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The Borgias; A Novel

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On Sale: July 16, 2013
Pages: 544 | ISBN: 978-0-679-60386-3
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Synopsis

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY KIRKUS REVIEWS

The New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Italian Renaissance novels—The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, and Sacred Hearts—has an exceptional talent for breathing life into history. Now Sarah Dunant turns her discerning eye to one of the world’s most intriguing and infamous families—the Borgias—in an engrossing work of literary fiction.

 
By the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: He is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family—in particular, his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia—in order to succeed.
 
Cesare, with a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest—though increasingly unstable—weapon. Later immortalized in Machiavelli’s The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, hers is a journey through three marriages, and from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.
 
Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood & Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of history itself: compelling, complex and relentless.

Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.
 
“Dunant transforms the blackhearted Borgias and the conniving courtiers and cardinals of Renaissance Europe into fully rounded characters, brimming with life and lust.”
—The New York Times Book Review
 
“Like Hilary Mantel with her Cromwell trilogy, [Sarah] Dunant has scaled new heights by refashioning mythic figures according to contemporary literary taste. This intellectually satisfying historical saga, which offers blood and beauty certainly, but brains too, is surely the best thing she has done to date.”
—The Miami Herald
 
“Compelling female players have been a characteristic of Dunant’s earlier novels, and this new offering is no exception. . . . The members of this close-knit family emerge as dynamic characters, flawed but sympathetic, filled with fear and longing.”
—The Seattle Times
 
“Dazzling . . . a triumph on an epic scale . . . filled with rich detail and page-turning drama.”
BookPage
 
“The Machiavellian atmosphere—hedonism, lust, political intrigue—is magnetic. . . . Readers won’t want the era of Borgia rule to end.”
People (four stars)

Excerpt

9781400069293|excerpt

Dunant / BLOOD & BEAUTY

Chapter 1

August 11, 1492

Dawn is a pale bruise rising in the night sky when, from inside the palace, a window is flung open and a face appears, its features distorted by the firelight thrown up from the torches beneath. In the piazza below, the soldiers garrisoned to keep the peace have fallen asleep. But they wake fast enough as the voice rings out:

“WE HAVE A POPE!”

Inside, the air is sour with the sweat of old flesh. Rome in August is a city of swelter and death. For five days, twenty-three men have been incarcerated within a great Vatican chapel that feels more like a barracks. Each is a figure of status and wealth, accustomed to eating off a silver plate with a dozen servants to answer his every call. Yet here there are no scribes to write letters and no cooks to prepare banquets. Here, with only a single manservant to dress them, these men eat frugal meals posted through a wooden hatch that snaps shut when the last one is delivered. Daylight slides in from small windows high up in the structure, while at night a host of candles flicker under the barrel-vaulted ceiling of a painted sky and stars, as vast, it seems, as the firmament. They live constantly in each other’s company, allowed out only for the formal business of voting or to relieve themselves, and even in the latrines the work continues: negotiation and persuasion over the trickle of aging men’s urine. Finally, when they are too tired to talk, or need to ask guidance from God, they are free to retire to their cells: a set of makeshift compartments constructed around the edges of the chapel and comprised of a chair, a table and a raised pallet for sleeping; the austerity a reminder, no doubt, of the tribulations of aspiring saints.

Except these days saints are in short supply, particularly inside the Roman conclave of cardinals.

The doors had been bolted on the morning of August 6. Ten days earlier, after years of chronic infirmity, Pope Innocent VIII had finally given in to the exhaustion of trying to stay alive. Inside their rooms in the Vatican palace, his son and daughter had waited patiently to be called to his bedside, but his final moments had been reserved for spatting cardinals and doctors. His body was still warm when the stories started wafting like sewer smells through the streets. The wolf pack of ambassadors and diplomats took in great lungfuls, then dispatched their own versions of events in the saddlebags of fast horses across the land: stories of how His Holiness’s corpse lay shriveled, despite an empty flagon of blood drained from the veins of Roman street boys on the orders of a Jewish doctor, who had vowed it would save his life; how those same bloodless boys were already feeding the fishes in the Tiber as the doctor fled the city. Meanwhile, across the papal bedclothes, the Pope’s favorite, the choleric Cardinal della Rovere, was so busy trading insults with the Vice-Chancellor, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, that neither of them actually noticed that His Holiness had stopped breathing. Possibly Innocent had died to get away from the noise, for they had been arguing for years.

