“To the victor go the spoils,” said Congressman William L. Marcy in 1831. The Borgia family is a great example of the truth of this axiom. If ever there was a family more reviled by its enemies, and consequently vilified by them after their downfall, one would be hard-pressed to find one. As a result, the Borgia name has become synonymous with intrigue, violence, sex, and infamy. In Blood and Beauty: The Borgias, Sarah Dunant tackles the challenging task of balancing the bad publicity that has flourished over the years with more favorable stories that shows the family as no different as their contemporaries in a violent and volatile time period in Italy, simultaneously showcasing their profound familial love, pride, and ambition.
The story bounces between Pope Alexander VI, Cesare, and Lucrezia from the moment Rodrigo gains the papacy to Lucrezia’s marriage into one of the oldest, most respected families in Italy. More importantly, she makes this very infamous family if not entirely respectable but at least sympathetic to modern readers who have heard nothing positive about what some consider being the first mafia family. While history has highlighted Alexander’s nepotism as well as his flouting of Church laws – especially regarding celibacy, Ms. Dunant takes care to inform readers how common this was among all of the Church leaders of this time and that Pope Alexander was not doing anything that their predecessors and successors did. Similarly, Cesare may appear cold-blooded and utterly ruthless, yet Ms. Dunant shows how he was doing nothing other than protecting his family against all of the other power families in Italy who were more than happy and all-too-eager to sweep this foreign family from power. In Ms. Dunant’s tale, Lucrezia is a complicit pawn in her father’s and brother’s ambitions, one who eventually learns the power of ruthless negotiation and uses that power to escape her family’s ever-expanding political machinations. While the Borgia family saga is frequently told and retold, Blood and Beauty adds a new spin to their story that balances their ambition with that of their contemporaries and shows how this extraordinary family was neither as innocent nor as guilty as the other reigning families of Italy.
All of Ms. Dunant’s novels are beautifully written, and Blood and Beauty is no exception. Capturing the lusciousness of the privileged with the pageantry of the Church and contrasting it with the stark poverty and hardship found among the rest of the population, Ms. Dunant uses exquisite imagery to create vivid descriptions that enhance the story. In addition, her gorgeous prose creates a depth of character as well as scene that animates the larger-than-life cast of characters and fleshes out the details of this long-past era of city-states and their myriad collaborations and betrayals. Of particular value is the clarity Ms. Dunant brings to the story. The cast of characters is very large and the relationships among them quite convoluted and fickle, yet Ms. Dunant makes it easy to understand the constantly changing alliances and power shifts. Because this dynamic is at the very core of the Borgias’ quest for power, the ability to understand the time period is essential, something Ms. Dunant admirably conveys.
Much like the subject matter, Blood and Beauty is an ambitious novel covering one of the more confusing periods in history. The prevalence of the city-state among a time when the other European countries were consolidating under a monarchy and centralized government not only added to the confusion but also to the bloodshed and ruthlessness for which the Borgias are most known. Ms. Dunant not only clarifies the confusing elements of the historical period but also creates a family picture that is surprisingly sympathetic. For all their rise to power and involvement in key country-defining decisions, the Borgia family is as much a pawn in their own political games as everyone else – subject to the caprices of other, more powerful and established leaders throughout Europe. The Borgia family is always a fascinating subject, and under Ms. Dunant’s pen, they truly come back to life.