I had one of those serendipitous moments of happenstance the other day that makes you wonder if there isn’t something in the notion of an omnipotent librarian looking down on readers from the Great Library in the sky. The University where I hold my honorary fellowship has the most magnificent art gallery on site and every week there is a free talk on a particular element of the collection. The most recent of these focused on a new exhibition comprised of some of the drawings that were amongst the gallery’s earliest acquisitions. Given that in the first years of its existence the foundation was rich enough to outbid the National Gallery there are some wonderful examples. More pertinently, however, it gave me the opportunity to talk with the curator of drawings and prints and ask if it would be possible for me to view anything in the collection dating from before 1500 in relation to a project I have in mind for next academic year. Sophie was very helpful and offered to let me know what was available and suggest dates when I could visit for a personal showing. And before you say anything, yes, I know how fortunate I am to have this sort of service to hand.
So, I came home and curled up over a pot of tea to begin Sarah Dunant’s latest novel, Blood and Beauty, a book which chronicles the lives of Rodrigo Borgia and his children, Cesare, Juan, Lucretzia and Jofre. The novel opens with Rodrigo’s election as Pope Alexander VI, a somewhat duplicitous election, to put it mildly, in which one of the Cardinals that Borgia defeats is a certain Giuliano Della Rovere. Della Rovere would, in fact, have the last laugh, being elevated to the Papacy in 1503 and immortalised not only as the Pontiff who commissioned Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling but also as the Pope who issued the dispensation allowing Henry VIII to marry Catherine of Aragon. Here, however, he is bitterly humiliated and even more opposed to the Borgia clan than he was before. Not a good enemy!
Having got the book well underway I turned aside for a moment to check my e-mails and what should I discover but one from Sophie outlining what items she thought I would be interested in viewing. Third in the list was this:
an Italian book of hours c,1480, once the property of Cardinal Domenico della Rovere (1442-1501), Bishop of Turin.
For one wonderful moment I thought it was actually the same della Rovere, but that would have been too much of a coincidence. Domenico was, however, his cousin, one of a large number of della Roveres who benefitted from Guiliano’s important position in the Church and rose to high office as a result. A great patron of the arts, he was responsible for the rebuilding of Turin Cathedral, where he is now buried.
I can’t wait to actually see this book. I know I won’t be able to touch it, but even to be in the presence of something so beautiful, something that may actually have been in the Vatican at the point when Rodrigo was elected Pope, will bring a whole new level of involvement to my reading of Durant’s book. It will be one of those exhilarating moments when fact and fiction come together and create a reality greater than either. My grateful thanks to the Great Librarian who watches over us all.