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The Borgia women

Believed to be an early portrait of Lucrezia Borgia, from "The Disputation of St. Catherine" by Pinturrichio, the Vatican, Rome 

A post from 2012: 

 
The  Showtime Borgia series shows the pope's current mistress, Giulia Farnese, teaming up with his daughter Lucrezia and  his former mistress Vanozza (Lucrezia's mother) to reform corruption among the cardinals of the Church. Did this happen?

 

Not a chance. It isn't even an accurate portrayal of these women, from what little we know of them.

 

About Vanozza we know this much: she was a former courtesan and the acknowledged mother of Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Gioffre Borgia, four of Alexander's nine acknowledged children.  She had three husbands, all of whom were chosen by Alexander to help her become (semi) respectable. If she and  Alexander still had a sexual relationship when Giulia was his mistress, they were very discreet about it.  She did not maintain rooms in the papal palace, and certainly did not take care of the infant Giovanni Borgia, whom no one acknowledged as Lucrezia's child (and who may not have been Lucrezia's child–see my blog, "Lucrezia pregnant in a convent?"). There is no evidence that Vanozza was a social reformer.

 

Similarly, we know little about Giulia Farnese, except that she was barely older than Lucrezia, reputedly the most beautiful woman in Italy (known simply as "La Bella Giulia" or "La Bella"), and the mother of yet another of the pope's children, a girl named Laura.

 

Showtime has built up La Bella Giulia at the expense of Lucrezia.  From what  we know about Giulia, she was timid and flaky. She was not off rescuing Lucrezia, as showni in the Showtime series, but instead visitng a sick brother at the time of King Charles VIII's invasion of Italy. She ignored increasingly frantic orders from the pope to return and was captured by the French army when she tried to do so. (Contrary to Showtime, Lucrezia was safe in Rome at the time.) The French king was chivalrous enough to grant her safe conduct without even demanding a ransom. Given the atrocities his army was committing at the time, she was very lucky.

 

The experience evidently rattled Giulia, however, who fled with her child when the French army later approached Rome from the south after capturing Naples. Pope Alexander never saw her or Laura again. In other words, after the middle of Season 2, even Giulia's presence is fiction.

 

Showtime assigned character traits to Giulia that really belonged to Lucrezia, who was bright and educated. Lucrezia was  fluent in Latin, judging by her library.  When she was still in her early teens, Pope Alexander acknowledged her intelligence and judgment  by having her painted as Saint Catherine of Antioch, dazzling the Byzantine Emperor with her knowledge and rhetorical skills. That's her above, wearing a turban and counting her arguments on her fingers, as Saint Catherine does in legend. Lucrezia is the center of this vast painting, a tremendous tribute. When she was older, Pope Alexander often had her sit with him when he held court, made her Governor of Spoleto (where she instituted various reforms), and even had her run the Vatican in his absence.

 

So if any of the of Borgia women could have reformed the corrupt cardinals, it would have been Lucrezia.  But she didn't, nor did anyone else until Martin Luther got things started fourteen years after Alexander died.  But that is another story

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Did the Borgia's kill Prince Djem?

Believed to be Prince Djem, with Lucrezia Borgia. In the  Borgia apartments, the Vatican 

Did the Borgias kill Prince Djem?

Prince Djem, portrayed in the Borgia Showtime miniseries, was the brother of the Sultan of Turkey.  He was a real historical figure, thought to be the turbaned figure to the left of Lucrezia Borgia  in this painting, found in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican.   But he was a middle aged man with grown children, who died later than shown in the Showtime series, and probably wasn't poisoned. However, he was widely rumored to have been poisoned by the Borgias–even though this was virtually impossible.

 

Showtime has seized on the rumor, put it in a different time frame, added a character to the plot who wasn't there (Juan Borgia), and turned rumor into fact. Great story, but very bad history.

