THE SCARLET CITY

A Novel of 16th-Century Italy

By Hella S. Haasse

Translated from the Dutch by Anita Miller

Academy Chicago. 367 pp. $22.95

Giovanni Borgia, the infans Romanus or "child of Rome," presents one of history's charming little mysteries. His intriguing name and obscure record leave abundant room for speculation. The prolific Dutch writer Hella S. Haasse exploits both with skill and obvious relish in "The Scarlet City," her second historical novel to appear in English. The first, "In a Dark Wood Wandering," was an epic of medieval Europe. This "Novel of 16th-Century Italy" examines Borgia's life through his own eyes, and with it the social ferment and political confusion of the Italian Renaissance.

Set against the violent and sometimes confusing upheaval of the Italian wars, "The Scarlet City" exposes a people in disarray. Despite the imminent threat from French, Spanish and German invaders, Italy failed to provide a common front against common foes. Each petty potentate sought personal advantage in the confusion; and the chief gains accrued to Pope Alexander VI and his unscrupulous son, Cesare Borgia. An unstable atmosphere of distrust and irresolute loyalties pervades Haasse's novel, which culminates in the bloody sack of Rome in 1527.

The Borgia name, with its connotations of "deceit, decadence, fornication, black arts, murder and manslaughter, {and} incest" provides an arresting focus for the story. Giovanni doesn't know his parentage, which enables him (and Haasse) to review the Borgia misdeeds repeatedly, as he returns to his obsession -- "Who and what am I here?"

The story begins in 1525. Giovanni Borgia is 28. He has been rescued from the Spanish imperial forces who took him prisoner after the battle of Pavia, where he fought for the losing French army. He is now working as a papal scribe in Rome -- a lowly position for a Borgia (if a Borgia he is) but one that had to be won through the influence of a benevolent prelate. Having given up his military identity along with his armor, Giovanni agonizes over who he is, and what he is doing as a speech writer. Unable to find a confidant in the untrustworthy papal household, he commits his thoughts and memories to paper. They form the major part of the novel.

Haasse skillfully exploits Giovanni's uncertainties and the ambiguity of his situation. His memories defy strict chronology, which lends the novel a certain circularity. Giovanni will believe any rumor about his background: Is he the son of Cesare Borgia, or possibly the bastard of Cesare's father, Pope Alexander? Is Lucrezia (Cesare's sister) his mother or his sister, or both? Or is he not a Borgia at all? In his desperation, Giovanni peruses each of these possibilities.

The great strength of this novel lies in Haasse's sympathy for her protagonist. Her depth of insight and psychological accuracy allow Giovanni to transcend his historical situation. He captures both the timelessness of human nature and the idiosyncrasies of his own era. In an inhospitable world, Giovanni's first concern is for his own welfare: Like his Italian compatriots, he feels "free to choose whatever side offers the greatest advantage."

Giovanni's personal pragmatism reflects the source of Italy's vulnerability and represents the philosophical crux of Haasse's novel. Unlike the Spanish soldiers, who put the needs of the emperor before their own, or the French court, where the rules of the game are stringently followed, in Italy, "things are continually changing: titles, benefices, appointments, new parties, come and go with mysterious rapidity. ... And there's no way of predicting which way the wind will blow."

This question of loyalty, of the need for a united Italy, or patria, is debated by the historian Francesco Guicciardini and the political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli in a series of letters that provide relief from Giovanni's egocentric musings. Indeed, Haasse's secondary characters -- from the tormented artist Michelangelo Buonarroti to the competent courtesan (and love interest) Tullia d'Aragona -- read like a list of 16th-century Italy's rich and notorious. But Haasse incorporates them with such deftness that their roles in Giovanni's story manage to remain totally convincing.

"The Scarlet City" suffers from an abundance of names and titles ("that come and go with mysterious rapidity"), but it is worth making an effort to digest this cumbersome nomenclature, for Haasse's challenging novel combines a wealth of historical knowledge with remarkable literary talent. Her work is popular in Holland, and "The Scarlet City" shows that Haasse should expect the same success here. Her American readers should anticipate the exciting possibility that more of her 17 novels will receive the English translation they deserve. The reviewer is a Baltimore editor and critic.