancient to medieval Rome as a setting? My own novel, Sins of the House of Borgia, is set mostly in Ferrara, but even there, much of the cityscape Lucrezia would have known was destroyed in an earthquake in 1570.
KQ: The biggest change in moving from Imperial to Renaissance Rome was the presence of Christianity. The strength and presence of Catholicism added an entirely different dimension to my characters. Just as one example: in ancient Rome, sex was viewed simply as a sensual pleasure like eating or drinking; it didn’t have the connotation of sin that it later gained under Christianity. My Renaissance women were told from childhood that women were the fruit of sexual evil and that their sexual desires were shameful, whereas my Roman heroines never had that burden — it made a huge difference to their characters.
SB: How did you choose the angle from which you approach the subject? We both use outside observers and I wonder what your views are on the advantages and disadvantages of this.
KQ: My fascination is with the play of power — not just the people who wield it, but the people who watch from the sidelines. To that end I used three narrators for the Borgia story, two fictional and one a real but minor figure in history. The latter, Giulia Farnese, was the Pope’s mistress — I was fascinated by her because not only did she have a front-row seat to the most interesting events of the day, but she managed to walk away from all the Borgia turmoil and bloodshed absolutely scot-free. Not an easy achievement by any means, and surely an indication that the woman had brains and bravery as well as beauty. My other two characters are entirely fictional, a cook and a bodyguard in the Borgia household, and I wove their story around and inside the existing facts. I like using outsiders as narrators rather than major historical figures, because the reader can’t look them up on Wikipedia and know how the book is going to end.
SB: I agree with you about the attraction of inserting invented characters into the history, which is almost a metaphor for the function of historical fiction itself. My own heroine, Violante, was inspired by a real lady in waiting to Lucrezia when she was Duchess of Ferrara, but someone about whom almost nothing is known. I also warm to Giulia Farnese – she seems to have been a very level-headed and sensible woman for all her legendary beauty. And, of course, she made sure her family did well out of her liaison with the Pope. Her brother, Alessandro, the so-called ‘petticoat cardinal’ also became Pope, as Paul III.
KQ: Yes, and Giulia’s daughter Laura (who may have been another Borgia bastard; who knows?) also married into a papal family—a nephew of Pope Julius, Rodrigo Borgia’s arch-enemy! I always found that ironic.
SB: I’ve always thought another nice irony about Julius II was the name he took, given his enmity with Cesare! As an ancient Roman enthusiast, I’m sure you’ll appreciate that too.
I also notice both our novels feature recipe books. Are you as fascinated as I am by the excesses of up-market medieval cuisine? Did you refer to Caterina Sforza’s recipe book at all?
KQ: I don’t believe I referred to Caterina Sforza’s book — my primary source for food recipes was a tome called L’Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi. Scappi was a very illustrious cook of the 1500s; he was Vatican chef to two popes, and he penned an enormous compendium of recipes and cooking advice. Renaissance cuisine is fascinating: many of what we view as the staples of Italian food had yet to come around (tomatoes, pasta as the widespread national dish), and the tastes of the time were definitely different from our own (sweet sauces on everything). But people in all eras love to eat well, and I saw the food as a way to draw a bond between modern readers and Renaissance characters. Everybody’s mouth waters when my cook heroine opens the oven, no matter what time they’re born in! And I enjoyed giving the young Bartolomeo Scappi a role in the book—you’ll spot him, if you’re looking.
SB: Do take a look at Caterina’s recipes, many of which are reproduced on websites devoted to Renaissance domestic life. Her food recipes are mostly practical – pickling etc. – but there are also a great many medicinal and cosmetic preparations. They give a lovely glimpse into the life behind the great virago. I’m very tempted to write a book about her one of these days.
KQ: Actually, now that I think about it, I did peep into Caterina Sforza’s book! Not for the food recipes, though — for the cosmetics. She had a rinse that was supposed to blondify hair, made out of sulphur, saffron, and cinnabar. Giulia Farnese was another blonde (at least according to the alleged portraits of her) so I borrowed Caterina’s hair rinse recipe.
SB: Me too!
What do think is the historical and artistic legacy of the Borgias, if any? Among the books I read about them in my teens was Rafael Sabatini’s hagiography of Cesare, which was inspired by the way in which the Risorgimento reclaimed him as a precursor of the unification movement. While this argument obviously contains some big flaws, do you think there is any modern political resonance in their story? Did they change anything? For example, did they contribute to the Reformation or would it have happened anyway?