 

Here's the real story:  The Sultan of Turkey was paying  Pope Alexander VI 40,000 ducats a year–an enormous sum–to keep Prince Djem a pampered prisoner, because Djem was a  threat to the Sultan's throne.  At some point, the Sultan offered the pope 300,000 ducats to do away with Djem entirely.  The Turkish envoy who carried this message was somehow compromised, and the bribe became public knowledge. Renaissance Italians loved to gossip, so the entire aristocracy–all of whom hated this powerful and capable pope–knew about it.  For this reason, when Djem died, the Italian aristocracy and eventually the  public believed the pope had somehow poisoned him.

 

But there are problems with this inference, both factual and logical. Facts:  Prince Djem was a hostage of the King of France, an enemy of the pope, when he died, many miles from Rome. And, despite the fact that the Vatican kept good financial records even in those days, there is no trace of those 300,000 ducats the pope supposedly received. Ivan Cloulas, a scholar of the Borgias who does not sugarcoat what they did, believes the symptoms Djem displayed are consistent with pneumonia.  All I have read about is abdominal pains–why not a ruptured appendix?  The fact is, being a hostage was not a healthy occupation, and  people died young in those days.  It is a stretch to assume the pope managed to poison someone despite a long separation in space and time from Rome.

 

But wait: Cesare Borgia had been a hostage with Djem, but escaped earlier. (A later episode of the miniseries portrays his escape.)  Conceivably Cesare somehow administered a long-acting poison before escaping.  But this conclusion  requires difficult assumptions– among them, that  Cesare was able to conceal poison, and actually had access to Djem when they were both prisoners of the King of France.

 

Setting aside the logistic difficulties, the pope's motive is very questionable.  Even assuming he was evil enough to kill someone in cold blood, purely for money (which I doubt), he had a guaranteed annuity of 40,000 ducats a year if he simply kept Djem safe.  Why would he give it up for 300,000 ducats, when he had no way of forcing the Sultan of Turkey to pay up, once Djem was dead? Christians then didn't trust Turks, putting it mildly.  Pope Alexander, a wily and intelligent man, surely realized that if the Sultan disavowed his 300,000 ducat offer as a forgery or simply refused to pay, there was no way to force the issue. On the other hand, if the Sultan defaulted on his 40,000 ducat stipend for keeping Djem safe and far away, all the pope had to do was threaten to send Djem back to Turkey to get his payment.

 

Pope Alexander may have been evil, but no one has ever accused him of stupidity.  It is very unlikely he ordered the murder of Prince Djem, and even less likely that he could have poisoned a prisoner of the King of France.

 

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Did Cesare Borgia Kill Juan Borgia?

Believed to be Juan Borgia 

A post from 2012:

 

Did Cesare Borgia kill Juan Borgia?

 

In my  e-mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies, the first corpse is plucked from the Tiber by the same fisherman who found Juan's body, and became famous because. . . .well, enough of that. If you want to know, A Borgia Daughter Dies will tell you exactly what happened and when, in a fun way.


Cesare Borgia may well have killed  his brother Juan, or had him killed,  to escape from ecclesiastical orders and become the chief soldier of the papacy.  But no one knows for sure.  It's obvious that his own father suspected him, from the pope's  behavior at the time.  Ultimately,  Cesare either persuaded his father that the accusation was false, or the pope decided  to forgive his most competent son.  Pope Alexander VI  could forgive much, but it seems unlikely he could forgive fratricide, particularly since his love for Juan was made clear by the extremes of his mourning.  So I vote for Cesare's powers of persuasion.

 

It is very unlikely that Lucrezia had anything to do with Juan's murder, contrary to the Showtime miniseries. Juan did not threaten  baby Giovanni Borgia, who was born after Juan died.  And Juan didn't kill Lucrezia's lover, who was not named Paolo and was not a stable boy.  Cesare  did.  (See my earlier blog on this subject, if you want the details. Or read A Borgia Daughter Dies.)

