Lucrezia, devoted pawn of the Borgias
Blood & Beauty
By Sarah Dunant Virago, 524pp, $29.99
IN March the 266th Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, was chosen during a papal conclave at the Vatican. The white smoke emerging from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel signalled to the waiting crowds that the College of Cardinals had agreed on a new pope. Only 52 men stand between him and the 214th pope, Rodrigo Borgia, who had a chain of mistresses, a pack of illegitimate children and bought his way into the papacy in 1492 to become Pope Alexander VI.
The Borgia family is the subject of Sarah Dunant’s fourth work of historical fiction set in Renaissance Italy. Blood & Beauty delves into how the much maligned Spanish outsiders used the power of the papacy to further their causes and how the corruption in the Catholic Church at the time enabled them to prosper.
But this is no mere saga of battles and backstabbing. Blood & Beauty is steeped in a sense of ordinary life for a deeply loyal and affectionate family. The Borgias have received bad press through the years, but recent research has cast doubt on some of the rumours, such as those which dogged the family.
Dunant writes in the novel’s epilogue that she has drawn ‘‘ heavily on the work of modern historians whose judgment on the Borgias is more scrupulous and discriminating than many in the past’’.
As patriarch of the Borgias, Alexander VI has three sons and a single daughter, Lucrezia, from his first mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei. The responsibility of his position within the church has no more prevented him fathering illegitimate children than it prevents him from using his papal powers to advance his family, even at the expense of his children. Lucrezia’s husbands are dispatched one by one as they become superfluous to the family.
Lucrezia, meanwhile, is at once worshipped by her father the Pope and her plotting brother Cesare and used as a pawn to further their political manoeuvrings. Her closeness to both men leads to accusations of incest from their enemies, and Cesare’s dislike of Lucrezia’s husbands is clearly more complex than mere ambition.
Cesare is exactly the sort of character readers love to hate, from his henchman Michelotto with a face ‘‘ so scarred it looks as if it has been sliced into bits and rearranged carelessly’’, to his weakness for sex, which leaves him with a recurring case of ‘‘ purple
incest, flowers’’ from the ‘‘ French disease’’ (syphilis). His single spot of tenderness is for his sister, and she seems to accept this devotion and return it despite the heavy personal cost.
Already Blood & Beauty has been compared with Hilary Mantel’s Tudor England Booker winners Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but while each is an engrossing read, the scope of Dunant’s book is different from those of Mantel. Mantel uses a limited third-person narrative voice, keeping the perspective to that of Thomas Cromwell and therefore giving us more reason to identify with him. Dunant uses an omniscient third-person narrative voice, so we are privy to several characters’ thoughts.
While Alexander VI is the most complex and intriguing, it is Lucrezia who we spend most time with, and she is a victim of the circumstances around her. Dunant portrays her as religious, generous and accepting — ultimately — of the fate her father and brother choose for her, cruel as it may be. This is an innovative way of looking at Lucrezia; traditionally she has been viewed as a participant in her family’s callous behaviour rather than suffering the brunt of it. So while it is to Dunant’s credit that she is doing her part to clear the name of a woman whom history has labelled a jezebel, such a good protagonist is difficult to sustain interest in for 500-odd pages.
Fortunately, Dunant’s writing does capture the period and the depths of the drama without being hampered by excessive detail or flowery language, with a self-awareness and sense of control that never wanes.
Take the passage where Cesare is observing Lucrezia’s newborn son, battling both disgust and a sense of tenderness towards the child: . . . disconcerted by the contrast of flesh and fragility. The swaddling holds him fast, framing his face. His eyelids read like faint lines drawn on to the skin. There is a sprinkling of tiny white spots around his squashed nose and his lips are puckered, as if in disapproval. As ugly as a newborn pig, he thinks, even as his hand goes out to touch him.
Dunant closes the novel with a historical epilogue explaining her reasons for portraying the characters as she does and promising — fate permitting — a sequel in a few years. The Borgias and the corruption of the Renaissance Catholic Church are certainly fertile sources for any imagination, particularly one with the research prowess and storytelling ability Dunant possesses.