Poison: A Novel of the Renaissance - By Sara Poole



SUMMER, 1483

The white bull charged down the chute into the piazza. Roaring, the crowd shook the tiers of wooden seats erected around the square. In their midst, the child clung to her father and felt the deep vibration within him as he shouted along with all the rest.

“Borgia! Borgia! Huzzah!”

Beneath a cloudless sky so bright as to be a pain behind the eyes, the red-robed prince of Holy Mother Church stood on a dais draped with the gold and mulberry silks of the House of Borgia. He spread his arms wide as though to embrace the crowd, the piazza, the travertine marble palazzo glowing golden in the sun, and beyond to the farthest reaches of the ancient city awakening to a new dream of glory.

“My brothers and sisters,” Rodrigo Borgia proclaimed, his voice a thunderclap in the sudden stillness. “I thank you for coming here today. I thank you for your friendship and for your support. And I give to you—”

He paused and the girl felt the inhalation of the crowd, suspended upon the will of the man who, it was said, aspired to rule all of Christendom though he’d be better suited to reign in Hell.

“I give to you from the plains of my home, beautiful Valencia, the greatest of all bulls ever seen in our beloved Rome! I give you his strength, his courage, his glory! I give you his blood! Let it nourish our magnificent city! Roma Eterna!”

“Roma! Roma! Roma!”

The bull pawed the summer dust and tossed its great head, snorting as the black pools of its eyes caught the frenzied scene. A well of silence opened, so deep that the girl could hear the creak of harnesses on the horses closing in from all sides, thrust through their fear by the spurs of the men who led the companies of Il Cardinale’s private army.

Trumpets sounded from high along the walls of the palazzo. A bevy of campinos in parti-colored costumes and garish red wigs ran into the piazza, waving at the bull with their fringed capes and capering as close to him as they dared.

“Andiamo, Toro! Andiamo!”

Driven before them, the bull turned toward the line of mounted men. One among them, gifted with the honor, rose high in his saddle and saluted Borgia. The killing tip of his rejón lance glinted in the sun as he surged forward.

The crowd screamed its delight. The bull, sensing danger, lowered its head and charged at horse and rider. At the last instant, the rejonear pulled hard on the reins, veered sideways, and, rising again in the stirrups, thrust downward.

The bull bellowed, blood spurting from between its heaving shoulders, spilling over its white hide to splatter in the dust. It raced away, circling the piazza, looking—the girl thought—for a way out, but found instead the parti-colored men, who charged at it, arms waving akimbo.

“Andiamo, Toro! Andiamo!”

Again they drove the bull toward the rejonear, who, with measured thrust, drew more blood for the thirsting crowd. Again and again and again until the animal staggered and fell first on one knee, then another. At the last, its great hindquarters gave way and it collapsed in the dust churned to mud by the river of its life.

The girl stood frozen in the summer heat, unable to look away. She saw the white bull stained red, the red man on the dais roaring bull-like in his triumph, and all around her, spinning in the gaudy light, the contorted faces of the crowd, mouths agape with lust.

The rejonear lifted his lance to the sun before sending it downward in the final colpo di morte. A long spasm rippled through the animal. In its wake, the parti-colored men ran out, knives flashing.

The girl did not see them cut away at the carcass, taking ears, tail, testicles. She did not watch the dripping prizes held high to the cheers of the crowd. She saw only the river of blood, a crimson tide pulling her down, spinning round and round, heedless of the screams that drew the gaze of the red bull to her.


The Spaniard died in agony. That much was evident from the contortions of his once handsome face and limbs and the black foam caking his lips. A horrible death to be sure, one only possible from that most feared of weapons:


Having pronounced his verdict, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, prince of Holy Mother Church, looked up, his dark eyes heavy-lidded with suspicion, and surveyed the assembled members of his household.

“He was poisoned.”

A tremor ran through guards, retainers, and