 

But there were certainly other suspects.   The Showtime series could have blamed Caterina Sforza, who had vowed vengeance for Juan's treatment of her son. These events were fictional, but in real life Juan had botched  a siege of an Orsini  castle, and the Orsini were angry because  Virginio Orsini had died abruptly in the Castel Sant'Angelo, where the pope had imprisoned him for siding with the French army in the recent invasion.  They were sure Virginio was poisoned, and he may well have been.  Secret vengeance by killing a relative was part of the vendetta culture in Italy at the time, and the Orsini /Borgia vendetta dated back at least to the reign of the first Borgia pope, Calixtus III.  And the nine stab wounds, all over Juan's body and legs, suggest multiple assailants who wanted vengeance.  Cesare and Michelotto were killers, but they were rational and efficient ones.  Something that messy doesn't seem like their style.

 

There were also rumors that a wronged husband, father or brother killed Juan, who was definitely pushy, arrogant  and promiscuous. One thing is certain: it wasn't a robbery.  Juan's body still bore a rich purse when it was pulled from the Tiber. And the fisherman who found it became famous because. . . . Oh, right.  You can read  the story in A Borgia Daughter Dies.  I believe the first pages are free--you can easily  find the answer there. 

 

 

 

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The Borgias and the "New World"

First map of the "New World," unknown in the Borgia's time

A post, edited,  from 2012:


Showtime has Juan Borgia bringing presents to his father the pope from "the New World."   Though Roderigo Borgia had much to do with the future of the New World, this didn't happen. In fact, Juan's  repeated  reference to "the New World"  is one of several anachronisms in this episode.

 

Here are the facts:  though  Columbus "discovered" America the same year that Roderigo Borgia became pope, both went to their graves believing that Columbus  had "discovered" the spice islands, such as Ceylon and Borneo, that are east of India, but west of Europe. This is why  the islands south of Florida  were called "the West  Indies" and  their natives "Indians," labels that have stuck.  The "New World" was a phrase coined later, when persistent efforts to reach India finally made it obvious that  there was a land mass--portrayed as a long skinny island on the first New World map, featured above-- between Europe and Asia, namely North and South America.  (My second book, Da Vinci Detects, tells this story when it actually occurs, showing why two continents carry an obscure Italian's first name, which fortunately was  not something common like "Luigi" or Giorgio."  Can you imagine North and South Luigi?) 

 

The Borgias never knew about this.  They died too early to know.

 

What about "conquistadores," the soldiers Juan presented to his father as gifts from Spain? Undoubtedly, Columbus tried to bring Christianity to "the West Indies."  But "conquistador" means "conqueror"   a term that stems from Spain's later attempts to "conquer" the New World and its inhabitants.  Once they knew it was there.  So this, too, is an anachronism.

 

What about the cigars?  Columbus did bring tobacco back from "the West Indies."  So Pope Alexander could have enjoyed a cigar.  It is unlikely, however. It was an oddity, not a commodity, at the time. (Cigars are featured as an exotic luxury in my third book, Martin Luther, Machiavelli and Murder,  which takes place ten years later.)

 

Nonetheless,  Pope Alexander VI  had a great deal to do with the history of the Americas.  In fact, he is the reason  why Brazilians speak Portuguese.  He settled a dispute between Spain and Portugal over the "islands"  they each discovered, by choosing a longitude line to delineate their claims.  Spain got the better deal—everything west of Brazil, which sticks out into the Atlantic.  But Portugal got Brazil.  And Brazilians got Portuguese.  And but for the later Protestant Reformation,  all of us in America would speak Spanish.  Because Pope Alexander enforced the boundary he established  with the threat of excommunication from the Church.  (I capitalize "church" because there was only one, back then.)

 

The other glaring anachronism in this episode is the use of guns resembling muskets by the army of Il Moro, who rescues Caterina Sforza. ( By the way, this never happened.  See my blog titled, "Caterina Sforza: What a Woman.")  The first such weapons, "arquebuses," were very heavy, and  probably fired from the ground, like mortars.   And "arquebusiers"—squads of  footsoldiers armed with "arquebuses"– didn't exist in Juan Borgia's lifetime, at least not in Italy.

 

So Showtime was off by a decade or two, here and there.  So what?  It was five hundred years ago. The Showtime writers have succeeded beautifully in showing that the Borgias came to power at a colorful and critical point in the history of western civilization.  It's better history than you will find in most TV series.

