Done: The Borgias and their Enemies

I borrowed this from my friend because I was interested in finding out more about the Borgias. The television show aside, any one who has studied or taken an interest in history or early modern Europe would not have been able to avoid the mention of the house of Borgia, more specifically Lucrezia Borgia, who has gone down in the annals of time as a femme fatale. Otherwise, you may have heard of Cesare Borgia, widely speculated to have been the inspiration for the figure of Jesus in paintings (a highly ironic premise, to say the least, considering his real personality and misdeeds). Nevertheless, the Borgias have been renowned for some reason or other through the centuries and I was curious to find out why.

The book begins with a long and rather tedious introduction into the Catholic church. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me why they had to go into cardinals and Popes and the convocation of electing a new Pope when one died. I have to say, I almost gave up at that point. But I persevered and finally saw my first Borgia mentioned a few chapters in. Roderigo Borgia was an up and coming cardinal, handsome and knew where to make his alliances. The book continued plodding on about the politics within the Catholic church, none of which was particularly memorable to me. I also got very very confused with all the Italian names mentioned. Finally, finally, when Roderigo Borgia was elected Pope, that’s when the real action starts.

Unlike previous Popes, who would masquerade their illegitimate children (vow of celibacy, remember?) as their nephews and nieces, Roderigo Borgia, or better known as Pope Alexander VI, paraded his illegitimate offspring publicly. He boosted his eldest son Cesare in the profession of the church, making him a cardinal, and somehow or other bestowed titles or negotiated advantageous marriages for all his other children. Cesare later resigns his cardinalship and concentrates on being the military general of the church, a post which allows him to sleep around more freely than he could as a cardinal. He marries, but spends most of his time away from his wife, sleeping with whoever he wanted and constantly contracting syphilis. The Pope himself also had his fair share of syphilis throughout his life. Through the book, Cesare impressed me with being something of a dickhead. He has no hesitation murdering, raping and plundering whoever or whatever village he saw fit. When he sacked various cities in Italy in the name of the church, the atrocity of the crimes his soldiers wreaked upon the local natives made me very uncomfortable. Young girls being raped and then murdered, or women who were raped and then robbed of their jewellery, getting their fingers chopped off if they refused to give up their rings. ALL THIS MADE ME VERY UNCOMFORTABLE. Worse still that all the perpetrators of this violence was closely associated with the Catholic church.

Also, part of the reason why I was interested in the Borgias was because of Lucrezia. Her name has reached a level of fame that neither her father nor her brother has, and I was curious to know why. I don’t know if the author was particularly biased towards her, and I probably should read up more about her from other authors before I form a more solid opinion on her, but she appears to have done nothing in the least bit as heinous as her brother and father have. She marries at least 3 times, her first 2 husbands ending up either deposed or murdered. But she’s not the one who plots to depose or murder them. Her second husband, in fact, was apparently murdered by her brother because the alliance with him no longer served a purpose. According to Hibbert, Lucrezia was mad with grief from it, but there was nothing much she could do, given the limited amount of infleunce women had at the time. There were rumours of incest between her, her brother and her father as well. It does seem a little strange to me that her brother, being as violent and tyrannical as he is painted to be, should have such a soft spot for his sister, even going out of his way to visit her when she fell severely ill after a botched delivery. It also seems strange to me that Lucrezia, despite probably knowing that her brother was behind the murder of her husband, should still remain so close and affectionate towards him. But well… I guess we’ll never know. Even if Lucrezia was guilty of incest towards her brother and even her father, I don’t see it as a crime remotely on the same level as the violence and tyranny that Alexander VI and Cesare wreaked upon Rome and Italy at the time.

After Pope Alexander VI’s death (with descriptions of his gruesome funeral), things went quickly downhill for the Borgias. Cesare made the mistake of attempting to ally himself with the next powerful Pope (discounting Pius III), Pope Julius II, who has long held a grudge against the Borgias for exiling him. As a result, the Romagna empire that he had built for himself went crumbling to the ground within a short span of time and he eventually died in battle. Lucrezia did not long survive him.

All in all, the book was uncomfortable to read but did give me a much better idea of the Borgias. I would recommend sticking it through till after Roderigo Borgia gets elected Pope. It does get better, I promise. I am interested in finding out more about the Borgias, but I don’t think I’ll read this one again.

