Disclaimer: These specific versions of historical characters and situations are property of Showtime and Neil Jordan. The title quotes from "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" by John Donne.
Timeline: written post-show, in August 1503, but set mainly in s1 and 2.
Author's note:Originally written for the Unsent Letters 2021 ficathon.
They told me that you died, two or three days ago; news that travels like a wildfire still takes its time to reach me these days, now that I am no longer anywhere near the center of power. It has been a while since I last saw your face, and yet, when they spoke of your death, it seemed I left you only last night, with the scent of you, that mixture of incense, muscat oil and sweat, still on my body, and the sound of your sleepy voice in my ears. Your voice was the first thing about you I would admit to myself I'd fallen in love with, when I had been so determined not to love at all, but to seek you out for protection and the ending of my marriage only. There's an irony, my love; I looked for safety first, but safe is one thing you never were.
I always knew you would die before I did, both due to the decades parting us, and because the enemies you've made were not of the kind to ever relent. And yet, somehow, hearing it out loud came like a chill in the middle of this summer heat, a sudden blow of winter which had no business occuring in this August, or ever. „The Pope", they said, „is dead", and watched me, for despite the fact it has been years since you and I were lovers, they still were curious how I might react.
„I shall pray for him," I said, and withdrew to my chambers, but not to pray. Prayer was your domain, your holiness. This was another thing that not many knew, and I certainly did not before meeting you: you might have bought your way to the Papacy, but you prayed, and meant every word of it. Your struggle to communicate with God, and have him respond to you, was perhaps more intense than any other struggle I have seen you involved with, and there were many. It seemed that both came natural to your hands, with those long, elegant fingers which always knew what they were doing: carressing me, or folding in prayer. One of the most intimate things you ever told me was that God's silence on the day of your inauguration struck you as no man's curse ever could. You knew how to win people – not all, obviously, but a great many of them -, yet towards God you showed a shyness as if you were afraid your love was unrequited, or worse, rejected.
I did not mean to love you, did I say? And yet I did. I do not think I ever told you, in as many words, which is, perhaps, why I am writing to you now. I was desperate when I arranged our first meeting. My marriage had been hell, and the only one with the key to let me out of it was the one man no one on earth, not a husband, nor any noble family, nor indeed any monarch on Earth could gainsay in this matter. Well, I thought, I shall have to pay, of course. Not with money. Even if I had a fortune of my own, he now has every wealth at his disposal he could desire. But they say this new Pope is a man who loves women, even more so than most of the mighty cardinals do. I shall entice him, charm him, and I shall be free and safe, at least for a while. If that means spending time in his bed, well, it cannot be worse than each and every time I had to put up with my husband.
What people meant when they said „a man who loves women", I thought then, was „a man who enjoys their flesh". Which you avowedly did. But what love meant to you was something else; you were, my darling, one of the few men I have known who actually liked women out of bed as well as in it. And this, I had not been prepared for. You listened when I spoke, and listened to my silences as well. You made me laugh, not always deliberately so, for you could be absurd, and yet you knew that, too. You enjoyed laughter as you did the act of love, in bed and out of it. This was new to me as well.
„They say Venus freezes without Ceres", you once told me, „and yet I've always thought she'd freeze without Baubo, too."
Now I was a well educated daughter of the Roman nobility, and so I knew that Venus had been the Roman goddess of love, and Ceres that of plenty, of agriculture and fertilty. But Baubo, I had never heard of. When I first came to be your mistress, I would not have shown you that I did not know whom you referred to; I would not have left myself vulnerable like that, trusting you with my imperfections. But I had seen you fret about your daughter's marriage and tell me of your plans for an Italy united under your rule by then, and so I simply asked.
„She was the Goddess of mirth," you said, „cheering up Ceres in her grief after Ceres had lost her daughter to the Underworld."
„How did she do that?" I asked, recalling that you had dreamt of Lucrezia recently and it had not been a happy dream. You worried, and honestly, so did I. Her marriage to Giovanni Sforza might have made strategic sense, but neither of us had heard from her since then other than through a few bland words that did not sound like her at all.
„With rude verses, barley water and the sight of her private parts, the ancients say," you replied, kissing my belly, and then adding: „But most of all by not leaving her alone until she had evoked a smile, when everyone else fled from Ceres' grief and rage."
You loved the ancient stories, seeing no contradiction there to worshipping God Almighty. I remember how thrilled you were whenever they found statues and paintings which time and the dust of centuries had hidden. Sometimes I wonder whether you had prefered living in those times. It would not have mattered so much that you were a Spaniard, for starters. When I was a girl, no one in either the Orsini or the Farnese family mentioned your uncle, the first Borgia Pope, or you without adding „Catalan", usually coupled with „upstart", and sometimes, in the case of my husband, even with „marrano", thus speculating whether your family were really converted Jews. The Romans, as I recall, had Spanish Emperors: Hadrian and Trajan both. But they were pagans, and you would not have wanted to live without knowing our lord Jesus Christ. Not you.
There was so much you wanted that was contradictory: for your family, which you were not supposed to have, to be close to each other and to you, and for them to further your worldly power, when you knew, after decades of scheming for it, that power inevitably furthers competition. I, on the other hand, tried to avoid the trapfalls of rivalry, knowing that any enemy one makes in the days of success will wait with a dagger as soon as fortune withdraws her favor. Besides, the lady Vanozza, your children's mother, was one of the wisest women I've known. Much better to learn from her than to spite her, I thought. You argued with her when I came to know you, and yet it was obvious you still cared, and so did she. She did give me good advice, too, which led to Vittoria and our night together, when we were three and your body became our canvas.
Vittoria sometimes visits me. She still lives as a man, a well comissioned artist, and it relieves her to spend a few hours now and then without secrecy, though she clearly does not wish to return to a woman's life. She is glad of the choices she has made, the risks not withstanding. In the future, she may have to be more careful, for I am very much afraid that your old enemy, Cardinal Rovere, will finally achieve his goal and sit on the throne of St. Peter, and who knows what that might mean for those of us known to have been favored by you? Still, I shall invite her to come to me now. I will not seek out your dead body, my love, nor attempt to go to your funeral. You are no longer there, and what's left will soon be dust. But we will talk of you, Vittoria and I, and laugh and cry, and I might persuade her artist's hands to bring you back to life for me, at least for a little while. I think you'd have much preferred this to the prayer you knew I could not give.
You could be infuriating, too. I have not forgotten your faults. But when we finally parted, it was not in anger, or bitterness, or resentment, and that, perhaps, was your last gift to me. In the beginning, when you were meant to be nothing but security and escape, you showed me I could love. And in the end, you showed me that fondness survives passion, and that we can let each other go into a new life while retaining all that we've taught and learned in the old. You had me painted in various guises on the walls of your apartments in the Vatican. „Will you not feel overwhelmed with Giulias?" I once asked, when teasing you came naturally to me. „How could I?" you returned. „Each Giulia is different. And each will keep an eye on me and remind me of the days when I was lucky enough to see them all united in one bewilderingly charming woman and hold her in my arms." So this is what I imagine happened in your final days, and no one can tell me different. You were mortal, and so you died, yes. But not alone; they kept you company, my other selves, carrying the tenderness and joy of our time together in colours and form that will survive us all, just as those Roman paintings did.
Goodbye, my love. I am, as I once was, still both at the same time: free, my own self and yours –