Today is Sarah Dunant’s 66th birthday. In honour of the day, I’m posting a review of her most recent novel, Blood and Beauty: The Borgias.
The book covers the ten-year period between 1492 and 1502, beginning with Roderigo Borgia’s election as Pope Alexander VI and ending with Lucrezia’s third marriage. Once the family patriarch has ascended the Throne of Peter, he is concerned with consolidating his power: “For the Borgias to achieve the next rung of immortality the bricks and mortar must be human ones: sons and daughters, cousins, nieces and nephews, each one bringing another silken thread of loyalty and influence into the web of family, secure and powerful enough to run Rome and beyond” (67). To create his dynasty, the pope uses his progeny as pawns to arrange alliances and has no qualms about bending the rules and breaking agreements if necessary. Cesare, the eldest son, perhaps best summarizes the Borgia tactics when he argues in favour of causing outrage in society: “’The more outrage the better. This way people will fear us while we are alive and never – ever – forget us when we are dead’” (486).
Dunant obviously did considerable research in preparation for writing this work of historical fiction. The bibliography at the end of the book is extensive. She seems to have sifted through various books about this notorious family and then set out to write a realistic portrayal. She avoids some of the most salacious speculations which suggest incestuous relations between father and daughter and between Cesare and his sister.
The author is most successful in humanizing Lucrezia. She emerges as a fully rounded character who provokes both understanding and sympathy. She proves to be as intelligent as the men in her family and to possess more honour. At the beginning she is an innocent, romantic twelve-year-old but her experiences strip away her naivety. She realizes she is “’just a piece on a chessboard to be moved or taken when and where it suits [Borgia] ambitions’” (466) and learns to “roll her sorrow up into a small tight ball and swallow it deep down inside her” (316) until “her sorrow becomes strategy” (453). Gradually, she discovers “disobedience. She, who has been brought up to honor her family and to do everything she is told. She, who has asked only for two things directly in her life: that the two men for whom she felt affection should be spared, only to see both of them slaughtered” (455).
Her third marriage, to the Duke of Ferrara, she sees as an escape since she understands Cesare is correct when he says, “’Regardless of whom you marry, if your next husband is not powerful enough to take you away, you will always be a Borgia first and someone’s wife second. . . . the next marriage must be another kind of union; a legitimate ruler with real power, from a family with roots deep enough to withstand the gales of history’” (466). Dunant has planned “a concluding novel in a few years’ time” (504) and it will presumably explore whether Lucrezia’s marriage into such a family is happy and whether she is able to satisfy her yearning “to build a court of [her] own, poets and musicians around [her]” (466).
Cesare is the character who is least sympathetic. Even his father recognizes “the coldness in his soul” (68). He seems to have no positive qualities to fully redeem his viciousness and brutality, except a love for his sister, and that love often seems inappropriate. To emphasize that his love for Lucrezia is genuine, Dunant has him obsessing about being forgiven by her for killing her second husband; his last words to her in the novel express his desire to hear “’The words that say you love me and that I am forgiven’” (498).
This was an entertaining read, although sometimes the continual political machinations and changes in allegiances became somewhat confusing. A knowledge of Italian history would be helpful in understanding the context of the novel. Having watched The Borgias, the television series starring Jeremy Irons, I found myself making comparisons with the two interpretations of the infamous Borgia family.