Title: The Borgias and their Enemies (1431 – 1519)
Author: Christopher Hibbert
ISBN: 9780547247816
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6900406-the-borgias-and-their-enemies

Done: The Daughter of Time

daughteroftime

This is the first book review I’ve done in a long time! The last post I had was almost half a year ago, on Oct 18. Anyway, apologies for the hiatus. Life has been a rollercoaster, and furthermore I’ve been extremely preoccupied with my semester, which is now in its crunch time. I couldn’t have picked a worse time to do a book review, but after a series of disappointing library books, I’ve finally found one that motivated me to finish it quickly and to feel like giving it a review.

I first picked up The Daughter of Time because one of my pen pals, Michelle, recommend it to me. I only had a bare-bones idea of what it was about – something about a detective and Richard III. That in itself was enough to interest me, but shortly after delving into the book, I finally fully realised that the author was taking the classic image of Richard III as a heartless, power-hungry monarch who murdered his two boy nephews in cold blood as a way of securing his claim to the throne, and attempting to make us realise that this account of it may not be the only viable one around.

I researched up further not only on Richard III but also on how this book was received when it was first published. I did not know that this was written in 1951, and helped to launch a pro-Ricardian movement, and subsequently the establishment of the Richard III Society. If a book has been this influential in changing the minds of those who have grown up with the widely accepted story of the Princes in the Tower, it is definitely worth a read in my opinion. I love history, and the Wars of the Roses is a period that I am growing more and more interested in – it will be to no one’s surprise that I devoured this book greedily. It combined my two favourite genres nowadays – history and mystery – into a very persuasive and engaging narrative.

I have read some reviewers’ comments about how there is no story, or narrative thrust. I’m on the fence about that one. Sure, there is no story as you would expect typical narratives to go – the entire book is set exclusively in Inspector Grant’s hospital room, where he is recuperating from a broken leg and is put out of action when his attention is captivated by a portrait of Richard III. Any research and new information is done by Brent Carradine, a young American who works at the British Museum. He is the one that brings in fresh new discoveries from the annals of history to Grant’s hospital room, and there they puzzle over the glaring but overlooked unlikelihood of Richard III being the larger than life villain that history has casted him to be. So, while there isn’t any actual action, the story does bring you through Richard III’s life indirectly and I never had a bored moment while reading, or felt like skipping past particular parts – this is not something I can boast of for most of the books I’ve been reading in recent months.

Another critique that some people had about this book is that Inspector Grant pretty much immediately pronounced Richard III innocent from the very moment he set eyes on his portrait, based on his face, and some people found that too unbelievable to stomach. Somehow, this aspect of things never really occurred to me while I was reading it. If so, then one might say Sherlock Holmes’s method of deduction, which also relies a lot on superficial appearances to provide insights into the person’s interior, or the entire concept behind The Picture of Dorian Gray, about how the face changes according to how he develops as a person, might be too unbelievable to stomach either. If I’m not wrong, in the past few centuries, physiognomy (“the assessment of a person’s character or personality from his or her outer appearance, especially the face” from Wikipedia) was a widely accepted mindset (read any Jane Austen book for examples). Of course, nowadays we try not to judge the book by its cover, and to reserve judgement until we know something more concrete about the person, but I think it’s still hard to avoid the fact that we do form certain initial lines of judgement based on a person’s outward appearances, though whether we choose to set this judgement in stone, or be open to being proved wrong about them is another matter. I don’t find that Inspector Grant jumps to his conclusion solely based on the portrait either. Richard III’s face merely struck him as curiously unlike how he would imagine a heartless tyrant to be, and that then launches his investigation into this long closed case – it wasn’t so much that he simply concluded directly from Richard III’s face alone.

OK, enough rebuttal! Tl;dr I enjoyed this book tons, enough to draw me out of my hiatus to write a review on it. Any fan of English history would love it.

Fun fact: did you know Benedict Cumberbatch is a distant relation to Richard III? For that connection, he was invited to recite a poem at Richard III’s re-burial, after his bones were excavated from under a city council car park lot in 2012. Fascinating! If we assume Richard III as having more claim to the throne than Henry Tudor who came after him, does that mean B. Cumberbatch has more claim to the throne than the royal family? Haha, I kid.