KQ: The Reformation would have happened anyway, though the Borgia legacy of corruption in the Vatican was so infamous that it probably happened faster. What I find ironic is that the Borgia corruption wasn’t much worse than what was happening already. Simony, bribery, the sale of indulgences, the secular politicking of Popes who conducted themselves as heads of state rather than heads of religion—none of this was new. The biggest sin of the House of Borgia (sorry, couldn’t resist!) seems to be the fact that unlike their corrupt predecessors, they didn’t hide their sins. Other Popes passed off illegitimate children as nieces and nephews; Rodrigo Borgia flaunted his bastards proudly. Other popes kept mistresses in discreet and distant establishments; Rodrigo Borgia parked his girlfriend in a palace next door to the Vatican and showed her off at papal functions. The sin that nobody seemed able to forgive the Borgias, ironically, was their lack of hypocrisy.
SB: And did you know that, ironically, Lucrezia became an – admittedly guarded – admirer of Luther towards the end of her life?
KQ: I did not know that; how interesting. Lucrezia Borgia’s later life as Duchess of Ferrara was so different from her Vatican years. It’s the time when she really broke away from her family and forged her own life after being a pawn of her father and brothers for so long.
SB: Yes, that was one reason why I wanted to focus on that second half of her life. Once she managed to get out from under, she proved herself a much more interesting woman, I think, and such an attractive figure.
What about the Borgias’ artistic legacy? The Borgia apartment murals by Pinturicchio. Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. The Prince, surely. But also the letters of Lucrezia and Pietro Bembo, (which Byron called ‘the prettiest love letters in the world’, Leonardo’s sketches of Cesare. These intrigue me more because they’re peripheral and not official. But generally I have a sense that only Lucrezia ever gave any thought to legacy. Alexander and Cesare were too busy in the now to think about posterity.
KQ: The peripheral stuff intrigues me too, because it doesn’t come with the propaganda agenda that the officially-commissioned art so often does—I love the letters that survive between the Borgias, like Pope Alexander’s to Giulia Farnese, or the diary entries of Burchard the master of ceremonies which gives us an intimate view of Borgia life. I do think Cesare gave some thought to his legacy, at least politically—he had the kind of overweening hubris that wanted what he built to stand for all time. What I find interesting is that Lucrezia seemed to be the only one with a sense of spiritual legacy. As Duchess of Ferrara she developed a reputation for good works and very genuine piety—alone of her family, she seemed to think that the sins they committed in life would follow them into the afterlife unless atoned for. Rodrigo Borgia was more devout than he is often given credit for, but he was the ultimate spin-doctor; he seemed to have the attitude that he could always talk his way out of his sins with a good explanation. And Cesare seems to have been the most irreligious of the bunch; he did what he wanted and never apologized or atoned for any of it.
SB: Did you read Lucrezia’s beautiful deathbed letter to the then Pope, Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici, who was at university with Cesare – Cesare sat on his viva panel, and made him nervous when he invited him to dinner…no, not because of poison but because he had grander table settings!), in which she commends her family to him? Very moving.
Alexander, of course, introduced both the ringing of the Angelus, in honour of the Virgin, who was the object of his particular devotion, and the Index of Proscribed Books. Mind you, I never imagined him as much of a reader – too busy talking!
KQ: Definitely. A blogger on my blog tour asked me a fun question – if the Borgias could have used social media, what would they use? And I immediately saw Rodrigo Borgia on Twitter, thumb-tapping away on his iPhone between papal meetings: “College of Cardinals has no idea what just hit them” at his @IamPope handle!
SB: That’s fabulous! And I can imagine Lucrezia posting photos of her kids on Facebook, and really wishing those selfies she took at Borgia orgies weren’t still doing the rounds elsewhere on the net!
KQ: What an image. “Me at the Banquet of the Chestnuts – lolz!”
SB: My impression of Cesare is that he was probably an atheist, though a far from rational one because he was a great believer in horoscopes and haunted by the prophecy of his early death. He also embraced the Humanist elaboration of the ancient Roman concept of Fate, with which I’m sure you’re familiar through your earlier novels.
KQ: He does seem to be about the closest thing to an atheist that a person could be in an era so steeped in religion. He was probably one of those guys who swaggers around saying, “I make my own luck.” Which he just about did!
SB: An early death is a good career move, as Gore Vidal said of JFK. Do you think this applies to Cesare?
