Samuel Shellabarger’s 1947 bestseller, Prince of Foxes, is a swashbuckling adventure novel in the tradition of Alexandre Dumas (père). Set against the vibrant panorama of the Italian Renaissance it chronicles the fortunes of a young and ambitious artist-soldier in the midst of conquest and resistance as the Borgias are plotting to subject central Italy to their rule. Like Shellabarger’s previous historical novel, The Captain Of Castile, Prince of Foxes, too, was swiftly adapted for the silver screen, once again with Tyrone Power1 in the lead role, and with Cesare Borgia portrayed by Orson Welles. Sumptuous though the cinematography looks, the production having been shot on location in Italy (though regrettably not in colour), the film does not rival the verve of Samuel Shellabarger’s novel. Sixty-five years after its original publication Prince Of Foxes remains top-notch historical escapism, bursting with romance, adventure, wit, and one brilliantly entertaining twist after another.
1500. Italy is in turbulence, torn apart by strife between independent city-states and overrun by mercenaries in the pay of invading foreign powers. Convinced that Italy’s only hope of survival lies in unification, military captain Andrea Orsini serves as political agent for the increasingly powerful Borgias. Armed with cunning, charm, and a flexible conscience, Andrea faces his most dangerous assignment yet as he heads to Ferrara to persuade the hostile House of Este to concede to an alliance by marriage with the notorious Lucrezia Borgia. If successful, Andrea is to be rewarded with the city-state of Città del Monte and his choice between two high-ranking noblewomen for a bride. There is just the minor matter of ridding Città del Monte of its current ruler first.
That is, provided Andrea manages to stay alive that long in a political climate rife with assassinations. And provided the secret of his past does not leak out – a secret guaranteed to consign him to ignominy and strip him of everything he has worked for. For loyalty is a commodity, and secrets the coin in which everyone trades.
Even the wiliest fox cannot fool fate forever … or can he?
A few months before Prince Of Foxes began climbing the bestseller lists a historical novel titled Web Of Lucifer was released to smaller fanfare. A now largely forgotten work by Maurice Samuel, it provides unusually pertinent comparison reading.
Web Of Lucifer
Both Web Of Lucifer and Prince Of Foxes chart the career of a gifted young man in the service of Cesare Borgia and the moral dilemmas this employment eventually corners them into confronting. The two heroes come from the same region, Romagna (Mussolini’s birth region, as pointed out by Maurice Samuel in his account of writing the book), and from a similar family background. Both have lost their fathers. Samuel’s hero is named Orso, Shellabarger’s, Orsini. In both cases, love becomes an education in honour and decency. Several of the same historical figures appear in the books, including Lucia of Narni. Both authors dedicated considerable effort to grounding their plots in significant historical events and used a timeline spanning several years. Yet for all these similarities even a cursory glance presents no difficulty in ascertaining why one novel has remained a perennial favourite and the other sunk into oblivion. It boils down to a single issue: readability.
Consider the following paragraph, the opening of the first chapter of Web Of Lucifer: “Giacomo Orso of Picina, with whose adventures this book is chiefly concerned, was a lad when the story opens and not much more than a lad when it closes. He was seventeen years old at the time of his father’s death, he was twenty-three when he returned to his native Romagna from his service with Cesare Borgia; and he is introduced in this fashion precisely because in the Italy of those days – four and a half centuries ago – one was no longer “a lad” in the late teens, let alone the early twenties, if one had, like Giacomo, received an education. Cesare Borgia, for instance, was Governor of Orvieto at twenty. Cesare’s friend, Ippolito d’Este, was a cardinal at fifteen*. Lorenzo the Magnificent, who died at forty-two (when Giacomo was a boy of twelve), succeeded his father in the rulership of Florence when he was twenty-one – and at twenty-one he was already a master in the subtle manipulation of power which made him for two decades the key-stone of Italian politics. But Giacomo was still a lad when, at the age of twenty, he swore eternal fealty to Cesare Borgia, and only beginning to be a man when he retracted his oath three years later.” (Alfred A Knopf hardcover, 1947, p. 3)
In his foreword Romanian-born Maurice Samuel acknowledges his admiration for his former compatriot, Ferdinand Gregorovius, a historian of the Renaissance. Having made a decade-long study of the Renaissance for the purpose of writing Web Of Lucifer the author carries over his conscientiousness about historical substance into his stylistic choices, which amalgamate moralising nineteenth-century textbooks and the Victorian Gothic of Sir Walter Scott. As indicated by the above quote, the result is dense exposition, author intrusion, and foreshadowing, but also deliberately archaic dialogue: “’Why playest thou the saint with me? Knowest thou not well that I am as heartsick as thou? But what wouldst thou do with the Gianbattista? Didst thou not hear that they are worse than traitors?’” (p. 252).
