Book review: The Vatican Princess

The Vatican Princess:
A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia


The Vatican Princess

C. W. Gortner
Random House/Ballantine Books

Release date:
February 9, 2016
978 0345533975
also available as ebook
historical fiction


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 I finally discovered C. W. Gortner when I organized a virtual book tour for his previous book, Mademoiselle Chanel. I was struck by the quality of his writing and decided to read more of his books. Before I had time to read his previous books, he just released a new one. So I decided to read right away The Vatican Princess and turn to Italy for once. I’m glad I did!

I was hooked from the beginning: if you have never heard about Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519), the opening page is a wonderful shocker: this girl talking mentions her dad as being the pope. Huh? A pope can have a daughter? Well, not really in the best of worlds… but if you get back in time to the Italian Renaissance, their crazy politics , an insane family, and if you take into consideration human weakness, everything is possible! Be ready, you will find more shocking facts and scenes in the book: murders, including inside one’s own family, rape, incest, and more, you have it all!It would have been interesting to film me reading it, as I often was wide-eyed!

The book actually only covers 7 years of Lucrezia’s life. Some readers seem to be frustrated by that, but I think this was a smart choice: from 13 to 20, so many things happened to her. She first could not believe what was going on, but the last dramatic event finally made her see her family, even those she considered as her dearest, as what they were. During that period, you can also realize she is not just a pawn, but she starts plotting herself.

As I read the book, I often thought of Cromwell, at least the way he is portrayed by Hilary Mantel, and how little by little, after a lot of personal suffering, he became the man using his power to destroy people. Lucrezia’s earlier years were quite formative in this respect! I am not going to give you many more details about the family’s dealings, I only highly encourage you to plunge into this book.
It is certainly quite an eye-opener on human nature at its worst: jealousy, revenge, blackmailing, eavesdropping, spying, lies, “simony, nepotism, carnality” (that’s all for the pope himself, Alexander VI, drunkenness too!)

Gortner does a fabulous job at retelling the events and the political intrigues between the major Italian families, as well as the conflict with France leading to an invasion by Charles VIII, and another major problem with the Spanish sovereigns and the question of the Jews. When you realize the Borgia are actually of Catalan blood (Borja!), then you have a glimpse at the complexity of their situation.
And oh, it’s also the time of Savonarola in Florence!

There are also incredible descriptions of the poor, of the streets of Rome, and more than once a great way of eluding to an impending doom. I’d like to share with you some of my favorite passages, to give you an idea of the great writing:

People began to appear— black-clad widows fingering rosaries; beleaguered mothers towing grimy children by the hand; men with their caps doffed; merchants and street vendors; and finally the denizens of our underworld, the prostitutes in frothy skirts and cinched bodices, furtive thieves and footpads who could filch a purse with a snip of their tiny daggers.
chap. 2


The view was breathtaking, as were the smells. Animal ordure and spilt wine from leather flagons turned rank in the heat as cheering multitudes crammed the road; the procession wound its way to the Coliseum, with the rat-catchers leading straining dogs on leashes, which ran ahead to clear the swampy grasses of vermin. Shopkeepers who kept stalls in the ruin’s lower levels unfurled colored banners; suddenly the ravaged hulk of an arena, long-since stripped of its marble and travertine to decorate noble palazzos, was resurrected to evanescent life, its cavernous archways returned to a fleeting glory not seen since ancient times. Bronzed plaster angels sprouted from enormous plaster archways straddling the road. The sky could barely be seen among fluttering pennons sporting our colors—an immense sea of mulberry and yellow. Everywhere I looked, I saw my family name exalted.
chap. 5

And this beautiful hymn to Rome!