Of course, in such a web of gossip each man must choose what he wants to believe; and different rulers enjoy their news, like their meat, more or less well spiced. While few will question the cat claws of the cardinals, others might wonder about the blood, since it is well known around town that His Holiness’s only sustenance for weeks had been milk from a wet-nurse installed in an antechamber and paid by the cup. Ah, what a way to go to heaven: drunk on the taste of mother’s milk.

As for the conclave that follows, well, the only safe prediction is that prediction is impossible: that and the fact that God’s next vicar on earth will be decided as much by bribery and influence as by any saintly qualifications for the job.



At the end of the third day, as the exhausted cardinals retire to their cells, Rodrigo Borgia, Papal Vice-Chancellor and Spanish Cardinal of Valencia, is sitting appreciating the view. Above the richly painted drapery on the walls of the chapel (new cardinals have been known to try to draw the curtains) is a scene from the life of Moses: Jethro’s daughters young and fresh, the swirl of their hair and the color of their robes singing out even in candlelight. The Sistine Chapel boasts sixteen such frescoes—scenes of the life of Christ and Moses—and those with enough influence may choose their cell by its place in the cycle. Lest anyone should mistake his ambition, Cardinal della Rovere is currently sitting under the image of Christ giving St. Peter the keys of the Church, while his main rival, Ascanio Sforza, has had to settle for Moses clutching the tablets of stone (though with a brother who runs the bully state of Milan, some would say that the Sforza cardinal has more on his side than just the Commandments).

Publicly, Rodrigo Borgia has always been more modest in his aspirations. He has held the post of vice-chancellor through the reign of five different pontiffs—a diplomatic feat in itself—and along with a string of benefices it has turned him into one of the richest and most influential churchmen in Rome. But there is one thing he has not been able to turn to his advantage: his Spanish blood. And so the papal throne itself has eluded him. Until now, perhaps; because after two public scrutinies there is deadlock between the main contenders, which makes his own modest handful of votes a good deal more potent.

He murmurs a short prayer to the Virgin Mother, reaches for his cardinal’s hat, and pads his way down the marble corridor between the makeshift cells until he finds the one he is looking for.

Inside, somewhat drained by the temperature and the politicking, sits a young man with a small Bacchus stomach and a pasty face. At seventeen, Giovanni de’ Medici is the youngest cardinal ever to be appointed to the Sacred College, and he has yet to decide where to put his loyalty.

“Vice-Chancellor!” The youth leaps up. The truth is one can only wrestle with Church matters for so long and his mind has wandered to the creamy breasts of a girl who shared his bed in Pisa when he was studying there. There had been something about her—her laugh, the smell of her skin?—so that when he feels in need of solace it is her body that he rubs himself against in his mind. “Forgive me, I did not hear you.”

“On the contrary—it is I who should be forgiven. I disturb you at prayer!”

“No . . . Not exactly.” He offers him the one chair, but the Borgia cardinal brushes it away with a wave of the hand, settling his broad rump on the pallet bed instead.

“This will do well enough for me,” he says jovially, slapping his fist on the mattress.

The young Medici stares at him. While everyone else is wilting under the relentless heat, it is remarkable how this big man remains so sprightly. The candlelight picks out a broad forehead under a thatch of tonsured white hair, a large hooked nose and full lips over a thick neck. You would not, could not, call Rodrigo Borgia handsome; he is grown too old and stout for that. Yet once you have looked at him you do not easily look away, for there is an energy in those sharp dark eyes younger than his years.

“After living through the election of four popes I have grown almost fond of the—what shall we call it?—‘challenges’ of conclave life.” The voice, like the body, is impressive, deep and full, the remnants of a Spanish accent in the guttural trim on certain words. “But I still remember my first time. I was not much older than you. It was August then too—alas, such a bad month for the health of our holy fathers. Our prison was not so splendid then, of course. The mosquitoes ate us alive and the bed made my bones ache. Still, I survived.” He laughs, a big sound, with no sense of self-consciousness or artifice. “Though of course I did not have such a remarkable father to guide me. Lorenzo de’ Medici would be proud to see you take your place in the conclave, Giovanni. I am sincerely sorry for his death. It was a loss not just for Florence but for all of Italy.”

The young man bows his head. Beware, my son. These days Rome is a den of iniquity, the very focus of all that is evil. Under his robes he holds a letter from his father: advice on entering the snake pit of Church politics from a man who had the talent to skate on thin ice and make it look as if he was dancing. Few men are to be trusted. Keep your own counsel until you are established. Since his father’s death only a few months before, the young cardinal has learned its contents by heart, though he sorely wishes now that the words were less general and more particular.