As their titles suggest, where Web Of Lucifer and Prince Of Foxes diverge most significantly is tone and intent. The reader who is able to look past prose that by today’s standards is excruciatingly ponderous or who accepts the stylised dialogue as a nod to the period it attempts to recreate will find in Web Of Lucifer a solemn take on the uses of history in fiction. In Samuel’s novel the Italian Renaissance becomes a parable for the atrocities of World War II. Discursive and digressive, it invites sober reflection on grim, harrowing concerns, not least the corrupting effect of power and personal responsibility when faced with evil. An atmosphere of existential despair haunts the narrative, a despair held at bay only by hope in the few who fight to keep the candles of reason and justice burning in a world darkened by indifference, denial, and selfishness. Patient reading ultimately rewards one with an earnest character study in Giacomo Orso, out to avenge the murder of his father, and a minutely detailed, critical portrait of an era.
By contrast, Prince of Foxes is the amusement park version of the Renaissance, where you strap yourself into a seat in expectation of a fun diversion and are flung, gasping, into a break-neck thrill-ride. It is no struggle to appreciate the aims of Web Of Lucifer and the personal dimension these particular themes at that particular time may have held for the author (much of Maurice Samuel’s oeuvre, including translations and lectures, centred on Jewish cultural themes and Jewish-Christian relations), but I must admit to skimming heavy-handed passages on more than one occasion. While accessibility of style and charm of content are debatable measures of literary quality they undoubtedly make Prince Of Foxes a smoother read. However, more than a (biassed) case of popular fiction providing amusements literary fiction does not, this novel’s enduring popularity testifies to solid merits of it own.
When I reread Prince Of Foxes some months ago it was the first time in two decades. Most readers, I expect, dust off a long unvisited favourite with some trepidation, hoping the magic its pages once contained will flare back to life as brightly, as warmly as it did all those years ago. A short while earlier I had gone back to a classic that, like Prince Of Foxes, had amazed me in my teens. My admiration for the author’s achievement certainly grew during that reread and cemented my love of the book. At the same time, the emotional disparity caused by intellectual maturation and memories of my excitement at the mind-expanding discoveries back in my teens continually interfered between me and the text, keeping me at an intangible, unbridgeable remove from the story – too much an observer instead of a participant. So I was wary about reacquainting myself with Prince Of Foxes. This time, I chose to try to trick memory by reading the book in another language (the original English).
The shake-awake freshness I had been unable to recapture with the other book – The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson – was there in full force with Prince Of Foxes. Perhaps my experiment helped a little. Perhaps a visit in the intervening years to Italy, including Venice and Rome, proved a stimulating support for imagination. But after puzzling about it I believe the determining factor lay in the different expectations I brought with me to the rereadings, expectations based on my original responses to the books.
In my teenage years it was the provocational capacity of The Long Ships that impressed me the deepest: the story affected my outlook on the world by challenging me to rethink notions of what is absurd. Since then I have come full circle: I consider many of my youthful beliefs folly and concepts which then seemed outrageous, if intriguing, self-evident. The most memorable element for my younger self had, through the years, lost that edge of the deliciously radical. In contrast, the appeal of Prince Of Foxes never rested on its ability to stretch the limits of my mind. It was always the characters that beguiled me with their spiciness and their cat-and-mouse games that make a point of confusing just who is holding the upper hand. The only surprise now was rediscovering how sharp and smart this incredibly enjoyable swashbuckler continues to remain.
