If you’ve read The Prince, you probably think you know the work of Niccolo Machiavelli. Chances are, you think of him — as I always did — as the Renaissance figure who lionized a lying, cheating, brutal scoundrel as the ideal political and military leader. Having read The Malice of Fortune, I know better now. This book about Machiavelli as a private eye questions the myth.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

This historical novel, framed as a murder mystery, lays out the basis on which he wrote The Prince and illuminates his relationship with Cesare Borgia, known widely then as Duke Valentino, the subject of that famous book. The Malice of Fortune is based on historian and journalist Michael Ennis’ intensive research into primary sources, its characters and the events it portrays all solidly grounded in historical evidence. Machiavelli and Borgia did, indeed, have a relationship that verged on intimate.

The novel is set in Central Italy in 1502-3, with the action moving to and from Rome and through a succession of minor cities and towns where Duke Valentino and his troops were billeted. Machiavelli has been dispatched by the town fathers of Florence to follow Valentino and report his observations along the way, as their city feared a calamitous attack by the mercenary condottieri with whom Valentino was then negotiating a peace treaty. In the town of Imola, Machiavelli meets the bewitching courtesan known as Madonna Damiata, who has come in search of evidence that will point to the murder of Duke Gandia, her lover and father of her son. She quickly embroils Machiavelli in her search. They proceed on the assumption that one of the leaders of the condottieri is the murderer — but which one, and under what circumstances, is entirely unclear.

The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis (2012) 418 pages ★★★★☆

The Duke of Gandia, born Giovanni or Juan Borgia, is Duke Valentino’s (Cesare Borgia’s) younger brother. The two are sons of the then-reigning Pope, the notoriously corrupt Rodrigo Borgia, who ruled as Pope Alexander VI. (He was the same Pope who dictated the treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 that divided the New World between Spain and Portugal, which resulted in Brazilians speaking Portuguese today while the rest of region speaks Spanish.) The two men’s notorious sister, Lucrezia, also figures in the story but in the background, never appearing on-scene.

Together, Machiavelli and Damiata, now a couple in love, pursue the truth through a tangle of murky circumstances that grow more confounding by the day. The quartered remains of a woman’s headless body are found in the vicinity of Imola with an amulet that had belonged to Juan Borgia. The two amateur sleuths uncover a lead to a brothel in Imola inhabited by whores who are also witches, and through them they learn that a certain Zeja Caterina, a noted witch, may be the key to learning the truth of Juan’s murder. Their visit to her home in the countryside triggers a number of new murders (including Zeja Caterina’s) and thrusts them into such great danger that they must go into hiding. Yet more murders come to light — and it becomes apparent that a single man, a serial murderer, is responsible.

A story told in four parts

Ennis’ story is told in four parts, the first couched as a letter from Damiata to her young son, Giovanni, for him to read when he turns twenty. The remaining three parts are written from Machiavelli’s perspective. The language mimics the formality of Renaissance Italy and employs a generous number of Italian words. Interestingly, regional linguistic differences play a part in the tale as well: it was not until the nineteenth century that serious efforts got underway to establish a uniform national Italian tongue; during the Renaissance, such differences as those between Tuscan and Romagnola made the various dialects almost mutually unintelligible. Ennis, a more than competent historical scholar, appears to get it right.

Ennis’ introductory and closing remarks about (not in) the novel considerably enrich the reading experience. He first sets the historical context and lists the principal characters, then, at the end, clarifies Niccolo Machiavelli’s views on leadership and on Duke Valentino, his subject in The Prince. 

The Malice of Fortune is an amazing story, and it just might be true.

This is one of several books about Famous people as detectives in fact and fiction.

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