Chapter 6: Savonarola
Cesare stood on the balcony of Machiavelli’s house, drinking a glass of his host’s excellent wine, his faithful Micheletto hovering in the background. He’d discarded his cardinal robes for his everyday garb, feeling safer and less conspicuous. In truth, sometimes he felt vulnerable in his role as a prince of the church; only when in Rome under his Holy Father’s protection did he let down his guard. The sooner he could permanently rid himself of the red satin cardinal’s skirts, the better.
He looked down and saw a curious thing happening in the streets. A procession of people followed a short, square man in Dominican robes. He did not know for certain whom the man was, but he had heard rumors. He made up his mind to ask his host who this squat, ugly man was, and his opinion of him. Machiavelli had slowly been earning his respect, and he found that he valued his opinions.
Machiavelli emerged with a stack of books bound by leather straps. “Tell your cousin I would like to know what she thinks of these. When she finishes, I would be glad to loan her more. She is trustworthy with other’s books, is she not? I would think so; otherwise you would not do this for her.”
Cesare laughed. “Be careful, or you will find yourself becoming her library. I fully expect when I return to Florence I will have these, with instructions to exchange them for new ones. I think she is hoping you have volumes that are not allowed in the Vatican library.”
“Ah, a heretic in the making. Unusual. Tell me about your cousin,” said Machiavelli, a shrewd look on his face, “Is she a scholar, or someone who reads merely for pleasure?”
“Something of both. Her father is a scholar, and insisted on a good education for all of his children. I think she might be better educated than me. I always admired her father, when he left he gave me a list of books he thought I should read. That is what I like best about my cousin, she is beautiful, but she does not place great significance on it. She says that looks are an accident, and if she relied on them, she would be foolish, because looks will fade while education does not.” Cesare held out his empty glass and a servant refilled it.
“But there is something I would ask you about, Niccolo. I saw a strange sight, an odd looking friar leading a procession. Who is this person who has such a following?”
“Ah, you have seen the preacher of Florence, I believe. A Dominican friar who has gathered a sizable following. The “Piagnoni” they call themselves. His name is Savonarola, and he has made it his mission to cleanse Florence of her sins, whether she wills it or not. He preaches that this is the end times, and that when all sin is cleared from Florence, and wealth disbursed, Florence will become the New Jerusalem, under his guidance and leadership, of course.”
“Hmmm.” Cesare pondered what he had just heard. The Savonarola’s of this world could merely be a nuisance, or flare up like a flame and burn out of control. And worse, might draw people away from the true Church. Enigmatic preachers tended to attract followers, and followers meant the word could be spread.
“Tell me, Niccolo, do you think he is harmless? Will he just go away?”
“Frankly, no, fanatics rarely do,” Machiavelli replied, “I see this one becoming a problem, something that should be nipped in the bud. Right now he says the things that many wish to hear, considering the times. He preaches against wealth, sodomites, and the corruption of the church. He would see us all Puritans and as miserable as he is.”
“Thank you my friend,” Cesare took the stack of books; “I will see you on my next trip to Florence. I will talk to the Holy Father and see what he wishes done with this friar.”
Constanzia was experiencing a heady sense of free, and feeling a little guilty. She had not realized until now just how much Cesare dominated her life. Without Micheletto hovering in the background and Cesare to worry about, she was free to be flirtatious, though harmlessly so, with her handsome new bodyguard.
If she dropped her glove, he would return it with a flourish. She liked the smiles her gave her, the little courtesies, and his companionship when she went on her daily rides. And though speaking Spanish made her feel a little homesick, it was nice to hear it again. Cesare would speak it to her sometimes, but it was usually love talk, and she missed conversing in it as she might with someone back in Spain.
He was handsome, not so handsome as Cesare, but his blue eyes, fair skin, and jet black hair presented a very pleasing picture. And he was a flirt. He flirted with her, he flirted with the maids, no woman seemed exempt from his attentions. Each woman he smiled at was sure that his smile was for her, and her alone.
But it wasn’t. When they were alone on their rides he would sing love songs to her. If they stopped to let their horses graze, he would fill her ears with a torrent of love making. At first it embarrassed her, then it scared her, then as Cesare’s absence grew longer, she came to depend upon him to fill the void. That was dangerous. If Cesare suspected any sign of impropriety, he would have Fabio killed by his trusty Micheletto, and if she was not careful, he could put her in a nunnery, or worse.
Fabio was standing behind her now, his lips dangerously close to her neck, so close that she could feel his warm breath. It took a great effort, but she pushed herself away from him. “No, Fabio,” she said, “You cannot. If Cesare finds out he’ll have Micheletto kill you, and me he might put in a convent, or perhaps beat me within an inch of my life. No, this cannot continue, I have too much to lose.”