Prince Of Foxes
Prince Of Foxes is historical fiction with flair. The storytelling crackles with vitality as arts, politics, religion, and warfare mingle in a twisting plot, sly verbal sparring, daredevil action, nefarious skulduggery, and plenty of picturesque pageantry. Fascinating characters make it all come together in a lively, brilliantly choreographed whole. (The people of Shellabarger’s Renaissance are like mosaics in a dazzling kaleidoscope, re-arranging themselves in ever-shifting configurations.) This book features not only one of my favourite fictional couples in the hero and his lady love but one of my all-time favourite characters in literature, the assassin Mario Belli.
In common with Alexandre Dumas’s swashbucklers the humour and adventure in Prince Of Foxes is not empty buffoonery. The at times ironic, even sarcastic, attitude to honour and devotion masks a search for ideals worth defending and thus an unmistakeable moral core informs the plot. Like Maurice Samuel, Shellabarger, too, found in the shadowy aspects of the Renaissance a mirror for the events that had recently ravaged Europe. (One of Shellabarger’s sons was killed in WWII). The historical framework of the novel consists of the move toward unification under an able and charismatic leader, a man who exploits popular hatred of the nation’s designated enemies as a rallying point for people to unite under a single banner.
Andrea Orsini admires Cesare Borgia as a genius, a political realist with the power and foresight to bring progress and prosperity by strong-arming Italy into unification. While violence and conspiracy are regrettable they must, Andrea reasons, be accepted as natural parts of revolution. And if the goal of unification at the same time profits the private interests of the House of Borgia – including Pope Alexander VI, Cesare and Lucrezia’s father – then that is the privilege of princes. Yet as in Italy from the 1920s onward and Germany from the 1930s onward, so in Borgia Italy: once the worthiness of a common goal is determined to make ruthless means acceptable allegiance enables not the sought-for liberty but tyranny.
If Shellabarger’s Cesare Borgia brings to mind the tyrant associated with Machiavelli’s The Prince, his portrait of the virtuous Marc’ Antonio Varano is surely influenced by Castiglione’s The Courtier. A counterpoint to the arbitrary exercise of power by the Borgias, Varano is an aging statesman whose guiding principle is to consider the common good, not private gain, and whose peaceable city state, Città del Monte, exemplifies government based on the rule of law. Judging Varano deluded as well as decrepit, the ambitious Andrea is predisposed to holding him in contempt as an inept prince and impotent ruler. Expecting Città del Monte to yield to the Borgias like wheat before the scythe, Andrea is perturbed when an obstacle he never saw coming suddenly endangers his own future: a battle with his conscience.
The narrative is unambiguous about the decision the righteous person must make when the time comes to choose between submission to injustice and rebellion against it. A major character who endorses the idea of Italian unification but opposes Cesare Borgia’s oppressive methods explains: “’It may be urged that if I favour the end he seeks, I should support him; that treachery and craft in a good cause are justified. Not so. If good at times springs out of evil, to God’s almighty dispensation, not to evil, be the praise. He makes man’s villainy to serve Him: that is His perquisite. But let no man believe that he serves God by villainy. The kiss of Judas brought Our Blessed Lord to the Cross and, thus, salvation to mankind, yet Judas hanged himself’” (p. 306).
Prince Of Foxes depicts a society in which religion is closely allied with politics, exemplified by the unscrupulous tug-of-war over Lucia of Narni2. A historical figure, the Blessed Lucia Brocadelli was a nun and holy woman who at the time the novel covers was greedily fought over by cities and princes eager to enhance their fame and reputation by securing her permanent presence as a spiritual guide. The Savonarolan background of the historical Lucia is not directly referenced in the novel (if I recall correctly), nor is the persecution his followers eventually suffered. Instead her fortitude and piety are made to serve as reminders of truths no conscience can escape. Girolamo Savonarola was a Florentine preacher who is now principally remembered for organising a bonfire at which books and artworks judged immoral were burned. But his vocal condemnation of Church corruption and belief in the superior authority of the Bible over ecclesiastical bodies also made him one of the cogs that eventually produced the Protestant Reformation. He was executed in 1498; ironically, through burning at the stake. Unlike the controversial zealotry of her teacher, Shellabarger’s Lucia of Narni is the gentlest of visionaries, a sufferer whose understanding of the human psyche nurtures her empathy even as she encourages reform. In Prince Of Foxes religious faith is a tempering, humane influence, not the darkly fanatical and destructive force so common in historical fiction set during the Renaissance or the Middle Ages. It would be going too far to say that this is a spiritual novel, but the inspiration the novel’s philosophy draws from faith and agape is, I think, a fundamental part of the story’s power to uplift.
