Jean Plaidy

Madonna of the Seven Hills


I hope that my readers will bear in mind the proverb Altri tempi, altri costumi, and adjust their mental vision to the fifteenth century when Popes took their vows of celibacy merely as a form, and when murder was so commonplace that an old Tiber boatman on seeing the body of the Pope’s son thrown into the river did not think it necessary to report it because he saw bodies thrown in every night.

Only by judging the Borgias against their own times can they arouse our sympathy, and only if they arouse our sympathy can they be understood.

Below are some of the books which have been of great help to me:

Lucrezia Borgia: A Chapter from the Morals of the Italian Renaissance. Ferdinand Gregorovius.

The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia. Maria Bellonci. Translated by Bernard Wall.

Lucrezia Borgia. Joan Haslip.

The Life of Cesare Borgia. Raphael Sabatini.

Lucretia Borgia, The Chronicle of Tebaldeo Tebaldei, Renaissance Period, Commentary and Notes by Randolph Hughes. Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Life and Times of Roderigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI. The Most Rev. Arnold H. Mathew, D.D.

Chronicles of the House of Borgia. Frederick Baron Corvo.

Hadrian the Seventh. Frederick Rolfe (Frederick Baron Corvo).

Alma Roma. Albert G. MacKennon, M.A.

Cesare Borgia. Charles Yriarte. Translated by William Stirling.

Cesare Borgia. William Harrison Woodward.

An Outline of Italian Civilization. Decio Pettoello.

History of the Italian Republics in the Middle Ages. J. C. L. Sismondi. (Recast and Supplemented in the light of historical research by William Boulting.)

Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino: Illustrating the Arms, Arts and Literature of Italy from 1440 to 1630. (3 Vols.) James Dennistoun of Dennistoun.



It was cold in the castle, and the woman who stood at the window looking from the snowy caps of the mountains to the monastery below thought longingly of the comfort of her house on the Piazza Pizzo di Merlo sixty miles away in Rome.

Yet she was content to be here for it was Roderigo’s wish that their child should be born in his mountain castle; and she could feel nothing but delight that he should care so much.

She turned her back on the majestic view and looked round the room. The bed was inviting, for her pains were becoming more frequent. She hoped the child would be a boy, since Roderigo could do so much more for a boy than for a girl.

Already she had given him three handsome sons, and he doted on them, particularly, she believed, on Cesare and Giovanni; but that was because Pedro Luis the eldest had been sent away. It was sad to lose him but it was a wonderful future which would be his: education at the Spanish Court, where he was to receive the dukedom of Gandia. And there would be equally grand opportunities for the others—for Cesare, for Giovanni, and the unborn child.

Her women were hovering. Madonna should lie down now, they advised, for the child would surely soon be born.

She smiled, wiping the sweat from her forehead, and allowed them to help her to the bed. One touched her forehead with a sweet-smelling unguent which was cool and refreshing; another put a goblet of wine to her lips. They were eager, these women, to serve Vannozza Catanei, because she was beloved by Roderigo Borgia, one of the greatest Cardinals in Rome.

She was a lucky woman to have become so dear to him, for he was a man who needed many mistresses; but she was the chief one, which in itself was something of a miracle since she was no longer young. When a woman was thirty-eight she must indeed be attractive to hold the attention of such a one as Cardinal Roderigo Borgia. Yet she had done it; and if there were times when she wondered whether he came to see their children rather than for the purpose of making love to her, what of that? Sons such as Pedro Luis, Cesare and Giovanni could make a stronger bond than passion; and if, in the future, there were younger and more beautiful women to charm him, she would still be the one who had given him his favorite children.

