Lu­crezia, de­voted pawn of the Bor­gias

Blood & Beauty

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Eleanor Lim­precht Eleanor Lim­precht’s

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

of ram­pant

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.

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