Title: The Pope’s Daughter
Author: Dario Fo
Translator: Antony Shugaar
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 274 2
Dario Fo – playwright, comedian, Nobel Laureate – is an admirer of the 16th century form of street theater known as commedia dell’arte. These roving theatrical troupes employed masks, improvisation, wordplay and slapstick comedy to entertain the masses. The actors and actresses performed broad “types” (stereo- or arch-), which were popular in that time period.
For The Pope’s Daughter Fo has translated the theatrical form into a novel. He encourages these somewhat archaic references by dividing the tale into episodic chapters with old-fashioned descriptive titles such as: “The puppet king who walks like a marionette” and “Out of enmity between women, sometimes a great friendship can spring”. At the same time Fo imagines conversations, spins events like a contemporary satirist and displays a razor sharp eye for historical absurdities. The narrative voice (which we can only assume is the author’s own) always seems to be on the verge of laughter. It is a charming, farcical portrayal of the Borgias – with a preamble at the front, a bibliography at the back, and Fo’s drawings & paintings of the main characters scattered between.
“… The chronicles of the time, in fact, reported all sorts of social events, some of them held within the walls of the Vatican itself, with a matter-of-fact approach and without the slightest hint of scandal. But when the Borgias strode onto the stage of Rennaisance history, to the cheers of a horde of supporters, first and foremost among them their closest relations, then indeed the attention of the public, an audience both national and international, really became keen.”
What do we know about Lucrezia Borgia, her brothers and her father? Quite a bit, actually. She and her family were 15th century celebrities on the scale of Kardashians – subject to all the attention and public scrutiny that kind of celebrity brings. There are the historical records. But because they were so much in the public eye, positioned at the epicenter of all of Christendom really, we also have an almost embarrassing wealth of rumors, gossip & innuendos. Take the time to sift through the mess of information and an image forms of a smart, extraordinarily pretty woman who enjoyed all the privileges of status, wealth & education. A woman who made the sacrifices which were expected of well-born females of that time period. Sacrifices which were necessary to maintain a life of privilege (three marriages to further her father’s & brother’s political ambitions) and luxury.
History has assigned her the alternating roles of virgin and whore, political victim and poisoner, incestuous seductress and cultured Renaissance Duchess. That need to define Lucrezia through such a multitude of archetypes has obscured her many real accomplishments and achievements. Few portrayals focus on the known facts: that at age nineteen she acted as governor of the cities of Spoleto & Foligno; or that she remains the only woman to have sat on the Papal throne and wielded the power of the office (which she did at the age of twenty-one while her father was away from Rome); or that after her father’s death, when her brother most needed help, she would raise and send him an army. As Duchess of Ferrara she would be known throughout Italy as a Patroness of the Arts. Byron admired her love letters. Where her father & brother failed in their quest for dynasty, Lucrezia succeeded – many European monarchs trace their lineage back to the Borgias through Lucrezia and her granddaughter Anna D’Este (who was also the granddaughter of the French King Louis XII).
Throughout her life Lucrezia Borgia demonstrated intelligence, humility and no small amount of political acumen – all of which allowed her to survive the fall of the Borgia family’s fortunes.
This is the Lucrezia Dario Fo is set on portraying. And to that end he has swept aside much of the unsubstantiated speculation (and cable tv melodrama) to present a very real woman who possesses the full range of human emotions. Fo’s Lucrezia is in turns frustrated, angry, intelligent, desperate, loving, affectionate, wily, passionate and a little bit bawdy. He allows her to grow from a young girl to a matron. And, realizing that her story is always bound to the stories of her brother Cesare and father the Pope, he’s put them in his book as well. Not as sinister demons consumed only by ambition, but as men with a multitude of failings. Setting them all in a world that bears uncanny (but very intentional) similarities to the one we live in today.