KQ: If anything it was his father’s early death that sunk Cesare. He lost much of his influence and power once he no longer had papal backing. I always wonder what Cesare could have achieved if his father had lived longer, or if he himself hadn’t been ill at the time of his father’s death, and unable to participate in the political wrangling that followed Rodrigo Borgia’s deathbed. Certainly Cesare Borgia became a more glamorous figure in history by the fact of dying young—before the syphilis he’d contracted had a chance to ruin his good looks!
SB: And on the subject of good looks, what is your opinion of the Showtime TV series? While I’m grateful for the revival of interest it brought about in my own book, I thought it was pretty bad, though the costumes were beautiful. It would be nice for both of us if it hadn’t been cancelled, I feel.
KQ: I enjoyed the Showtime series, though they certainly played fast and loose with history. Jeremy Irons is a lot more languid and refined than the blunt, bull-like Rodrigo Borgia — I think John Doman does it better in the European “Borgia” series—but I quite liked Francois Arnaud’s Cesare and Holliday Grainger’s Lucrezia. And I agree it’s a pity for both of us that the show was cancelled. I was very grateful for the spike of interest it provoked in all things Borgia.
SB: I didn’t see the European show, but John Doman certainly looks the part of the portly Pope better than Jeremy Irons! I agree with you about the casting of the young Borgias because those actors look close to the real ages they were at the time. It’s easy to forget that they were, to a great extent, just wild, rather spoilt teenagers.
KQ: And yet Cesare accomplished such remarkable things as a very young man—perhaps because of his obsession with dying young, as you mentioned earlier. He certainly didn’t waste any time racking up achievements while still in his teens.
SB: I actually think Cesare was some kind of genius, which explains the good and bad in him. He was obviously precociously intelligent and very driven.
Who is your favourite Borgia, and who your favourite from the ‘supporting cast’? Leonardo, Machiavelli, Caterina Sforza, Sancia of Aragon etc? I love Machiavelli and Sforza, but also Vannozza, who seemed a level-headed and shrewd woman, and my favourite is the wonderful, tragic and astoundingly courageous Giulio d’Este.
KQ: I always liked Michelotto, Cesare Borgia’s enigmatic personal assassin. You have to admire the efficiency, if not the morality, of a guy who can strangle two men at the same time with a violin string. As for the Borgias themselves, I got very fond of Rodrigo Borgia. Despite his bad reputation he really was a very effective pontiff in many ways, and his zest for life is endearing.
SB: Oh, I love Michelotto. Did you know Machiavelli gave him a job after the Borgias fell, as a condottiere for Florence?
KQ: I’ve got a book in me somewhere about that post-Borgia Florentine career of Michelotto’s . . .
SB: What other Borgia novels have you read and which did you enjoy most? My favourite for many years was The Borgia Testament by Nigel Balchin (long out of print, alas), but I’ve recently read Samuel Black’s The Ground is Burning and thought it outstanding.
KQ: I’ve enjoyed Sara Poole’s “Poison” series very much; its amoral heroine with her stash of poison vials is fascinating. And although it hasn’t been released yet, I’m hugely anticipating C.W. Gortner’s upcoming novel on Lucrezia—he has such a gift for humanizing the notorious women of history, I know his treatment on the infamous Borgia daughter will be spectacular.
SB: In conclusion, would you like to tell us about your promotional blog tour and anything else you’re doing to celebrate and publicise the book?
KQ: I’ve got an author event coming up this Saturday! Chocolate, champagne, signing, and Borgia talk at The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, Saturday August 24th starting at 6pm. The Ivy is a terrific independent bookstore, just the kind of cosy place we want to support in this era of Amazon delivery and massive book chains, so I hope I’ll see lots of people there!
SB: Kate, thanks so much for dropping by for this chat. The Serpent and the Pearl sounds terrific and I wish you the very best with it.
KQ: Thanks for chatting, Sarah! It’s been a pleasure.
Kate Quinn is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written three novels set in ancient Rome, all of which have been translated into multiple languages. Kate made the jump from ancient Rome to Renaissance Italy for her fourth and fifth novels, The Serpent and the Pearl and the upcoming The Lion and the Rose.
Sarah Bower is the author of two historical novels, The Needle in the Blood and international bestseller, Sins of the House of Borgia, and is a long-time contributor to the Historical Novels Review. You can find Sarah on Facebook and Twitter, where she tweets as @SarahBower.
Posted by Richard Lee