On this day in 1493, the thirteen year old Lucrezia Borgia was married to her first husband Giovanni Sforza in an opulent wedding held within the precincts of the Vatican in Rome. The bride’s father had been Pope for less than a year and the wedding of his treasured and much adored daughter was to be one of the first of several grand Borgia family celebrations to be held in the newly decorated Borgia apartments.
It seems fitting therefore to choose this day for my review of Sarah Dunant’s superb Blood & Beauty, the first of what promises to be a two part series about the fascinating and always controversial Borgia family, so full of life, vigour and talent and yet so curiously short lived – their dramatic arc spanning just fifteen years from the election of Rodrigo Borgia to the position of Pope Alexander VI in August 1492 to the wartime death of his eldest son Cesare in March 1507. An adoring father, Alexander VI had envisaged creating a new ruling dynasty, along the lines perhaps of the similarly parvenu Tudors, out of his promising crop of intelligent, beautiful, talented children and had calculated, double crossed, connived and negotiated to make it happen, sending Cesare out to conquer Italian cities that fell like ripe plums into Borgia laps and carefully marrying his offspring with an eye to the greater glory and good of the family. Sadly all of his efforts were to be in vain and the rising star of the Borgias, always perilously harnessed to the continued presence of Alexander in the Papal throne, was to plummet sharply within mere months of his death in 1503.
Alleged portrait of Cesare Borgia, Melone, c1500. Photo: Galleria dell’Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.
This sense of family pervades throughout Blood and Beauty, making much of the book oddly similar in tone to The Godfather series (and of course Puzo’s final novel, The Family dealt with the Borgias) with Alexander presiding over secret meetings in the inner sanctum of the Vatican; the constant wheeling and dealing and ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ negotiations; the continual reminders that Family With A Capital F is more important than anything else; the swift delivery of arbitrary justice to anyone who displeases the aforementioned Family and, perhaps, even in the way that Lucrezia as the only daughter of the Family Firm is cosseted and protected by her bundle of loud and rather quite scary brothers and father – leading to inevitable rumours about the precise nature of the intimacy that they share.
This is an astonishing and really fabulous book, relentlessly gripping from the very first pages where the reader is plunged straight into the deep end of a Papal conclave where young Cardinals sweat with fear in their cells, terrified of making the wrong decision, votes are available for the right price and behind the scenes, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia slips smiling and urbane between the different camps, dropping carefully considered words here and there until finally he secures the votes for himself. From this point on, the book never fails to demand attention and the reader is held captivated as the tense, dark drama of the Borgia Papacy unfolds before our occasionally unwilling eyes, all described with luscious, sensuous prose that brings those decadent florid days of heat and sin to vivid life.
Against such a sweeping backdrop of art and beauty, it would be easy for characters to get lost, swamped by the lush descriptions that surround them but this never happens here and instead the reader is treated to an equally detailed and fully rounded introduction to the Borgias themselves and their multitudes of enemies and hangers on. There’s always a danger, with the recent revisionism of the character of the Borgias and Lucrezia in particular that they will end up so white washed as to become puny shadows of the bombastic extroverts that they must surely have been but this is not the case here as the whole family is presented warts and all and with their virtues displayed with as much graceful care as their vices.
Alleged portrait of Lucrezia Borgia, Veneto. Photo: The Städel, Frankfurt.
In the case of Lucrezia, who has undergone such a transformation in recent decades as to render her almost milquetoast in comparison to her formerly villainous reputation, she is shown here as a devout young girl, devoted to her family and keen to please everyone which is almost certainly how she actually was. However, the interesting thing about Dunant’s Lucrezia is the way that she gradually develops a backbone throughout the course of the book, revealing herself by the end to be a true Borgia albeit in a rather sweeter way than her brothers and perhaps more cunning than all of them combined. Although I have neither read nor watched Game of Thrones (my husband is a HUGE fan though so I’ve heard ALL about it) in many ways she strongly reminded me of Daenerys Targaryen both looks wise (much is made of Lucrezia’s fragile fair beauty) and in terms of her personality which gradually changes from that of an unwilling bartered bride under the thumb of her domineering brother Cesare to a strong young woman of unflinching courage and resolve. In fact, while I was reading Blood and Beauty, I recommended it several times to my husband as being probably an ideal read for a Game of Thrones fan who wants to make the jump to historical fiction.
In summary, Blood and Beauty is a fantastic book and definitely fills the Wolf Hall gap for me as I wait on tenterhooks for Hilary Mantel’s next instalment to be released as it is written in a similarly strident, often darkly amusing and inventive style although I would say that it would make a much easier read for those who struggled with Wolf Hall for whatever reason but are still drawn to that particularly florid and beautifully written genre of historical fiction. I’ve never been all that interested in the Borgias to be honest beyond a fascination with Lucrezia and the continued rehabilitation of her character but I’m now keen to read more about them and, in fact, am currently planning a visit to Rome later this year so I suppose you could say that this book REALLY captured my imagination!
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