Early in Cecelia Holland's 11th historical novel, set in Rome between 1500 and 1503, the Florentine ambassador and his secretary are received in the Vatican garden by Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, mountainous and florid in gold brocade and ermine. The pope fiercely threatens Florence with papal retaliation if that city doesn't pay up the protection money demanded by his son Cesare. He then turns to the flowers he is personally selecting to be sent to his daughter Lucrezia, recently widowed at Cesare's command.

Though willing to use her as a pawn in consolidating the Borgia alliances, the pope is devoted to his docile daughter and sorely misses her. "The flowers will surprise her -- remind her of Rome," he says tenderly. The ambassador is preoccupied with his next speech, but Nicholas, the secretary, gallantly responds, "Your Holiness snows that the city is not truly Rome in the absence of Lady Lucrezia."

Nicholas says the right thing always and is the focus through which all the action and intrigue is observed. His parents were English, his birthplace Navarre, his employer the Signoria of the Republic of Florence, and his long-time residence is Rome where he is secretary of the Florentine legation to the Papal Court. He is brilliant, proud, diligent, homosexual touchy -- and bitterly ambitious, a man from and of many parts. He despises his ambassador, Ercole Bruni, a minor but marvelous character who considers, for his professional predictions, not econimics or politics but the stars. "We are lost... Venus and Mercury are in opposition, the Sun is in Gemini." Busying himself with astrology, gardening and reading romances, he leaves all the work, but not the credit to his clever secretary. Moreover, the signoria has not paid Nicholas his salary in months. He is thus easy prey for the charismatic Cesare Borgia who calls him Messer Mouse but offers him golden ducats and the prospect of a share in the

So Nicholas begins his perilous career as a double agent. He passes along to the signoria tidbits gleaned in interviews with Cesare, during which he "had the sensation of rushing into the slack jaws of a crocodile, picking at the morsels between the teeth." At the same time he spies for Cesare and proposes projects for him. Holland, ingeniously working in the gaps between gossip and history, makes Nicholas the mastermind of several notable coups. For example, he is the architect of an event which has been called by one historian "the peak of this policy of brutal aggression and duplicity" -- the sneak seizure in June 1502 of the Borgias' allied city of Urbino. While Nicholas defends the morality of this betrayal on the basis of the lives spared that would have been lost in a frontal attack, most of Cesare's condottieres were appalled. Their disgust largely motivates their rebellion against Cesare which he later put down so mercilessly at Senigallia in January of 1503. But by then Nicholas himself has become disenchanted with the "leonine prince" who has alienated the secretary's ruffian lover Stephano. Alter, as an act of revenge, Nicholas risks his own life engineering the downfall of the Borgias.

In one important respect, however, the author does not take sufficient liberties: Her characterization of all the Borgias is disappointingly conventional. Lucrezia is a spoiled of sweetnatured beauty, Alexander sensual and sentimental, and Cesare essentially a juvenile delinquent, though one with rare political assets -- vast energy, immense wealth, lack of scruple, and a papal father. Holland conveys no sense of their possible complexity or extraordinary abilities. And she neglects to exploit the great opportunity of the historical novel, the scope it offers for provocative and heterodox speculation on the natures of famous figures from the past.

On the other hand she convincingly pictures Renaissance Rome, the sumptuousness of the costumes and furnishings, the squalor and menace of the streets. She adroitly leads the reader through the tangle of dynastic ambitions and shifting alliances. Best of all, she creates a fascinating focal character in Nicholas -- Messer Mouse, the mini-Machiavelli. In fact, during this very period Niccolo Machiavelli was, like Holland's character, a minor Florentine diplomat. However, he is mentioned only in passing in this novel, since with the exception of a three-month stint as envoy to Cesare Borgia (whom he made the hero of "The Prince") Machiavelli was offstage in Florence. But he is here throughout in spirit; if this book doesn't give us any fresh vision of the Borgias, it does provide a compelling portrait of Machiavelli in the guise of his alter ego Nicholas -- and he is considerably more relevant to our times than the Borgias. There is one neat reversal: Holland has the Spanish general Gonsalvo call Nicholas "the man who made a fox of the Borgia lion."

One might say that in "The Prince" Machiavelli was later to make a lion of the Borgia fox.