As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolò Machiavelli, and the Borgia family lead me down a winding path.
Ennis, Michael. The Malice of Fortune. Doubleday. 2012. 416p. ISBN 9780385536318. $26.95.
Ennis’s engrossing and suspenseful novel of 16th-century Italy is a wonderful blend of genres. It is grand historical fiction, richly descriptive of time and place. It is a procedural, with Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Madonna Damiata (a highly connected courtesan who was the lover of Juan Borgia before his murder) as detectives. It is a subtle and wistful love story as well, circling around Damiata’s relationships. But most of all it is a story concerned with politics, secrets, and methods of knowing (Leonardo champions experience and science while Machiavelli invents a nascent form of psychology tied to political philosophy). Suspected in her lover’s murder, Damiata is placed in an insidious position. Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) takes her son, who is also his grandson, hostage, sure that she will find out who killed Juan Borgia, as she proclaims her own innocence in his assassination. The suspects are all gathered in the town of Imola where Duke Valentino (Cesare Borgia) is currently holding court while he negotiates treaties with a host of dangerous men. Leonardo da Vinci is there in service to Valentino, as mapmaker and military engineer. Niccolò Machiavelli is also in Imola, sent by the rulers of Florence to ensure that Valentino’s treaties do not spell that city’s doom. Also in Imola is a fiendishly clever killer who is dissecting women and leaving body parts around the city, gruesomely creating a map that echoes one Leonardo has recently drawn. As Damiata, Leonardo, and Machiavelli investigate, the events swirl and connect in an intricate series of lies, but the tightly plotted story is grounded through vivid characterizations, an engrossing and building pace, and intimate and personal storytelling, as first Damiata and then Machiavelli tell their parts in the harrowing tale.
Franklin, Ariana. The Mistress of the Art of Death. Berkley. 2008. 432p. ISBN 9780425219256. pap. $15.
Focused as well on politics and methods, and blending historical fiction with procedural mystery, Franklin’s first entry in the Adelia Aguilar series makes for great next reading for Ennis fans. In 12th-century England, a serial killer is murdering children and leaving their mutilated bodies to be found by the terrorized residents of Cambridge. Wishing to stop the murders, but mired in the politics of religion and state, King Henry II arranges for a doctor skilled in the nascent science of forensics, Adelia Aguilar, to travel to the city and find the killer. Adelia is a fine companion to Damiata, brave, sure, loving, and relentless. She slowly learns the details of the murders, stalking the killer, surveying the landscape, and becoming entangled with Sir Rowley Picot, a man of many secrets and plans. Suspenseful, engrossing, and richly descriptive of time and place, Franklin’s novel offers readers the same mix of immersive storytelling and character development as Ennis. There are three other books in the series, which sadly ended before the full arc was complete when Franklin died in 2011.
Dunant, Sarah. In the Company of the Courtesan. Random House. 2007. 400p. ISBN 9780812974041. pap. $13.95.
Another work that should please Ennis fans is Dunant’s tale of the courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini as she and her household navigate the politics, plots, and betrayals of the Renaissance. Both authors create a fully realized setting and richly crafted characters, and both focus on the fate and loves of women who must survive by their beauty and wits. Just as Machiavelli furthered the tale of the courtesan Damiata, Dunant places the story of her courtesan in the capable hands of Bucino Teodoldo, a shrewdly observant and intriguing dwarf who acts as Fiammetta’s majordomo and closest companion. Together they flee the city of Rome as it is sacked in 1527 and make their way to the canals of Venice. The opulent city comes to life in the novel, as do the brilliant and witty Bucino and the smart, determined, and seductive Fiammetta. Together they learn to navigate their new city, both its alluring fascinations and its dangerous currents.
King, Ross. Ex-Libris. Penguin. 2002. 400p. ISBN 9780142000809. pap. $16.
For fans that enjoyed Leonardo’s, Machiavelli’s, and Damiata’s struggles to map the bodies littering Imola and figure out the clues the killer leaves behind, Ross’s literary and historic thriller should offer delightful next reading. Set in 1660, it recounts the dangerous quest of Isaac Inchbold, the owner of Nonsuch Books, to locate a lost manuscript. Inchbold begins his search for the manuscript without knowing that he will soon be trapped in a century-old struggle to claim its pages, and that he’ll be caught in a web of layered clues. Full of details that enrich and deepen the world of the novel and draw the reader ever more firmly into its intricate complications, Ross’s novel is richly packed with subplots and stories, brilliantly set, and extraordinarily clever. The detailed descriptions, intimate characterizations, and engrossing plot should resonate with Ennis’s readers.
