Sarah Dunant brought the Borgias to life in Blood and Beauty and has now returned to finish their story with In The Name Of The Family . I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the publicity tour – this is one of those wonderful cases of the sequel living up to the original and here is an extract from the novel’s opening pages as Lucrezia Borgia travels to meet her new husband and tries to create a little spectacle along the way.
In her room in the ducal palace of Urbino, Lucrezia’s feet hurt.
When she walks her soles burn and when her toes are released at night they still feel pinioned together. The pain is more than the bondage of fashion: her wedding- dowry shoes, twentyseven pairs of the finest perfumed Spanish leather made from a template of her feet, each one hand- sewn, gilded, jewelled, perfumed and shipped from Valencia, had arrived too late to be fitted and tested before they were used. It would be better if she did not dance so much. But how can she resist? She, who loves to glide and twirl and skip through feasts and celebrations night after night, so applauded that eh, after a while her partners fall away, clutching feigned stitches in their sides to show off her grace and stamina. No, Lucrezia Borgia must dance; it is one of the joys of her life. And more than that, it is what is expected of her.
Perhaps if there were fewer miles between festivities. In the twelve days since they left Rome they have visited almost as many towns and are still only halfway to Ferrara. It would be a punishing schedule even in the best weather, for this is not so much a journey as a campaign trail; the Pope’s daughter conquering city after city with charm rather than cannon. In the beginning, she had wrapped herself in furs and battled the freezing air. Those first days it had been snowing – snow in Rome! – and she had been amazed how people had flocked out to see her. She had waved and smiled and smiled again. If they could brave the weather then surely so could she. But the snow turned into heavy rain and ugly sucking mud, so that recently she has retreated to her litter. It is comfortable enough on the open roads, but when it comes to the slopes of the Apennines and towns like Gubbio and now Urbino, the steep winding paths have her lurching and jostled until her bones have started to protest.
She settles herself into the cushioned window seat in this latest bedchamber. There is a fire in the grate and tapestries on the walls. How delicious to be warm again. Outside, she hears the traffic of chests pulled along flagstone floors. It takes an age to settle the household of courtiers and servants who travel with her. Tonight’s accommodation is particularly magnificent. The palace of Urbino is famed throughout Italy as a treasure house of the new culture. They will have precious little time to appreciate it, she thinks with a sigh. The trunks will barely have been opened before they must be packed up and loaded again, and this evening will merge into all the others: an orgy of good will and gifts, bowing, kissing, sweetwords, compliments, and of course dancing. Her feet sing out in sympathy. She longs for a day when she can sleep later than the dawn, or pass a few hours reading or washing her hair; the chance to be alone, sullen, even sad for a while.
Above the marble fireplace is a sculptured frieze of naked cherubs, parading joyfully, clutching golden horns and tambourines. The miracle of chubby flesh hewn out of stone. Before she gave birth to Rodrigo she barely noticed such creatures. Now she sees babies and cherubs everywhere. The sculptor must have had boy children of his own to breathe such individual life into each body. She imagines one of them clambering onto her lap, fat little arms thrown around her neck. The marble skin grows soft and warm in her mind. She bends her head involuntarily to smell the perfume of his scalp, such a mass of fair curls already, so different from the dark hair of his father.
‘Madonna Lucrezia? Do I disturb?’
‘No, no, Signor Pozzi,’ she says, brushing the imagined little body off her skirts as she regains her composure. ‘I am savouring my surroundings. I still don’t understand why we can’t stay longer. The Duke and Duchess of Urbino are so magnanimous in their hospitality, moving out of their own palace to make room for us. It seems impolite to remain for only one night.’
The Ferrarese envoy shuffles his feet. This is a conversation he had hoped was over.
‘My Lady, I assure you they understand very well the constraints that the journey and the weather put upon us. We have a great many miles to travel to Ferrara and the date of your marriage is—’
‘—Oh, I know the date as well as you. It is engraved upon my heart, and I would give anything for it to have arrived already, as I am in a fever of expectation to meet my dear husband.’ And it is said so prettily that who could doubt its sincerity? ‘But.’ She pauses. ‘If I am to please him in the way I would wish, then I must be allowed to catch my breath.’
Born Gian Luca Pozzi, this seasoned diplomat is known to eh, everyone in the Borgia entourage as ‘Stilts’, because his legs are unnaturally long for his body, so that when he walks he must take stilted little steps to allow the ladies to keep up with him. He has been at Lucrezia’s side for months, sending back reports to his master, the Duke of Ferrara, on her character and worthiness for marriage into the house of Este. Now it is his job to get her to the wedding ceremony on time.
‘Also, not only is Urbino joined in dynastic marriage to my new home in Ferrara,’ she continues with a pointed seriousness, ‘but it is in alliance with His Holiness, Pope Alexander. I think both of my fathers would see it as politic for us to enjoy more of the city’s welcome, wouldn’t you agree?’
The envoy munches at his cheek. When the Pope is brought into play it is always a sign that this delicate young woman, who often appears to have no thought in her head past the choice of her next outfit, is digging in her heels. Outside, the rain is a percussion of nervous drumbeats against the leaded windows.
Urbino is famous for its modernity and not all her rooms have been so finely protected against draughts. Throughout the palace there is an air of people shaking out their wet clothes and settling in to stay.
‘My dear lady, you must help me here. I—’
‘And’ – her voice remains sweet despite the rise in volume – ‘you will have noticed that a few of my ladies are at war with phlegm and fever. This morning Angela was almost too sick to travel. If she should pass such an ailment on to me . . . well . . . Duke Ercole, my new father, would never forgive you if I arrived in Ferrara weak as a kitten.’
Pozzi smiles bleakly. His employer will forgive him even less if she gets there late, since the astrologers singled out the date six months ago and half of Italy is on the move to be there in time. As for Madonna Lucrezia’s health, there are things he could suggest: she could dance less and sleep more, or cut down the time spent on her daily toilette. But there would be no point. The Pope has made it clear to all that having paid a fortune to marry his daughter, he intends to get his money’s worth, using this journey as a way to show her off.
Not that she will disappoint. Of that he is sure. There may be more beautiful women in Italy, but there is something in that mix of grace and vivacity, especially when she is on the dance floor, where her feet seem to barely touch the ground, that seduces whoever is in her orbit.
Like many others, he had arrived at the Vatican court his ears ringing with gossip, expecting to find some vain vixen, racked by lust and cruelty. Yet within weeks his dispatches were filled with descriptions of her sweetness and modesty. It has taken him a little longer to discover the metal beneath the softness. But then it has been years since the state of Ferrara had its own duchess, and it’s possible he has forgotten the subterfuge of clever women, how stubborn their gentleness can be. If the lady will not be moved, then what can be done? He lifts his hands in submission.
‘Excellent,’ she laughs, victory lighting up her face and making her look younger than her twenty- one years. ‘We shall leave the day after tomorrow well rested. My brother’s emissaries will guide us through his cities to Bologna and from there we can travel by barge. Which will be kinder to all of us and’ – now a hint of the coquette – ‘once I am caught on your glorious river Po, well, I shall not be able to get off. Isn’t that right, my dear Pozzi?’
He bows, his smile as professional as his frown. Tonight’s dispatch is already written in his head: in battles of diplomacy no skirmish is too small to fight and no defeat so big to mean the loss of the war.
He is barely out of the door before she is on her feet calling to her ladies. ‘Angela, Nicola, Camilla . . . Leave the unpacking. The palace of Urbino is waiting for us!’
(c) Sarah Dunant 2017