My life is a myth. My first adultish memory, I always tell myself, is of my desire for my mother, father and brother Cesare. All three are conjoined with Cesare's horsey aroma and mixed with a tang of maternal scent, of her Arabian perfume, of her opaline, moonish breasts, which I'm told I abandoned late. A Virgin's portrait in oils hung on the wall, a burning lamp always before it on a ledge. I've childish memories of earlier events and people, but they've no hunger in them, even of an immature sort, and they're without the lovely fear that only an adult can sense, a shadow opening out over decades. True children don't feel such apprehensions.
I was named for the valiant Lucrezia of Etruscan Rome--who Livy says stabbed herself to death rather than endure the public shame of rape at the hands of the Roman King. Stories about me have been written by many on graffiti-walls, pissing booths and in shelves of well-bound books. I've entire scriptoria of my own foul-mouthed Salimbenes that scribble lies on vellum and cheap Florentine paper. One has me, a la Frederick Augustus, murdering a certain Cardinal at dinner to settle a bet with my father whether or not a soul at the moment of death could be seen escaping the body. In most of those, as that one, I confess a degree of proprietary pride, especially in the more outlandish. I wish, as I peruse them, that I'd had the imagination to live such an impiously purposeful and unfettered life. But are any of these books true, the ones that declare Lucrezia Borgia, though beautiful, the vilest, most sinful woman since Eve? Some, more or less; some, less or more. I've accepted the bones of what they've said of me as simple fact, since none would credit my true, less exotic tale; and, like all souls, I wish to be believed. A small epic I've written here in the still-pliant lambskin of my soul. My father didn't fashion it, nor did my brother. This is all mine.
I remember that day, August 15, 1486, I think. Our tinctus taxus--our "venomous" or "tinctured" yew--dining table, bathed in morning sun and a family happiness that I then thought merely a ceaseless condition of life. It was massive, seamlessly carved of a single great tree trunk, with ivory inlay wrought down three of its legs with scenes from Our Lord's Life and the Lives of Saints Peter and Paul. On one dark leg He was transforming the wedding water into black chianti. Behind Him stood the bride and groom. I remember being beneath the table and making a small prayer that when my wedding moment came, I'd be happy as this yew maiden.
On another of the table's legs Peter and Paul bent stiffly together over the Host and Chalice of His Blood. On a third leg Peter and Paul again, this time in their agonies of martyrdom. The rough-hewn fisherman hung on his upside-down crucifix, and Paul's bald, intellectual's head waited on the headsman's block, which bore the initials SPQR.
"Nero martyred Peter and Paul on Vatican Hill," Papa'd told me. "That's why it became the Capitol of the World. Peter was buried, where Saint Peter's Basilica now stands, right under the altar. Paul's there, too."
The fourth leg, I don't remember, something maybe of the Magdalen. The table's top was heavy with a real-life feast. Golden goblets of Tuscan red wine and Venetian glass goblets of golden, sweet sauterne from France, golden apples of the Hesperides, the yellow noodles of China mixed with tomatoes of Sicily on Chinese crockery, bursting-sweet Moroccan figs, a German-style goose, a Friulian piglet as stuffed with truffle as any piglet might wish in her piggy vision of Heaven--and pies, savory and honeyed. Our new flatware bore the Borgia crest, even on the forks that backward priests condemn as tiny imitations of Satan's torturing trident, all in gold. I remember my father, fifty-three years old at that time, thick, but with a younger man's presence and not yet fat. His chest, head and legs were bare. All he wore was a short pantaloon, a common outfit when at home, and an incongruous pair of silken red socks, held up by red leather garters. He was seated at the table. To me he loomed a continent of lovely skin, forests of dark, curly hair, a chest like the Rus steppe, his hands--one bearing a ruby ring that would've fit me as a bracelet--as fine as mistletoe sprigs.
