Why is historical fiction the best when it takes place in Medieval Italy?

Borgia Blade – Blog #015 of the 156 “Pretty Faces” book cover challenge and book review.

This is book #003 on the list of 156* books that Gardner Francis Fox wrote from 1953 to 1986. This is the twentieth book I scratched out a cover for.

*Note – as of 7/7/2019, The Library has found that four of the books previously thought to be written by Mr. Fox were actually not. This was based on one of the pseudonyms he wrote under. Therefore, the total book count has dropped from 160 to 156.

A blazing story of violence and revenge in the most corrupt court of Europe. “Action and hot romance … a standout.”  

Scratchboard art book cover by Kurt Brugel

This is one of the thirty-seven historical fiction novels that Mr. Fox wrote that is set in the Italian Renaissance. The lead character, a stable-boy named Ilarion della stella, will make his way in the world by his own sword hand.

The original back cover description…


“Biagio Marsanti stepped forward and slid out his long evil blade. Per Bacco! he snarled. You ill-guided fool. I’ll shred that face of yours so that no woman will ever want to see it again, by sun or candlelight! “He cut with his sword and the sound of its slashing whistled through the air. But where his enemy had stood was now an empty space. “Then, with grace and gaiety, Ilarion lunged in, his sword a needle of flashing brilliance. It caught Marsanti’s blade and ripped it from his fingers, sent it flying with a high screech of steel. “Donna Dorotea screamed …”

Here is an authentic novel from the swashbuckling age of Cesare Borgia and the Madonna of the Roses. It is an uncensored reprint of the original best-seller.

Why is historical fiction the best when it takes place in Medieval Italy?

Seven of Mr. Fox’s historical fiction stories take place in Medieval Italy. (Links goto an eBook version on the official Gardner Francis Fox Library website.)

The hero, Ilarian della stella (of the stables) will become a great soldier with the aid of a beautiful countess named Beatrice del Gallina. Ilarion, a Bulgarian variant of the Greek given name Hilarion will find a great adventure ahead of him. He will find himself in the company of Ceasre Borgia and become one of his soldiers. He will catch the eye of many beautiful maidens.  

“A captain of lances under Cesare Borgia! The man who saved the life of Leonardo da Vinci! The man that all Rome is gossiping about, thinking him the little lost Ferrara!”

He is living in the time of the great Ceasre Borgia. He does have interaction with Ceasre Borgia but doesn’t enter the family, directly. There is a nice little twist in the ending that ties the fantastic and the fiction neatly together. 

The Borgias were a notoriously infamous Italian family that ruled throughout the Renaissance. Their family has a colorful cast of characters. They are sometimes thought of as the first Italian mafia family.

Painting by John Collier, A glass of wine with Caesar Borgia Painting
Painting by John Collier, A glass of wine with Caesar Borgia Painting

This is what really gives Mr. Fox’s historical adventures the edge above other stories that take place in real times and places. I can’t but help to think Mr. Fox was using his historical fiction works to give his sword and sorcery books the much-needed realism they required. All great fictional stories, especially fantasy writing, has to bring you to another world. Mr. Fox got plenty of world-building skills writing historical fiction. Writing about medieval times would be an obvious place to start when inventing a sword and sorcery story.

Italian history has one of the roughest timelines and because of the harsh true events that come from the time when the country was split up into warring city-states, they generate grand tales to be fantasized into historical adventures.

One of the heightened points to the Borgia Blade story is that Leonardo Da Vinci makes Ilranion a sword.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter four of Borgia Blade telling of the “wizard-like” Leonardo Da Vinci and the magic sword he will forge for the hero:

Da Vinci said dryly, “If you want to stay alive to tame other women, you’d best let Ilarion teach you a few things with the blade. We came close to dying, back there, before he appeared.”

“Peste! Now why didn’t I think of that? Imagine not having to run from a dozen cutthroats or a jealous husband, ever again.” He sighed and sat back dreamily on the high cantle of his saddle. “Well, lad? What do you say to it?”

“I’ll teach you, gladly. In exchange for your knowledge of the world. I know nothing but the sword.”

“Then first, lad, learn something of the man you rub stirrups with! This Da Vinci eats little and says even less-except when he’s expounding his theories! But he can paint like nothing before or since. Have you seen his Regisole? Or his Annunciation? No, no! I keep forgetting. Here—look for yourself!”

Torrigiani reined in beside the older man, fumbling in his saddlebag. As Da Vinci closed a hand on his wrist, he shook him off.

