Book review: Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant

Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant
Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant

It’s that time of the year when we are ready to indulge ourselves … a comfy chair, a glass of crisp, chilled white wine, and a book so good that reading it takes over our lives.

Look no further than Renaissance Rome and a tale of passion, power, lust, ambition and Italy’s most infamous, charismatic and ruthless family… the brilliant, brutal, belligerent Borgias.

Acclaimed author Sarah Dunant has made medieval Italy her grand métier of novel writing. She delighted with her enthralling historical novels, The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan and Sacred Hearts, but here she takes on with breathtaking brio the family that gave a whole new meaning to the word corruption.

Forget the big screen, big budget blood and guts, bodice-ripping dramas and instead revel in this subtle and vividly portrayed evocation of the notorious papacy of Spanish-born Rodrigo Borgia whose penchant for power games was matched only by his obsessive love for his brood of troublesome, turbulent, illegitimate children.

Dunant is a writer of clear-minded intelligence and this first brilliantly executed instalment of a planned two-part series allows us to view the history-blackened Borgias as understandable if not entirely likeable, fully-rounded characters.

Their personal, scandalous dramas are played out against the bigger backdrop of Renaissance Italy’s warring city states where the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are divine masters of construction, and calculating politician Niccolò Machiavelli and fire and brimstone preacher Girolamo Savonarola are grand masters of deconstruction.

At the heart of this remarkable story are Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, pawns in their father Pope Alexander VI’s vaulting ambitions, but still innately dangerous, wilful and passionate and ready to forge their own destinies at any cost.

By the end of the 15th century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and in the Church.

In 1492, when 61-year-old Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his young mistress Giulia Farnese and his four illegitimate children – Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Jofré – but by his blood because he is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians.

If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women and power must use papacy and family to advance his ambitions and secure the dynasty’s future.

His eldest son Cesare, a dazzlingly cool intelligence with an ice cold soul, is his greatest – though increasingly unstable – weapon. He provides the energy and the muscle but Cesare warms to no one except his inner circle and his beloved sister Lucrezia.

Juan should make a good marriage but sex and violence follow him wherever he goes and the third son, little Jofré, is willing to please but too young to be effective.

Lucrezia, beloved by both her father and her brother Cesare, is the prime and most irresistible dynastic tool. Twelve years old when Rodrigo becomes Pope, she sets sail on a turbulent voyage through three marriages – from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.

Dunant does an excellent job of stripping away the myth to reveal the real Borgias, brimming with life, lust and ambition but a far cry from the incestuous, murdering poisoners of legend. Lucrezia, freed from stereotype, becomes a loving daughter and a victim of male desires, ‘a spider of death which once it has mated destroys its own husband.’

Meanwhile, papal politics are perfectly offset by domestic intimacy and scheming in the vibrant, glittering Vatican court in all its opulent, bejewelled, corrupt and ancient magnificence.

As seductive and fascinating as ever, the notorious Borgias have never been portrayed with such startling insight and empathy. In the hands of the meticulous and observant Sarah Dunant, the second chapter of their eventful lives is a real treat in store.

(Virago, hardback, £16.99)