The Vatican Princess

A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia

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For fans of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, bestselling author C. W. Gortner effortlessly weaves history and drama in this captivating novel about one of the world’s most notorious families. Glamorous and predatory, the Borgias fascinated and terrorized fifteenth-century Renaissance Italy, and Lucrezia Borgia, beloved daughter of the pope, was at the center of the dynasty’s ambitions. Slandered as a heartless seductress who lured men to their doom, was she in fact the villainess of legend, or was she trapped in a familial web, forced to choose between loyalty and survival?

With the ascension of the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI, a new era has dawned in Rome. Benefitting from their father’s elevation are the new pope’s illegitimate children—his rival sons, Cesare and Juan, and beautiful young daughter Lucrezia—each of whom assumes an exalted position in the papal court. Privileged and adored, Lucrezia yearns to escape her childhood and play a part in her family’s fortunes. But Rome is seductive and dangerous: Alliances shift at a moment’s notice as Italy’s ruling dynasties strive to keep rivals at bay. As Lucrezia’s father faces challenges from all sides, the threat of a French invasion forces him to marry her off to a powerful adversary. But when she discovers the brutal truth behind her alliance, Lucrezia is plunged into a perilous gambit that will require all her wits, cunning, and guile. Escaping her marriage offers the chance of happiness with a passionate prince of Naples, yet as scandalous accusations of murder and incest build against her, menacing those she loves, Lucrezia must risk everything to overcome the lethal fate imposed upon her by her Borgia blood.

Beautifully wrought, rich with fascinating historical detail, The Vatican Princess is the first novel to describe Lucrezia’s coming-of-age in her own voice. What results is a dramatic, vivid tale set in an era of savagery and unparalleled splendor, where enemies and allies can be one and the same, and where loyalty to family can ultimately be a curse.

Praise for The Vatican Princess

“In a literary exploration riven with Shakespearean quantities of murder, lies, deceptions, and treachery, Gortner’s narrative gains veracity with his atmospheric exploration of fashion, architecture, and art on the stage of ‘loud, filthy, and dangerous’ Rome. Gortner has imagined Lucrezia Borgia’s life from a feminist perspective.”Kirkus Reviews

“[Gortner] has invested his novel with impressive historical detail that is woven neatly into the threads of the story, and his afterword and references offer excellent insight.”Historical Novels Review

“Assiduously researched and expertly crafted, this novel takes readers inside the treacherous world of the Borgias—one of history’s most dysfunctional ruling families—and brings to life the sympathetic and freshly imagined character of their leading lady, Lucrezia. This unholy plunge into Rome’s darkest dynasty is wholly engrossing.”—Allison Pataki, New York Times bestselling author of Sisi: Empress on Her Own

“The world of Renaissance Italy is vividly brought to life—I’m captivated by this knowledgeable author’s take on the controversial Borgias.”—Alison Weir, New York Times bestselling author of Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen

“Impressive research, a lush background, and deft characterization of these turbulent times make for a fascinating read.”—Margaret George, New York Times bestselling author of Elizabeth I

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Vatican Princess


“Lucrezia, basta. Stop indulging that filthy beast!”

My mother’s hand swept out, each fat finger squeezed by a ring. I avoided her slap, instinctually bending over my beloved cat, Arancino, who hissed and flattened his ears, his slitted eyes displaying the contempt I felt. I knew why Vannozza was here. Since Pope Innocent’s recent death and the gathering of the conclave to elect a new Holy Father, I’d been expecting my mother to arrive in the Orsini Palazzo on Monte Giordano where I lived, swathed in her veil and black skirts despite the summer heat, ensconcing herself in our camera like a harbinger of doom.

Now that she was here, all I wanted was to see her gone.

“Out!” She stamped her foot, spurring Arancino to action. Leaping from my embrace, he dashed through the open doors into the dim corridor.

I didn’t feel the scratch on my hand until a bright bead of blood welled. Sucking at the nick, I scowled at my mother as she gestured peremptorily. “Honestly, Adriana,” she said, “how can you let her keep such a creature in the house? It’s unhealthy. Cats are the devil’s spawn; everyone knows they can steal a baby’s breath.”

