Excerpt from The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Malice of Fortune

by Michael Ennis

The Malice of Fortune
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2012, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2013, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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I did not have to be carried far, just around two corners. Once we entered your grandfather's apartments, I even knew precisely which of these lavishly frescoed rooms would witness my travail. Called the Hall of Saints, it was empty save for a few chairs and sideboards; in the center remained a brazier, a small intarsia table and a single armchair, upholstered in scarlet velvet embroidered with little gold bulls, the symbol of your family.

Once I was tied upon this throne, I quickly received my first visitor, your grandfather's master of artillery, Lorenzo Beheim--he of the treatises on dark magic and procedures to summon Satan. Beheim carried a wooden box such as physicians haul about. Placing this item on the table beside me, he opened it so that I could admire instruments that indeed looked like those used to explore the womb and extract a reluctant infant--tongs, hooks, picks, and pliers. As he brought the brazier closer, no doubt for his convenience when heating these devices, the reek of burning charcoal invaded my nostrils.

Having completed these preparations, he left.

Yet I was not entirely alone. The upper walls all around me were framed by massive gilded arches, and the painter Pinturrichio had filled each of the half-moon-shaped lunettes with tales of saints, their legends portrayed as extravagant ceremonies teeming with spectators. My chair had been placed so that I could look up at the lunette opposite the window, upon which the enormousDisputation of St. Catherine of Alexandria had been painted in gorgeous peacock hues.

This view allowed me to renew my acquaintance with some of your grandfather's bastards. You see, Pinturrichio used all sorts of people at your grandfather's court as models for the characters in this tale, though in the short years since he finished his labor, time and Fortune has altered so much about them. At the center of this glorious pageant was St. Catherine, presenting her defense of the Christian faith to the Emperor Maximinus and his colloquy of scholars. St. Catherine was a perfect likeness of your aunt Lucrezia, the present Duchess of Ferrara, her hair falling in flaxen waves, her puckered mouth as red as a cherry, her cerulean gaze fixed on a dream. This portrait was more real than life, because when I knew Lucrezia, if ever she was caught in a momentary thought, she would at once show her perfect teeth, a smile intended to draw one's attention from the desperate hope in her eyes.

In my worst fears, my darling, you have come to know Lucrezia's expression; but if this is so, then perhaps you have an image in an imperfect mirror of your Mama. Because it was often said, in those years when I was familiar with your family, that I looked enough like Madonna Lucrezia to be her older sister. I never thought so; your aunt's nose was smaller, her forehead less broad, her eyes a lighter tint. But perhaps now I share with your aunt Lucrezia the same sorrowful hope.

No less real than Lucrezia's portrait were the two figures at opposite sides of the scene. Your grandfather had intended his most cherished son, Juan Borgia, the Duke of Gandia, to serve as the model for the Emperor Maximinus. But Pinturrichio's vision had been less clouded by sentiment and he instead made another bastard son, Cesare Borgia, the face of this all-powerful sovereign. At the time the painting was done, Cesare had been twenty years old; he was still a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church and he still had his sister Lucrezia's delicate beauty. Yet Pinturrichio had given him a peculiar gaze, the dark green eyes staring down and away, fixed on something that could not be bound within the picture, as if Cesare were peering into a realm even the painter could not imagine.

Opposite Cesare, on the other end of the wall, Pinturrichio had placed Juan in the guise of a Turkish sultan, the sort of costume this most beloved son had indeed favored in life, a great linen turban around his head, his cape and loose trousers a tapestry of Oriental patterns. Juan was darker than his siblings--Cesare and Lucrezia are quite fair-complected--and in this portrait his gaze is predatory, a falcon's angry yet wary stare. In life, if Juan ever looked thus, it was a pose.

Excerpted from The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Ennis. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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