“So tell me, Giovanni”—Rodrigo Borgia drops his voice in an exaggerated manner, as if to anticipate the secrets they are about to share—“how are you holding up through this, this labyrinthine process?”

“I am praying to God to find the right man to lead us.”

“Well said! I am sure your father railed against the venality of the Church and warned against false friends who would take you with them into corruption.”

This current College of Cardinals is poor in men of worth and you would do well to be guarded and reserved with them. The young man lifts an involuntary hand to his chest, to check the letter is concealed. Beware of seducers and bad counselors, evil men who will drag you down, counting upon your youth to make you easy prey. Surely not even the Vice-Chancellor’s hawk eyes are able to read secrets through two layers of cloth?

Outside, a shout pierces the air, followed by the shot of an arquebus: new weapons for new times. The young man darts his head up toward the high, darkened window.

“Don’t fret. It’s only common mayhem.”

“Oh . . . no, I am not worried.”

The stories are well known: how in the interregnum between popes Rome becomes instantly ungovernable, old scores settled by knife-thrusts in dark alleys, new ones hatched under cover of an exuberant general thuggery that careers between theft, brawling and murder. But the worst is reserved for the men who have been too favored, for they have the most to lose.

“You should have been here when the last della Rovere pope, Sixtus IV, died—though not even Lorenzo de’ Medici could have made his son a cardinal at the age of nine, eh?” Rodrigo laughs. “His nephew was so hated that the mob stripped his house faster than a plague of locusts. By the time the conclave ended only the walls and the railings remained.” He shakes his head, unable to conceal his delight at the memory. “Still, you must feel at home sitting here under the work of your father’s protégés.” He lifts his eyes to the fresco on the back wall of the cell: a group of willowy figures so graceful that they seem to be still moving under the painter’s brush. “This is by that Botticelli fellow, yes?”

“Sandro Botticelli, yes.” The style is as familiar to the young Florentine as the Lord’s Prayer.

“Such a talented man! It is wonderful how much . . . how much flesh he gets into the spirit. I have always thought that Pope Sixtus was exceedingly lucky to get him, considering that three years before he had launched a conspiracy to kill his patron, your own father, and wipe out the whole Medici family. Fortunately you are too young to remember the outrage.”

But not so young that he could ever be allowed to forget. The only thing bloodier than the attack had been the retribution.

“Luckily, he survived and prospered. Despite the della Rovere family,” Rodrigo adds, smiling.

“My father spoke highly of your keen mind, Vice-Chancellor. I know I shall learn a lot from you.”

“Ah! You already have his wit and diplomacy, I see.” And the smile dissolves into laughter. The candle on the table flutters in the wind of his breath and his generous features dance in the light. The younger man feels a bead of sweat moving down from his hair and wipes it away with his hand. His fingers come away grimy. In contrast, the Borgia cardinal remains splendidly unaffected by the heat.

“Well, you must forgive me if I show a certain fatherly affection. I too have a son of your age who needs counsel as he climbs the ladder of the Church. Ah—but of course, you know this. The two of you studied together in Pisa. Cesare spoke often of you as a good friend. And an outstanding student of rhetoric and law.”

“As I would speak of him.”

In public. Not in private. No. In private, the cocky young Borgia was too closeted by his Spanish entourage to be a friend to anyone. Which is just as well, since whatever money he put on his back (and there was always a sack of it; when he came to dine you could barely see the cloth for the jewels sewn onto it) a Borgia bastard could never be the social equal of a legitimate Medici. He was clever, though, so fast on his feet that in public disputation he could cut to the quick, pulling arguments like multicolored threads from his brain until black seemed to turn into white and wrong became just another shade of gray. Even the praise of his tutors seemed to bore him: he lived more in the taverns than the study halls. But then he was hardly alone in that fault.

The young Medici is glad of the shadows around them. He would not like such thoughts to be exposed to daylight. If the emblem on the Borgia crest is that of the bull, everyone knows it is the cunning of the fox that runs in the family.

“Well, I admire your dedication and pursuit of goodness, Cardinal.” Rodrigo Borgia leans over and puts his hand gently on his knee. “It will loom large in God’s grace.” He pauses. “But not, I fear, in the annals of men. The sad truth is that the times in which we live are deeply corrupt, and without a pope who can withstand the appetites of the wolves prowling around him, neither he nor Italy will survive.”