“Fortunately, we have no babies here,” replied Adriana from her chair, her voice as smooth as the light-gray silk of her dress. “And the cat comes in handy on occasion”—she shuddered—“especially in the summer, with all the rats.”

“Bah. Who needs a cat to get rid of vermin? A bit of poison in the corners is all you require. I do it myself every June. No rats in my house.”

Even as I trembled at the thought of poison left all over the house for my cat to wander upon, Adriana drawled, “Perhaps not that you can see, my dear Vannozza, but in Rome, as we both know, rats can come in all shapes and sizes.” Though Adriana didn’t return my grateful gaze, I was assured that she would never countenance the careless strewing of white death. My Arancino, whom I had rescued as a kitten from drowning by the stable hands, was safe.

My mother’s attention returned to me, keen as a blade. When I left her care, I was only seven years old. She had just married for the second time, and my father summoned me from her palazzo near San Pietro in Vincoli to reside here with Adriana de Mila, the widowed daughter of his eldest brother. Adriana had overseen my upbringing, which included lessons at the Convent of San Sisto. She was more of a mother to me than this plump, sweating woman had ever been. As Vannozza now scrutinized me like a customer debating a purchase, not for the first time I wondered how she’d managed to retain Papa’s affection for so many years.

I could see little of her once-fabled beauty. Now in her fiftieth year, my mother’s figure had been coarsened by repeated childbirth and pleasures of the table, so that she resembled a common matron; her gray-blue eyes—which I’d inherited, though mine were of a paler hue—surrounded by pockets of seamed shadow, her red-veined cheeks and hawkish nose accentuating a permanent frown. Though she wore costly black velvet, the cut of her gown was no longer in style, especially when coupled with her antiquated heavy veiled coif, under which the stippled gray of her once-golden tresses could be glimpsed.

“Is she eating?” Vannozza asked, as if she sensed my own critical assessment of her. “She’s still thin as a street cur. And so white: You’d think she’d never seen the sun. I suppose she hasn’t shed her first blood yet, either?”

“Lucrezia’s natural pallor is quite in fashion these days,” replied Adriana. “And she’s not yet thirteen. Some girls need extra time to grow into their form.”

Vannozza grunted. “She has no time. She’s already betrothed, remember? We can only hope she’s at least proving herself worthy of that fancy education Rodrigo insisted on providing her, not that I understand how any girl needs books and the like.”

“I love my books—” I started to protest but was cut off by Adriana’s ringing of a small silver bell at her side. Moments later, little Murilla, my favored dwarf, given to me by Papa on my eleventh birthday, hastened in with a pitcher and platter of cheese. She was a perfect miniature with ebony skin; I’d been enchanted by her exoticism, knowing she’d been brought from a faraway land where natives ran naked, and I watched in disbelief as my mother shooed her away like a gnat. Adriana gestured to Murilla to set the things on the table. Ever since Vannozza had arrived without word or warning, Adriana had ignored my mother’s overt appraisal of the servants, her pointed stares at the tapestries, at the vases of fresh-cut flowers and the statuary poised in the corners—all evidence of Papa’s attention, which she had once enjoyed.

“The nuns assure me Lucrezia excels in her studies,” Adriana went on. “She dances with grace and shows a talent for the lute; her sewing skills are also greatly admired, and she’s even mastered some Latin—”

“Latin?” Vannozza exclaimed, spraying crumbs. “On top of spoiling her eyes with all that reading, she can chant like a priest? She’s going to Spain to wed, not to say Mass.”

“A girl of Lucrezia’s status must have all the advantages,” Adriana said, “as she may be called upon to rule her own estate while her husband is away. Even you, my dear Vannozza, learned to read and write, yes?”

“I learned because I had my taverns to run. If I hadn’t, my suppliers would have robbed me blind. But Lucrezia? I cast her horoscope when she was born; the stars dictate she will die a wife. No wife has any need for Latin—unless Rodrigo thinks she can entertain her husband with her knowledge until she’s old enough to spread her legs.”

Adriana’s smile faltered. She lifted her gaze to me. “Lucrezia, dearest, do show Donna Vannozza that embroidery you’ve been working on. It’s so lovely.”

