Excerpt: The Lustful Youth of Rodrigo Borgia by Elena and Michela Martignoni

1474
I do not appear to be a man of God. My attire—hunting boots, a tunic and heavy belt—does not announce my position within the church and on horseback I resemble a warrior still in his prime. Neither does my face carry the saintly countenance of my uncle, Pope Callixtus III. Indeed, nothing about me suggests suffering, severity, or simplicity; instead my appearance conveys good health, masculine strength, and a desire for pleasure. In different dress, my tall, muscular, exuberant self would be easily recognized in Rome, but today, disguised as a common horseman, I am able to flee, undisturbed, from the city.

I need solitude. To feel the wind in my face, to breathe in the cool briny air, to think, and, above all, to free my mind of her grief-stricken face.

Escorted by only a few trusted men, I gallop along the shore near Ostia. Wet sand splatters up onto my cheeks and hair as my steed hurls down the beach, drunken by this unexpected freedom, allowed and encouraged as I defer to the movements of the beast’s sweaty flanks. Both horse and rider left breathless with each stride.

And yet, her face torments my thoughts—how I wish to smother it and at the same time draw it near!

I yearned to kiss away her tears and banish the pain that burdened her by encircling my arms around that sweet body, to love her with passion so as I might see her laugh again. However, I drew not near. From a distance, I followed the funeral procession without being seen. She and her mother clung to one another—two, disheartened figures dressed in black behind the coffin—and she appeared as even more beautiful and more desirable. In the moment of greatest despair, when the body of her beloved father was lowered into the grave, light and warmth radiated from her being.

We might not have ever met, I think with anguish, and thus I would not be here now. Destiny plays with people, moving them like pawns on a chessboard, then it abandons them to interpret the game on their own.

It was with a light heart that I struck up with her, as was my way with all the others. She seemed no different, just another. Yet I have been amazed to find a special creature, an uncommon woman. I can converse with her as I do with Guillaume or other friends. She refrains from silliness, is skillful in listening, laughs at the appropriate moment, and cries with feeling. She tastes of freshly baked bread and, together with the pepper of her caress, I lose all powers of reason in her presence.

I rein in my mount, and we, my horse and I, recover from the exertion. The stallion paces through the cool seawater that bathes its shanks; I wipe the sweat that beads my brow.

These are the waves that carried me to Italy, according to the course set for me by the Lord. They have brought me good fortune—even if once they nearly took my life—and remain a tangible, yet ineffable part of my existence.

Two days ago, Guillaume asked me, “Rodrigo, how long has it been since you’ve stopped to look at the sky?” He’s right. How long has it been since I’ve turned toward the heavens, toward the Universe? Worries, ambition, the desire to possess always more, to experience every type of pleasure, these have been my concerns. Guillaume has a blind nephew who asks him time and again, “What is the sky like?” “What is the sea like?” My friend, who wears his cardinal’s hat with pride, tells me, “Rodrigo, you and I are rich, and not only for the ducats in our purse, but we are rich because we can enjoy. With our eyes, with our hands, and with our bodies.”

The lapping of the waves accompanies my thoughts which roll in one after another like the gentle swells that wash over the hooves of my horse, who is intent on looking toward the low vegetation that grows free along the coast. I can see its nostrils expand to inhale the scents carried on the wind. Unexpectedly I feel the beast quiver through the saddle when, like an apparition, a group of wild boar emerge from the salty scrub that borders the beach. We watch them trot into the open, sense their fear, their surprise: men do not belong in that solitary land. A sow, followed by four hearty young. Alarmed by our presence, they invert their direction and run back into the woodlands, grunting and taking with them their strong, wild odor. I remain still, watching their retreat, holding the horse firm as it stamps in the shallow water.

Among my escorts I see a raised eyebrow, a tilted head. They know I love to hunt, and I am wont to capture my prey. “Hunting is not our purpose here,” I announce, leaving no room for ambiguity as I dismount. The mother and her young were a sign. I dare not pierce those wild beasts.

I sit down on a boulder sunken in the damp sand while a seagull shrieks overhead.

Who is Rodrigo Borgia? I ask myself. A man of faith or an opportunistic scoundrel who only desires power and is a slave of his own impulses? Or perhaps a man in love who is weakened by his doubts? An answer eludes me at this time, but I pray to find a key hidden somewhere in the past decades, starting from that day when the course of my life was diverted.

The Lustful Youth of Rodrigo Borgia
Elena and Michela Martignoni
Translated from the Italian by Lori Hetherington

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