"Maddalena" - A Renaissance Love Story - Popes, Cardinals and Women

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Maddalena is an illustrated historical novel about Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. The historical person, a grandson of Pope Paul III and the devoted patron of the first Jesuit church in Rome, was a womanizer who didn't take his sacred vows for thirty years. The first book of a trilogy concludes with the plot set in St. Peter's square on Easter Sunday in 1575, the stage of Maddalena's miraculous ascension. The heroine, a Jewish-born healer, was Alessandro's mistress and a Catholic convert.

What did Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the protagonist in the historical novel Maddalena, have in common with his grandfather Pope Paul III, besides being the greatest art patron of his time? A lust for women.

When Alessandro was twenty-four-years old, his miniaturist Giulio Clovio provided Titian with a sketch of his mistress, the courtesan Angela, whose lovely face was immortalized in the Venetian master’s reclining nude, kept in the cardinal’s private quarters for most of his life. To satisfy a code of propriety, the Venetian master transformed the sensuous nude in Alessandro’s painting into the mythological Danaë being raped by Zeus, the wanton god symbolized by a shower of gold.

How sensuous? The papal nuncio, Giovanni Della Casa, reported that Titian’s masterpiece would have excited even the principal Censor of the Church, and the future head of the Roman Inquisition, the severe Dominican Tommaso Badia. Although the Pope was furious by his grandson’s lack of prudence, if not virtue, he was too busy having his bedroom decorated with the frescoes of Cupid and Psyche. And Cardinal Farnese, protected by his grandfather, and unlimited wealth, could not only buy many courtesans’ favors, but stop the wagging fingers over breaking every code of honor imposed on him as the second-in-command after the Pope.

A family aberration? Surely not.

Paul III ascended to the papal throne with four legitimized children, and great dynastic plans for his grandchildren. His grandson Alessandro, made Cardinal at fourteen, and life-time Vice-Chancellor at fifteen, resented his ecclesiastical career, dreaming of being a prince. Papabile three times, he didn’t take his major vows for thirty years. Unlike Paul III, the immensely rich Alessandro was not rich enough to bribe his way to the coveted papal chair.

Maddalena, Book One of The Golden Tripolis Trilogy, is about Alessandro Farnese’s love for a Jewish flower woman who converts to Catholicism. Taking the biblical name Magdalen, Alessandro’s mistress eventually suffers at the hands of the Roman Inquisition. The crippled, blinded woman who survives the ordeal at the stake becomes a healer in the service of God and the people.

Maddalena’s character deepens with her conversion. Philip F. O’Connor, the 1994 Pulitzer Prize Chair for Letters, commented: “From the beginning of their relationship, when we see the incredibly powerful member of the Curia distracted by the beauty of a young Jewish woman, we are captivated. As she becomes more involved with the aging cardinal, she becomes more pious, more saintly. As the man of God falls to his love for her, he at first becomes more helpless and worldly, as vulnerable, as human, as Christian, as seems possible for him.”

The moral climate in the Eternal City is so severe that one can be burned at the stake for the smallest transgression from church dogma. Yet, the Vatican’s most powerful Cardinal has a mistress, an illegitimate son and a daughter, and a sexual relationship with his ward. Prudence, temperance, courage, and justice may be the cardinal virtues; the Cardinal clearly possesses none of them. That His Most Reverend Excellency, Cardinal Farnese, actually lived, adds a deeper dimension to what is already a stunningly rich tapestry of everyday life in Michelangelo’s Rome.

A sensual, compelling story of wealth, power, and piety based on historical characters, Maddalena concludes in St. Peter's square on Easter Sunday in 1575, the stage of a miraculous ascension. Inspired by Titian’s nude Penitent Magdalen, which once belonged to Alessandro’s historical brother-in law, the plot is replete with religious issues: the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant revolt in the Low Countries, St. Bartholomaeus night's massacre of the Huguenots in Paris, and the huge Christian naval victory over the Moslems at Lepanto. Ms. Siroka, an art historian with a doctorate from Princeton University, has a wonderful talent for weaving known facts into rich tapestries full of emotional power and a plea for religious tolerance, in which Catholic converts like Maddalena become nascent saints.

An engrossing love story and sensual tour of ecclesiastic and artistic Rome, Maddalena features nearly two dozen color plates of Ms. Siroka’s stunning watercolor illustrations, and the painting of the Magdalen that graces the cover of the book. A professional artist with works in private and public collections in North America and Europe, Ms. Siroka has equal gifts for storytelling, painting, and scholarship, which come marvelously together to make Maddalena a delightful experience. It would be a sin to miss it.

See Eva Siroka’s website for a two-minute multimedia bookpresenter, with various links and book reviews.


Victor Gulotta

Gulotta Communications Inc.


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