“Why?” he asked, his anger surprising her, “You will never be more than a mistress, and as you grow older, he’ll replace you with one more young and desirable. Is this what you want to do with your life, wait on him? He may never let you have a child, and his latest mistress just bore him a daughter—think about it. Marry me, and I will love you the rest of my life. There will be no other mistresses; you will be enough for me.”
She turned to him, a look of scorn on her face. “What, and be the wife of a humble soldier? I am from the house of Borgia and the niece of Pope Alexander. My family would never approve of my marrying you, no more than they would approve of my being Cesare’s mistress. I have no desire to be the wife of a humble soldier, trying to live on a soldier’s pay, if you were even able to remain in the pope’s army. You need to find a girl who is used to being poor, and therefore won’t mind it. Cesare will provide me an income if he tires of me. I am family, he will not dishonor me.”
He took her in his arms and kissed her, hard. “Very well, signora, but I think you will find that you can be happy living with less if you make up your mind to. I will find another escort for you; I cannot bear the thought of looking at you day after day and know I cannot have you. But remember that kiss, and how many more could wait for you. Come, it is time to go back. Signora Vanozza will have breakfast ready, and I am sure you must be hungry.”
She wanted to beg him to change his mind, but she knew it would do no good. It was just as well that he had made his decision; she was not so sure that she would have been strong enough to release him. Was she in love with him, half in love with him? She did not know, but she could not afford the complication he presented. Micheletto would murder him at the drop of a hat, and she was not so sure that she would not murder Micheletto if he harmed a hair on Fabio’s head. And not for anything would she risk Cesare’s wrath. She had already made that mistake once.
She changed out of her riding clothes and into a morning gown. She pasted an insincere smile on her face, and sat at the table. She would not allow herself to reveal the pain she was feeling, that someone she liked very much had hurt her, even if he had good cause.
Cesare would be home soon. He would officiate at Lucrezia’s wedding—only she knew how much it hurt him to have to do it. She wondered why Uncle Rodrigo had been so cruel, but the Pope tended to wear blinkers and see only the immediate.
Cesare would be turning to her for comfort, as he often did when troubled. After they made love he would rest his head on her breast, so like a little boy. Since returning to Rome she too had become dependent on him. Her bed felt empty when he was not in it, and she’d wonder if he was in another woman’s, or by himself—she never could be sure.
Before he left he’d spoken of moving her into rooms at the Vatican. Vanozza had surprised her by agreeing. “It must be dull for you, my dear, living with me. The Vatican is a lively place. You would have the opportunity to meet people from all over Europe. There are all sorts of receptions that go on, I feel sorry for you sitting home with me. I am very dull, too dull for a lively young girl like you.”
Later that night she asked him why he was insisting. “We’d be at greater risk of being discovered. It is so much more private at your mother’s house, and safer. Why run the risk?”
He pushed himself up on one elbow. “I would have you closer to me, for one. And if father needs me, I can answer him more quickly. And you are becoming as reclusive as a cloistered nun. As mother said, life at the Vatican is exciting, and you have behaved like a widow long enough. We’d see more of each other, wouldn’t you like that?”
“We’d see more of each other only if Uncle Rodrigo doesn’t decide to send you on one errand after another. And if uncle has suitors he wishes me to meet, I will have more trouble hiding from them.”
“He hasn’t begun to find suitors for you yet. There’s Lucrezia’s wedding, and he will try to find matches for Juan and Gioffre. He’ll show you off at the wedding, let them have a look at you. You’re worth more in the marriage market than you realize. And you’re not a Borgia bastard, your mother and father were married in the church of Rome.”
“But there are lots of bastard sons who will inherit from their fathers, Cesare.”
“Yes, and he’ll dangle your connections to Venice and Constantinople in front of them. You may not have Lucrezia’s or LaBella’s golden hair and blue eyes, but you are beautiful, and accomplished. Father will hold out for a good match for you.”
“You sound like you approve of this!” she cried.
“No, I do not, I most definitely do not, but this gives us time, my love. We have known that we were facing this ever since you came to Rome. Let us enjoy the time we have left, beloved. And I swear, you will go to your marriage bed with my baby in your belly. Your first child will belong to Cesare Borgia, and no one will know but the two of us.”
“You are wicked, Cesare Borgia,” she breathed, “But I think I love you more for it.”
“You have no idea, my love,” he chuckled, “Let me prove it to you.”
Chapter 7: Of Books and Lovers
Cesare and Micheletto rode as fast as they dared back to Rome, making sure they spared their horses as there would be no opportunity to change them. When they arrived, Cesare threw his reins to Micheletto, and ran into the Vatican, hoping to have him announced and request a conference with the Holy Father.
