The Scarlet City
Historical fiction at its best
Much of Haasse’s work consists of historical novels, a genre eminently suited to her erudition and her subtle, penetrating mind. By opting for historical fiction she is not fleeing the present, but rather voicing her deep conviction that history is what determines the present. In the labyrinthine essay The Gardens of Bomarzo, she says: ‘Nothing is ever entirely past.’ In 1952 Hella Haasse surprised her readers with The Scarlet City, an ingenious novel based around the figure of Giovanni Borgia, shortly before the plundering of the papal city by Charles V ’s troops in 1527.
It was her second historical novel after In a Dark Wood Wandering, a life of Charles d’Orléans, and more complex and inventive, partly because of her development as a writer, but also because of the complex character of Giovanni Borgia who was unsure as to whether he was a bastard or a legitimate member of the Borgias – or neither. The opening lines of The Scarlet City are significant: ‘I am a Borgia twice over, perhaps thrice over. My origins are a mystery to others, a secret, and more: a source of anguish to myself.’
Haasse alternates her search for the true identity of Giovanni Borgia with tales of such contemporary figures as Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna and Pietro Aretino. The novel also features a fictitious exchange of letters between Machiavelli and Giucciardini. With this ‘fragmented’ approach, the author ensures that the mystery of Borgia remains intact, while capturing to perfection the period of the Renaissance, when man was reinventing himself and trying out his wings as uomo universale.
In Persoonsbewijs (Identity card), one of her autobiographical works, Haasse wrote: The Scarlet City ‘is above all a portrait of an ever-changing reality consisting of many disparate layers, a reality in which man’s only chance of survival lies in choosing – in all good conscience – an identity for himself.’