Blood and Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant
Published July 16, 2013
Random House: New York
Kindle edition: 545 pages
If you enjoyed the Showtime series The Borgias, you will surely enjoy Sarah Dunant’s latest work of historical fiction. Her specialty is Renaissance Italy and in this book the subject is Pope Alexander VI and family. After reading Blood and Beauty, I find that Ms. Dunant has once again written an intriguing and well-researched novel, this time about one of the most controversial popes in history. The Holy Father, Alexander VI, and his unholy unions and family are the subject of Blood and Beauty. I know it takes an author such as Ms. Dunant years to complete her research, but I am not sure if the TV series was a positive or negative happening for Ms. Dunant. I knew very little about Rodrigo Borgia and his children and how they lived openly in the Vatican with their father and even less about their mother before watching the series. Ms. Dunant’s book was even more helpful in expanding my knowledge of this disturbing pope who flaunted his family and power as head of the Church. I did not see as much publicity about this book as Ms. Dunant’s previous titles when first published, so I am guessing the series overshadowed Ms. Dunant’s excellent work to an extent. I am glad to have read the book, as I don’t picture the characters anymore as the actors. Following are some depictions of the real characters:
Reading about the Borgias in the Dunant novel has inspired me to read more about Cesare and Lucrezia. I could spend hours on the internet following one path after another about this strange duo. Was it true or was it not true that they had an incestuous relationship? Ms. Dunant does not conclude as such. I read that Lucrezia, with her third husband, the Duke of Ferrara, had nine more children and died in childbirth (seven or eight of her children survived infancy, but she had many difficult pregnancies and miscarriages). Sadly, her child with her beloved second husband (who Cesare ordered to be killed) died at age 12. Lucrezia seemed to have risen above being an illegitimate child of a pope and was well-respected and greatly missed by the people of Ferrara after she died. Cesare and his sexual escapades caught up with him quickly as he had syphilis and later violently died (in his early 30s) via an ambush when he was alone. Cesare and his battles and politics became one of the subjects of The Prince by Machiavelli.
Some of the subplots I enjoyed were the story of Lucrezia and her lover, Pedro Calderon (Perotto), Juan and his boastful, stupid ways, the independence of Vannozza dei Cattanei and her business ventures, and the character and viciousness of Michelotto, Cesare’s bodyguard and majordomo.
An example of Ms. Dunant’s wonderful writing (Cesare is the subject in this passage):
Outside the council chamber, a network of spies help him to build up a picture of a land as troubled as it is corrupt: large swaths of territory run by squabbling baronial families and beset by brigandry, making it so wild that civic government is well nigh impossible. In short, a state ripe for the taking, if one could find a way into the center of power. By the end of the first week Cesare has secured a marriage proposal for his almost-divorced sister and prepared the ground for an even more audacious suggestion: that should a certain cardinal be able to revoke his clerical vows (with the support of the Pope nothing is impossible) he would be most interested in the hand of the king’s own lovely daughter, at present at the French court being groomed for whatever future her father’s diplomacy might bring her. The king listens and does not disagree. It would be politically impolite to do anything else. With the diplomacy successfully concluded, Cesare slips off his cardinal’s robes and allows himself some pleasure. His prospective brother-in-law, Alfonso, a natural charmer, proves the most accommodating of guides. The pull of beauty amid languid heat does the rest. He moves between the attractions of the palace and the city. He falls in courtly love with a coquettish young duchess, showering her with attention and presents, until her virginity can barely stand the strain, then leavens the drawn-out challenges of courtship with the thrills of open lust.
Dunant, Sarah (2013-07-16). Blood and Beauty: The Borgias; A Novel (p. 294). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.