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  • Written by John Faunce
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A Novel

Written by John FaunceAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by John Faunce


List Price: $9.99


On Sale: May 05, 2010
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-55763-6
Published by : Crown Crown/Archetype
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“A fascinating story, rich in detail. In every case, Faunce portrays [Lucrezia] believably, with wit and sensitivity.”--Library Journal

Hundreds of years after her death, Lucrezia Borgia remains one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of history, accused of incest, of poisoning her rivals, and even of murdering her own father. Born into scandal, she was the daughter of the treacherous Cardinal Roderigo Borgia, who would later be crowned Pope Alexander VI. When her father ascended the papal throne, young Lucrezia’s life changed forever. From then on, Lucrezia would be unable to escape the political ambitions of her father and her brother, the bloodthirsty Cesare Borgia.

In an era when the Vatican was as decadent and violent as any royal court, Lucrezia was its crown princess. Famed for her beauty, she was a valuable pawn in the marriage game, and Alexander VI would use her to create one alliance after another. When her kindly first husband no longer suited the Pope’s needs, Lucrezia’s virginity was restored by papal decree (her new maidenhood was declared “miraculous”), and she was married off again, this time to a man she truly loved, Alfonso, Prince of Naples. But her joy was short-lived. Alfonso loathed her brother and refused to participate in the Pope’s imperial schemes, which threatened to tear apart the Vatican’s political alliances--and Lucrezia’s happy marriage.

In this unforgettable debut, John Faunce perfectly captures the rotten decadence of the Borgias’ papal court and the inner steel of Lucrezia Borgia, one of history’s great survivors.

“Fascinating...a searing portrait of an intelligent woman, cunning enough to shape her own bizarre destiny.”--Booklist


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.
John Faunce

About John Faunce

John Faunce - Lucrezia Borgia
JOHN FAUNCE received a B.F.A. in acting and an M.F.A. in directing from Carnegie Mellon University. He has produced or directed some twenty-five off-Broadway and Broadway shows. As well, he’s executive-produced and written movies for television and produced feature films. He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, a film editor, and his dog.
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

Lucrezia Borgia is one of the most enigmatic and infamous women in history. Daughter of the spectacularly corrupt and ruthless Pope Alexander VI, and sister of the bloodthirsty Cesare Borgia, commander of the formidable Papal army, Lucrezia enjoyed a notorious reputation both in formal accounts and on graffiti walls throughout the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in Italy. This guide is designed to help direct your reading group's discussion ofJohn Faunce's illuminating novel on this fascinating woman.

About the Guide

When Lucrezia Borgia’s beloved father is suddenly elected Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, her mother is exiled as a no-longer-sanctioned concubine, her bratty brother is named Cardinal Archbishop of Valencia, and her cozy childhood is replaced by a life of bewildering, lavish, and gilded pomp. Whimsical and ironic, angry and hopeful, disillusioned and determined, Lucrezia wrestles her way through this new life, refusing to be a mere pawn on the increasingly complex and sinister gameboard of international religious politics. Yet soon Lucrezia realizes that shifting political alliances and her father’s overarching clout dictate that she serve her family’s needs, and true happiness becomes an ephemeral desire she has no real power to pursue. Even her marriages are tools for the Papacy to use or obliterate as it sees fit. And her brother is beginning to run amok with greed, placing Lucrezia’s very life in jeopardy.

In an unforgettable first-person account, Lucrezia tells her tale of surviving through her own fiery intelligence and inner steel in an era and climate when women had no voice. Simultaneously tragic and hilarious, her story illuminates a dark, fascinating chapter in European history.

About the Author

John Faunce received a B.F.A. in acting and an M.F.A. in directing from Carnegie-Mellon University. Since then he has directed or produced some twenty Broadway and off-Broadway plays, as well as television and feature films. Lucrezia Borgia is his first novel. He lives in Los Angeles.

From the Hardcover edition.

Discussion Guides

1. Lucrezia recalls her childhood as filled with such opulence, tenderness, and comfort that it becomes her lifelong model of Paradise, her Elysian Fields, compared to which everything else in life disappoints. Her first “adultish” memory is of a piercing desire, a hunger for her mother, father, and brother that is tinged with fear. How has this fear entered her childhood? Is she ever able to satisfy her hunger for her family? How does she attempt to re-create her Elysian Fields as an adult? Is she successful?

2. Throughout the novel, Lucrezia is plagued by the question of whether mind and soul are one and the same. After Cesare murders Mother Fortunata, Lucrezia has an epiphany about this question. What does she discover? How does the discovery affect her behavior thereafter? Does her answer to the
mind/soul question change after her fateful meeting with little Lucrezia in the Sistine Chapel?

3. Why do the peasants Vanozza and Aristotle ask Lucrezia to deliver their babies? Why does she go along with it? What symbols does Lucrezia recognize in the experience?

4. After Lucrezia has murdered Bishop Allatri according to her father’s detailed instructions, and Cesare has thanked her for it, she tells herself, “I was sure of only one thing: I must not forget this lesson.” What is the lesson?

5. Lucrezia constantly struggles with the idea of fate, weighing her own power or powerlessness against it. Often she talks herself out of resisting fate: “I might fight this till the Last Judgment, but what would be would be . . . no matter what the truth, no matter what I do. It’s as impossible to resist God’s Desires as to deliver a child without pain or sorrow. Such anyway were my self-justifications for my weakness. I was about to give in.” Yet she knows that the term “God’s Desires” is often no more than a cover for Alexander’s or Cesare’s desires. By the end of the novel, has Lucrezia grown stronger in this struggle? Does she still believe in fate?

6. As Cesare’s behavior becomes increasingly violent, Lucrezia refuses to include her father in the blame. After the attack at the river, she asks herself, “None of this blood was his fault, was it?” At what point does Lucrezia begin to accept the fact that Alexander sanctions all of Cesare’s actions? Why doesn’t she tell her father about Alphonse’s murder and her own rape? Is she protecting Alexander at this point, or has she given up on him?

7. What do you make of Lucrezia’s tragic niece and namesake? Do you believe little Lucrezia when she claims that she is Cesare’s attempt to re-create the
original Lucrezia all for himself? What ritual finally binds the two Lucrezias together? Why does Lucrezia coach her niece through the final act of murder, rather than doing it herself?

8. Why do you think Lucrezia chooses exile at the end, rather than living with her mother and son—both of whom she has missed desperately—now that she
is free to do so?

9. Is Lucrezia guilty of complicity in Cesare’s megalomania? Why is she so enthralled by him when she’s known since the age of six that malice is a major component of his personality? Why can’t she separate herself from him?

10. Throughout the novel, the author uses modern words like “automaton,” “gasket,” “blockhead,” and “fire drill,” as well as modern expressions such as: “We need two screeching Cesares like We need another Crucifixion”; “It’s extraordinary, this brother-sister thing you two have”; “I ain’t doing nothing that guy didn’t tell us”; and “You guys were a big help.” Does this language make the fifteenth-century Italian story more accessible?

11. After Roderigo Borgia becomes Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia becomes acquainted with what she calls the Pontius Pilate method of making state decisions. What is it? Does this discovery affect Lucrezia’s faith? Who else in the novel uses the Pontius Pilate method?

12. Discuss the significance of this line in Lucrezia’s description of the Electoral Consistory’s ritual of choosing a new pope: “Offstage a monk pulled a string.”

  • Lucrezia Borgia by John Faunce
  • March 23, 2004
  • Fiction - Historical
  • Broadway Books
  • $13.95
  • 9781400051229

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