Whilst the actual sources of historical evidence shall be examined in the course of this narrative, it may be well to examine at this stage the sources of the popular conceptions of the Borgias, since there will be no occasion later to allude to them.
Without entering here into a dissertation upon the historical romance, it may be said that in proper hands it has been and should continue to be one of the most valued and valuable expressions of the literary art. To render and maintain it so, however, it is necessary that certain well defined limits should be set upon the licence which its writers are to enjoy ; it is necessary that the work should be honest work ; that preparation for it should be made by a sound, painstaking study of the period to be represented, to the end that a true impression may first be formed and then conveyed. Thus, considering how much more far reaching is the novel than any other form of literature, the good results that must wait upon such endeavours are beyond question. The neglect of them the distortion of character to suit the romancer's ends, the like distortion of historical facts, the gross anachronisms arising out of a lack of study, have done much to bring the historical romance into disrepute. Many writers frankly make no pretence leastways none that can be discerned of aiming at historical precision ; others, however, invest their work with a spurious scholarliness, go the length of citing authorities to support the point of view which they have taken, and which they lay before you as the fruit of strenuous lucubrations.
These are the dangerous ones, and of this type is Victor Hugo's famous tragedy Lucrezia Borgia, a work to which perhaps more than to any other (not excepting Les Borgias in Crimes Celebres of Alexandre Dumas) is due the popular conception that prevails today of Cesare Borgia's sister.
It is questionable whether anything has ever flowed from a distinguished pen in which so many licences have been taken with the history of individuals and of an epoch ; in which there is so rich a crop of crude, transpontine absurdities and flagrant, impossible anachronisms. Victor Hugo was a writer of rare gifts, a fertile romancer and a great poet, and it may be unjust to censure him for having taken the fullest advantages of the licences conceded to both. But it would be difficult to censure him too harshly for having in his Lucrezia Borgia struck a pose of scholarliness, for having pretended and maintained that his work was honest work founded upon the study of historical evidences. With that piece of charlatanism he deceived the great mass of the unlettered of France and of all Europe into believing that in his tragedy he presented the true Lucrezia Borgia.
" If you do not believe me," he declared, " read Tommaso Tommasi, read the Diary of Burchard."
Read, then, that Diary, extending over a period of twenty three years, from 1483 to 1506, of the Master of Ceremonies of the Vatican (which largely contributes the groundwork of the present history), and the one conclusion to which you will be forced is that Victor Hugo himself had never read it, else he would have hesitated to bid you refer to a work which does not support a single line that he has written.
As for Tommaso Tommasi oh, the danger of a little learning ! Into what quagmires does it not lead those who flaunt it to impress you !
Tommasi's place among historians is on precisely the same plane as Alexandre Dumas's. His Vita di Cesare Borgia is on the same historical level as Les Borgias, much of which it supplied. Like Crimes Celebres, Tommasi's book is invested with a certain air of being a narrative of sober fact; but like Crimes Celebres, it is none the less a work of fiction.
This Tommaso Tommasi, whose real name was Gregorio Leti and it is under this that such works of his as are reprinted are published nowadays was a most prolific author of the seventeenth century, who, having turned Calvinist, vented in his writings a mordacious hatred of the Papacy and of the religion from which he had seceded. His Life of Cesare Borgia was published in 1670. It enjoyed a considerable vogue, was translated into French, and has been the chief source from which many writers of fiction and some writers of " fact" have drawn for subsequent work to carry forward the ceaseless defamation of the Borgias.
History should be as inexorable as Divine Justice. Before we admit facts, not only should we call for evidence and analyse it when it is forthcoming, but the very sources of such evidence should be examined, that, as far as possible, we may ascertain what degree of credit they deserve. In the study of the history of the Borgias, we repeat, there has been too much acceptance without question, too much taking for granted of matters whose incredibility frequently touches and occasionally oversteps the confines of the impossible.
One man knew Cesare Borgia better, perhaps, than did any other contemporary, of the many who have left more or less valuable records; for the mind of that man was the acutest of its age, one of the acutest Italy and the world have ever known. That man was Niccolo Macchiavelli, Secretary of State to the Signory of Florence. He owed no benefits to Cesare ; he was the ambassador of a power that was ever inimical to the Borgias; so that it is not to be dreamt that his judgement suffered from any bias in Cesare's favour. Yet he accounted Cesare Borgia as we shall see the incarnation of an ideal conqueror and ruler ; he took Cesare Borgia as the model for his famous work The Prince, written as a grammar of statecraft for the instruction in the art of government of that weakling Giuliano de' Medici.
Macchiavelli pronounces upon Cesare Borgia the following verdict :
" If all the actions of the duke are taken into consideration, it will be seen how great were the foundations he had laid to future power. Upon these I do not think it superfluous to discourse, because I should not know what better precept to lay before a new prince than the ex ample of his actions ; and if success did not wait upon what dispositions he had made, that was through no fault of his own, but the result of an extraordinary and extreme malignity of fortune"