No such luck. Rodrigo was in La Bella’s chamber, inspecting the dress that Constanzia would wear to Lucrezia’s wedding.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” he said as she dipped and spun around for his inspection, “You look absolutely ravishing my dear, does she not, Julia?′
“Yes, Holy Father,” La Bella responded, in her low, musical voice, “How glad I am that you let me dress your hair, Constanzia, you look lovely, you should ask my hairdresser to arrange your hair for you until you acquire one of your own. It is so nice to see you in a formal gown; the red and gold of your dress flatter you.”
Cesare could only stare. Constanzia’s hair had been braided and coiled around her head, and the braids were interwoven with strands of pearls. Her red silk dress was heavily embroidered with gold and had a gold underskirt. As a final touch, her lips had been rouged and her eyes rimmed with kohl. This was not the girl he knew that he took to his bed every night. This was a woman, so beautiful, so unexpected that it took his breath away.
“Well, say something, Cesare,” the pope slapped him on the back, “Will you not tell your cousin how beautiful she looks?”
“My cousin is exquisitely beautiful, no matter how she looks. Even in her every day gowns, she doesn’t need all this.” He was still staring, his errand to the pope temporarily forgotten. He wanted to unpin her hair, wipe the makeup from her face and take her to his bed. She was being put on display, and he hated it. Had his father found some suitors, castoffs from Lucrezia, or were these strictly for her?
“Every woman likes to look different once in a while, Cesare, ” La Bella said gently, no reproof in her voice, “And I agree, she looks as lovely in a plain gown as she would in the most costly dress, just let her enjoy this, please.”
He bowed to La Bella, “Father, I am sorry, but I have forgotten an important matter which I must discuss with you, one you will want to hear as soon as possible.” He took his father’s arm and led him to his office.
Julia had watched with a shrewd look in her eyes. I was not sure, she thought, and I had thought to dismiss it, but now I am positive they are having an affair, one which must have started when she arrived. The look of love in his eyes when he looked at her! I am not sure if I should tell anyone, they are going to find a suitor for her soon, so this may end of its own accord. I do not think she will be so unwise as to refuse the match Rodrigo makes for her. I remember what it’s like to be young and in love. No, I will leave it alone for now, but I will watch them carefully. It’s going to be hard for both when she marries, but marry she must.
“Now, my son, what is so important that you could not wait to tell us?” The pope sat in his chair while Cesare paced the room.
“It’s the preacher of Florence, Savonarola; he has progressed from being a minor nuisance to a serious problem. His followers grow by the day, and they parade about the city, urging people to repent of their sins. He preaches against sin, against sodomy, and the corruption of the church, meaning you. He tells his followers that once Florence is cleansed of its sins, a new order will come to being, and Florence will be the New Jerusalem. Revelations, evidently, is a favorite source for his sermons.”
“Are you sure he’s just not another itinerant preacher who will soon go away and be forgotten?”
“No Holy Father, Machiavelli thinks this is a situation that will only grow worse. We have not seen the last of Girolamo Savonarola, and things will get worse before they finally come to a head. If I were you, I would imprison him now, and get him out of the way.”
“He could be more of a threat that way. No, my son, we must play the waiting game, and let him fall into our hands. In the meantime, I have had some suitors inquiring about Constanzia’s hand. I have invited a couple of them to the wedding, let them get a look at her, and see what they think. The dowry her father offers is far too inadequate, so we must make up the rest, but it will be worth it if we can make a good connection for ourselves.”
“Father, surely she does not need to get married just yet! She’s been a widow for barely a year; does she not deserve more time to mourn?” Cesare was desperate, if his father was discussing suitors, then he mean to marry Constanzia as soon as the right one came along. “And Lucrezia is getting married now.”
The Pope leaned back, wondering why his cousin’s marriage mattered so much to him. “And her wedding will be a good opportunity for them to see her cousin, and will provide an opportunity for her to have a little time to get to know them.” He picked up a piece of paper, and read a name, “Calvino Pallavicini de Genoa. He’s wealthy, commands a fleet of ships, and since her mother came from a Venetian merchant house, he might find her Venetian and Turkish connections desirable.”
“That might provide good connections for us. Come, Cesare, don’t be selfish. She has told me more than once that she would like to start a family, and if Pallavicini will have her, then she will get what she wants.” Cesare said nothing, but turned and left the room. The pope shook his head. Yes, it was definitely time Constanzia was married—Cesare was for too possessive of both his sister and his cousin. He intended to get Constanzia as far away from his son as he could.