While the back of his hand lies thick as a slab of meat, his fingers are surprisingly elegant, tapered and well manicured, and for a second the younger man finds himself thinking of the woman who graces the Vice-Chancellor’s bed these days. A flesh-and-blood Venus she is said to be: milk-skinned, golden-haired and young enough to be his granddaughter. The gossip is tinged with disgust that such sweetness should couple with such decay, but there is envy there too; how easily beauty snaps onto the magnet of power, whatever a man’s looks.

“Vice-Chancellor.” He takes a breath. “If you are here to canvass my vote . . .”

“Me? No, no, no. I am but a lamb in this powerful flock. Like you, I have no other wish but to serve God and our holy mother the Church.” And now the older man’s eyes sparkle. They say that while Giuliano della Rovere has a temper fit to roast flesh, it is the Borgia smile that is more to be feared. “No. If I put myself forward at all it is only because, having seen such things before, I fear that a deadlock could push us into hands less capable even than my own.”

Giovanni stares at him, wondering at the power of a man who can lie so barefacedly and still give the impression that his heart is in his voice. Is this then his secret? In these last few days he has had occasion to watch him at work; to notice how tirelessly he weaves in and out of the knots of other men, how he is first to help the elder ones to their cells, or to find the need to relieve himself when negotiations stick and new incentives are called for. A few times the younger man has walked into the latrines and found the conversation fall silent at his entrance. And almost always the Vice-Chancellor will be there himself, nodding and beaming over his large stomach with his tool held loosely in his hand, as if it was the most natural pose on earth for God’s cardinals to adopt in each other’s presence.

Inside the cell, the air feels as thick as soup. “Sweet Mary and the saints. If we are not careful we will boil alive as slowly as Saint Cyrinus.” Rodrigo fans his face theatrically and digs inside his robes, holding out a glass vial with an intricate silver top. “Can I offer you relief?”

“No, no thank you.”

He digs a finger inside and anoints himself liberally. As the young man catches the tang of jasmine, he remembers how he has detected remnants of it—and a few other scents—around the public spaces over the last few days. Does each camp, like a pack of dogs, identify itself by its smell?

The cardinal is making a business of putting the bottle back in his robes while he stands up to take his leave. Then, suddenly, he seems to change his mind.

“Giovanni, it seems to me you are too much your father’s son not to recognize what is happening here. So I shall tell you something I have not made public.” And he bends his large frame to get closer to the young man’s face. “Don’t be alarmed. Take it as a tribute to your family that I share it: a lesson as to how influence moves when the air grows as thick as stinking cheese. Della Rovere cannot win this election, however it may look now.”

“How do you know that?” the young man says quickly, the surprise—and perhaps the flattery—overcoming the reticence he had vowed to hold.

“I know it because, as well as being able to count, I have looked inside men’s hearts here.” He smiles, but there is less mirth in him now. “In the next public scrutiny the della Rovere camp will pick up more votes, which will put him ahead of Sforza, though not enough to secure victory outright. When that happens Ascanio Sforza, who would not make a bad pope, though he would favor Milan too much for Florence—and you—to ever stomach him, will start to panic. And he will be right to do so. Because a papacy controlled by della Rovere will be one that favors whoever pays it the most. And the money that he is using to buy his way there now is not even his own. You know where it comes from? France! Imagine. An Italian cardinal bought by France. You have heard the rumor, I am sure. Gross slander, you think, perhaps? Except that in this city slander is usually less foul than the truth.” He gives an exaggerated sigh. “It would be disastrous of course: a foreign power sitting in the papal chamber. So, to sink his rival, Ascanio Sforza will turn to me.”

He stops as if to let the words sink in.

“Because at that point I will be the only one who can stop the water from rushing downhill in that direction.”

“Turn to you? But—” I say it again, my son: until you become accustomed, you would do well to make use of your ears rather than your tongue. “But I thought . . .” He trails off.

“You thought what? That a Borrjja pope would be a foreigner too,” he says, resurrecting the hawking guttural of his name. “A man who would advance only his family and be more loyal to Spain than to Italy.” For a moment there is a flash of undisguised anger in his eyes. “Tell me—would a Medici pope care less about the Holy Mother Church because he loves his family and comes from Florence?”

“Cardinal Borgia, it was not my intention—”

“To offend me? No! And neither did you. Powerful families must speak openly to one another. I would expect no less.”

