Sunday, March 13, 2011

Poison In The Blood, by M G Scarsbrook

Although the name Borgia is well known for their power hungry and decadent lifestyle, little is known of Lucrezia, the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI. She was certainly a pawn in her father’s quest for power, in that he married her off to three different members of European nobility in order to advance his political ambitions. She was also thought to have had an illegitimate child by a lover. However, the extent of her complicity in the political machinations of her father and brothers is unclear. 

Contemporary accounts say Lucrezia had heavy blonde hair which fell past her knees, a beautiful complexion, hazel eyes which constantly changed colour, a full, high bosom, and a natural grace. Although I doubt anyone in 15th century Italy would have dared describe the Pope’s only daughter as ‘homely’.

History says Cesare Borgia suffered from syphilis and to cover his scars wore a mask and dressed in black. Insanely jealous of her second husband, Alfonso of Aragon (Duke of Bisceglie) when the Prince visited them in Rome, Cesare's men attacked him during the night. To retaliate, Alfonso's men shot arrows at Cesare while he strolled in the garden. This infuriated Cesare, and he had his servant strangle Alfonso while in the recovery room. Lucrezia and Alfonso had an infant, Rodrigo, who predeceased his mother in August 1512 at the age of 12.

It is this marriage and Cesare’s hatred of Alfonso that Matthew Scarsbrook’s Poison In The Blood deals with in a fast paced and very readable way. His Lucrezia is a young and relatively innocent girl with a conscience, whose father rejected her mother when she was small, and whom she is forbidden to see. Lucrezia's betrothal to Alfonso of Aragon is arranged by her family, but she determines to be a good wife. To her horror, Lucrezia discovers her brother Cesare, keeps a locked room full of deadly poisons and that he also murdered their elder brother Juan, who received honours and privilege Cesare believed were due to him.

When Pope Alexander and Cesare go on campaign to defeat their enemies, they leave Lucrezia behind to keep the cardinals of the Vatican in order. Lucrezia seeks advice from Nicollo Machiavelli, the philosopher and poet, and performs well, but she is also aware that when her men return, Alfonso’s days are numbered.

She plans to escape from Rome before the assassins strike, taking their infant son, Rodrigo with them and beg for shelter from Alfonso’s estranged family. However, Cesare pre-empts them and returns early, inviting them to a feast which Lucrezia is convinced will be Alfonso’s last.

Despite her careful arrangements, Alfonso is poisoned and lies near to death. His only hope of an antidote is the legendary Mithridate, but the formula has been lost. Undeterred, Lucretia goes looking for this miraculous antidote and is reunited with her mother.

Just when I was at the point of deciding this Lucrezia was a little too virtuous, her Borgia ancestry emerges and she persuades Cesare to spare her husband’s life in exchange for the formula for Mithridate which she has memorised.

In Medieval Rome, beauty, decadence and luxury hide murder and betrayal. Lucrezia’s fight to keep her husband alive is conflicted by the love she has for her brother, a twisted, dangerous man who may not be acting entirely alone.

I thoroughly enjoyed this portrayal of an ancient story and anyone who enjoys Medieval Italy, love, betrayal and a strong, resourceful heroine on a knife edge, will enjoy this well researched and well written book.

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