By Hella Haassse.
367 pages
Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1990.
ISBN# 0-99733-372-1

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2003

There is a sense in which this is a novel of 16th century Italy as the subtitle claims. It is set during the period of the Italian Wars, from about 1495 to 1527. However, it becomes clear in the telling that the wars, and later development of the Italian nation-state on the basis of those wars, is not the theme of the novel. The progress and meaning of the wars and battles is never made clear in the novel, or is the treatment in any way systematic.

Rather, this is an interesting reciting of the lives of a number of people, several historically famous, who lived in this period, and it seems to aim at giving us a picture of life among the noble class at the court of Rome and the Vatican during this time. As such it is rather successful.

There are 21 chapters, each one told from the point of view of a single character (the sole exception being an exchange of letters in one chapter that involves two characters). The characters play very different roles in the courts and world of the ruling class, and thus what emerges is a detailed picture of what life was like within each of these multiple roles, and from that collectively, of the upper class world.

The historical characters are Michelangelo, Machiavelli, the poet Vittoria Colonna, critic and gadfly, Pietro Aretino and court functionary Francesco Guicciardini. Many other historical characters inter into their stories, but are presented with lesser development and are thus more mentioned that treated.

The central character is Giovanni Borgia and while he is also an historical figure, the author uses the question of his parentage as the driving device of the novel, thus fictionalizing him. We meet him in the opening chapter as a secretary working in the Vatican long after the Borgia family has descended into infamy. He is unsure of his parents. He believes he might be the son of the famous Caesar Borgia via an incestuous relationship with his own sister, Lucrezia Borgia. As time goes on and he explores this rumor, he comes to believe he might be the son of Pope Alexander and Lucrezia Borgia. Since Pope Alexander was the father of Lucrezia, (and Caesar) that would make him the son of a father/daughter incest relationship. Lucrezia would be both is sister and mother! Other versions have him as the youngest brother of Caesar and Lucrezia.

The novel is an interesting read and one can get caught up both in the life of the court and Vatican, as well as Giovanni’s search for his family history. However, in the end it is a bit unsatisfying, it just doesn’t go anywhere. We never get a clear picture of the wars and their role in the historical process toward an Italian nation state, and we never really get a clear picture of life at the courts. It is too episodic, too wedded to the particular lives of these few people. Author Hella Haasee seems unable to lift the story to a larger historical significance. I came away from the work feeling as though she knew just enough Italian history to pull off an accurate portrayal of these few people, but not enough understanding to lay bare either the life of the court nor the process of Italian history.

I did find Haasse’s decisions on how to create the specifics of her historical characters to be quite interesting. For example Machiavelli, whom we tend to associate with a sort of amoral hardnosed pragmatism (the very meaning of the term Machiavellian) is treated more as a dreamer, a romantic and his correspondent in the court, Francesco Guicciardini is given the role we typically assign to Machiavelli.

Perhaps the strangest bit of historical characterization was her portrait of Michelangelo in relation to the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo did the Sistine Chapel in 1509. In the novel he appears in 1525, almost the end of the Italian Wars. Michelangelo is not much in favor in the Vatican and is a bit angry about having been demoted in prestige. The critic, Aretino, has undermined him with the pope and court of the pope. Michelangelo hates Aretino. He has suggested that Michelangelo has a rather strong appetite for beautiful bodies like those he paints and sculpts, especially young boys. This is at least historically creditable and is one dominant theory.

In the monologue Michelangelo gives us a most anachronistic view of himself in defense. He suggests that he has these desires for magnificent bodies, but he sublimates these desires when he SCULPTS these bodies and thus avoids an temptation toward homosexuality or sexual profligacy. Classic Freud!!!

I was most unhappy with the author for that rank anachronistic explanation.

However, the passage that follows that is one of my favorite in the novel since it raises an interesting philosophical question. In this scene Michelangelo goes to the Sistine Chapel, to replay the days of his great glory and he remembers an important event. In his mind he is back in 1509 and he has basically finished the chapel. He remembers being there one day looking over the finished ceiling and he is very unhappy with Adam. He has the PHYSICAL self right, but there is no LIFE in this Adam. So, he goes back up and wipes him out and does it again. He reflects: What makes Adam important and DIFFERENT?

He is the father of humanity. Humanity is not like other animals (on this view he is following). God wanted to make Adam (humans) very special and He didn't exactly know what to do, so to be sure he was special, He made Adam in his own likeness, and the essence was that Adam could CHOOSE. More than just CHOOSE, he could know good from evil.

But, he might not always choose good over evil. The dilemma for humans every since, and which, on his memory, he was trying to capture in his "Adam" was that human was the creature who could both:

Yet Michelangelo suggests (vaguely in this monologue) that when humans choose evil, they sort of know it and are either ashamed or feeling guilty when they do what they know is not good.

Here the author again plunges Michelangelo’s explanation into philosophical anachronism. The Michelangelo in the novel accepts the notion of absolute and objective good -- that's ACCURATE and not anachronistic; virtually no one could then conceive of a value relativity like that Nietzsche would introduce in the 19th century -- and Haasse’s Michelangelo sort of tries to evade responsibility via claiming that he was sublimating lots of this lust in sculpting, but admitting that, well, now and again, he did let loose and indulge his lust. But he feels so bad.

I couldn't help looking at the LOGIC of that argument. One says:

Even if one accepts objective and absolute values, one also, on this view, needs to accept SIN as well and simply human and not divine.

The HIDDEN ASSUMPTION, the one that Freud later points out, the one that causes so much malfunctioning in human consciousness, is that human should be God and not just human. Freud tried to get us to accept being human, which doesn't mean one doesn't CARE about being good, but one just recognizes the human is not God.

Needless to say, I had a great time with that passage. But, most of the above analysis is NOT in the novel, it is my analysis of the hidden LOGIC that is there in Michelangelo's view when spelled out. I would have been happier with the author had she faced some of these issues (via the character of Michelangelo) in a more transparent manner.

Haasse does present an interesting bit of exchange in the novel on arranged marriage and some follow up thoughts. The main character Giovanni Borgia is about 16-17 when this scene occurs. His similar aged cousin has just been promised in marriage to a family member, a bit distant, but same family name, who lives in Milan. This cousin and Giovanni are living in southern eastern sea-coast town of Bari, Italy. He comes to her apartment in the castle to congratulate her. She replies:

Happiness, happiness! Are you being malicious? Maximilian Sforza is a drunken brute, a womanizer, lazy and stupid. If I were a man, I would kick him out of Milan. But I'm a woman and the only way I can reach my goal is to creep into his bed. I'll recognize my son as a true Sforza because he'll have my father's blood in his veins.

This seems interesting to me on several counts: the awareness of the reality of life by the young woman and that she already knows how to deal with it.

Secondly, there is this strong tradition, which in our much more individualist worlds we know much less about, of both generational living (she is more living for her son’s success than even thinking of her own – but many of our depression era and immigrant generations of ancestors did the EXACT same thing) and nobility rather than other forms of success.

I have raised a number of quarrels with the structure and development of the novel. I do think it is relatively weak as an historical novel. But, it was an enjoyable read if one can overlook that and just sort of let yourself be drawn into the story as she tells it. I sort of enjoyed the dialectic I had with the author at the same time, both enjoying her story, but fussing with her in my mind’s eye as these various issues came up during my reading. A rather curious reader/author relationship.

Bob Corbett

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