The Borgias are the new black at the moment, what with the TV show and everything, which I haven’t seen but am assured is very good. A mixture of power, greed, cunning and incest, this family has Epic Saga written all over them, and I am so glad as talented a writer as Sarah Dunant has taken the task with this mammoth, but brilliant tome.
Dunant is already famous for her beautiful books sets in Renaissance Italy. I read The Company of the Courtesan whilst island hopping round the coast of Croatia a few years ago (yup, I island hopped round the Adriatic in my mid twenties, I’m such a fucking hipster) and loved it-her style is similar in some ways to Stella Duffy, she writes modern believable characters who just happen to live 600 years ago. Sacred Hearts is just as good, perfect hot weather reading, you can feel the warmth of the flagstones under your feet as you follow her characters around 16th century Florence, or wherever.
Blood and Beauty is no different. Opening in Rome at the election of the new Pope following the death of Innocent III in 1492, it follows the fortunes of a family of that city, which itself seems like another character.
It is a new world, artists and thinkers are flooding Italy and Rodrigo Borgia, the Spanish Cardinal of Valencia, is primed to take advantage of the mass power and influence he would hold as Pope. But first he has to subtly rig an election.
This is no problem for Rodrigo, who becomes Alexander VI, much to the delight of his family, his sister Adriana, who has married her cross-eyed son to his mistress Guilia, and his loving children. Thus begins a history of the first ten years or so of Alexander’s reign, with all the horrible bits left in.
The Borgias are fabulous, decadent, ridiculously wealthy (what they haven’t inherited they’ve probably nicked) and proud. They are also basically gangsters. This is statesmanship Vito Corleone style and one could be forgiven for finding some of their antics to come straight out of the mafia. Or maybe the mafia was influenced by them…
The Heir Apparent is Cesare Borgia, the inspiration for part of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Cesare is a wonderful character within the book, incredibly manipulative and clever, especially considering his young age, but also rotten, and conflicted, desperately in love with his sister, his jealousy causing great a great power struggle within the family.
As the Borgias fight and kill and love each other in almost equal measure the character I felt most sympathy for was (surprisingly given her reputation as nympho-poisoner) Lucrezia Borgia. One of the things I admired the book for the most was the development of Lucrezia from spoiled child to powerful and knowing woman, who is passed from marriage to marriage by her ambitious brother, but who only ever really wants to be loved. Some of the sweetest parts of the book surrounded the many rumours that circle Lucrezia and this was probably the first time I’ve felt that the family tree at the front of the book was a bit of a spoiler.
This is a well written romp, bits of it are reminiscent of Bring Up The Bodies, bits of it are more Game of Thrones. Perfect holiday reading, especially if you are a history fan who is sick and tired of the dreariness that is England, I would recommend this whole heartedly. It took me ages to read, mostly because I got the hardback, but it is such a beautiful book I’d say sod the paperback, get it now and find a nice quiet stoop for it. By the last third I was lugging it to work with me in my bag anyway, because honestly, I couldn’t put it down.
The Borgias may be ridiculously larger than life, and some of Cesare’s actions especially are pretty horrific, but they are fun, and that sometimes is the most important. Apparently there is a sequel. That gives me great joy.