If every era gets the historical fiction it deserves, we have been good indeed. From the transcendent psychological rummagings of Hilary Mantel to the gooey pleasures of Philippa Gregory, we can set aside flowery bodice-rippers (not that there’s anything wrong with those) and view the dusty figures through lenses literary, pop culture-y, or near-pornographic.
Sarah Dunant, whose Blood & Beauty brings us the Borgia family in all of its complex melange, is already a writer who straddles genre. Fans know her for her high-toned, contemporary thrillers with a single woman who triumphs over sexual menace at the center, as well as her vibrant explorations of Renaissance Italy, which take on everyone from a Venetian courtesan to a young woman who yearns to be the next Botticelli. Both are about women skirting the edge.
Blood & Beauty breaks new ground, showcasing the redoubtable Borgias, a family that exerted outsized influence briefly but devastatingly over the handful of 15th and 16th century city-states that make up current-day Italy.
Ask a layman about the Borgias, and he’ll come back with murder, incest and mayhem(perhaps stemming from the Showtime TV show).But Dunant plumbs a far more interesting family. Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia, comes to Rome a handsome, ripe-smelling Spanish cleric who grows into a corpulent, wily power player, as generous as he is ruthless. (A character warns he is the kind of man who gives you a warm coat that turns out to be lined with knives.) As the novel commences, he wrests the pontiff’s hat from more powerful opponents with a deft political maneuver and eight bags of silver, then sets about installing his older offspring as heads of church and state.
Ah, yes. His offspring. (For latter-day clergy, we learn, celibacy is not the same as abstinence.) There’s his eldest, Cesare, fellow political genius, able to skewer a boar or bring down a duke with ease. Next is daughter Lucrezia, used so often as a pawn in political marriages that two of her husbands have the same name. And then there’s Giulia, his mistress, whom he’s married off to his cousin to enjoy her pleasures in peace, impregnating her with new children as his others ascend various thrones. Other spiritual heads of state may hide their bastards. Not so Alexander, whose head of ceremonies must scramble to orchestrate, as his first event, “the marriage of a pope’s daughter, attended by his teenage mistress [and] three sons.”
Fans know that while Dunant’s mysteries have a formal, distant feel, the characters of her historical fiction have a thrillingly intimate rapport with the reader. In Blood & Beauty, she strikes a tone both formal and carnal. It’s one that mirrors the era wonderfully, as when a young Medici meditates on how the soon-to-be pope conducts pow-wows in the bathroom, deftly finding “the need to relieve himself when negotiations stick …”
In that heady mix of the sacred and familiar, we learn how politics distorts family without outright perversion. Not only does Dunant challenge the hideous views of the Borgias; she shows us how the works of the era’s actual correspondents left a lot open to interpretation. As Dunant weaves in actual comments of clerics and courtiers, we start to see that her reading of a physical gesture or political move is as good a guess as theirs. Was Cesare truly responsible for the destruction of Lucrezia’s marriages? Why has a messenger been put to death? Who has fathered the infant that appears after a yearlong sojourn? We like to think of historical novels as useful interpretations of history, but Blood & Beauty renders history a useful annotation on its vivid characters.
It’s only in retrospect, after all, that we see the events of history as leading to an inevitable conclusion. I read Blood and Beauty first without knowing anything about the Borgias, and second with Wikipedia at the ready. Watching Pope Alexander “puffing his way down the long Vatican corridor” to wave goodbye to his departing daughter at every window made me cry in surprise on the first read; on the second, in understanding. In Dunant, whether you “know” what happens next or not, the story retains its power.
Lizzie Skurnick is editor-in-chief of Lizzie Skurnick Books.