 

If you want to know what really happened during the Borgia papacy  and have fun while learning it,  read my  e-mystery, "A Borgia Daughter Dies."  The murder mystery is fiction but the background history is accurate.  It's available on Amazon and Smashwords, for all e-readers as well as for PC's.  Enjoy.

 

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Caterina Sforza: What a Woman!

Caterina Sforza 

A Post from 2012:

 

Caterina Sforza was an actual historical figure, whose most famous line was featured by Showtime. She displayed her genitals over the battlements to soldiers who demanded her castle in exchange for her kidnapped children.  She told them, "You see?  I can always make more!" Historic fact: they abandoned the children and fled. She pursued and slaughtered the kidnappers.

 

This event, however,  did not involve the Borgias.

 

 Her scorn and slaughter of her children's kidnappers was only one of many outrageous acts committed by Caterina, who was known as the "virago" (female soldier) of Forli, and a legend in her own time.  If you want her full story, you can find it in my historically accurate  e-mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies, available through Amazon http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007WONQV2#_   or Smashwords http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/151617..

 

Catherine was certainly involved with the Borgias. Cesare Borgia eventually captured the castle at Forli from her, allegedly raped her,  and definitely imprisoned her in the Castel Sant' Angelo.  She tells this story herself in A Borgia Daughter Dies.

 

It's a shame, though, that Showtime portrays Caterina being rescued by her cousin Il Moro--something he did not do-- using weapons that didn't exist yet. (The first musket, the arquebus, was more like a mortar, and probably operated from the ground. Though inventors were racing to downsize the cannon—a topic touched on in my books—it hadn't been accomplished yet.) Caterina got no help from anyone. It demeans her to show her rescued by a male relative who never managed to rescue anybody, including himself. (The French beat him twice.)

 

 The "Virago of Forli" stood on her own.

 

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Borgia Showtime Series: Most is Fiction

Actor Luke Pasqualino, who played "Paolo" in the Showtime Borgia miniseries     

A post from 2012:

 


The Borgia series seems to be drifting further away from historic fact as it goes on.  The "Paolo" episode, Season two episode two, is the first in the series that is almost purely fictional.  The characters seem to be adrift from their historical moorings, too.  It's too bad, because the first season did a pretty good job of getting the essential characters right.

 

The elder statesman pope whom Jeremy Irons played so capably  seems to be gone, though it didn't happen in real life. Fact:  once Cesare escaped from the King of France,  Pope Alexander  formed a coalition of Italian states that chased the king of France out of Italy.  In the series, he's running around discovering poor people  and deciding to throw a party, to give the people "joy."  The party was actually  called a "Jubilee,"  which is biblical, and it was 1500 and time for one.  (The papacy throws them regularly. The last one was in 2000.)  As always, Alexander VI made the most out of this Jubilee,  amassing a huge fortune for the Church in exchange for "plenary indulgences" for  the pilgrims who came from around the world to confess their sins and enjoy themselves.

 

The female artist who disguises herself as a male and joins with the pope and "La Bella Giulia" Farnese in a threesome?  She is fictional, though "La Bella Giulia" isn't, and that kind of thing could have happened.  "Paolo, "  Lucrezia's lover?  Again,  pure fiction.  I've already blogged about who the father of Lucrezia's baby really was.   He was dead by the time Lucrezia gave birth,  so  the sex and touching family scene in Seasons two, episode two  never happened.

 

And it wasn't Juan who killed Lucrezia's lover.  It was Cesare.  Juan wasn't  around. (Eventually, the series is bound to show why.)   By the way:  Juan was already married.  He was married at eighteen, the year after Lucrezia's wedding to Giovanni Sforza.   His wife was in Spain, though, and he paid no attention to his marital vows.

 

Cesare's sex life would have made great theater but the Showtime writers seem committed to making him into a good cleric, which he wasn't.  He was sexually active from an early age and  already had acknowleged bastards and syphilis by the time  he escaped from the King of France.  Sancia (little Jofre's wife) was reportedly Cesare's  mistress, not Juan's. Seeing Cesare with  a Roman courtesan called "La Fiametta"  ("little flame"),  his favorite at the time according to her own tombstone,  would have been fun.  But that's not the way the series is going.

 

The real history of the Borgias is so colorful that fiction isn't necessary.  If you want the real story in a fun way, read my murder mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies,  available at Amazon and Smashwords. 

 

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Incest between Lucrezia Borgia, Cesare Borgia, and her father Pope Alexander VI? Unlikely.

Lucrezia Borgia, from the Disputation of St. Catherine, the Borgia Apartments, the Vatican  


Rumors of incest between Lucrezia and her father and brother have dogged the Borgia family since Lucrezia's first marriage. Are they true? No one knows for sure, but probably not. You can get the whole story of how the rumors got started and why they aren't credible in A Borgia Daughter Dies,  available at Amazon and Smashwords.

 

This is documented: the rumors were started by Lucrezia's soon-to-be-ex first husband, who was very angry with the Pope for accusing him of impotence in order to grant Lucrezia a divorce. (Non-consummation of marriage was one of few available grounds for divorce then.) Hubby #1 wrote a letter to a cousin stating that the Pope "wanted Lucrezia for himself"–a statement as ambiguous in Italian as it is in English– and the rumors went viral from there. Soon Lucrezia was rumored to be having sex with both her father and brother. Roman poets, the yellow journalists of the day, wrote doggerel about Borgia incest and sold it on the street, thanks to the newly-invented printing press. (Things like duels and libel laws weren't around yet.) 

 

A mysterious baby fueled the rumors, too. Lucrezia hid herself for months in a convent while her first husband and father fought over the divorce, and likely had a baby there. The pope and Cesare successively declared themselves the father of a baby "by an unknown mother," which led their enemies to declare that Lucrezia was confused about who the father was. This is pure malice—the Borgias were way too smart for that. The pope and Cesare acknowledged fatherhood to give this child–-who obviously had a very important mother, whoever she was—-rights to financial support and inheritance. The pope was close to seventy, so it made more sense to have Cesare assume these obligations, which he did. Lucrezia herself cared for this "half-brother" from afar her whole life.

 

Why is Lucrezia the likely mother? First, she spent a lot of time hiding in a convent. Second, the bodies of her maidservant and a handsome young man who had visited while she was in the convent were found in the Tiber, tied up and stabbed. And before that, a prominent individual witnessed Cesare chasing this handsome young man down the hallways of the Vatican and stabbing him as he clung to the pope's ankles, begging for mercy.

 

But the young man was not a former groom named Paolo, the fictional "daddy" in the Showtime series. If you want to know who he really was, read A Borgia Daughter Dies.

 

Here are more reasons incest is improbable: Cesare and his father had plenty of sexual outlets and didn't live in the same place Lucrezia did. The pope was close to 70, fat, running the papacy hands-on, and absolutely besotted with "La Bella Giulia," his young mistress who was supposedly the most beautiful woman in Italy. How did he have time for incest, much less the energy?

 

As for Cesare, who had multiple mistresses and a number of acknowledged bastards: he had already contracted syphilis by the time this baby was born. But there is no evidence that Lucrezia ever had syphilis—she had miscarriages, but also a number of healthy children.  She also lived much longer than Cesare did.

 

Incest?  Very unlikely.

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Lucrezia Borgia, Pregnant in a Convent?

Convent of San Sisto, Rome Where Lucrezia Borgia was educated and had her baby 


Did Lucrezia Borgia really spend time in a Roman convent?  She did indeed. Its cloister is pictured here.  It is called San Sisto, or San Sisto Vecchio, and has been an active convent for close to 900 years. The bell tower, the well, and the cloister arcade have been there since the beginning, or close to it.

 

The nuns do not speak English and do not welcome visitors. It was a feat, getting into this place, but because I speak Italian, I was able to do it.  

 

What was Lucrezia  doing in a convent? Short answer: hiding from her father and her first husband, who were fighting about her divorce.  She was educated in this convent, as a young girl.  The pope sent soldiers to extract her when she sought refuge from the battle between him and her first husband, but she refused to leave.  She was not as passive as the Showtime series sometimes portrays her.

