The Scarlet City by Hella S. Haasse takes place in early 16th century Rome, at a time when Italy was divided into many city-states, whose alliances were constantly shifting between the invading French and Spanish armies. Against this background, Haasse tells the story of Giovanni Borgia, an illegitimate son of one of the notorious Borgias (who should be familiar to fans of Showtime’s TV series The Borgias). But which one? Giovanni grows up believing he is the son of Cesare Borgia, but when the family falls from power after the death of Cesare’s father, Pope Alexander VI, Giovanni is brought up by various relatives, including Cesare’s sister Lucrezia, who refuse to tell him the truth about his parentage. He learns that Pope Alexander issued two decrees about Giovanni’s birth, one saying he was Cesare’s son, and one that he was Alexander’s own son. Soon he hears rumors that he may be the product of incest between Lucrezia and either her father or her brother. Another rumor says he is the son of Lucrezia and a servant, and another says he is not a Borgia at all. Giovanni’s quest to learn the truth of his parentage takes many fascinating turns.
The novel is not told chronologically; it begins with Giovanni as an adult, who has just returned to Rome after spending years at the French court and fighting for the French against the Spanish, and the story of his childhood is told in flashbacks. There are several narrators: Giovanni is the main narrator, but other chapters are narrated by Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and the poet Vittoria Colonna. The Scarlet City may be difficult for readers who are unfamiliar with the time period, but Haasse provides a timeline at the beginning of the book, and I think the unusual narrative proves rewarding, and makes for a rich tapestry of a book.