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I like to read classics, historical fiction and world lit. Oh and I love short stories.


De scharlaken stad / the Scarlet City (Hella Haasse)

De scharlaken stad / druk 26: verzameld werk (Verzameld werk Hella S. Haasse) - Hélène Serafia Haasse The Scarlet City: A Novel of 16th Century Italy - Hella S. Haasse

"Borgia, it's like the warning sign on the door of a pestilence house."
orginal Dutch: "Borgia, dat is als het waarschuwend teken op de deur van een huis waar de pest woedt." (p. 14)

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Finished! What a wonderful read. It's been a long while since I read anything by Haasse, but this reacquaintance reaffirms why she is my favorite author: interesting historical topics, meticulous research, and beautiful writing. What more could a hf fan want?

"The Scarlet City: a novel of 16th century Italy" is a literary historical novel which starts in 1525, shortly after the battle of Pavia. Giovanni Borgia finds himself, for the first time since his childhood, in Rome. He is in search of his identity. He bears a name which, more than twenty years after the death of the Borgia pope, people still associate with corruption, intrigue, lust for power, as well as the rumors of incestuous relationships within the family. His name marks him. Yet Giovanni is struggling with that identity. He wants to find out exactly who his parents are. How is he related to Cesare, Lucrezia, the pope?

Giovanni's search for his identity and his place in the world is set against the background of a crucial phase of the Italian Wars. German, Spanish, French soldiers all invade the Italian peninsula, accumulating in the bloody, horrendous sack of Rome.

Haasse does not only give an insight into the life and thoughts of Giovanni Borgia, but also describes the actions and lifes of several key players in 1520's Rome and Italy; Machiavelli, Michelangelo, but also lesser known people such as Vittoria Colonna and Tullia d'Aragona. Each chapter she switches to another one of her characters, who all have a different insight into the complicated politics of Italy and Rome. In total there are 5 different points of view. This structure allows Haasse to give a far more complete picture of the events of 1525-1527 than she could have done if she restricted herself solely to the point of view of Giovanni Borgia.

Haasse presumes some background knowledge from the reader. She's not going to explain who the Borgias were, or the geographical and political divisions in 16th century Europe. The reader is thrown immediately into the events after the battle of Pavia. Though with a vague idea of who the Borgias were and a rudimentary knowledge of 16th century Europe (the emperor ruled Germany and Spain, Italy was a patchwork of independent regions constantly at war with eachother), I was able to grasp what was going on.

My judgement
Haasse does what she does best. With clear prose she writes about the events of the first quarter of the 15th century, and uses those events to get into the minds of some fascinating characters who populated the corridors of the Vatican in 1525. Her portrayal of life in Rome and the Vatican for those who are not the pope nor his most intimate counsellors is vivid and intriguing. Each character who has his or her own point of view has their own distinct voice and their stories are multilayered. I enjoyed the chapters of Giovanni Borgia, Vittoria Colonna and the correspondance between Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini the most.

Machiavelli's correspondance gave me some new insights into this historical characters. In popular culture he is usually portrayed as a scheming politician. Someone who can manipulate anybody to do anything. Yet Machiavelli in the last years of his life, as portrayed by Haasse, is shown to be a man with ideals, and with a dream for Italy. Possibly a far more accurate description of the man.

I loved reading Giovanni's chapters as they mostly recounted his life as he tries to reconstruct childhood memories and tries to hold every encounter with his family in a different light. What did Lucrezia mean with what she said in their conversations? Why did several members of the family act towards him the way they acted? It's a nice little puzzle, and Haasse tells it well.

I didn't like the chapters of Michelangelo, mostly because his voice was one of a suffering artist, which was not as focussed nor as strongly linked to the events in the novel as the other points of view. I think the novel would be just as strong if she'd cut him out completely. Luckily, it was only two chapters.

I'm still mulling over whether I like the ending. Vittoria Colonna's final chapter felt a bit too grandiloquent at places, and there's a major twist in Giovanni Borgia's quest.

While the final solution of the puzzle of his identity as suggested in the final chapter is quite likely plausible (I suspect Haasse has done extensive research on the trial for the rule of Camerino), it feels like a bit of an anti-climax to think that Giovanni wasn't a Borgia after all - or was he? Though I quite like her portrayal of him being elated and clinging onto his new identity for dear life. Quite fits his character.

(show spoiler)

Perhaps I don't know what to think of the final twist because it seems to be too rushed after 300 pages of build-up.

My ambiguous feelings about the ending as well as my dislike for the Michelangelo chapters are the reasons why this book is a four star and not a five star read for me. That being said, Haasse definitely peeked my curiosity about all characters in the novel. I want to know more about this period in Italian history!