Friday, 10 March 2017

Book Review: The Pope’s Daughter by Dario Fo’s a known fact that places of power are and have always been hotbeds of gossip, intrigue and crime. As capital of the Papal State and seat of her glamorous Court, the Holy See in Renaissance Rome wasn’t an exception as Martin Luther learnt during his visit there in 1510/11. The idealistic German monk must still have heard people gossipping about the Borgia family and its unscrupulous head Pope Alexander VI. who had died less than a decade earlier. Instead of a paragon of virtue Alexander VI. was a family man with great plans for himself as well as for his children. And his ambitions knew no limits. The historical novel The Pope’s Daughter by Dario Fo, the famous Italian playwright and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1997, traces the life of highly intelligent, well-educated and beautiful Lucrezia Borgia who served her father and brother as pawn in their endless game of power.

Dario Fo was born in Leggiuno Sangiano, Varese, Italy, in March 1926. After the turbulent years of World War II that he survived in the Italian army although deserting twice and secretly working for the Resistance, he went to Brera Academy and studied architecture at the Polytechnic University of Milan, but dropped out without a degree. In 1950 he turned to the performing arts and got involved in Milan’s small theatre movement. He worked with variety shows, radio, cinema, and TV shows in Milan and Rome establishing himself as a controversial playwright. After his marriage to the actress Franca Rame in 1954, he collaborated with her on most of his dramatic work that repeatedly caused polemics from all sides thus increasing his national as well as international fame. In 1997 Dario Fo received the Nobel Prize in Literature for being a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”. In 2014 he published his first and only novel titled The Pope’s Daughter. Dario Fo died in Milan, Italy, in October 2016.

As a girl in Rome of the late fifteenth century, Lucrezia has no idea that as a twelve-year-old she will be The Pope’s Daughter. Although at the time it isn’t unusual for a man of the church to have lovers and children, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia – her father – takes great care to keep secret his family. He even formally marries his lover first to a respectable apostolic secretary and then to a scholar, he himself taking on in the comedy the official part of uncle. But everything changes when he decides that it’s time to take the next step in his already glorious career and to have himself elected pope.
“Now there was no point in continuing to play the role of the generous uncle who arrived every evening at the home of his nieces and nephews only to sneak away the next day at dawn. Since he would soon be the master of the Holy See of Rome, he could safely put out with the trash any gossip that was certain to explode once word got out that the pope had children and a morganatic wife.”
And in fact, on August 11, 1492, Rodrigo Borgia ascends the papal throne as Alexander VI. That meanwhile fourteen-year-old Giulia Farnese has become his new favourite couldn’t prevent his success, nor that rumours of his and his son Cesare’s incestuous relationship with beautiful Lucrezia spread. Within a year of his election, he makes Cesare cardinal and marries Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza both to thank the bridegroom’s uncle Cardinal Ascanio Sforza for his support and to strengthen the alliance with Ludovico the Moor of Milan, Giovanni’s father. Four years later Giovanni Sforza is no longer of use to the Borgias.
“… When her husband returned home she went to him and warned him: ‘Things are not looking good, my dear. I know for certain that my brother Cesare and my father intend to get rid of you. The fact that they haven’t yet threatened you openly means that they already have a plan to kill you or have you killed without witnesses: a far crueler solution.’”
Lucrezia succeeds in saving her husband’s life having their marriage dissolved declaring that it has never been consummated. Meanwhile her eldest brother Juan is found stabbed in the Tiber and rumour has it that it was no other than his own ruthless brother Cesare who killed him. Not taking account of Lucrezia’s feelings, Alexander VI and Cesare continue to use her to make politics marrying her to Alfonso of Aragon, a son of the King of Naples, with whom she falls head-over-heels in love at least and, after the cruel assassination of this second husband, to Alfonso d’Este from Ferrara who isn’t particularly keen on having her…

For his first and only novel The Pope’s Daughter the author, who received the Nobel Prize in literature for his dramatic work, chose the form of third-person narrative interspersed with structuring italicised subtitles that are actually part of the story and with explaining remarks in almost conspiratorial first person plural as a teller of tales in a fair or in a (Shakespeare) play might use them to draw in his listeners. In style and tone it therefore reminds a fairy-tale although the historical plot is clearly based on facts about the Borgia family that at least in their outlines may be common knowledge in Italy and in well-educated circles worldwide. In addition to the bibliography at the end of the book, Dario Fo even sets occasional footnotes to refer to his sources. On the other hand, the experienced playwright uses dialogue rather too sparsely in his novel and as a result, the story and above all its characters often feel a bit lifeless, not to say bloodless in this particular case. Not having read the Italian original, it’s difficult for me to say something about the language. The English translation of Anthony Shugaar certainly feels authentic and the story flows engagingly.

Although The Pope’s Daughter by Dario Fo hardly showed Lucrezia Borgia and her family in a new light, the novel was an interesting and also entertaining read. The book lacked a bit the decidedly Lucrezian perspective that I had hoped for seeing the title, but I should have expected it. To dig deep and find the tiny pieces of information forming the picture of a jigsaw puzzle that can give at least a vague idea of what Lucrezia Borgia actually felt, thought and did, would probably have been asked too much of an aged male playwright who hasn’t devoted his entire life to the research of Renaissance history. Nonetheless, the novel deserves attention for telling history differently.

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  1. I hadn't realized that Po wrote a novel. Good for me because I don't usually read plays. Now I have a book to read for this Nobel winner. I love that period of history.

  2. I don't usually read plays, either, so The Pope's Daughter was quite welcome. Not knowing Fo's plays it's difficult to judge, but I dare say that his novel wasn't his best work... interesting and entertaining it was at any rate.


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