The Banner of the Bull - Rafael Sabatini

The Banner of the Bull
Rafael Sabatini
House of Stratus
ISBN: 1842327984 (Amazon link)

Flick back a few entries in my booklog, and you'll see a gleeful review of Scaramouche. I wasn't sure if it was typical of Sabatini's work, or was his single stand-out title, but I desperately wanted to read more by him. I decided to pick something from his catalogue that I'd not heard of - Banner of the Bull is set in medieval Italy, a lush backdrop dripping with pomp and splendour, and is basically a fix-up of three novellas; The Urbinian, The Perugian, and The Venetian.

The titular banner of the bull belongs to the infamous Florentine Cesare Borgia, and each of the episodes demonstrates his ruthless political scheming. Sabatini seems to be a bit of a admirer, his non-fiction The Life of Cesare Borgia is among the other titles back in print from this publisher.

In The Urbinian Cesare desires the fortress of San Leo to fall, and decides his tools should be the charlatan magician Corvinus Trismegistus, a beautiful young lady called Bianca who just happens to be the daughter of the Castellan of San Leo, and one of his own condotierro, young Lorenzo Castrocaro, the titular Urbinian. The joy of these short stories is watching Cesare pick his pieces for the game, nudge them into motion ... and then just confidently wait for results. Each story is a little puzzle box, unfolding neatly for your pleasure in Sabatini's wonderfully mannered prose. Sabatini isn't shy about overplaying his themes, but does so marvellously - I particularly enjoyed Machiavelli trying, and failing, to keep up with Borgia's schemes.

So, if The Urbinian was about making love, not war, what about The Perugian? This is a darker tale, in which Cesare Borgia is missing an enemy - the Orsini fell afoul of him, but one escaped - Matteo Orsini has fled to Pievano, to shelter with the family of his fiancee Madonna Fulvia, duaghter of the Count Almerico. Unable to mount a direct military assault, Cesare picks a arrogant young captain to go and ferret out his target.

"I shall need a man of little heart and less conscience, who cares for nothing but his own advancement; and it is an inevitable condition that he should be of an exterior that is pleasing to a woman and likely to command her confidence."

I think this episode has some of strongest visual scenes, with the horrifying finale being particularly satisfying, as the resourceful young Madonna Fulvia outsmarts her lover's enemies, even if they are the mighty Cesare Borgia, by giving them exactly what they ask for...

The Venetian addresses the Borgia's endless feud with the mighty Venetians, and is the only one to feature Cesare as the main character. A honey-pot is laid out for the Venetians, rumours of a disaffected officer in the Borgia camp. Said officer is soon invited to join a conspiracy, but his loyalty condemns him to refuse their approaches and in the ensuing fracas he receives a head wound, leaving his men to come onto the scene to find only their bloody headed captain and the Venetian Envoy, who has complete and utter diplomatic immunity, and who has a perfectly plausible explanation... Cesare knows a conspiracy is afoot, but where is the trap, and how can he take care of it while at court without triggering hostilities with the Most Serene Republic? Again, the particulars of the plot aren't as important as enjoying watching events unfold. Modern readers might perhaps object to having the author explaining events quite so verbosely, but the prose is so splendid that I could happily have read about Sabatini's preferred method of boiling an egg.

Hugely recommended.

Posted: Thu - September 18, 2003 at 12:06 AM