History and Memory

March 2011

In her book about books, Howard’s End is on the Landing, the novelist Susan Hill starts a section with the following comment: ‘Memory is like a long dark street, illuminated at intervals in a light so bright that it shows up every detail. And then one plunges into the dark stretch again.’

    I am just back from another short reconnaissance trip to Ferrara. I first visited the city in the early 1970s, and in general remembered the looming brick walls of the Castello d’Este; but I had one vivid memory. We were looking for the burial place of Lucrezia Borgia, in a nunnery. Before us in an empty waiting room there was a small revolving window, a kind of dumb waiter, through which the nuns could receive things without being seen. This started to turn, while a voice eerily called from within, chi è? chi è? We explained ourselves, a door opened with a click, and, still without seeing anyone, we found our way into a sort of covered cloister in which there were several large, rectangular raised tombs behind railings – or so I remembered – one of which was that of Lucrezia Borgia.

    On this latest trip, I decided to revisit the memory. I rang the bell of the Convent of Corpus Domini, and was admitted to the same waiting room. There was the revolving window, but this time a nun appeared in person, and sent me outside and round the corner to wait by the iron gates of the church; after a few minutes these clicked open, and so did the church doors, and I found myself in a spacious square baroque chapel. Here a nun standing behind a counter in the furthest corner from the entrance pointed to another door, and I made my way into a further chapel which was flanked by wooden seats, obviously the convent chapter house. Where was the covered cloister? Where were the impressive raised tombs with the railings? I waited for further directions. The nun was now observing me through a triple-barred window. She pointed out the tombs; they were flat slabs, flush with the floor. My memory, as sharp and clear as such things can be, turned out to have played a trick on me and was entirely wrong.

    This knowledgeable nun proceeded to tell me in great detail about the various Estes that were buried in the chapel, offering much more information than I could retain. Lucrezia Borgia, she explained, was married to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (her third husband), and was generally regarded as a model wife. She had special links with the Poor Clares of this nunnery, even to the point of becoming a tertiary Franciscan. Here was a further knock to my preconceptions – Lucrezia Borgia, byword for the wicked Renaissance femme fatale, murderess of husbands and lovers, her name forever linked with poison, turns out to have been a saintly visitor to this monastery, where her memory is still revered. Two small but effective blows to my presumptions, in less than five minutes.

     Of course history itself is rarely a matter of absolute fact, but rather offers interpretations, which themselves overlap, or are contradictory, or shift with the passage of time. Even the most cursory research about Lucrezia reveals that modern historians regard her as the pawn of her wicked father, Pope Alexander VI, and her brother Cesare, and no one knows to what extent she was complicit in the marriages they planned for her, or the murders which they may have perpetrated. Donizetti’s robust operatic portrait of her as an adulterous murderess (Lucrezia Borgia: 1833), is now only found in the gaudiest historic novels, bodice-rippers, which have no regard for truths that are vague, dull and sober. And personal history – memory itself – has to be sorted and adjusted too, not least because even cherished memories, if tested, can prove entirely false.