He smiles, only too aware that the comparison between the two could be read as offense the other way.

“Yes, I am a Borgia. When I embrace my children we speak in our native tongue. But I defy anyone to say I am less Italian than those who would now put their noses into the French coffers. If the papal crown is up for sale—and as God is my witness I did not start such a process—then at least let us keep the sale inside this room.” He sighs again and claps him on the shoulder. “Ah! I fear I have said too much. See! You have pulled the truth from me. Your father’s blood runs deep in your veins. Such a politician he was! Always with one finger held up wet to the wind so that when he felt it changing he could move the sails to keep his ship of state on course.”

The young Medici does not answer. He is too impressed by the show. The politics of charm. Having grown up with a father who could turn vinegar to honey when it suited him, he knows better than most how it works; but this mix of geniality, cunning and theatrics is new even to him.

“You are tired. Get some rest. Whatever happens it will not be settled until tomorrow at least. You know, I think my Cesare would look almost as fine as you inside scarlet robes.” And the last smile is the brightest of all, possibly because there is no dissembling. “I can see you both standing together, tall and strong as cypress trees. Imagine what a fire such youth and energy would light under this deadwood of old men.” And he lets out a gale of laughter. “Ah, the foolish pride of men who love their sons better than themselves.”

After he has gone the young man sits examining all that he has heard, but while he should be considering the next public scrutiny, he cannot get the image of Cesare Borgia in scarlet out of his mind. He sees him inside a tight knot of men, striding through the streets of Pisa as if every closed door will open to him before he has to knock, and even then he might not choose to go in. God knows the government of the Church is full of men who have only a passing acquaintance with humility, but however contemptuous or lazy (and he is too much his father’s son not to know his own failings), in public at least they make an effort to do what is expected of them. But never Cesare Borgia.

Well, whatever the Borgia arrogance, his father’s ambitions will fail him. He might be laden with Church benefices, but he will rise so far and no further. Canon law, which they have wasted years of their lives studying, is marvelously clear on this: though there are riches to be had for those born on the other side of the blanket, no bastard—even a papal one—can enter the Sacred College of Cardinals.

Outside, people are gathering in readiness for supper. He hears Rodrigo Borgia’s laughter ringing out from somewhere in the main body of the room where the more public canvassing takes place. If the della Rovere camp is to gain votes before losing, then someone must be canvassing for him now, in order to make victory seem secure.

From under his robes he pulls out his father’s letter, the paper limp with a sweat that comes from more than the heat of the room. For the first time since he has set foot in the conclave, when he gets to his knees the prayers come from the heart.
Sarah Dunant

About Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant - Blood & Beauty
Sarah Dunant is the author of the international bestsellers The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, which have received major acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Her earlier novels include three Hannah Wolfe crime thrillers, as well as Snowstorms in a Hot Climate, Transgressions, and Mapping the Edge, all three of which are available as Random House Trade Paperbacks. She has two daughters and lives in London and Florence.
Praise

Praise

“A brilliant portrait of a family whose blood runs ‘thick with ambition and determination’ . . . The Machiavellian atmosphere—hedonism, lust, political intrigue—is magnetic. With so much drama, readers won’t want the era of Borgia rule to end.”
People (four stars)
 
“In Blood and Beauty, Dunant follows the path set by Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Just as Mantel humanized and, to an extent, rehabilitated the brilliant, villainous Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, Dunant transforms the blackhearted Borgias and the conniving courtiers and cardinals of Renaissance Europe into fully rounded characters, brimming with life and lust. . . . Dunant illuminates the darkened narrative of the Borgia record, reviving stained glass with fresh light, refreshing the brilliance of the gold and blue panes history has marred without dulling the blood-red that glows everywhere around them.”
The New York Times Book Review
 
“[Dunant’s] depiction of passionate people obsessed by the idea of a dynasty that will outlive them is not only intelligent and restrained but also lit by an affecting streak of lyricism. . . . Like Hilary Mantel with her Cromwell trilogy, Dunant has scaled new heights by refashioning mythic figures according to contemporary literary taste. This intellectually satisfying historical saga, which offers blood and beauty certainly, but brains too, is surely the best thing she has done to date.”
The Miami Herald
 
“Another achievement for Dunant is her ability to re-imagine history. Although the Borgias are often called the most notorious family in Italian Renaissance . . . Dunant manages to show different facets of their personalities. If history has left some blanks in this regard, Dunant fills them. The members of this close-knit family emerge as dynamic characters, flawed but sympathetic, filled with fear and longing, and believable.”
The Seattle Times
 