At dinner that night, Cesare was quiet and uncommunicative. There were really no way he could provide answers to the questions of his mother, sister, cousin, and young Gioffre. The problem of Savonarola was something he did not wish to discuss. The best he could offer in the way of conversation was to talk of his visit to Machiavelli, which interested only Constanzia.
He kept looking at the stranger that was his cousin. Though he saw nothing unattractive about the way Italian women dressed their hair, he preferred his cousin’s hair loose, flowing around her like a dark, silken cloak. During the day she kept it in a long thick braid, but at night he loved to pull the ribbons out and let her hair spill out over her back. And never, ever, had he seen her wear any cosmetics, and it was hard not to stare at her, noting that the kohl made her eyes seem large and luminous, and the rouge on her lips was only slightly darker than their normal color.
Everyone left the table, albeit slowly, until only he and his mother were left. They sat in companionable silence until Vanozza broke it, saying, “What is going on between you and Constanzia, my son?” Her blue eyes stared at him, awaiting an answer.
“Nothing,” came out at first, but she shook her head. “Cesare, I am your mother, I have known you all your life, and I know when you are lying to me.”
“Nothing, mother, truly. There is nothing between us but the love of cousins.”
“All right, Cesare, but this nothing must stop. You can be accused of consanguinity, you know. We are trying to arrange a good marriage that will benefit both our houses. And, if possible, a happy marriage for her, so there must be no scandal.”
“You are not being so considerate of Lucrezia. Constanzia tells me that there is something that feels terribly wrong about Lucrezia’s coming marriage, and I believe her. Why hasn’t father tried to find out what kind of man Giovanni Sforza is before he marries her to him? Did you agree to this?”
“Cesare, I had no say in it, believe me if I had, were there one thing, however insignificant in Giovanni Sforza’s character, I would put a stop to it. You have resources, my son, have you not tried to find out anything about him?”
“Father has kept me busy, there has been no time. If he mistreats her, I will kill him.”
“I will not talk you out of that, but in the meantime, you and your cousin must end your affair.” The look of hurt in his eyes pained her, but now, at least, she knew it was true. “I won’t tell your father, but when she moves into the Vatican, you may not find it so easy to hide what you are doing.”
He kissed her. “Since I am doing nothing, there is no need to hide. I don’t want Constanzia to marry, and I don’t want my sister to marry, either. But it seems I can do nothing about either.” He left the room, not looking back.
Oh, Cesare, she thought, how far has this gone? Constanzia must marry; it will be to the benefit of both of you. Her heart ached for her son, he was not being asked to give up a mere mistress, he was being asked to give up someone he loved so dearly it hurt.
When he came into Constanzia’s room that night, she had unbound her hair and was washing the makeup off her face. “Here, let me,” he said, and took the cloth and wiped her face clean. “There, he said, “Now you look like you again.”
She smiled mischievously, “I did not know I did not look like me, cousin.”
“You didn’t,” he responded, “And do not wear it when you are with me, or have your hair done up like a Roman lady.”
“How then shall I wear it?” she asked innocently.
“Braided, with ribbons, hanging down your back. “Simple suits you; you look far more beautiful than women in their fancy gowns. You have simply to be yourself, and you are easily the most beautiful woman in the room.” Suddenly he remembered Machiavelli’s books, “Here, he said, “Niccolo sent these.”
“Oh,” she breathed as she undid the fastenings, “You must thank him for me when next you see him. I did not know if he would do this or not, it was very kind of him.” She set the books carefully on a shelf, then came into his open arms, pressing herself against him.
He pulled her night shift off, loving the feel of her silky thighs, her flat belly. He pushed her away for a second lest he forget the last thing he wanted to tell her. “They are moving you into the Vatican, my love. There is a room, a little away from the others, that I may persuade father to let you have.” The look of disappointment on her face made him smile, “Don’t look like that, you’re not so far away from my apartments, no one will really notice when I come to you at night. You knew this was coming, do not be upset, it will be better, you will see.”
“Like my being made to marry? It seems that there will be suitors at Lucrezia’s wedding who are eager to have a look at me. You said that we would be able to wait, that Uncle would marry Gioffre and Juan first.” The look on her face told him plainly that she thought he had betrayed her.
“Find a husband then, my sweet, and visit as often as he will let you. Perhaps we can plant baby Borgia’s and when we send you back to your husband, he will be none the wiser. But you are not marrying yet, and time is flying by and I must go back to my rooms before anyone knows that I am here.”
She sighed and put her arms around him. As he kissed her he let his finger stray up between her legs, feeling the satiny wet that let him know that her desire had been aroused. He laid her on the bed and removed his clothing. Cara mia, he whispered to her, and then both were lost in their desires.