This was also a time when everyone and everything were thought to have their own, proper place in a grand, divinely ordained structure. Conforming to that place was essential for the maintenance of harmony. To upset the proper order of things was therefore more than a simple personal rebellion: it was considered an attack on the Divine, an act of destruction that carried moral and religious consequences for everyone else in the now weakened structure. Andrea’s ambitions therefore force him to hide the truth about himself beneath layers of artfully constructed pasts. Luck he does not believe in, but destiny, it is known, can change with the wheeling of the stars across the sky – and Andrea is bent on helping his stars rearrange his life in major ways. Belief in the influence of celestial bodies is, in fact, so common that prudence induces him, at a defining point before a crucial undertaking, to bribe an official astrologer into drawing up a favourable horoscope in order to boost the courage of the people he is leading.
Andrea’s opportunism is fortunately timed. Italy is in upheaval and the normal workings of society are out of joint. But while the success he is enjoying as the novel opens is based on genuine achievements as a soldier and diplomat those same achievements would have been impossible without the springboard of deliberately created but dangerous illusions. Significantly, our introduction to Andrea and his adventures takes place in Venice, a city rich in symbolism associated with masques and disguises, in the studio of a master craftsman and artist (the famous instrument-maker Lorenzo Gusnasco da Pavia). It is a scene steeped in hidden agendas, in deceptions involving identity and provenance, in transactions with ulterior purposes, all while the key players conduct themselves as if nothing except elegant manners, quick wit, and courtly generosity is of any consequence. Unlike the anonymity and freedoms associated with Venice’s Carnival the masks in Prince Of Foxes, whether literal or metaphorical, are neither liberating nor an aid for indulging in irreverence or licentiousness. On the contrary, masks are worn as confirmation or proof of identity. They are a deadly serious and necessary political and social armour. Having a mask torn off – being exposed – means death, either ritual death through loss of social and/or political status or literal death.
Masks worn to deceive, conceal, or to impress are adapted to the different personae one is required to play in a given situation: ardent lover, obsequious servant, loyal ally, honourable soldier, indispensable diplomat, humble artist, etc. (Crafted by the author to represent an ideal Renaissance man, Andrea is uniquely suited for the versatility his career demands. His proficiency with brushes and paint (he is, literally, a second Mantegna), music, and metallurgy complement his skills as a soldier and diplomat. These attributes are no mere shorthand for character perfection. They serve the plot and enrich the portrait of the age. Fortunately, too, Andrea displays the intelligence required for readers to believe in his polymathism.) Simplicity is associated with a lack of social graces and therefore as appalling as lack of breeding. Nobility and respectability are recognisable in sophistication – elegance of manners, gallant valour, educated tastes, the arts of diplomacy – backed up by raw power and bold ideas.
No wonder Andrea thinks Varano is an easily oustable, rustic simpleton, just like the Chevalier de Bayard’s3 insistence on honour above all causes Andrea to detest the Frenchman as an annoying pest. In a social milieu sustained by show and illusion nothing is more unsettling or subversive than sincerity and authenticity. Once Andrea begins to suspect that Msrc’ Antonio Varano is actually not the fool he had assumed and that the man’s courtliness merely follows different norms than any known to celebrated society it throws the younger man off his practiced game. His manipulative habit of always playing a part leads him to mistake and misread intentions every time the castle inhabitants at Città del Monte fail to respond to ritual cues and signals in the accustomed manner. Consequently, he mistakes hospitality and politeness for threats and hypocrisy, then is confused when the dangers he expected fail to materialise. As long as he continues to dissemble he also absurdly misjudges and misunderstands the two women he courts. Only when he drops his artificial persona, voluntarily in one case, inadvertently in the other, is he able to discover their true natures and to understand them. Interestingly, neither woman has ever attempted to mislead him about their feelings albeit one is discreet whereas the other wears her heart on her sleeve.