“Dazzling . . . a triumph on an epic scale . . . filled with rich detail and page-turning drama.”
BookPage

“British author Sarah Dunant is the reigning queen of the historical novel set in Renaissance Italy. . . . This novel will be most rewarding for those with a keen taste for history and a willingness to stick with a lengthy story with no real heroes but plenty of fascinating and really bad behavior.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
Blood & Beauty breaks new ground, showcasing the redoubtable Borgias, a family that exerted outsized influence briefly but devastatingly over the handful of fifteenth and sixteenth century city-states that make up current-day Italy.”
—Lizzie Skurnick, All Things Considered, NPR
 
“Hugely enjoyable . . . an old-fashioned rollercoaster of a story . . . [Dunant] triumphs, like all good novelists . . . in a deft, shrewd, precise use of killer detail.”
The Guardian (U.K.)
 
“[Dunant] is in her element. . . . She brings fifteenth-century Italian cities vividly alive. . . . [Blood & Beauty] is an intelligent and passionate book that will no doubt thrill Borgia-lovers.”
The Sunday Times (U.K.)
 
“The big, bad Borgia dynasty undergoes modern reconsideration in [Sarah Dunant’s] epic new biofiction. . . . Dunant’s biggest and best work to date, this intelligently readable account of formative events and monster players has Hilary Mantel–era quality best-seller stamped all over it.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“Hilary Mantel fans and historical fiction readers in general looking for another meaty novel won’t want to miss Dunant’s latest.”
Library Journal
 
“For anyone obsessed with the Borgias, this tome is right up your alley—it follows the scandal-plagued family, as the patriarch Cardinal Rodrigo attempts to buy his way into the papacy. Not only does this story have family drama, illegitimate children, and a religious figure with an enormous taste for women, but it’s based on true events. . . . Everything was more fascinating in the olden days.”
Refinery29
 
“What a marvelous feast of vices and desires Sarah Dunant gives us—lust and ambition, passion and power, destiny born and bought. The Borgias are arguably the most intriguing and ruthless family in all of history, and Dunant brings them ravishingly, bristlingly to life.”
—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
 
“An astounding achievement, extensively researched and exquisitely written . . . The Borgias have never been so human, and so humanely portrayed.”
—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife
 
“A fascinating read full of vivid detail and human pathos . . . Dunant opens a window into the extraordinary machinations and skullduggery of the Borgias and provides us with a richness of description that beautifully locates them in their own time.”
—Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire
 
“An engrossing tale of beauty and corruption, Blood & Beauty is meticulously crafted, and utterly convincing: a work of a skilled historian and a masterful storyteller who makes the Borgias live and breathe.”
—Eva Stachniak, author of The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great
 
“Brilliant and utterly bone-chilling, Blood & Beauty held me spellbound from beginning to end. This exquisite, seductive portrait is destined to become a classic.”
—Anne Fortier, author of Juliet
 
“A masterpiece of biographical fiction, and likely her best novel yet . . . With brilliant detail and flawless prose, she opens the doors to the Vatican of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), his vibrant feuding children, and his sultry mistress. It’s a work I’m not likely to ever forget.”
—Sandra Gulland, author of The Josephine Bonaparte Trilogy
 
Blood & Beauty is a wonderful novel, taking you deep into the world of Renaissance passion and the Renaissance papacy. Part of me was happily lost in the time travel, and part of me was repeatedly struck by how vividly ancient Rome met modern Rome, and how the city of history came to life.”
—Mary Beard, historian and author of The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

Sarah Dunant: Utterly Seduced by the Past

(Originally ran on Shelf Awareness)

Q: Blood and Beauty is so well written that it appears effortless, but many readers may be unaware of just how much research and inspiration goes into crafting quality historical fiction. Can you share a little of your process?

A: Ah—this is a very interesting question. Because, of course, if people were aware of the effort that a book takes, then the final experience—reading it—wouldn’t be working for them.

But you’re right. The easier the read, the more work has been done. And I think that is particularly true of writing within history. Because the more truthful and accurate you are to the actual experience of the Borgia history—and by that I don’t just mean what happened, but the larger, deeper world and culture that explains why those things -happened—the more authentic and rich you can make the journey—the time travel—for your reader. But of course getting it “right” takes a huge amount of research and time.