Vanozza Cattanei, my mother, whom Papa always called "Vanita," because she well knew how lovely she was, was in her breathtakingly well-maintained early thirties then and she sat on his lap, wearing a thin, ivory gown as gossamer as Arachne's web. She wore it because it pleased my father. He'd smuggled the gown past the Sultan's Janissaries from the Orient, where he'd been momentarily a secret emissary to the Sultan to discuss the timing of a new Crusade from Pope Callixtus III, Papa's uncle. Papa's arm was now around her and his ringed hand splayed over the web-covered, faultless surface of one of her breasts, obscuring it so gently amidst their laughter that her necklace's diamonds wobbled and sun-danced with their pleasure of one another. Their dress--or lack of much--and their physical happiness in each other felt to me not at all shameful, unforeseen nor unusual. My parents were often so in Vanita's country villa of Subiaco, Sixtus IV's election-gift to Papa in a village northeast of Rome and in 1464 the site of Italy's first printing press, as he incessantly remarked. Saint Benedict, the great bibliophile monk of Nursia, was said to have first fled to and inhabited Subiaco in Anno Domini 505 to escape the "Lucifer Vaticani"--before his Rule and before his first scriptorium. Roderigo and Vanita, on the other hand, took what Benedict would've deemed vain pleasure in one another's beauty and touch as often, openly and tenderly as April rain.
I watched and listened to them both from my lair beneath the dining table, where my brother Cesare and I were waging surrogate war over a game of chess. That was also the spot where Cesare often read to me from my first book, The Golden Legend--he loved the title--a popular children's book of the Lives of the Saints. But he'd only ever read me the story of Saint George and the Dragon, which even then he'd told me was the Christianized version of Eqajker, or Roman Hercules. He'd read the Saint George part, then read me slowly the Dragon's, which he'd have me repeat, as if I were reading it.
He'd say, "Have no fear, child! Throw your girdle around the Dragon's neck! Don't hesitate! I'll save you!"
I'd throw my long braid at the Dragon's neck, impersonated for us by my bay Venetian rocking-horse. Cesare'd read me the next line.
And I'd repeat, "When she'd done this, the Dragon followed him like a dog on a leash, crying, 'Woe is me! I shall become dog meat.' "
"Eaten well done!" Cesare'd laugh, rolling on the rug.
I'd roll as well. I'd fallen in love with my Saint George; he was so handsome, brilliant and brave on his palomino charger, his golden armor, helm and vermeil sword flashing in the sun through Mama's window. The chess set was a Muslim one with ivory Islamic Janissaries and ebony Crusaders, board and pieces also lifted from the Grand Turk's Sublime Porte. Cesare'd begun to teach me chess on this set when I was three. Even then I found it easy as tick-tack-toe, easy as pretending to read. Cesare was a master of the Knights' Opening, which, like real reading, he never taught me. He'd usually attempt to win his game using only the two horse pieces, which wasn't possible, but he'd try anyway, forking my king with intricate and daring intelligence. I was attempting my usual, childish Sicilian defense. His knights now stood to the right and left of what I'd thought my impenetrable double wall of castles and bishops, my king in check and only his queen's bishop's full-board diagonal from checkmate. Damn. I knocked my king over--Cesare hadn't even taken my queen yet--and let the rhythm and intonations of our parents' voices wash over me.
"Roderigo, you're the most attractive Child of God on earth," Vanita whispered.
"Vanita of veritas, you're wrong," Papa said. "On this earth there's hardly room for another speck of charism; it's so filled with your own."
But Cesare whispered, "Check. Mate in one."
"Shut up, Cesare." I sighed. "I resigned already."
I continued to ignore him. I opened my mouth, silently repeating my parents' expressions with lips and tongue, so I might taste them like wine, roll their shapes and savor around my tongue so I'd remember how to form the words, when my time to say them came. I tried to strike this moment into my mind like an image struck into a coin. This moment happy together--Cesare and I eavesdropping below--in each other's arms and everything embraced by the feast's and other scents would remain my model of Paradise for the rest of my life, remains so till this day, as years after I form with a white Irish feather the black letters of its description. I've often wondered whether it would've been better for them to have treated me and one another cruelly, to have furnished me with a vision of Hades, instead of the Elysian Fields, so that the ensuing agonies I'd pass through as an adult might've felt familiar, instead of alien and bitter.
Papa raised his gold goblet again to Vanita. "To the second most beautiful goddess in the world," he said, his voice sounding like a benediction.