In mediaeval thought physical appearance was an outward manifestation of the soul. Beauty or perfection of body implied purity, ugliness or deformity or disability, vice. Faces and bodies in Prince of Foxes therefore constitute another mask. Lucrezia Borgia’s angelic countenance acts like a glamour that effectively disarms resistance; Alda’s intellect and ethics are commonly inferred to be proportionate to the smallness of her stature; and Mario Belli’s macabre visage, “the spitting image of Judas Iscariot” (p. 22), enhances his fearsome – and well-earned – professional reputation through the falsehood and devilry people read there. The sardonically exaggerated elegance Belli flaunts is found to be grotesque, and the same marks of breeding that in other men would be considered proof of nobility earn Belli angry suspicions of insolence. His very smile causes people to shiver and cross themselves. Belli’s ambiguity is one of the trump cards of the plot: are we supposed to side with him or against him? Some readers may feel no doubt (I saw signs this time around that I missed when I was a young reader), but Shellabarger still manages to pull a surprise twist at the end.
Not much room is given to the female characters to be protagonists. The men are the doers and facilitators. Likewise, the principal male/female relationship has a sly charm that contributes sparkle and brightness to the story, yet the dynamics between the various male characters follow more surprising courses and probe tenser depths. Women’s roles are essentially confined to being givers and receivers of love who exert either a positive or negative moral influence on the men in their lives. Within that narrow definition, however, they possess individual spirit and shrewd intelligence. Angela Borgia is no one’s fool but she loves passionately and sincerely; her cousin, Lucrezia Borgia, who hates discord and tries to make everyone happy has learnt to be pragmatic, accepting what she believes she cannot change; Costanza Zoppo, the only one who felt a bit distant to me because the plot sidelines her at a couple of points where a direct spotlight on her would have been warranted, is a worrier yet refuses to trade her integrity for fame and fortune; Alda dei’s Nani’s vanity protects her from being diminished by stereotyping and she turns prejudice into a blind that screens mutiny; the gamine Camilla Baglione cannot resist an opportunity for mischief but is brave and loyal to the core; and Lucia of Narni’s weakened body houses a burning inner gaze that shies from nothing. Every single one of them engaged my interest and several, including an antagonist, also elicited my sympathy.
If one prominent female character erodes into stereotype it is because the plot eventually squeezes her into a worn mould as the other woman. Whereas Camilla Baglione represents love that breeds loyalty, Angela Borgia is the personification of passion that warps into hatred. The latter woman’s sexuality is the subject of all too familiar misogyny, yet Shellabarger cannot be accused of making her a cardboard villain. She is a convincing character and her storyline develops organically. One of the very rare characters who are open about their feelings, she does not seem to understand the need to wear a mask. She gives of herself to the man she loves, faithfully, without holding anything back, for which she is at first exploited, then scorned by her lover, and punished by the storyline. As convention once stipulated, although the perceived breaches against morality for which Angela is shamed are actually mutually committed, Andrea’s offenses are measured according to a different scale. These include Angela falling pregnant and using an abortifacient (off-page - blink and you'll miss it). The affair is soon superseded by a violent act that frames Andrea as a victim deserving of sympathy and, by implication, forgiveness, while simultaneously removing any doubt about Angela’s innate depravity and, also by implication, voiding her claim to fair treatment. For Angela does not take Andrea’s betrayal sitting down. When he ends their relationship with callous, casual words, she retaliates by severing him from herself with a hot-blooded physical act. What remains of their storyline is a jilted woman whose subsequent storyline is filled with humiliations and an anything but sinless hero who to the end is not above deriving satisfaction from those humiliations. Whether she deserves sympathy or whether she truly has gone beyond the pale the narrative at first seems to leave to the reader to decide: the last glimpse of her is accompanied by an acknowledgement of her suffering. But it is immediately countered by a comment I presume is an allusion to Dante’s Inferno4. Prince Of Foxes is a story that probes beyond facades and finds reason for tenderness and forgiveness. Arguing that redemption is conditional, however, the conclusion firmly rejects amnesty, tallying with Christ’s parable of the ten foolish and wise virgins (“virgin” is figurative here and does not denote gender, either).