Strathern, Paul. The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped. Random. 2009. 480p. ISBN 9780553807523. $30.
Ennis begins his book with a note to the reader that the events of 1502 recounted in his novel are true and that he builds his fictional tale out of speculation as to the threads that might bind those facts together. Strathern offers a narrative nonfiction account of the relationship between Leonardo, Machiavelli, and Borgia during the same period. Borgia, intent on conquering the Romagna lands, wanted Florence to fall in line. Machiavelli, sent by the rulers of Florence to try and placate Borgia, wanted to save his city and advance his career. Borgia wanted Leonardo to design weapons of war and Leonardo just happened to be living in the city of Florence – Machiavelli offered him up. The three men spent months together, touring Borgia’s fortifications, in a dangerous time and in dangerous circumstances, each dependent on the others’ questionable motives and each learning and testing theories that would come to shape the modern world. It is a remarkable account, and fans of Ennis will find many of the same characters and images in Strathern’s accessible history as filled the pages of The Malice of Fortune.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Translated by Peter Constantine. Random House. 2008. 160p. ISBN 9780812978056. pap. $8.
Readers might want to read the text that frames Ennis’s novel, Machiavelli’s The Prince. Caesar Borgia was indeed a principle subject of the book that has become famous for its brutal tenets of power and for its then-iconoclastic views of political philosophy. The work itself is available in a number of strong translations and in addition to this one, readers will be well served by editions by William J. Connell or Peter Bondanella, both of which have maps and notes and offer much contextualization. To move beyond its many maxims, pair it with a biography of Machiavelli as a man, rather than an idea, and one that pays due attention to the creation and meaning of The Prince. Miles Unger’s Machiavelli serves that purpose well and offers an engaging portrait of the diplomat and his most famous work while fully setting Machiavelli in his times. He was an astounding figure, born at a pivotal point in history, when work such as his, Leonardo’s, and others would literally shape the world to come. Readers might also enjoy Niccolò’s Smile by Maurizio Viroli or Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power by Ross King.
Hibbert, Christopher. The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431–1519. Mariner Books. 2009. 336p. ISBN 9780547247816. pap. $15.95.
The Borgias as a group are as infamous as Machiavelli and their deeds have infiltrated popular culture to the point that films (see below), video games (Assassin’s Creed), and novels (Poison by Sara Poole and The Family by Mario Puzo) all feature some member of the family. Along with a handful of Roman emperors, their names have become synonymous with a perversion of power that still echoes today. Hibbert offers an accessible and readable history of the family as well as the vastly complicated history of the times. Rodrigo Borgia is the central focus of the book, and both Cesare and Juan also get plenty of attention. As a family and social biography, it also covers Lucrezia Borgia, a figure who is largely ignored in Ennis’s book (aside from a few allusions to her relationship with her brother). For fans of Ennis who want to know more about the malevolent figure who stalked Damiata and held her child for leverage, about her enigmatic and murdered lover, and the duke who worked with both Leonardo and Machiavelli, this is a solid introductory edition.
The Borgias: Season One. Showtime. 2011.
The Showtime production of The Borgias has high production values, great settings, and lush and detailed costumes. For fans of Ennis’s novel it makes for great viewing as it reinforces the richness of landscape and the plots and politics of the novel. Tracing the arc of the Borgias’ rise to power, season one tracks the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI, and focuses on many of the same characters Ennis does, including Cesare and Juan. Illustrating the brutality of the family and set within the cultural backdrop of its age, it holds similar attractions as The Tudors and Rome. Advisors who are helping fans who want more films and who have access to Netflix might also want to consider suggesting Tom Fontana’s TV series, Borgia: Faith and Fear, which was created for the French cable company Canal+. It largely follows the same arc as the Showtime series and also is a big costume saga full of sex, politics, and intricate plots.
Zen: Vendetta, Cabal, Ratking. BBC Worldwide. 2011.
For viewers who might like their twisty and complicated mysteries set in a modern, but no less labyrinthine, Italy, suggest this three-episode series based on the police procedural books by Michael Dibdin: Vendetta, Cabal, and Ratking. It ran on Masterpiece Mystery to great acclaim. The episodes are lighter in tone and more seductive (think sharp suits, cigarettes, and innuendo) and the entire production has a gleeful feel. However, the subjects are directly descended from Borgia’s best plotting – the story lines are mired in an atmosphere of political corruption and murky secret deals. Beautifully set and offering a sly, witty, and sophisticated sensibility, it is a series that should be deeply satisfying for all who enjoyed Ennis’s political complications and layered plots. For those who enjoy the films, Dibdin wrote 11 Zen mysteries before his death in 2007.