I moved reluctantly to the window seat, aghast at my mother’s callous pronouncement of my death. The sight of Arancino’s empty indent on the cushions sent another rush of anger through me as I retrieved the pillowcase I’d been sewing for Papa. It was the most complicated design I had attempted, employing real gold and silver thread to depict our Borgia emblem—the black bull against a mulberry-red shield. I planned to give it to him as a surprise after the conclave, and I gasped when my mother wrenched it from me as if it were a soiled napkin.

She ran her fingers over it with deliberate force. One of her rings snagged a loose thread and buckled the bull, marring stitches I’d spent hours perfecting.

“Adequate,” she said, “though it looks more like Juno than Minotaur.”

I snatched it from her. “Suora Constanza says my embroidery is better than any other girl’s in San Sisto. She says I could make rags for the poor and the Blessed Virgin herself would weep at their beauty.”

Vannozza reclined in her chair. “Is that so? I should think the Virgin might better weep at your insufferable insolence to your own mother.”

“Now, now,” soothed Adriana. “Let us not quarrel. We’re all on edge, what with this eternal waiting for the conclave and awful heat, but surely there’s no need for harsh—”

“Why?” I whispered, interrupting Adriana. “Why do you hate me so?”

My unexpected words shifted something in Vannozza’s expression. I caught it for a fleeting moment—a sudden softening of her features, so that a hint of distant pain surfaced under her skin. Then it vanished, swallowed by the pinched line of her mouth.

“If you were still under my charge, I’d bang your head against the wall until you learned proper respect for your elders.”

I had no doubt she would. I could still recall the sting of her palm from those times when she flew into a rage, often over trivial mishaps like a grass-stained hem or ripped sleeve. I’d feared her wrath almost as much as her consultations with seers and astrologers, her nightly ritual of tarot readings, which frightened me because they carried the taint of witchcraft and were forbidden by our Holy Church.

Adriana sighed. “Lucrezia, what on earth has come over you? You will apologize this instant. Donna Vannozza is our guest.”

Clutching the damaged pillowcase to my chest, I muttered, “Forgive me, Donna Vannozza,” and turned to Adriana. “May I be excused?” My mother stiffened in her chair; she knew my request of Adriana was defiant, a declaration that Vannozza had no power over me. I was gratified by the thunderous expression that came over her when Adriana said, “Of course, my child. This heat has us all at wits’ end.”

I stepped to the door; behind me, Adriana murmured, “You must forgive her. The poor child is bewildered; I fetched her out of San Sisto only two days ago, disrupting her routine because of this unexpected business with the conclave. She misses her lessons and—”

“Nonsense,” interrupted Vannozza. “I know all too well her own father is to blame. He has always spoiled her, although I told him it is not wise. Daughters grow up; they leave us and marry. They bear children of their own and put their new families first. But Rodrigo won’t hear of it. Not his Lucrezia, he says, not his farfallina. She is special. No one else has mattered to him since she was born. I daresay, after our son Juan, she is the only thing he truly loves.”

The venom in her voice coiled around me. I didn’t look back as I left, but once I was in the corridor, I had to grip the staircase balustrade and breathe in a ragged sigh of relief.

I couldn’t remember a time when my mother had not despised me. For my older brothers, Juan and Cesare, she’d always had smiles, solicitude, and encouragement; Cesare, in particular, she adored to such an extent that when Papa sent him away to Pisa to study for the priesthood, she wept as if her heart would break—the first and only tears I’d seen her shed. Even my youngest brother, Gioffre, who had done nothing thus far of particular import, had received more affection from her than I ever had. I was her sole daughter, whom she might have taken under her wing, but instead she had been cold and exacting, as if my very existence offended. I never understood it, even as throughout my childhood I longed to escape it. Coming to live with Adriana had been the answer to my prayers. She had showed me that I was important, adored, that I was indeed, as Papa claimed, special.