End of spoilers
Instances of unexpected insight afforded by a couple of secondary characters supply poignant subtext to sensitive but seemingly ignored themes. Slavery, which included the breeding and sale5 of little people (dwarfs/midgets in the novel’s terminology) by nobles such as Isabella d’Este, Marchesa of Mantua (mentioned in passing in the book as wanting to buy Alda), was a feature of Italian Renaissance society. As the novel comments, the “beloved little monsters of Court, dwarfs and other human curios, trotting about in attire no less eccentric than themselves, added the gargoyle touch” (p. 67). In a society where slavery is as commonplace a part of the fabric of everyday life as portents and signs, characters display attitudes believable for their time. People like Alda (Camilla Baglione’s dwarf companion) and Seraph (Andrea’s “blackamoor” page) are spectacles like Belli, and usually irrelevant except as entertaining pets and human collectibles (Like unmasking implies loss of power among higher classes, having their nude appearance publicly speculated on by others emphasises Alda and Seraph’s slave status, pp.14, 168.). The omniscient narration frames character beliefs and actions in this cultural context and the reader will have to pay attention to subtle clues to realise how carefully the authorial critique is realised: in the fizzy presence of irony in plot twists and characterisations, in subversive autonomy. One will find no denunciatory lectures being mouthed by a culturally sensitive hero or heroine.
The narrative continuously juxtaposes physical abnormality and spiritual deformity. One is judged or shunned without testing, the other goes undetected or is admired and rewarded. Even beloved “human curios” are regarded as things apart from ordinary humanity. Camilla, who clearly loves (and is loved by) Alda and considers her “twice as clever” as herself (p. 166) nevertheless treats this “Princess of the Dwarfs” (dei Nani) like a dress-up doll and a showpiece who must perform at command. At the same time it is in this character that we are quietly made aware of the differences between public and private reality. The patronising assumptions underlying the amusement Camilla and Andrea derive from Alda (and Seraph) is pointedly absent from her interactions with Mario Belli. Scarred by a society that equates worth with physical standards they can never meet, Alda and Belli instantly develop a sympathy for each other that others do not comprehend. Their alliance is seen as “proof positive that dwarfs had no souls; or rather that they were imps of hell, who would naturally find the company of Satan congenial” (p. 385). But “[in] each other’s company, they were off stage, no longer outsiders on the defensive, but snug in the comradeship of a point of view” (p. 295).
It is the unprocessed attitudes of his own time and milieu that on a few occasions cause Shellabarger’s judgment to slip as he negotiates historical fact with concessions to entertainment. The old stereotype that little people are prone to vanity is on display in the portrayal of Alda, but Seraph, on the other hand, is a clear-cut example of myopia. A slave child of African heritage whom Camilla acquires on a whim from Andrea, his character and personality are sheer caricature. “An ebony cherub, a jet cupid” (p. 14) he is made to strut self-importantly through his few scenes “like an infant sultan” (p. 167). Like Alda’s, his personal history is omitted but he is moreover deprived of the de-stereotyping benefit of an independent voice. The implied intention that readers’ laughter be affectionate makes the objectification even more souring because it so blindly neglects the value accorded in the novel to the concepts of justice and freedom.
On balance, it is one of the few blots and flaws in an otherwise astute and riveting historical novel. Prince Of Foxes goes into the past and collects advice for the future, imparting inspiration and warnings with such panache that the resulting story can be enjoyed as pure escapism. To borrow the peerless and extremely fitting description of S. Morgenstern’s classic tale of True Love and High Adventure6 it has “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True Love. Hate. Revenge. Giants [okay, dwarfs]. Hunters. Bad Men. Good Men. Beautifulest Ladies. Snakes [several Borgias surely count]. Spiders [with so many castles, they must lurk in a murky corner somewhere]. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.” Plus: Cannons. Astrology. Madness. And More. In short (I know, I know), Prince of Foxes is as entertaining as historical fiction gets. Do give it a try.
1. Although he seems to have been too much of a professional to ever deliver less than his best, Tyrone Power was at a point in his career where he must have been tired of parts that required little more of him than to look debonair as he struts around in period costume. In Prince of Foxes he cannot help looking too jaded for the youthful, optimistic vitality of Andrea.
2. Narni was long known as Narnia. According to Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis's literary executor, Lewis found out about Lucia Brocadelli and Narni when he was fourteen and it helped inspire his own creation, including a heroine who is not believed when she sees and experiences supernatural things. (Lucia Brocadelli, along with other Savonarolans, was hounded by disbelieving Church authorities and eventually fell from public favour.) Isn't it marvellous how the world of books is full of unexpected revelations and connections around every corner?
