The Vatican Princess by CW Gortner

Since putting together my recent post on historical fiction covers, I seem to be feeling more critical than usual of the covers of the books I read.  I really don’t like this one as not only is it (almost) one of the faceless women covers I highlighted, but there’s nothing about it to suggest the darkness and intrigue usually associated with the Borgias.  Fortunately, though, I did enjoy the book – with a few reservations.  

Set in Renaissance Italy, The Vatican Princess is narrated by Lucrezia Borgia – seductive, manipulative and a well-known poisoner.  Or was she?  Actually, in this version of the Borgia story, she is none of those things.  CW Gortner is very sympathetic to Lucrezia’s situation, portraying her as a vulnerable young woman used by various members of her family to their own advantage and to further their own ambitions.  The novel opens in 1492, with Lucrezia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia, bribing his way to the papal throne as Pope Alexander VI (the second book I’ve read this month featuring a papal conclave).  Lucrezia is only twelve years old but that’s old enough to be useful to her father in securing political alliances and, with this in mind, Rodrigo marries her off to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro.   

Lucrezia’s marriage to Giovanni is not a happy one and although it will eventually be annulled and she will marry again – twice – this period of her life forms the largest portion of The Vatican Princess.  It’s a very eventful period and one with plenty of mysteries and controversies, providing endless possibilities for an author to explore.  Why did Lucrezia enter confinement in the Convent of San Sisto while the annulment of her marriage was negotiated?  Did she have a secret son?  Who murdered her brother, Juan?  And was Lucrezia really involved in an incestuous relationship with her other brother, Cesare?  Gortner offers answers, or at least theories, to all of these questions, while showing Lucrezia in a generally very positive light and suggesting that she had much less control over her own fate than is often thought.    

As our narrator, Lucrezia is engaging and easy to like, but I couldn’t help feeling that she was a little bit too innocent and too good to be true – and this made her less interesting to read about than she should have been.  I thought the ambitious Rodrigo was portrayed well, but Cesare needed more complexity and Juan was purely evil with no nuances to his character at all.  However, I was intrigued by the other main female characters in the book: Lucrezia’s mother, Vannozza; the Pope’s mistress, Giulia Farnese; and Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, Sancia of Aragon.  I would be interested in reading more about all of these women, as they have not featured very heavily in the few other fictional accounts of the Borgias that I’ve read so far.       

This is the second novel I’ve read by CW Gortner and although I did enjoy it (and always love a Renaissance Italy setting), I preferred the other one, The Last Queen, which was about Juana of Castile.  I would like to read more of his books, but I don’t really feel drawn to his Tudor mystery series – published as Christopher Gortner – or his recent novels on Marlene Dietrich and Coco Chanel, so that would leave either The Queen’s Vow (about Isabella of Castile) or The Confessions of Catherine de’ Medici.  Have you read either of those?  Which should I read first?     

As for the Borgias, maybe I’ll have another attempt at reading Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant soon.  I struggled to get into it the first time but am happy to try again!

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15 thoughts on “The Vatican Princess by CW Gortner”

  1. I am usually a fan of covers with a faceless woman in a beautiful dress, but I have to agree with you here. There is no mystery or drama or much of beautiful dress either! I am so intrigued by the Borgias and reading your review, it was great spotting all the names I recognised from The Borgias TV series; starring the brilliant Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo and Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia. While Lucrezia seems a bit too innocent in this book, I think the TV show got a believable balance for her.

    1. Yes, I would have preferred a more balanced view of Lucrezia. I didn’t watch the TV series but I’m sure it would be interesting for you to read this book and be able to compare the way the characters are portrayed.

  2. I have a thing for stories about the Borgias. I think I would have a hard time seeing Lucrezia in favorable light though. Wasn’t the Vatican of Renaissance time so different from the 20th century? As for your question, I would go for the Medici one. I have read The Birth of Venus by Sara Dunant and thought it was glorious.

    1. The Catherine de Medici book does sound more appealing to me than the other one. I read The Birth of Venus a few years ago and can’t remember much about it now, but I know I enjoyed it!

  3. Please try Blood and Beauty again, Helen, it’s well worth it. I enjoyed the more recent one, ‘In the Name of the Family’, too.

    1. I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed Blood and Beauty, Pam – I’m sure I’ll give it another try soon. I think I probably just wasn’t in the right mood for it at the time.

  4. I still haven’t read a Gortner beyond the first one that I wasn’t that impressed with. I have read two good books about Lucrezia Borgia, if you’re interested in the topic. One is Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant. The other was a while back, and now I can’t remember the name or author.

    1. I’m definitely interested in reading more about Lucrezia and the other Borgias. I did start to read Blood & Beauty a while ago but it wasn’t the right time and I didn’t get very far with it. I’m planning to try it again soon.

  5. Great review! I haven’t read anything by this author yet, but I’m certainly interested in picking up some of his work in future. The Borgias are a fascinating Renaissance family, as are the Medicis, and I’m always interested in seeing what an author’s opinion of Lucrezia is – I feel like she often gets treated the way Anne Boleyn does in fiction, she’s either a saint or a sinner, it’s very rare to come across an author who’ll write them in convincing shades of grey.

    1. I have only read one or two other books about the Borgias, so I’m looking forward to reading more and seeing how different authors portray Lucrezia. Good comparison with Anne Boleyn!

  6. I will be reading Mademoiselle Chanel in the upcoming months and recently bought Marlene. I also have one of his Tudor mysteries on my TBR. On the topic of the Borgias, I bought a two novels for one by Jean Plaidy titled The Borgias. I don’t know how they are because I haven’t read them, but I only buy books when the top ratings are in the majority (4 or 5*) mostly. Blood and Beauty has mixed reviews, so I decided not to buy it.

    1. I hope you enjoy the Chanel and Marlene books. They don’t really appeal to me at the moment, but I may still decide to read them in the future! I would be interested to see what the Jean Plaidy books on the Borgias are like.

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