JULY READING: BLOOD AND BEAUTY by Sarah Dunant
Renaissance Italy gifted history with the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Botticelli, Machiavelli and many, many others. But it would not be complete without the inclusion of the wealthy city states and families who were the patrons of many of these celebrated artists and writers. And especially the families who controlled the Papacy. No family was more notorious or infamous than the Borgias with their time at the Vatican. Of Spanish origin, under the control of firstly Pope Calixtus III, and then his nephew Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia family was not going to let anything stand in its way of controlling the whole of Italy, creating alliances and subsequently destroying them as it suited. Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI when he was 61 having served under a number of popes for years prior to his 'election'. He fathered at least four illegitimate children who were instrumental in his grand plans for domination. These four - Giovanni, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Jofre - were born to the same mother, and are the subject of this novel. History has not been kind to the Borgia family, portraying them as murderers, poisoners, incestuous, torturers, thieves, adulterers, bribers - the list goes on. Their ambition was without parallel.
It would seem there are enough diaries and letters from this period to believe that much of the history is true. The author, who has published a number of other stunning novels set in the Renaissance period, has researched her subject extensively if her bibliography and historical epilogue are anything to go by. The result is a truly fabulously rich and detailed historical novel of real people based on real events. At 500+ pages it is a lot of reading, but what a read it is. The novel begins in 1492 when Rodrigo, surprise surprise finds himself pope, his four children range in age from 17 to 10, his mistress is the very beautiful Guilia, his enemies are many and various and he immediately begins the task of immortalising the Borgia name forever.
Primarily this involves building alliances with the other powerful Italian families - the Sforza, the Medici, the d'Este, the d'Aragon, as well as the noble Spanish families, and keeping on the good side of the French. And how does he do this? By betrothing and marrying off his children, repetitively, either as a result of death, annulment, or changed mind. His 'accomplice' in all this becomes his second son, the ruthless, cruel and syphilitic mad Cesare. His main 'pawn' is the very beautiful, intelligent and accomplished Lucrezia. And the story, as narrated in this novel, is essentially her story. The author appears to have taken a much more compassionate view of Lucrezia than her portrayal by historians, casting her as a means to an end by her father, and with very little, if any control of her own destiny. Hardly unusual for a young lady of her standing at this time.
The author is apparently working on a sequel to this novel, which continues the saga and fates of the Borgia, again with considerable emphasis on Lucrezia Borgia who becomes more determined to be in charge of her own destiny. I can't wait. This is marvellous reading, never boring, sumptuous in its detail, strangely narrated entirely in the present tense making it more real and life like. The conversations and dialogue are like real conversations, the passions are intense, the power, ambition and violence fair drips off the page. It is stunning reading.