August 11, 1492
Dawn is a pale bruise rising in the night sky when, from inside the palace, a window is flung open and a face appears, its features distorted by the firelight thrown up from the torches beneath. In the piazza below, the soldiers garrisoned to keep the peace have fallen asleep. But they wake fast enough as the voice rings out:
"WE HAVE A POPE!"
Inside, the air is sour with the sweat of old flesh. Rome in August is a city of swelter and death. For five days, twenty-three men have been incarcerated within a great Vatican chapel that feels more like a barracks. Each is a figure of status and wealth, accustomed to eating off a silver plate with a dozen servants to answer his every call. Yet here there are no scribes to write letters and no cooks to prepare banquets. Here, with only a single manservant to dress them, these men eat frugal meals posted through a wooden hatch that snaps shut when the last one is delivered. Daylight slides in from small windows high up in the structure, while at night a host of candles flicker under the barrel-vaulted ceiling of a painted sky and stars, as vast, it seems, as the firmament. They live constantly in each other's company, allowed out only for the formal business of voting or to relieve themselves, and even in the latrines the work continues: negotiation and persuasion over the trickle of aging men's urine. Finally, when they are too tired to talk, or need to ask guidance from God, they are free to retire to their cells: a set of makeshift compartments constructed around the edges of the chapel and comprised of a chair, a table and a raised pallet for sleeping; the austerity a reminder, no doubt, of the tribulations of aspiring saints.
Except these days saints are in short supply, particularly inside the Roman conclave of cardinals.
The doors had been bolted on the morning of August 6. Ten days earlier, after years of chronic infirmity, Pope Innocent VIII had finally given in to the exhaustion of trying to stay alive. Inside their rooms in the Vatican palace, his son and daughter had waited patiently to be called to his bedside, but his final moments had been reserved for spatting cardinals and doctors. His body was still warm when the stories started wafting like sewer smells through the streets. The wolf pack of ambassadors and diplomats took in great lungfuls, then dispatched their own versions of events in the saddlebags of fast horses across the land: stories of how His Holiness's corpse lay shriveled, despite an empty flagon of blood drained from the veins of Roman street boys on the orders of a Jewish doctor, who had vowed it would save his life; how those same bloodless boys were already feeding the fishes in the Tiber as the doctor fled the city. Meanwhile, across the papal bedclothes, the Pope's favorite, the choleric Cardinal della Rovere, was so busy trading insults with the Vice-Chancellor, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, that neither of them actually noticed that His Holiness had stopped breathing. Possibly Innocent had died to get away from the noise, for they had been arguing for years.
Of course, in such a web of gossip each man must choose what he wants to believe; and different rulers enjoy their news, like their meat, more or less well spiced. While few will question the cat claws of the cardinals, others might wonder about the blood, since it is well known around town that His Holiness's only sustenance for weeks had been milk from a wet-nurse installed in an antechamber and paid by the cup. Ah, what a way to go to heaven: drunk on the taste of mother's milk.
As for the conclave that follows, well, the only safe prediction is that prediction is impossible: that and the fact that God's next vicar on earth will be decided as much by bribery and influence as by any saintly qualifications for the job.
At the end of the third day, as the exhausted cardinals retire to their cells, Rodrigo Borgia, Papal Vice-Chancellor and Spanish Cardinal of Valencia, is sitting appreciating the view. Above the richly painted drapery on the walls of the chapel (new cardinals have been known to try to draw the curtains) is a scene from the life of Moses: Jethro's daughters young and fresh, the swirl of their hair and the color of their robes singing out even in candlelight. The Sistine Chapel boasts sixteen such frescoes — scenes of the life of Christ and Moses — and those with enough influence may choose their cell by its place in the cycle. Lest anyone should mistake his ambition, Cardinal della Rovere is currently sitting under the image of Christ giving St. Peter the keys of the Church, while his main rival, Ascanio Sforza, has had to settle for Moses clutching the tablets of stone (though with a brother who runs the bully state of Milan, some would say that the Sforza cardinal has more on his side than just the Commandments).
Publicly, Rodrigo Borgia has always been more modest in his aspirations. He has held the post of vice-chancellor through the reign of five different pontiffs — a diplomatic feat in itself — and along with a string of benefices it has turned him into one of the richest and most influential churchmen in Rome. But there is one thing he has not been able to turn to his advantage: his Spanish blood. And so the papal throne itself has eluded him. Until now, perhaps; because after two public scrutinies there is deadlock between the main contenders, which makes his own modest handful of votes a good deal more potent.
He murmurs a short prayer to the Virgin Mother, reaches for his cardinal's hat, and pads his way down the marble corridor between the makeshift cells until he finds the one he is looking for.
From Blood and Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant. Copyright 2013 by Sarah Dunant. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc.