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In 16th century Italy, Cesare Borgia, as part of his plan to seize control of all of Central and Northern Italy, intends to marry off his sister Lucrezia to Alfonso, the son of his enemy, Duke Ercole d'Este of Ferrara. Borgia selects an aide, nobleman Andrea Orsini, to arrange the marriage. Andrea, who is in love with Borgia's cousin Angela, proceeds to Ferrara via Venice, where, while selling some paintings, he meets Camilla, the young wife of the old Duke of Varano. After Andrea exchanges a painting for one of Camilla's rings, he returns to his lodgings and is attacked by Mario Belli, an assassin hired by Ercole to kill him. When Andrea gets the better of him, Belli offers to enter Andrea's service and accompany him to Ferrara. They journey by canal barge and pass by the farm of a reputedly rich widow, Mona Zoppo. The boatman explains that her son was sent to Padua to study painting with the great masters but disappeared and re-emerged as a bandit in the South. The lady is alleged to have a fortune in gold stolen by her son. At night, Andrea returns to the widow's house, which turns out to be his mother's. She is happy to see him but is not pleased that he has abandoned his studies to become, under an assumed name, an aide to Cesare Borgia. Although Andrea has been sending his mother money, she becomes so distraught over his blasphemies that she rejects him, saying she will not welcome him back until he returns as her true son. Belli, who has followed Andrea, overhears their conversation. Later, in Ferrara, Belli reluctantly reports his failure to the duke and his son, a renowned cannon maker, and introduces them to Andrea. The duke wants him arrested, but Andrea tells him that as Borgia's forces are within striking distance of his duchy, it would not be a propitious moment to murder his emissary. Andrea flatters Alfonso, shows him a portrait of Lucrezia, mentions a substantial dowry and secures his agreement to the marriage. Borgia is very pleased with the success of Andrea's mission and presents him with a new assignment--he is to eliminate the Duke of Varano. To this end, Borgia appoints him ambassador to Varano's court in Città del Monte and orders him to seduce the Lady Camilla and destroy the duke. Borgia promises Andrea that after he delivers Città del Monte into his hands, the marriage with Angela will take place. However, Borgia pays Belli to report to him should Andrea show any sign of betraying him. Andrea is officially welcomed to the mountain stronghold at a banquet, where he charms the citizenry. Later, Camilla tells him that she suspects that Borgia has sent him for some evil purpose and warns him that if any harm comes to her husband, she will hate him until she dies. They are interrupted by the appearance of the duke, who subtly warns Andrea to stay away from Camilla. Winter comes and Camilla is surprised to find Andrea painting Belli's portrait and secures permission from the duke to have Andrea paint her portrait. By spring, Andrea is beginning to have doubts about his role in Borgia's lust for power. During a spring festival, another aide, Esteban, arrives as emissary from Borgia to tell the duke that Borgia intends to attack Camerino and wants the duke to afford passage for his troops and to supply one thousand men to augment his force. Belli then misunderstands a rhetorical question posed by Andrea and sets out to kill the duke, but Andrea stops him in time. The duke declines to sanction aid to Borgia, a man he considers evil, but places the ultimate decision in the hands of the people, who concur with him. Belli accuses Andrea of betraying both Borgia and him and tells him that he no longer wishes to be in his service. After Andrea offers his sword against Borgia, the duke explains to him that Camilla was the daughter of an old friend and that he married her to assure her refuge from her family's enemies. Andrea and the duke lead their troops in a successful ambush of Borgia's men, but the duke is mortally wounded. As he dies, he asks Andrea and Camilla to be true to each other and to the people. Borgia strikes back at the city but is driven off. A siege ensues and the city manages to hold out for three months before hunger and disease make surrender imminent. By now, Camilla and Andrea are deeply in love, and Andrea offers to arrange her escape but she refuses to leave. Unexpectedly, Borgia sends Esteban and Belli for a parley. Borgia's terms are that, if they surrender the city, there will be no looting or vengeance and Camilla can remain there with a Borgia appointed captain of the garrison. However, these terms are predicated upon Andrea being handed over to Borgia. Camilla responds that she will set fire to the city before agreeing to this demand. That night, however, Andrea goes to Esteban's camp and surrenders himself on the condition that Esteban honestly fulfill his terms. Borgia arrives in Città del Monte and, at a banquet, has a tortured Andrea dragged in. Even when Borgia tells Camilla that Andrea is a peasant who has been posing as a noble, she maintains her love for him. Borgia also has Andrea's mother brought in and, as she tries to comfort her son, sentences Andrea to be publicly exhibited in a cage until his bones fall apart. Belli, now highly regarded by Borgia, protests that the sentence is much too light and suggests gouging out Andrea's eyes and setting him free to wander aimlessly. Borgia agrees but a repentant Belli only appears to remove Andrea's eyes. Unaware that he has been duped, Borgia promotes Belli to the rank of captain and moves on to attack Camerino. After Andrea and his mother return to their farm, Belli brings him news that Camilla tried to follow him, and was imprisoned by Esteban. Andrea returns to the city to rally the people against Borgia's garrison and to rescue Camilla. Andrea overpowers Esteban in a swordfight, and Borgia's troops are vanquished. As Borgia's dream of ruling all of Italy begins to collapse, Andrea and Camilla are married.