Aria Ligi’s La Conversazione is a three-part poem that illustrates with brilliance the human dilemma of brother-sister love in the context of the historically documented mutual attraction between Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia. In her poem, Aria captures that Cesare’s way of dealing with the taboo of incestuous desire is to abuse Lucrezia, an inhumane response which he cannot moderate and for which he continually berates himself, while Lucrezia’s is quite the opposite, that is, one that highlights the tenderness she both needs from him and yet nonetheless offers to him as a way to counter, and perhaps soften, the compulsively abusive behavior which is, it is clear, his only means of self-expression other than a biting silence. Aria thus suggests to the reader that Lucrezia may well be the stronger of the two, not only because she is gallantly tender where he is crudely hard, but because she bears an empathy for him consisting, at least in part, of her knowledge that his malady is a predominant desire for her, as opposed to all other women. Lucrezia is cognizant in a way that her brother is not, that they suffer together not only the temptation of forbidden ecstasy but the pain of never experiencing that acme of sexual pleasure, i.e., the consummation of incestuous desire. In short, if she knows that she is the reason for his pain, and is thereby able to achieve both a consciousness and a humanity that escapes him, he is quite unable to achieve such awareness, for he, as Aria portrays him, is the victim of an excessive taboo desire, unabating over time, that largely saps his humanity and disables his higher powers of reasoning in favor of the lust that conquers him and renders him a beast desiring female flesh, save for the last bit of will preventing her rape.
The poem is presented in three cantos alternating between the two as if a conversation, which most likely never took place between them, suddenly ensued. Through this structure, ingenious in its own right as poetic innovation, she captures the pathos that constantly tortures both lovers. Indeed, Aria’s use of the device enables the audience to gain an inside glimpse not only into their lives but also into their intimate emotive experience. This device enables her deftly to portray their romantic feelings as if they were the steps of a waltz heating to the pace of a feverish sambo, reaching a frenzied climax, and then relaxing back to the movement of a slow dance. The tragedy, which Aria patiently gathers together from the pieces of their mutual taboo love for one another, as intense as any love ever was, is that theirs is a love that could never be consummated. La Conversazione distinguishes itself by interweaving the forbidden physical desire that rips at both souls, producing one effect in the one and another in the other, and at the same time dangling the consummation which both yearn for, quite above the lovers’ heads, and thereby elevating what is ostensibly forbidden to the beauty of the angelically sublime. As Aria writes thus:
Where have [you] been, brother friend;
Just beyond fingers that would hold you,
Into me-in me, constant, though unsettling
-J. John Nordstrom