The Banquet of the Chestnuts
A somewhat more historically accurate portrayal of the infamous “Banquet of the Chestnuts”. I have a great book by Christopher Hibbert called “The Borgias and their enemies.” If you’re curious, get it on Amazon. It concentrates on Alexander VI, Cesare, and Lucrezia.
Constanzia picked up her skirts and ran towards Cesare’s room. A maid met her at the door, saying, “Madonna, the Lord Valentino, he insists on getting up.”
“I will take care of this, Pita. Go, fetch the doctor now.” As if it will do any good, she thought grimly, but you always underestimate me, Cesare.
She saw him on the bed, attempting to leave his bed despite the objections of the servants. She chose a simple way to deal with the matter, and pushed Cesare back down. “What do you think you are doing? I have not dragged you from death’s door and spent days nursing you to have you become sick again. This time, I will leave you to the mercy of the doctors.”
Cesare defiantly sat up, then collapsed back down on his pillow, his head spinning. “Send them out of the room,” he growled, and Constanzia nodded. One by one, the servants left.
A cloth was sitting in some pleasantly scented water. She wrung it out, sniffing at the light scent of mint. She lay her cool hand on his forehead, pleased that his fever had broken, and lay the cloth gently on his forehead. “Well, in spite of yourself, or due to my nursing, your fever has broken. The leeches wanted to bleed you, but you were too weak and I would not allow it. What manner of illness is this anyway, Cesare?”
“I cannot say for sure, except that it brought me down as we were preparing to leave. I had to be brought here in a litter, I was so weak. All sorts of maladies follow a campaigning army, my love, it seems that I lose more men to disease than in battle. And this happens at a more inopportune time, Lucrezia’s wedding, and I must help Father entertain the Ferrarese ambassadors.” He pushed himself up carefully on one elbow, “Has the ceremony been performed?”
“Yes, it has. All that remains are the formalities. I must say, I do not envy Lucrezia. Isabella D’Este hates her, and begrudges every little thing the duke and your father do for her. I would swear that the D’Este was ready to drag the jewels that she was given out of her hand. Lucrezia’s only crime is that she is being an obedient daughter and marrying the choice of her father. And that she is young and beautiful. I am close to that bitch’s age but do you see me jealous? No. I love Lucrezia and I know the person she is.”
“Then, you must go to Ferrara with Lucrezia. I know she will have her ladies but you two have known each other since childhood, and she will need you.”
Oh, so I have been given permission to go—not that anything would have stopped me anyway. “That is what the Holy Father has said. Cesare, I think he suspects that he may not see her again. I do not often feel sorry for him, though Lucrezia is dear to all of us, this will hit him the hardest. I think he would almost have cancelled the wedding if he did not want this alliance so badly.”
Cesare felt a shiver run down his spine. That could be true for me, too, he thought. I killed Calvino Pallavicini because I could not bear to have you taken away from me. I killed Lucrezia’s useless husband Alfonso, too. But this time I am losing her for good, I know it and I feel helpless. I was in favor of this alliance because I thought it advantageous, but now I am not so sure and it is too late.
“It is too late for that, now, my love. I think Lucrezia is going to a place where she will be safe. All we can do now is wish for her happiness.”
“Well, then, if you wish to make her happy you must make her brother well, just spend another day or two in your bed, and start eating. I know you do not like to receive people, but when you are up to it, you can dress and receive the Ferrarese ambassadors in the drawing room. They will see that you have been ill and will not bother you for long. When you are better you can show off your skills at bull fighting and horse racing, just be careful to let them win and not try to take precedence over them.”
Cesare scowled at her, then smiled. “Where is my son?”
“He is waiting for you outside. He has been asking about his papa, so I will have the nurse bring him in.” She kissed him and stroked his hair, “I love you, you stubborn Spaniard.”
When she left, Cesare was walking around the room with his son, speaking to him in Valencian, and singing the songs his nurse use to sing to him. Soon he realized he’d tired himself, and went back to his bed, Marco cradled in his arms.
Constanzia came back to check on him after a while, and found him cuddled up with Marco, peacefully asleep and the trace of illness that had remained on his face almost gone.
“My lady,” a maid came and whispered to her, “The Lady Lucrezia is here, shall I show her to the drawing room?”
“No, bring her here, she will want to see this,” Constanzia smiled, “And If he wakes, he will want to see her, too.” The maid smiled, and nodded, she understood.
“Constanzia I have news,” Lucrezia said as she came up the stairs, but she shushed her. “Oh,” she said as she looked in the room, “Oh, I so seldom see Cesare at peace like this, Marco so much looks like the two of you, he is truly the most beautiful little boy. I am sure that he will not settle for anything less than a princess for his wife.”
“A princess would only be worthy, indeed,” Cesare woke and held one arm out so that he could embrace his sister. This damn fever has crippled me, and my nurse will not let me out of bed today.” He looked meaningfully at Constanzia and smiled.
“Indeed, you gave me a bad scare, my love, but I have returned you to health. Cooperate with me on this, and tomorrow you may dance all night if you are foolish enough to want to.”
