Book-Wise-16x20-600pxI 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.


18 thoughts on “Happenstance

    1. If I can build it as I want SO it’s going to be part of a much larger attempt to fill in the gaps of what has been a very partial education on my part. I know a lot about a very little and I want to use my retirement to do something about that.

  1. What a lovely coincidence! And I’m keen to know what you think of the Sarah Dunant, too. Virago are proudly toting a quote from one of the broadsheets saying it’s as good as HIlary Mantel.

    1. Yes, I saw that, Litlove. I suspect that has as much to do with the fact that it’s historical fiction in the present tense as anything else. I’ll do a full review over the weekend but in my opinion she’s never going to come anywhere near Mantel.

      1. I happened to be in a bookshop yesterday and picked up this book. It’s not only very long, but also very heavy and it’s written in the present tense, which I find off-putting. I didn’t buy it, but may borrow a copy if I see it in the library.

        I’m not always put off by the present tense as I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. And I’m going to the Borders Book Festival this evening in Melrose to hear Hilary Mantel talk – I just hope she’ll be there as she was due to go the year before last and cancelled as she was ill. Keeping my fingers crossed!

        1. I’ve just put up my review of the Dunant, Margaret and you’ll see that I don’t think she manages to bring the present tense off. I don’t have a problem with it normally but in this book I found it really distancing. If you do read it I’ll be interested to see what you think. The Bears and I have our paws crossed for you where Mantel is concerned. I’m sure she’ll be a wonderful speaker.

  2. That’s still an amazing coincidence even if it wasn’t the same della Rovere! I haven’t read anything by Sarah Dunant but her new book sounds fascinating, especially as I know very little about the Borgias and would love to learn more.

    1. I think the research has been very thorough, Helen, and I know she’s taken a line about the family relationships which is not the normal one as a result of that research. I also think that she’s let it run away with her and she could really have done with rather more judicious editing.

  3. I work as an archivist, and though I’ve never handled anything as historic as that book of hours – which I envy you very much! – I do know the thrill of documents & artifacts connecting us to history, to the reality of it. That’s actually why I got into archives in the first place – seeing a letter written by Woodrow Wilson (of all people) that made him more than just a name in my history text. I can’t wait to hear more about your project.

    1. I doubt she’ll actually let me handle it, Lisa, but even being in its presence is going to be something. I didn’t realise you we’re an archivist. Where do you work and what sort of artefacts do you deal with?

  4. What a delightful experience. Have you ever seen the library at Hereford Cathedral – it’s an astonishing of ancient texts all fastened to the shelves by chains. Dunant is someone I keep meaning to read but never got around to. Input this book on my wish list because the subject is one that fascinated me. But your comment about it being overwritten is making me think twice.


    1. I have seen the texts at Hereford, Karen, but many years (decades, if I’m truthful) ago. I already had it mind to go down to the V&A to look at their collection but will now add Hereford to the list, especially as I can get a direct train from the University station. Thank you so much for mentioning this, I hadn’t given it a thought.

  5. Wow! Are you ever so lucky to have access to materials like that even if you can’t touch them! And what a marvelous coincidence too. Great Librarian indeed!

    1. The really wonderful part, stefanie, is that she was so willing to let me have access to these. I still fight against my memories of librarians from childhood, some of whom seemed to be in post simply to keep people away from books. Even though I now know many wonderful librarians, including your dear self, their spectre still haunts me.

  6. I love this kind of serendipitous connection between books — it always seems to me that they are all having a conversation elsewhere that we’re just noticing now, when these kind of moments occur!

    1. I have a librarian friend who firmly believes that books talk to each other, Melwyk. She uses her theory to explain why she so often finds herself reading a book that has the same sort of subject or characters as the one she’s just finished.

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