So she would be contented—when the pains were over and the child born; she was sure the baby would be healthy and handsome; all her children were. They had all inherited her golden beauty and she hoped the new child would, for it delighted their father. So she must be pleased that he had insisted on bringing her here to his castle at Subiaco, even though the journey had been long and tedious and the wind was fierce in the Apennines. He wished her to have their child in his palace, and he wished to be near her when it was born. That would have been less simple to achieve in Rome, for Roderigo was after all a man of the Church sworn to celibacy, and here in the mountain fastness of the Subiaco castle he could give way to his joy with an easier mind. So she would soothe herself while she waited by thinking of her beautiful house on the Piazza Pizzo di Merlo in which, due to the bounty of Roderigo, she lived so graciously. She delighted in the Ponte quarter in which there was always so much going on. It was one of the most populous districts of the city, and merchants and bankers abounded there. It was favored by the most notorious and prosperous of the courtesans, and dominated by the noble family of Orsini who had their palace on Monte Giordano, and whose castle, the Torre di None, was part of the city’s wall.

Not that Vannozza considered herself a courtesan. She was faithful to Roderigo and regarded him as her husband, although of course she knew that Roderigo, being a Cardinal, could not marry, and that if he had been able to he would have been obliged to look for a wife in a different stratum of society.

But if Roderigo could not marry her he had been as considerate as any husband. Roderigo, thought Vannozza, was surely the most charming man in Rome. She did not believe she was the only one who thought this, although a man such as Roderigo would certainly have his enemies. He was made for distinction; his eyes were on a certain goal, the Papacy, and those who knew Roderigo well would surely feel that he had an excellent chance of achieving his ambition. No one should be deceived by those gracious manners, that enchantingly musical voice, that attractive courtesy; they were so much a part of Roderigo, it was true, but beneath the charm was a burning ambition which would certainly carry him as far as he intended it should.

Roderigo was a man whom Vannozza could adore, for he had all the qualities which she admired most. Therefore she prayed now to the saints and the Virgin that the child which she was about to bear should have charm and beauty (for Roderigo, possessing the former to such a degree, was very susceptible to the latter) and that should she, herself a matron of thirty-eight, fail to arouse his sexual desire she could continue to bask in his gratitude for the children she had borne him.

How long would the children be kept under her roof? Not long, she imagined. They would depart as Pedro Luis had departed. Roderigo had fine plans for the boys; and Vannozza, beloved of the Cardinal though she might be, had little social standing in Rome.

But he would remember that part of her lived in those children, and she would continue in her charming house, the house which he had given her. It was the sort of house which was possessed by the nobles of Rome, and she delighted in it. She had enjoyed sitting in the main room of the house, the whitewashed walls of which she had decorated with tapestries and a few pictures; for she had wanted to make her house as luxurious as that of the great families—the Orsinis and the Colonnas. Her lover was generous and had given her many presents; in addition to her tapestries and paintings she had her jewelry, her fine furniture, her ornaments of porphyry and marble, and—most treasured of all—her credenza, that great chest in which she stored her majolica, and her gold and silver goblets and drinking vessels. The credenza was a sign of social standing, and Vannozza’s eyes shone every time she looked at hers. She would walk about her beautiful house, touching her beautiful possessions and telling herself in the quiet coolness she enjoyed behind its thick walls that she had indeed been a fortunate woman when Roderigo Borgia had come into her life and found her desirable.

Vannozza was no fool, and she knew that the treasures which Roderigo had given her were, in his mind, as nothing compared to those she had given him.

Now the pain was gripping her again, more insistently, almost continuously. The child was eager to be born.

* * *

In another wing of his castle of Subiaco the great Cardinal also waited. His apartments were far from those of his mistress for he did not wish to be distressed by the sound of her cries; he did not wish to think of Vannozza’s suffering; he wished to think of her as she had always taken pains to be in his presence—beautiful, light-hearted and full of vitality, even as he was himself. In childbirth Vannozza might fail to be so and he preferred to remember her thus, as he was a man who hated to be uncomfortable; and Vannozza in pain would render him so.

Therefore it was better to shut himself away from her, to wait in patience until the message came to him that the child was born.