Blood & Beauty: The Borgias; A Novel

  • Sarah Dunant
  • Random House
  • 528 pp.

A novel takes another look at the Borgias.

Renaissance popes are famous less for their piety than for their political machinations and opulent monuments. A prime example is Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He and his two most famous children, Lucrezia and Cesare, are the focus of Sarah Dunant’s new novel, Blood & Beauty. Pope Alexander wants to establish dominion over a large area of Italy and wield that power through his children. Although he does not neglect the arts, his family is his favored monument. In addition to Lucrezia and Cesare, he has other children whom he maneuvers into advantageous marriages. Like the paterfamilias of ancient Rome, the Spanish Rodrigo Borgia exercises absolute power over his children, forcing Cesare into the church, for which he is ill-suited; marrying off his 12-year-old son, Jofré, to ensure an alliance; and requiring Lucrezia to perjure herself in order to obtain an annulment because her marriage ceased to benefit him.

As soon as Rodrigo becomes pope, he moves his household to a convenient distance from the papal apartments. And what a household it is! The pope’s distant cousin, Adriana de Mila, presides, since Rodrigo has removed his children from their mother’s home some years ago. By now, the two older sons are not often home — Cesare is in Siena, presumably studying, and Juan, the pope’s self-indulgent, undisciplined favorite, is out in the streets carrying on. In addition to the two younger children, 13-year-old Lucrezia and her younger brother, Jofré, there is Giulia Farnese, the pope’s 18-year-old mistress who is the daughter-in-law of Adriana de Mila. A dysfunctional family? Oh no — it is functioning pretty much as Rodrigo Borgia wishes.

Dunant is ambitious in the scope of her novel, into which, although it spans a decade, she crams a substantial amount of historical detail. Alliances are fleeting and relationships are complicated. Even a reader who is familiar with the period can get bogged down in the details. One has a choice of ignoring all the convoluted genealogies and military ups and downs and just getting on with the story, or diligently attempting to sort things out with the help of the abbreviated genealogical table and map provided, which, of course, interrupts the flow.

Readers who grew up with the image of Lucrezia Borgia as an infamous poisoner, the human embodiment of a black widow, and have not kept up with revisionist historians, will make the acquaintance of a very different person in Dunant’s novel: a genuinely pious young woman whose filial duty requires her to act against her nature. Dunant dismisses rumors of Lucrezia’s licentiousness as slander — her heroine is inclined to virtue and compassion and is forced from that path only by duty to her family. We see her grow from a precocious 13-year-old to a young woman who is determined to make a life for herself away from her father.

Brother Cesare does not get the same sympathetic treatment from the author — he is presented as a ruthless, brilliant schemer, a man who loves his sister, perhaps all too well, but whose political ambitions always take precedence over her happiness. Dunant seems a bit conflicted about whether father Rodrigo is quite as bad as appearances show him. A fat old man (and here, the author is quite specific about his unattractive appearance) and wiser than his impetuous son, he is inclined to attempt diplomacy before resorting to force. Dunant is not quite clear about how mistress Giulia feels about the lover who is old enough to be her grandfather and who keeps her from seeing her husband. Sometimes she is content and sometimes not, but the author does not spend much time letting the reader know what is in Giulia’s mind  — the secondary characters in this novel are not well-developed.

Dunant is at her best when she sets the scene of the action, painting a vivid picture of crowded rooms occupied by sweating cardinals, showing the family together at the table, or Cesare ingratiating himself with his guards while he spies on them to garner information for future action. Her narration has a suitably cynical tone, and she can turn a phrase deftly, although occasionally it seems as if she has tried too hard to do so. To the dismay of grammar mavens, the author considers the subjunctive mood of the English language defunct, providing the phrase “as if he was dancing” to set their teeth on edge. Names are spelled one way on one page, a different way on another, and some are wrong entirely. The blind eye of the former Duke of Urbino is bestowed on his son, the current duke. A fiction writer does have the option of interpreting history as she sees fit, especially when the sources provide some leeway, but a lack of attention to detail should not be part of that choice.

Dunant plans a sequel to this volume, which may explain why some scenes seem to hint at future significance. For example, the novel opens in 1492 with a seven-page dialogue between Rodrigo Borgia, who would like to be pope, and Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, who is a teenager at the time. Dunant makes no mention that Giovanni will become Pope Leo X in 1513, so if a reader does not know that bit of history, Giovanni is merely serving to provide a picture of Borgia filtered through the eyes of a young Medici who is trying to follow his famous father Lorenzo’s advice in judging what he encounters. As this is Giovanni’s sole appearance in the novel, a Dunant devotee will have to await the second volume in order to find out more about him.

The Borgias have always fascinated readers, perhaps because one can now contemplate their machinations from a safe distance in time. They have been depicted in novels by Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo; a biography by Rafael Sabatini, the swashbuckler specialist; an opera by Donizetti; Prince of Foxes, a Samuel Shellabarger novel developed by Orson Welles into a movie; and a TV series starring Jeremy Irons. If one’s appetite for Renaissance intrigue has not yet been sated, Blood & Beauty may be a tempting morsel.

Alice Padwe has reviewed fiction, history and memoirs and has edited all sorts of books from college texts to spy thrillers.

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