Leaving the Vatican, we skirted the murky Tiber and took the road abutting the old city wall. Bell towers and church spires punctuated every turn. All of a sudden, cacophony surrounded us, as we entered the narrow stone-paved streets. Overhead, drying laundry and jutting balconies hung like a makeshift web. The lowing of livestock being driven to slaughter was a constant ululation against the chattering of goodwives on their door stoops, shrieking children at play, the imploration of vagabonds in corners, and calls of vendors offering everything from relics to tableware. Clerics and nobles on horseback, surrounded by bravos, cantered past with imperious disregard for whomever they trampled. Packs of feral dogs fought over discarded leavings, while hogs rooted in the gutters. The stench of waste and troughs of slimy water brewed a putrid miasma in the air. Everything was loud, filthy, and dangerous. I adored it. Rome was my city. My home.
chap. 7

Lucrezia Borgia is a very controversial figure in history.
Some see her as quite a victim herself, some as the worst female creature ever.
The nice thing for a historical novelist, is that a lot of her life is plunged into the murky waters of rumors and legend, hence a lot of leeway available. Some readers may not agree with the choices Gortner made, but really at this point, we don’t have too many definitive documents proving he is right or wrong. The pope himself hid lots of facts, not hesitating to write Bulls fulls of lies, to cover his horrific deeds as well as those of his family.
Because Gortner chose to focus on Lucrezia’s formative years, she tends to be shown in a rather positive way, especially as the story is told in her own voice, as it seems the author’s usual technique to portray his heroines. And he does a great job at that!
Though as I highlighted earlier, you can see she is not that innocent — and the many references to her family blood imply that she cannot be that different from them after all!


Histoire à la fois fascinante et horrible de la famille Borgia, durant les jeunes années de Lucrèce : entre 13 et 20 ans, elle en a déjà vu de toutes les couleurs. Très bonne allusion au contexte politique et historique, avec d’innoubliables descriptions de Rome !

VERDICT: Fascinating presentation of the quite horrible Borgia family with events presented from Lucrezia’s perspective as a young girl entering adulthood. Excellent  political and historical context, and descriptions of Rome you will not easily forget.


For fans of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, a gripping novel that follows the extraordinary life of young Lucrezia Borgia, the legendary Renaissance Pope Alexander’s beautiful daughter. Was she the heartless seductress of legend? Or merely an unsuspecting pawn in a familial web, forced to choose between loyalty and her own survival?
Glamorous and predatory, the Borgias became Italy’s most ruthless and powerful family, electrifying and terrorizing their 15th-century Renaissance world.
To this day, Lucrezia Borgia is known as one of history’s most notorious villainesses, accused of incest and luring men to doom with her arsenal of poison.
International bestselling author C.W. Gortner’s new novel delves beyond the myth to depict Lucrezia in her own voice, from her pampered childhood in the palaces of Rome to her ill-fated, scandalous arranged marriages and complex relationship with her adored father and her rival brothers—brutal Juan and enigmatic Cesare.
This is the dramatic, untold story of a papal princess who came of age in an era of savage intrigue and unparalleled splendor, and whose courage led her to overcome the fate imposed on her by her Borgia blood.


Mademoiselle Chanel - CW Gortner

C.W. Gortner
holds an MFA in Writing,
with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies.
Raised in Spain and half Spanish by birth,
he currently lives in Northern California.
His books have been translated
in over 20 languages to date.
He welcomes readers
and is always available for reader group chats.
Please visit him at for more information.

Follow him on Facebook, Twitter

Subscribe to his newsletter

 Eiffel Tower Orange

What’s your favorite book on the Borgias,
fiction or nonfiction?


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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this ebook for free thorugh Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.
I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.

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16 thoughts on “Book review: The Vatican Princess

  1. Great review! The Borgias are so complex that I imagine there is not much that a novelist could make up that would be stranger than the truth.


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  5. Il a l’air très bien. J’aime beaucoup le personnage de Lucrèce Borgia, très controversé, mais que l’on a tendance à réhabiliter actuellement. J’espère que ce livre sera traduit en français, les extraits que tu présentes sont en effet trop difficiles pour moi.


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