Having said that, the work is also wonderful. Because it is the time when I get happily lost in history. I find it so exciting as the picture of the past starts to deepen, as the more I read, the more I start making connections, feeling the characters move and grow like animated sculpture coming out of a block of marble.

My process is decidedly pre-technological. I sit for months in libraries with notebooks and work my way through stacks of research books covering everything, from politics to herbs, literature to music, weapons of war to theology, education and medicine—anything from the period that I can lay my hands on. Gradually I fill up six or seven notebooks with facts, quotes, images, thoughts and ideas. Then as the story (for the story is always in there) starts to blossom, I can adorn it with all manner of truths and accuracies that you, the reader, don’t notice, but I do. It gives me not just all the colors and shades of paint I need for the canvas I am painting, but also the confidence to apply them. Then when I can sit no longer at a desk, I go traveling. I visit the places to get a feel of them. In the case of Blood and Beauty, there is a huge amount still to be seen, albeit some of it ruined or changed by history: Cesare’s campaigns can be followed, town to town, fortress to fortress, across northeastern Italy.

But the final pleasure is when the book is out and people say, “Oh, that bit when . . .”—whatever it is that has caught their imagination—“how did you think of that?” And it is always something that was there in history. But it has gone through the alchemy of fiction so that it feels juicy with atmosphere and color, rather than dry fact. That is my job. And how I love it. However much effort it takes.

Q: What was the most surprising fact or aspect of the Borgias that you discovered in the course of your research for this novel?

A: If I am truthful it was about a disease. I’d had an inkling during the writing of The Birth of Venus that the arrival of sexual plague, which would later be known as syphilis, was a powerful moment in Italian history. But it was only when I got my teeth into the Borgias, when I watched an invading army take over Naples and loiter there, having sex with the local prostitutes, and realized that some of those soldiers were back from the New World with Columbus and had contracted and carried this new disease home with them, that I understood just what an extraordinary history this was. And then Cesare gets infected. . . . And oh, what a horror! The agony, the shame and the public disfigurement. It was perfect: a literal metaphor for the world of Renaissance corruption. I think that was the moment when I knew the book was going to be richer and deeper than just a story of fantastic events.

Q: There seems to be renewed interest of late in all things Borgia. To what do you attribute this fascination?

A: In an era when we are obsessed by celebrity, it was inevitable that history would start to provide us with new ones. And once we had squeezed the Tudors dry, the Borgias stand out as perfect fodder. They have all the ingredients: glamour, beauty, tribal loyalty, sexual misdemeanor, power, corruption, and high-octane emotional drama. The trick is to sort out what is fact and what has grown up from layers of gossip and slander (just as it is with today’s celebrity); to strip it away to get to the truth. Which, as ever, is actually stranger than any fiction you could make up.

Q: On a related note, what, if any, are the parallels you see between the social and political machinations of the Borgias and today’s socio-political arena?

A: Oh, so many. Italy and all of its city-states (which I liken in the novel to a bag of spitting cats) are a perfect illustration of how warring political factions operate, the likes of which we have everywhere today. They tell such a modern story—of the lengths people will go to take and keep power; of the way alliances are made, kept, and broken based on pragmatism rather than idealism. The truth is that modern politics were born in this era. That is why Machiavelli writes The Prince about Cesare Borgia. It is a consummate study of how power works and how it corrupts. And how the end defines the means.

And then there is modern Italy: full of corruption still, with north and south in opposition to each other and a mafia presence based on family loyalties with a fat old charismatic politician, Berlusconi, still managing to control the show by ducking and weaving, and even having “bunga bunga” parties with prostitutes. I see images of Berlusconi and I think of Rodrigo Borgia. Except I rather like Rodrigo better! And then there is the Catholic Church, with its hidden sexual scandals and male-dominated power structure. I mean it is Blood and Beauty! The parallels are so powerful they make your eyes water.

But the other thing that is amazingly modern is the subversive power of gossip and the media. There was no direct media at the time of the Borgias, but there was a network of diplomacy by which gossip flourished and flowed through the pens of ambassadors and chroniclers. So you can trace slander against the Borgias emerging from one conversation and then sliding like slime into the public domain. Think of all the celebrity gossip you have ever read and how the more shocking it is, the more you remember it. Think about the fact that later you may find out it wasn’t true—just selling newspapers or fodder for celebrity TV channels—but that once said, it cannot be unsaid. Well, the Borgias’ history was like that. Mud sticks. I am not saying they weren’t at times brutal and corrupt. They were. But then so were the times in which they lived. My job is to allow you to put them in context. To enjoy the drama, yes, but also see through the propaganda.