4. The line “Look at them and pass by” (p. 421) is, I am guessing, a reference to those in Dante’s Hell who are guilty of indifference regarding good and evil: "The world does not remember them at all;/ Mercy and justice treat them with contempt:/ Let us not talk about them – look and pass on." Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto III, translated by C.H. Sisson, Oxford University Press paperback 1993, p.57.
5. See for example Fools Are Everywhere: The Jester Around The World by Beatrice K. Otto, The University of Chicago Press, 2007, page 29: “According to a miscellany of 1670, dwarfs could be created by anointing babies’ spines with the grease of bats, moles, and dormice, while more palatable descriptions used drugs such as the aptly named dwarf elder, knotgrass, and daisy juice and roots mixed with milk to stunt growth. Children were kidnapped or bought to be turned into artificial dwarfs, and it was in Italy and Spain that the practice was most common, its perpetrators in Spain being called comprachicos or “child-buyers”. The practice was clearly known in England, as Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600) testifies […] (3.2.327-29)”. Isabella d’Este owned several little people, mentioning Morgantino and Delia in her will. Her correspondence records the transfer of child dwarfs, as noted in Julia Cartwright's biography: “"I promised Madame Renée to give her the first girl who was born to my dwarfs. As she knows, the puttina is now two years old, and will no doubt remain a dwarf, although she hardly gives hopes of being as tiny as my Delia. She is now able to walk alone and without a guide, if the Duchess wishes to have her." Another " bella Nanina" was sent by the Marchesa to Ferrante Gonzaga's wife in October 1533, and the young princess wrote a grateful letter to her mother-inlaw saying that the dwarf was the sweetest and gentlest creature in the world, and afforded her infinite amusement."” (In Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua 1474-1539, Vol.II, 1923, p. 364, available at the Internet Archive.)
6. The Princess Bride, you philistine. (By William Goldman. Pan Books paperback, 1976, p. 9-10.)
(Little, Brown and Company hardcover, 1947, pp. 23, 24):
“Amethyst had yielded to azure in the square, the deep azure of Venetian night, which has its own starry radiance. Torches began flaring on the piazza. An echo of music sounded from the lagoon.
Orsini got up at last and strolled to the Columns of St. Mark, where the gondola lanterns bobbed up and down like tethered fireflies. He deliberated on the evening. Of course he would be welcome at the Papal Legate’s, but he had called there that morning and wound up his official business. An excellent establishment in the Giudecca, kept by a certain Mona Giulia, had been recommended to him if he required a buona compagna; but he reflected that he must leave at dawn for Chioggia, the starting point for Ferrara, and he was in no mood for a white night.
Selecting a gondola and settling down in the cushions, he instructed the boatman: ‘Anywhere, friend. The Canal Grande – an affair of an hour – then back to the Riva degli Schiavoni.’
They glided away through the spangled water, and he filled his lungs with the haunting sea air. Other gondolas slipped past with lovers or merrymakers. A delicious languor filled the night, lapping of water, wandering of music. He felt a longing, sweeter than possession, for the indescribable, the unattainable. He would return here someday with her; he would occupy one of these palaces; they would live in terms of color – sapphire and silver – in terms of a casement open on the sea-scented night.
It had grown late when finally the gondola, following the Riva degli Schiavoni, glided into the Rio della Pietà, upon which the entrance of the tavern, the Star, opened. Having paid his fare, Orsini stood a moment, drawing a last breath of the sea breeze and watching the lantern of the gondola until it disappeared beyond the next curve of the canal. Half drowsily he realized that it was a night he would always remember, the more perhaps because he had spent it alone. Then, turning back into the dank passage between house walls that led to the front of the inn, he found that the lamp marking the tavern door had been allowed to go out.
He groped his way through the pitch darkness, cursing the carelessness of the inn servants; but he could see vaguely the space between the mouth of the alley and the inn, which stood in a tiny campiello surrounded by houses. The scuttle of a rat startled him as if it had been a footstep, and he was glad to reach the end of the passage. He determined to have a word with the landlord about that lamp.
A metal click sounded, and at the same moment he was dazzled by the light of a dark lantern turned full against his eyes.
‘Gran Dio!’ he exclaimed. ‘What’s up?’
‘This,’ answered a voice, coupled with the ripping, stinging blow of a knife.