CANTARELLA (Kantarera), by You Higuri. First published in 2001 and first published in North America in 2005.
The Borgias are one of history's most notorious families, accused of every crime and sin imaginable. This is especially true for the scion of the famile, Cesare Borgia. In this version, Cesare is cursed from birth, as his father literally sells Cesare's soul to the devil so he can become Pope. As the young boy grows up, he finds few allies save for his innocent younger sister Lucrezia and his first mother Vannozza. As he grows into a young man, he hardens his heart against the world so that he may strike out at those who oppose him. What is unknown is if he is already an irredeemable monster or if even he has a chance at salvation.
The Borgias can be safely said to be controversial figures in Renaissance history. Many of the popular stories about them should be taken with at least a grain of salt, as so many rumors and stories were written about them at the time that it's hard even for professional historians to sort out the facts from the fictions. That's why finding a manga with a more compassionate take on Cesare Borgia wasn't too shocking or blasphemous to me. If anything, I was intrigued by the premise and was curious to see just how Higuri would pull it off. Thankfully, she handles him better than she does Ludwig II. She doesn't make Cesare a complete saint, but she also tries to give him more cause for his actions than pure wickedness even if it requires bringing in a touch of the supernatural.
As far as I am able to tell, Higuri doesn't diverge too much from what is known of Cesare's early days. The only thing that's completely made up is Rodrigo Borgia making a literal deal with the devil while his son was in the womb. After that sentence, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that this manga can get a little melodramatic at times. It also piles on the angst in short order, as young Cesare despairs over how no one loves him and is tormented by the sights and sounds of demonic auras. Honestly, after a while it gets a bit tedious. I was almost thankful when Higuri decided to break it up with a touch of BL-ready homoeroticism. It's not so bad when it's just Cesare having smolder-offs with the assassin Michelotto and talking about how he's the only one who can drive Cesare's demons away. It's quite another when she breaks out the threat of gang rape at one point.
Once again, while I'm not always crazy for the fictional elements she adds, You Higuri has a keen eye for making manga about fascinating figures in history. I don't know if I'm completely sold on this sad, supernatural take on Cesare Borgia, but she writes in a way that's compelling enough to keep me reading.
As always, Higuri's art style is very much within traditional shoujo sensibilities, but there's a touch of polish to her character designs that adds an air of refinement. She clearly put some effort into researching costumes and drawing all the little details to them, something which is always a plus in my book. Otherwise, many of the other artistic pluses and minuses of her previous works apply here.
Cantarella manages to confidently tread the line between good historical drama and shoujo melodrama. She tries to bring some humanity to one of history's monsters without turning him into a total woobie, and I'd say that she was largely successful at it.
This series was published by Go!Comi. This series is complete in Japan with 12 volumes available. 10 volumes were published and are currently out of print.