 

Was Lucrezia pregnant with another man's child in the convent, while her father the pope was claiming she was a virgin?  Probably. (See my post on this subject.)  The baby's father, though, was not the character in the Showtime series, who is fictional. It was someone much higher born than that. 

 

Did her husband attempt public sex with prostitutes to prove his manhood, as shown on Showtime? No, but he did offer to have sex with Lucrezia in public, for the same purpose. No wonder she hid from him.   

 

If you want the real story, told in a fun way, read my murder mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies, which tells the entire Borgia saga, beginning with Lucrezia's time in the convent. I wrote this book a long before the Showtime series started, and was careful to get the history right. You can find it here: https://www.amazon.com/Borgia-Daughter-Dies-history-Machiavelli-ebook/dp/B007WONQV2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1501519534&sr=8-1&keywords=A+Borgia+Daughter+Dies

 

With the Borgias, the truth is often stranger than anything a screenwriter could possibly make up.

 

 

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The Second Half of Lucrezia Borgia's Life

Palace of Diamonds, Ferrara, Italy  

 

A blog from 2013: 

 

 

Lucrezia Borgia spent the second half her life in Ferrara. After two marriages that ended in bizarre and terrible ways–as you will see if you read my book, A Borgia Daughter Dies, or watch the Showtime series– her last marriage to the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso I (or Alfonso II if you count how many husbands she had named Alfonso) was relatively tranquil.


In fact, her life had a fairy tale quality, as shown in the pictures here: https://www.pinterest.com/maryannphilip/the-second-half-of-lucrezia-borgias-life/    She lived in a giant brick castle with a moat around it and attended church in a pink and white striped gothic cathedral, which had  a pink and white striped bell tower that is leaning a bit, after close to a thousand years.  
 
 
When Lucrezia tired of her castle or her pink striped cathedral, she could visit the castles and hunting lodges all over her husband's dukedom, including at least two more in Ferrara. One of them was the Palazzo Schifanoia, which means, roughly, the Palace where Boredom is Banished. It had a large interior garden, high, coffered ceilings and walls covered with frescoes of lords, ladies and mythological beasts.  If Lucrezia got bored at Schifanoia, there was always the Palace of the Diamonds, named for its elaborate walls:. (See image above.)  Lucrezia probably had plenty of diamonds of her own. The Este dukedom was fabulously rich. Her husband had one of the finest collections of art and precious objects in the world at the time.

 

 

But of course, life is never a fairy tale. While Lucrezia and her family dwelt in sumptuous Renaissance apartments in the castle, her husband's uncles were down below in the dungeons. They had made the mistake of trying to wrestle the dukedom away from Alfonso, who was a dangerous man to mess with. And he had not wanted to marry Lucrezia. The Estes considered themselves the oldest and most cultured of all Italian nobility. Marrying the bastard daughter of a Spanish pope was not part of Alfonso's plan. However, Lucrezia's father was even more dangerous than Alfonso d' Este. Alfonso had taken the offer of an alliance with the pope, which was one he couldn't refuse.


Lucrezia had been forced once again into a marriage she hadn't chosen. So she had a lot to cope with when she moved to Ferrara. But she seems to have won Alfonso over with her legendary charm. They had a large number of children together—many more than the heir and spare that suggest cold relations between husband and life. By all reports she was a solicitous mother, a devout Christian and patroness of many charities. In fact, she became known as "the good Duchess." And when she died in childbirth in her late 30's, her husband expressed genuine sadness.


 Lucrezia is buried in Ferrara in the Corpus Domini convent, along with her husband, several of her children, and many of the Este family from that era and before. Knowing how the Este operated, you would expect large, ornamental tombs. You won't find them. I walked over all of them without even noticing. In fact, the floor vault that contains the remains of Lucrezia and her immediate family is so worn from six centuries of footsteps that you can't even read their names.


The Este family fell apart a century or two after Lucrezia's death. The large art collection was dispersed; the palazzi fell into other hands and much of the interior artwork was destroyed. Only the residents of Ferrara really remember the Estes. But the entire world knows about Lucrezia Borgia.
 

 

 

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