The hardest thing for Alexander VI was getting past the stumbling block of the “morality” issue. That is, how was he to modify, at least in appearance, his licentious need for forbidden copulation? For that matter, how on earth could anyone keep their distance from such an adorable creature as Giulia? An old saying goes: “If the hyenas are on your heels, then toss them the most savory morsel, say a newborn lamb. You’ll see, when they open their maws to savage their prey, there’s not a hyena or jackal on earth that will pay the slightest attention to anything else.”
And so the great reformation was gently lowered into the swamp of forgetfulness. Every so often someone with a good memory would ask: “When are we going to talk about the revolution again?”
And everyone, from the pontiff down to his cardinals, would reply: “Never fear, we haven’t forgotten. Just be patient and we’ll bring it back up again.”
Sure, and who believed them?
If I’ve given the impression that The Pope’s Daughter is a history book or even your typical historical novel then I’ve badly mis-represented it. Fo creates an atmosphere of old-fashioned theatricality which is unusual and at odds with the genre. He relies heavily on dialogue, usually imagined but sometimes taken from actual letters, which he exaggerates to the point of pantomime. He uses this dialogue to convey most of the historical plot points of his heroine’s story. For example, when Lucrezia is attended by the same doctor who was also there when she miscarried her first child she spends some time answering his questions and recounting what has befallen her over the intervening years. Fo tells his story on a stage: sometimes employing a sardonic voice-over commentary as in the passage above… or creating elaborate set pieces as in the passage below.
Lucrezia was in Rome. The scene opens in the very instant at which the thump of the doorknocker is heard at the bottom of the central staircase and the voice of a servant girl calls: “Milady, it is your lover who just knocked on the door!” And Lucrezia responded: “At last! What are you waiting for? Let him in?”
“He’s already entered, that’s him on the stairs!”
Alfonso appeared, she hurried toward him to throw her arms around him, and he pushed her away.
“Hey, what’s come over you? Why do you shove me away?!”
“Why don’t you ask your brother and your father, too! You’re a fine gang of blackguards!”
“Blackguards? Why, are you drunk or are you just pretending to insult me?”
“Listen, you’re a woman of letters, do you like ballads and strambotti? Then why don’t you just try reading this!” And with those words, he pulled a sheaf of paper from inside his jacket. “Be my guest, it’s dedicated to you, or really, I should say, to us both. It’s funny as can be.”
The scene above features the archly delivered, wooden style of dialogue (seemingly fully aware of the audience listening in) that appears throughout the book. Similar stylistic choices – which in other books would be seen as weaknesses – make up a good part of The Pope’s Daughter ‘s charm. Antony Shugaar has done an excellent job of reconciling modern language to an antiquated context. Fo’s storytelling is self-conscious and referencial in a very calculated way. He plays off of the historical events (juicier than anything he might have made up) and theatrical forms, slyly grinning all the while. My one criticism is that he doesn’t go far enough. An often quoted description of Fo, made on his receiving the Nobel Prize, is that he is a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”. With that in mind, this first novel seems to be at odds with itself. Instead of a jester who mocks authority secure in his knowledge that he does so with impunity, Fo is strangely restrained. Some of the characters speeches stop just short of becoming pedantic/preachy. I was expecting wordplay, pratfalls, send-ups… I suppose I was expecting a little more of the Spanish Inquisition. Fo is so much of a playwright that the absence of the visual, performance component in his work is inevitably felt. The shadow of the author is standing in the wings of this novel, winking at the audience and holding a banana cream pie behind his back.
While it may not be for every reader, The Pope’s Daughter is sophisticated, clever, challenging and flawed – everything we have come to expect from a Nobel Laureate and in a first novel. With it Dario Fo has decided to rehabilitate the image of Lucrezia Borgia – though in his own, unique way. His substitution of commedia dell’arte for the sinister gothicism we’ve come to associate with the name Borgia is both unexpected and refreshing. His combining of contemporary social criticism and (yes) Monty Python-style lampooning is incredibly entertaining. His history isn’t bad, either. There’s much more to recommend than not, and it seems to me a delightful first introduction of this Italian artist to an English, novel-reading public.