All of a sudden, I longed to see him. He visited as often as he could, as here in Adriana’s house we no longer had to pretend. In my mother’s house, we had called him our cherished uncle, because Vannozza was married and appearances must be kept. But there was no need for such subterfuge here. Papa would gather me up in his burly embrace after supper, caress my hair, and sit me on his lap to regale me with stories of our ancestors, for we were not Italian and must never forget it. Though his own uncle had been Pope Calixtus III and our kin had dwelled in Rome for generations, we still were of Catalan blood, born in the rugged vale of the Ebro River in the kingdom of Aragon. “Borja” was our Spanish surname, and our ancestors had fought in crusades against the Moors, amassing titles, estates, and royal favors that had enabled us to enter the Church and climb as high as the See of St. Peter itself.

“But you must remember, my farfallina,” Papa would say, using his nickname for me. “No matter how far we rise or how rich we become, we must always protect one another like lions in a pride, for here we are seen as foreigners, whom Italy will never accept as its own.”

“But I was born here and I don’t look like you,” I replied, gazing into his magnetic dark eyes, my hand on his swarthy cheek. “Does that mean I am also a foreigner?”

“You are a Borgia, my little butterfly, even if you have your mother’s Italian fairness.” He chuckled. “Thank God for it. You wouldn’t want to look like me, a Spanish ox!” He drew me close. “Inside your veins runs my sangre: the blood of Borja. That is all that matters. Blood is the only thing we can trust, the only thing worth dying for. Blood is family, and la familia es sagrada.” He kissed me. “You are my most beloved daughter, the pearl in my oyster. Never forget it. One day, this miserable land that so despises us will fall to its knees singing your praise. You shall astonish them all, my beautiful Lucrezia.”

While I didn’t comprehend exactly how I’d manage to bring Italy to its knees (it was hard enough simply to please the nuns of San Sisto), I laughed and tweaked his large beaked nose, because I knew he had other daughters, sired on other women, but none, I was sure, had heard such devotion from him. I could see it in his gaze, in the luminous smile that came over his strong face, and feel it in the tightening of his embrace. The great Cardinal Borgia, envied for his wealth and tenacity, deemed the most trustworthy servant of the Church in Rome—he loved me more than anyone else. And so I preened on his lap because it pleased him, because it made his laughter rumble like gathering lava, tickling my sides until it exploded from him in a molten guffaw that seemed to shake the walls of the palazzo—ebullient and proud, rough as uncombed velvet, and imbued with an infectious joy for life. I heard his love in his laughter; I felt his love as he lavished me with kisses and teased, “Such a little coquette you are! So like your mother in her youth: She too could dip her eyes at me and make me melt at her feet.”

I couldn’t imagine Vannozza dipping her eyes at anyone. In fact, all it had ever taken was one glare from her, one sneer, to pulverize any joy I felt.

Except now, for the first time, I understood. Now I knew why she hated me.

No one else has mattered to him since she was born. . . .

I had something she no longer possessed. I had Papa’s love.

A plaintive meow startled me into awareness. Bending down, I coaxed Arancino out from behind one of the antique broken statues on the landing. As I scooped him up, footsteps echoed in the cortile below. With my cat in my arms, I peered over the balustrade into the inner courtyard and saw Adriana’s daughter-in-law, Giulia Farnese, entering in a hurry.

Unhooking her cloak, she flung it at her maidservant. As she ran her hands hastily over her coiffure—disheveled from her cowl—Giulia mounted the staircase to the piano nobile, our living quarters on the second floor. Her coral silk gown adhered to her figure, dampened by sweat; she looked flushed, so intent on trying to creep up the stairs that she did not notice me until she was almost stepping on my toes. With a gasp, she came to a halt. Her dark eyes flared.

“Lucrezia! Dio mio, you gave me a fright! What are you doing skulking about?”

“Hush!” I put a finger to my lips, glancing to the doors of the room where Adriana’s murmur was punctuated by the occasional staccato reply from my mother.

- About the author -

C. W. Gortner holds an MFA in writing, with an emphasis on historical studies, from the New College of California. He is the internationally acclaimed and bestselling author of Mademoiselle Chanel, The Queen’s Vow, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, The Last Queen, The Vatican Princess, and Marlene, among other books. He divides his time between Northern California and Antigua, Guatemala. To learn more about his work and to schedule a book group chat with him, please visit his website.

More from C. W. Gortner

The Vatican Princess

A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia


The Vatican Princess

— Published by Ballantine Books —