“No need for false modesty, Leo. I’m your friend and so’s Ilarion. Let him see your notebook.” The big man drew out a sheaf of papers, bound in the shape and manner of a petrarch. He handed them to Ilarion.

Ilarion ruffled the pages. He stared down at the face of a pageboy, dreaming against a fluted column that overlapped a wagon on wheels that was covered by what seemed to be a wooden tent. The next page showed an architectural design obscuring the figure of a man with wooden wings strapped to his arms and back.

“He dreams a man may fly, does our Leonardo!” cried Torrigiani.

Ilarion knew nothing of art, but the power and the beauty sketched here by the pencil held his eyes. When he came to a page of horses running, horses leaping, he grunted. Ilarion della stalla knew horses. He recognized that these were not just pictures. These were living things caught for an eternal instant on parchment.

There was something of this in his face as he regarded Da Vinci. Torrigiani bellowed, pointing.

“You see? Even Gabriel admits genius when he sees it!”

Da Vinci made a gesture of dismissal, but he was pleased. He ran his slim fingers through his beard slowly.

“Ilarion, a great swordsman deserves a great sword. I will fashion you one. I have done some such work for Ludovico Sforza.”

Torrigiani slapped Ilarion’s back with a vigor that almost toppled him from the saddle. “Some such work! You should see the hilts he decorated for the Duke! Entwined with vines and flowers. Graven with the silver wings of angels, with the jaws of the wolf!”

Ilarion said, “It isn’t the hilt that matters. It’s the blade. It must be tempered to give, but not to break.”

Da Vinci smiled. “It shall be tempered as they temper blades in Toledo, of the finest steel obtainable. My word on it, Ilarion!”

A sword wrought by Da Vinci! A sword of the fabled Toledo steel, whose fame was reaching out through all of Europe! All his! A flush came and sat on Ilarion’s cheek as he rode through the dreaming sunset.

Leonardo Da Vinci The Wizard
Da Vinci The Wizard 

If you’d like to read chapter One of Borgia Blade and find out more about Ilarion’s story, it is available on The Gardner Francis Fox Library.

Original front and back cover for 1954 Borgia Blade by Gardner F Fox

Originally published in 1953 by Belmont books

The Cover Artist: Uncredited

I digitally transcribed this book with Douglas Vaughan in 2018. 

One reviewer had this to say about reading Borgia Blade:

“ — he breathed so much life into every moment I thought I was in Italy myself. And he sure seemed to know sword fighting, and human nature, not to mention how to lay down a cracking good tale.”

Writing historical fiction is challenging. The writer has to have an excellent balance between fact and fiction. I feel that Mr. Fox had a passion for writing these types of stories. As much as he was for writing fantastic comic book stories, he falls into a sense of comfort when writing a fictional adventure based on a historical time and place.

original scratchboard art by kurt brugel

I create the cover illustrations to size. I work on 6 x 6 black Ampersand Scratchboard. The book covers are 6 x 9, which leaves 3 inches for text. I want a clean “Penguin Books” look and feel to the covers. I’m using the “Pretty Faces” motif to keep a unified look and feel to the whole library. The back cover has an image of the original cover, the date it was originally printed, and the original story description.

I used this photo reference from MystAngelStock’s DevianArt account.

Photo reference used for Borgia Blade scratchboard art cover by Kurt Brugel

I was drawn by the alluring look in her eyes. She has a mysteriously mischievous look about her. I enjoyed the contrast of her face to the large bejeweled cross that seems to be tied to her neck. I used this photo for the original photo-bashed cover I made when The Gardner Francis Fox Library released Borgia Blade in 2018.

photo-bashed book cover for Borgia Blade by Gardner F Fox

Here’s a short video I put together of me working on the scratchboard process. 

I have had many positive comments about the new “Pretty Faces” covers. I feel pretty confident I will be able to do all 156 book covers. 

Original framed scratchboard art by Kurt Brugel

This link will take you to the place if you are interested in owning the original scratchboard art used for the Borgia Blade book cover. The original is framed and ready to hang on the wall.

I encourage you to join my Newsletter to get notifications of when I’ve posted a new blog entry. 

If you’d like to own a digital or a paperback copy of Borgia Blade, you can order eBooks Here and Reprints Here

I will not be working on books in the order as Mr. Fox wrote them. I am doing the book cover designs and reviews based on when the transcribers who are assisting me, finish one. As they complete a book, it will be the newest release, so it will get a new book cover design and review. 

Thank you for stopping by and finding out more about what I’m doing. You can also see all of the books that have been transcribed so far by visiting The Gardner Francis Fox Library’s official website.


Kurt Brugel

Custodian & Illustrator