by Sarah Dunant
It is 1492, and a new pope has been elected: the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia, now Pope Alexander VI. Cheerful, generous, and full of love for life, the new Pope stirs up controversy in all he does. With his lovely mistress Giulia Farnase and his children Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Jofre – chastity is not one of Alexander’s virtues – at his side, he sets about founding a lasting dynasty. His children become chess pieces, placed strategically to advance the family: Cesare is raised to a Cardinal to further his father’s interests within the church while his siblings are married to key political allies to produce Borgia heirs. But the path to power is fraught with peril, especially when men as dangerous as Cesare Borgia plot and scheme, and no one – man or woman, child or adult – can remain innocent for long.
I read this book only a few months after finishing The Borgias: A Hidden History, a very sympathetic and pro-Borgia spin on Alexander VI’s papacy. It’s an interesting contrast to Dunant’s novel, which follows the more traditional interpretations of the lives of this notorious Italian family. Dunant mostly holds to the middle ground, straying neither to the most salacious rumors about the Borgias nor wiping them free of darkness. For example, Lucrezia and Cesare have an extremely close relationship, and Cesare is cruelly jealous of the men who grow close to his sister. But the two of them are never incestuous.
Dunant doesn’t focus on a particular member of the Borgia family. Although most of the book is told from the point of view of Alexander VI, Cesare and Lucrezia, the book is less about the experiences of individual people as the overall impact of this family on the Italian world. That said, there are some poignant moments for each character. Lucrezia’s growth from innocent child to mature woman is especially touching. Before she’s twenty, Lucrezia has gone through two husbands – each one lost to better serve the needs of the Borgias as they pursue yet another marriage alliance. More than her siblings, Lucrezia is a pawn of the family, but though happiness with a husband remains elusive she gains political power unusual for a woman of her age and rank, and though I feel sorry for her it’s also satisfying to see her governing kingdoms by herself. The notorious Cesare begins as a sympathetic character – he never wanted to be in the Church, but he has no control over this aspect of his life - but as the years pass, and his cold and calculating nature is revealed, it becomes harder and harder to like him, but he remains a fascinating character with complex motivations for what he does.
With rich, vibrant prose and beautiful descriptions that brings turn-of-the-century Italy to life in its full Renaissance splendor, Blood & Beauty: The Borgias is a difficult book to put down. In the Historical Epilogue, Sarah Dunant mentions that a sequel may be in the works. I hope that she is able to complete that book, and soon. I’ve read several books about the Borgias in the past few years (they’re springing up like dandelions lately, thanks to interest sparked by The Borgias TV show) and this is one of my favorites.
5 out of 5 stars
To read more about Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Claude & Camille by Stephanie Cowell
2011: The King’s Witch by Cecelia Holland
2010: Giveaway #14: The King’s Mistress by Emma Campion
2009: Best Intentions by Emily Listfield
2008: Ghostly Encounters: True Stories of America’s Haunted Inns and Hotels by Frances Kermeen