Q: As an author who has written both contemporary and historical -fiction, do you find one genre more challenging (and, conversely, rewarding) than the other?

A: There is no contest here. I have been utterly seduced by the past: the imaginative challenge of sinking deep into history and re-creating an essentially alien wild world that the reader can see, touch, smell, hear, sink into, and experience. It is a bit like writing good science fiction backwards: everything in the world you create has to make sense. With the added wonder—if you do your research—that it was actually -happened.

And then, of course, you can say so many things about the present (I hope my answers above have shown that). But you can say it subtly, so that it enters the imagination of the reader on a different level. While I suppose one should never say “never,” I cannot imagine ever wanting to write a novel set in the present again. Everything I want to say about human behavior, sexuality, power, politics, and the endless emotional complexity of being alive—all of it can be said through the past. And while I am saying it, my head is busting with facts, places, ideas, and an ever-growing cast of outrageous characters. Even when I am in despair that I cannot do them justice, I am in awe of their presence.

Discussion Guides

1. Discuss the novel’s title, Blood and Beauty. Why do you think the author selected this title?

2. Sarah Dunant has trained as a historian and says that it is very important for her to get the facts right for the story to work. When you are reading the novel does it matter to you one way or another if it is “true” to history? Or is the fact that it is a good story more important?

3. How much do you think Lucrezia changes from the beginning of the novel to the end? Do you think she ultimately lost her love for—and her faith in—her family? Do you feel she truly found herself by the end of the book?

4. Lucrezia and Cesare have a very fraught relationship. At one point, Cesare comments: “[Lucrezia] is struggling to hate me as much as she loves me.” (322) Do you believe there is ever a time when they truly hate each other? Do you think Cesare acts out of love for Lucrezia—that he actually believes he is serving her best interests—or that he uses loving her as an excuse to carry out his own agenda? Do you think he might’ve been a better politicial if he could’ve let his feelings for her go?

5. Do you believe it’s true that in the Borgia world, kindness was equated with weakness? Why or why not?

6. Michelotto, Cesare’s trusted guard, is one of the most enigmatic characters in the book. He happily kills on command, but reaps no clearly visible benefit. What do you think his motivation was? Do you think he simply enjoyed being a part of each move on Cesare’s chessboard?

7. There are various examples of marriage, romance and sexual relationships in this novel. Based on your reading, what do you make of the attitudes about marriage during this time? What about attitudes regarding fidelity, sex and love? Do you think a woman’s main source of power at this time came from how well she could manipulate her marriage (or sexual relationship) to her own advantage?

8. At one point Cesare says to Jofré, “But remember. You have to know when to step out of the way, before you sink the dagger into the bull’s neck.” (214) This is a very interesting statement, given that the bull is the Borgia family symbol. Do you think in some ways, Cesare was acting against his family members (especially his father) under the guise of furthering the Borgia name? That not being his father’s favored child made him wish to take revenge as much as it made him want to win approval?

9. Do you believe it was Cesare who arranged for Juan’s death? Why or why not?

10. Sancia and Lucrezia were both in somewhat similar situations (thrust into marriages based foremost on the political advantages the matches offered their families), yet their reactions to their circumstances were quite different. Do you think this strengthens or weakens their bond? Consider also that both women fell for the other’s brother in your discussion.

11. In your opinion, who was the true master in the political maneuverings of the Borgia family, Rodrigo or Cesare? Why?

12. How do you think each member of the Borgia family viewed God? For a family whose power came from the Church, were you surprised by their seeming lack of piety? Or do you think they truly believed God was behind them in their goal to unite Italy under their banner?

13. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? Did it turn out as you expected? Were you satisfied?

14. At the close of the novel, Burchard reflects, “ ‘The Pope ran from window to window to see her. Because he misses his daughter so.’ That is what those who saw it will say about the moment . . .” (500) Do you think that much of what we consider historical fact has been shaped by impressions, by gossip, by what people believed—and said—about a particular moment, rather than what was actually true? If so, how accurate do you think our image of the Borgia family is today? And how do you feel differently having read the novel?

15. There has been a great deal written about the Borgias, not to mention television shows, movies and even video games centered around them. What do you think is so fascinating about this particular family and the era in which they lived? Was there anything in the book that surprised you?


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