Dario Fo, the 1997 Italian Nobel Laureate for Literature—known for being an actor, playwright, comedian, director, songwriter and political campaigner—has now written his first novel, The Pope’s Daughter, about one of the most infamous ladies in history, Lucrezia Borgia. This novel, which claims to be the real truth, gives another side of Borgia. She will appeal to contemporary women as a real survivor in her turbulent times, but everyone should be able to enjoy the sardonic Greek chorus comments on the machinations of the early popes and dukes ruling Italy during the Renaissance, behavior which has parallels in today’s national and international politics. Dario Fo, the 1997 Italian Nobel Laureate for Literature—known for being an actor, playwright, comedian, director, songwriter and political campaigner—has now written his first novel, The Pope’s Daughter, about one of the most infamous ladies in history, Lucrezia Borgia. This novel, which claims to be the real truth, gives another side of Borgia. She will appeal to contemporary women as a real survivor in her turbulent times, but everyone should be able to enjoy the sardonic Greek chorus comments on the machinations of the early popes and dukes ruling Italy during the Renaissance, behavior which has parallels in today’s national and international politics.
With this first novel, Dario Fo relies on his comedic and playwright talents, making this a quirky but fun novel. The 1997 Nobel Committee describes Dario Fo’s style as follows:
He if anyone merits the epithet of jester in the true meaning of that word. With a blend of laughter and gravity he opens our eyes to abuses and injustices in society and also the wider historical perspective in which they can be placed.
Throughout the novel, there is a kind of Greek chorus making sardonic comments about the unruly times and unsavory popes and potentates. A tradition is established early in 1492, an early pope, “We are talking about Pope Innocent VIII, in whose life the only thing that was ever innocent was his name.”
And of Alexander Dumas:
[He] wrote a magnificent history of the Borgias and the popes that preceded them, tells us that he was called “the father of his people,” because thanks to his amatory energy he had increased the number of his subjects by eight sons and eight daughters in a life spent indulging in the voluptuous arts—all with different lovers, of course.
Pope Rodrigo Borgia fits nicely into the tradition of popes having lovers and families of illegitimates who become dynasties. Even his attempts at reforming the church are fraud.
Pope Rodrigo had grasped the lesson. It was a complete waste of time to worry about improving the living conditions inside a sand castle built on the beach while waiting for the waves of an unusually high tide to sweep the whole thing away, along with the builders.
Dario, the playwright, writes scenes of paraphrased dialogue interspersed with our sardonic chorus:
And here, just like in the Italian improvised theater of the Commedia dell’Arte, the game of masks begins its dance. Everyone takes part and performs their role, as well as the role of their antagonist. First the father claims to be indignant, then he turns a blind eye and preaches peace. The murdering son swears that he has committed no criminal deed, he acted purely in self-defense, because the victim dared to threaten him and even tried to shoot him with crossbow bolts. But the most upsetting aspect is the fact that after such a brutal attack, one which caused the subjects of other nations to explode in indignation, in Rome, in the era of Humanism, in the aftermath of that murder there was an atmosphere thick with a sort of slimy amalgam that made everything weightless and shapeless. Sheer oblivion.
In such a climate, could a good person thrive? And how can it be Lucrezia Borgia, poisoner and incestuous lover of her brother Cesare? We readers cannot help but be wary of her, especially as she is so beautiful. The cover for this novel shows the famous painting of her (and the novel’s interior gives portraits of other main players in the book). However, in the Preamble, we are told:
At every twist and turn, the victim destined for sacrifice, ever since she was a child, is Lucrezia. It is she who is tossed into the gaping maw of financial and political interests by both her father and her brother, without a qualm. What a lovely young maiden might think or feel is of no concern. After all, she’s just a female, a judgment that came as easily to her father, the future pope, as to her brother, soon to be made cardinal. In fact, there are points in the narrative when Lucrezia seems to be nothing more than a package of shapely breasts and a magnificent derriere. Ah, we almost forgot, her eyes too were twin pools of enchantment.
Yet it’s also told that she was very intelligent, and as her portrait slowly unfolds, the reader sees just how indispensable she is to brother and father. They practically break down the door of the convent where she hides after the brutal murder of her husband. Eventually their trust is so great she rules in both the church and the dukedom, a first for a woman. One of the most difficult tasks for a writer is to make a good person interesting. Here the contrast between these bad times and her goodness makes this possible, though we always wonder whether she is for real—until the end.
Did this “novel” come about because Dario Fo realized it didn’t work as a play? In spite of the mixture of forms (the comic and drama), it works as straightforward and chronological. This short book’s range beyond Italy of countries and their politics is amazing, yet we are never confused, lost, nor do we lose interest.