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Sunday August 18, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday August 18, 2013 MYT 7:56:16 AM
By MARTIN SPICE
Were they truly a family of utter evil? This fascinating fictional account of Lucrezia Borgia begs to differ.
THE Borgias. Ah, those delicious vowel and consonant sounds that roll around the mouth, full of an initial opulence only to end with a sibilant “s” like the hissing of a very sinister and dangerous snake. If the world is in the name, the name of Borgia with all its connotations of luxury, depravity and skulduggery is the Renaissance in a word.
And if what we remember most about the Renaissance is the beauty of its art and the genius of its figurehead, Leonardo da Vinci, then not far behind follow the brutality of its politics and the corruption of its church. These were, to put it mildly, turbulent times and turbulent times breed wheelers and dealers and power mongers and the Borgias were all of these things. There is nothing surprising there; what is more difficult to come to terms with is that they were the leaders of the greatest religious body on earth.
Sarah Dunant opens her more than accomplished account of their reign with the ascendancy of Rodrigo Borgia to the papal throne as Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He has four illegitimate children, one of whom at least, Lucrezia, has gone down in history as the epitome of cruel treachery. Dunant begs to differ. “Because they lose, the victors write the history about them. That means that all the things about them that were seen as gossip and scandalous when they were alive suddenly become history,” she has said.
Blood & Beauty is a novel, not a revisionist piece of history, but we do well to bear in mind her point. According to history she adds, “Rodrigo, the Pope, had four children. True. He slept with his daughter. Not true. We discover that she is also supposed to have slept with her brother. Not true. You discover that she was a poisoner. Not true.... The Borgias have become representative of all that was wrong with the Renaissance but partly because the people who wrote the history were the people who beat them.”
Whatever the exact truth of what Lucrezia went on to do in later life, in Blood & Beauty she is far more victim than ruthless killer. As a young unmarried beauty, and a Borgia to boot, she is a powerful piece of political capital. Her arranged marriages are strategic. There is little love in the first one but a great deal in the second and if her first husband remains unmourned when the marriage is annulled, her tears at the murder of the second, on her brother’s orders, are genuine and prolonged.
Italy at this stage is not Italy as we now know it. It is a series of city states vying for territory and power. Throw into the mix the ambitions of the kings of Spain and France and the need for political alliances forged through marriages becomes clearer. Lucrezia, though greatly loved, is very much a pawn on the chessboard of her father and brother’s ambition and is simply married off in accordance with their strategic plans.
History has seen much speculation on the nature of the relationship between Lucrezia and her brother, Cesare, with outright incest the most scandalous option. Dunant’s portrayal of their relationship is far more turbulent, and certainly hints at Cesare’s rather stiflingly unhealthy love for his sister, but draws a line at incest.
And if there is an outright villain in the Borgia family it is surely Cesare. Made a cardinal as a teenager, he cannot wait to throw off his religious robes and replace them with armour, rampaging over Italian soil, bullying rival city states into submission and eliminating rivals with callous indifference. Cesare glories in battle for its own sake and much of the blood in the book’s title is shed by him.
It will come as no surprise that Dunant handles this mass of contentious material with skill and elegance. Admirers of The Birth Of Venus (of whom I am very much one) will know her ability to capture a sense of time and history. As always, her eye for detail conveys the sumptuous fabrics and jewellery of the period, its sensual love of fine things and the luxury that the artistic flowering of the Renaissance was able to bring to the lives of the rich. But behind this is the drive of a powerful story with some great central protagonists, be they the Borgias themselves or their foes and allies.
Dunant knows how to tell a story and how to keep her readers turning the pages. And the Borgias is such a great story to tell: “I think if the Borgias hadn’t existed, history would have had to invent them because they are the perfect bad guys,” she has said. You might like to remember that when you watch with gleeful horror the ruthless machinations of the Lannisters in TV’s Game Of Thrones.
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