The Ground is Burning, By Samuel Black
Machiavelli, da Vinci, Borgia ... and Tarantino
It's a fantastic idea for a book: fleshing out the links between Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolò Machiavelli and the warlord Cesare Borgia, whose lives collided at the dawn of the 16th century. Machiavelli was sent from Florence to negotiate with Borgia, who thereby inspired The Prince. Leon-ardo became his military architect and weapon designer, to the distress of this gentle vegetarian.
Samuel Black seems not to worry that someone else had the idea first; there's a rather cool reference in the afterword to Paul Strathern's enjoyable work of non-fiction, The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior. Given that Strathern told the story so well, what's left for Black to do?
A lot, actually. Where Strathern was forced by gaps in the historical record to fall back on the biographer's "probablys" and "they must haves", Black can fill in with his imagination. Where Strathern merely speculated on the meetings between Machiavelli and Leonardo, Black gives us entire conversations. Most of all, he gives a thrillingly plausible voice to Cesare Borgia, the warrior of few words.
Black has Borgia think in a shifting mix of poetic shorthand ("Treeshadow and insectbuzz" ... "Candlesmoke and quillscratch" ... "Hoofclatter and breathsteam") and brutal Tarantino-isms: "On the floor – a pool of piss. On the floor – spatters of blood. On the floor – two fingers and an ear." Other well evoked characters are Borgia's sidekick, the strangler Michelotto, and the syphilitic warlord Vitelozzo Vitelli: "I think of Michelotto skewered on the end of my sword and laugh like a madman. These pills are good stuff."
Less successful is Dorotea, Borgia's mistress and honeypot spy. She appears in the historical record as a young woman whom Borgia abducted but about whom little more is known. She is only thinly characterised beyond her enigmatic smile (can you guess where that's going?), but without her there would be precious little female company: only the vanquished Caterina Sforza ("the blood-thirsty big-titted bitch"), a cameo from the infamous Lucrezia, and brief glimpses of landladies and wives.
In the figure of Borgia, Black underplays the Renaissance prince in favour of the psychopath. The stylish modern tone and echoes of the Godfather movies occasionally jar: "I do the math," says Borgia at one point. Nonetheless, this portrait of a terrifying, exhilarating era rings true. Life was obscenely cheap in Cesare Borgia's Italy; then you remember what Orson Welles said about cuckoo clocks.
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