“Now that you are well, Father will want to throw a celebration. There will be dancing as well as a feast. But first, Cesare, Father wants to do an inspection of the north. Don’t worry, you will only be gone for a week, then the celebrations will start.”
“He could at least give me a chance to recover. He tends to forget that illness is not cured by God alone. That said, I think that I am going to arrange a little treat for us.” Cesare lay back on his bed and smiled.
“Tell us what, Cesare, please,” Lucrezia begged.
“Yes, tell tell,” Constanzia said.
“No, this will be surprise, but I will give you one hint—your sister in law would not wish to attend. Now my son and I need our lunch, please have it brought to us.”
That evening he was so much improved that Constanzia relented when Cesare told her he wanted to attend that night’s festivities. Constanzia was a vision in gold brocade, while Cesare wore his usual black velvet. He showed her how much he was improved when he took her to bed that night, his vigor taking her breath away.
It felt good to lie in his arms, just the two of them. He traced her breast with a slender finger, then moved the finger down to tease her privates, loving the look on her face as she responded to his touch.
She took his hand and moved it. “No, I want to sleep. Staying awake until three is too late, but I’ll have to get used to it while your father entertains the delegation from Ferrara. Poor Lucrezia, it’s going to take a toll on her, but she hates to disappoint your father. I, on the other hand, seem to have more luck saying no.”
“Like you think you have luck with saying ‘no’ to me, eh? I will show you, signora, just how much your ‘no’ is worth.” He pinned her down on the bed and showed her just what he meant.
During the next few weeks Cesare was back in full health. He spent it showing off, fighting bulls, wrestling, participating in horse races. Though Constanzia warned him not to, he would take precedence over the Ferrarese and won too frequently when racing or performing feats of strength.
Lucrezia kept late hours entertaining with her father. Constanzia would beg the Pope’s permission to retire, and wished Lucrezia would do the same. She, who was usually so lovely, began to look pale and Constanzia took her to task, telling her that she should take better care of herself, reminding her that she had a long and arduous journey facing her.
On October thirty first, Cesare invited the Pope, Lucrezia, Constanzia and the rest of family to a banquet. Those whom he thought from the Ferrara delegation would enjoy it, were invited, along with several of his friends. Also conspicuous were fifty of Rome’s finest courtesans, something noticed by the attendees of the banquet.
After the meal the candles were lowered, and the guests began dancing amongst themselves and the servants. Both prostitutes and guests removed their clothing, and a bowl of candied chestnuts was brought. The servants began to toss the chestnuts and a competition began between the guests and the courtesans to see who could gather the most chestnuts.
Lucrezia watched along with her father and her brother as guests and courtesans competed. Costly prizes, such as boots, hats, silk mantles, were given based on the number of chestnuts retrieved and occasionally, the number of times a guess had sex with a courtesan was also rewarded.
The guests finally left at four, and Cesare picked Costanzia up and carried her to his bedroom. He undid her laces and hooks and pulled off her garments and let them lie on the floor. He took her in his arms, kissing her, whispering, “Now, was that not entertainment, my love”
“Too bad you didn’t invite the College of Cardinals and ask them to participate, that would have been entertainment, indeed. When they hear of this, the whole consistory will be jealous.”
All through the holidays, Pope overindulged in one thing or another. You are going to make yourself sick, uncle, you will worry Lucrezia and that would not be good, Constanzia thought.
Christmas came and went. She gave Cesare a fine Arabian stallion, and a saddle and bridle of red leather, trimmed with gold. He, in turn, gave the girls bolts of white and silver brocade, and fine necklaces of diamonds. The Pope gave the children rosaries of gold and pearls, along with bibles with gem incrusted covers.
After the family feast, Cesare and Constanzia held a private celebration of their own. Marco was sent to his cousins’ nursery, and they made love in Constanzia’s finely furnished bed. Then, to music being played on a lute, discreetly hidden, Cesare and Constanzia danced naked through her house, making love on the sofa, on the table, or wherever they pleased.
“Who is going to please me the way you do” He whispered in her ear. “Who knows so well what I like? Who has no inhibitions and lets me do whatever I want. You must promise me that you will not marry, that you will be eternally mine, and no one else’s. Promise.”
Constanzia looked at him, “You know I cannot make that promise. Uncle could find a match for me, or maybe even father. Uncle married me to Calvino for an alliance between Genoa and Rome. It could happen again, Cesare, just like it’s happening to Lucrezia. Tell me, who thought of this match?”
He sat down on a divan and pulled her onto his lap. “Father, and me. Louis had his hand in it, he convinced Ercole and break Alfonso’s engagement and marry Lucrezia instead. It’s all about politics, my love, and you’re right, if a good match is found, they will marry you, too. I just don’t want you to.”
“I don’t want to marry again, Cesare. I like having my freedom. Daughters are nothing more than commodities on the marriage market. You and Uncle sold Lucrezia to Ferrara, and now you should live with it, Cesare. I pray every day that she will be happy, I hope you do the same.”