My mother frowned, but they drank the toast, heads together and pouring wine into both their mouths at once from the same goblet.
"Roderigo Lenzuoli Borgia, you're my true love, but an ungracious pig," she said. "Why am I second? You just said none on earth compare to me."
He turned his head toward me, his short beard scraping over the skin below her neck. "You were once the first, Vanita, but you've given birth to one even more perfect."
As she smiled dubiously down at me, I felt blood rising into my face; the pink pleasure of victory filling my entire body, which felt now grand as Aphrodite's. I shook my hair, single-braided to my waist like a comet's tail. I'd become the sudden Empress of the World, basking in the sun of God's Election. My blond hair was my mother's obsession. Countess Nani had invented a process for blond hair that Vanita insisted on twice a week. The recipe called for two pounds of alum, six ounces of black sulphur and four ounces of honey, all the mixture then slathered on my head; then sit in the sun for three hours. I've kept it up all my life and my hair's become legendary as the Golden Fleece.
Then Cesare in his yellow-golden doublet grabbed that sun-shining tail in his fist and wrestled me gently to the floor beneath the table with a faux-wolfish growl, scattering the chess pieces and cracking my queen in two. My brother was twelve years old then, I was six. I thought him a lovable giant cockroach, a description with which I'm sure many who've known him since would agree. The cockroach part, anyway. A bundle of spikey, badly humored, torturing malevolence, he seemed in those days. As golden-haired as I, his eyes, like mine, blue, but of a somewhat colder cerulean. A smirk that, as a child, could strip the self-assurance from the gayest little girl as readily as one day it would undress her from across a room. Malice was a part of his attraction, as the Dark Prince's has eternally been. Cesare was always so beautiful that for him to launch an attack, on me or anyone else, pleased the assault's subject, as if he or she ought be flattered that anyone as luminous as Cesare Borgia took sufficient interest to bother. Around our table's legs he now continued his mild assault and we wrestled like Greeks. I gave as well as I got and my reacting glee was as delighted and raucous as his. Above us I heard the laughter of our parents, laughter that turned me in a flash from lovely empress to patronized tot. I finally pulled free of Cesare, leaving my golden hair-ribbon clutched in his great, conquering mitt.
"Look, gold!" he exulted. "It's mine."
Cesare loved gold since birth, since he'd reached from his crib to the Catalan golden rattle that dangled on a gold chain above him. I can remember my mother laughing that only the gold rattle or her breast could quiet him in his babyhood. My parents in those days thought his gilt fascination amusing and perhaps their delight in his delight informed his lust for gold. He now chased me across the room, me screeching and he childishly cursing. My beautiful parents, as was their habit, meanwhile paid our war no notice.
"If you think us so lovely, Roderigo," my mother said, "you should marry her mother and rescue the child from bastardy and me from a slut's reputation."
"I wish I could, my love," Papa said. "But I'm previously wed to an even more jealous slut than yourself."
My parents laughed at that, his hand still over her breast. Cesare had chased me within my father's reach. He leaned down from my mother, scooping me up in his arm, rescuing me, and plopped me onto his opposite thigh, so that I was across from her, both of us in his lap. I looked across the landmass of him and smiled. I smiled with love, but admit it was a smile of triumph, as well. I'd become her equal, if only for a moment. He stroked my hair and kissed me. Not even Vanita had hair like mine.
"And do you want to marry your father, as well?" he asked.
"Yes, Papa. Will you marry me?" I said.
"We'll see," he said. "But remember, the man chooses, Lucrezia, not the girl. Even if it seems unfair. It will be your brothers' and my choice."
"Of course, Papa. Mama told me that."
He then laughed with such a pleasure in the sight and feel of me that I knew I could bend his choice any way I someday would, no matter what he said now. I knew, even if only with my child's understanding, a man's power to be at best only a big seeming. Even Jesus, though He ruled the Universe, could be bent to the will of His Mother. Else why should we pray to her?
"But I think, from the look of you," he went on, "any man you wish will beg your hand. The most powerful man in Italy, if you'll have him."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Lucrezia Borgia by John Faunce. Copyright © 2003 by John Faunce. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.