Luca Fumagalli

Frederick Rolfe, the self-styled Baron Corvo, had a visceral passion for the Renaissance. For him it was the most striking example of a world that is still vital, energetic, ready for action and prayer; nothing to do, therefore, with the gray flatness of Edwardian England. Corvo had expressed this vision in a powerful essay, Chronicles of the House of Borgia (1901), a work dedicated to the well-known Spanish family which, although historically not very accurate, revealed the great inventiveness of a capable writer.

The narrative florilege of the book on the Borgias found a natural outcome in Don Tarquinio. Dedicated to his brother Herbert and published in May 1905 by Chatto & Windus, the agile novel – the shortest in Rolf’s bibliography – has a straightforward and compact plot. The style is antiquated, manneristic, full of Latinisms and Greekisms (and it was perhaps this, more than others, that decreed its commercial failure).

The story, the alleged transcription of a holograph by Don Tarquinio Drakontoletes Poplicola di Santacroce to his son Prospero, is the account of a day in 1495 in which the eponymous protagonist, fifteen at the time, manages in twenty-four hours to carry out an important mission on behalf of Cesare Borgia, to revoke the ban that forces his family away from Rome and to marry the beautiful Hersilia, a bridesmaid in Lucrezia’s train. Around Tarquinio there are the political protagonists of Renaissance Italy, above all Alexander VI and Charles VIII, but also Cardinal Ippolito d’Este and Gioffredo Borgia, prince of Squillace, loyal friends of the young Santacroce.

Deprecating the falsehoods of Guicciardini and Giovio, Don Tarquinio narrates his extraordinary day at Prospero to demonstrate to his son how serious history is written. The curious subtitle of the book, “A Kataleptic Phantasmatic Romance”, indicates the working method followed, alluding to evidence as the ultimate truth criterion, according to the Stoic doctrine also supported by Walter Pater.

In the prologue, written in the form of an epistle addressed to his brother Herbert, Baron Corvo recounts the origin of the book, the result of the reworking of an article that had been commissioned and then rejected by a publisher, in which he had described the day of a gentleman at the end of the 15th century. Don Tarquinio was the indirect result, so to speak, of the research undertaken for the book on the Borgias (as well as from the author’s personal biography). Several passages re-propose ideas already present in the 1901 volume, such as the attack on the partiality of historians, the protection granted by Rodrigo to the Capitoline Jews or the dubious authorship of Caesar.

Between blood and prayer, between the sword and the sprinkler, the context is once again that of an ideal era, which deprecates half measures, when men believed in God and the Pope, adversary of the powerful, was still the majestic Ruler of the world, the earthly Vicar of Jesus Christ.