None Like Them Before, And None Like Them After – A Review of Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant

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As I have mentioned a few times before, I am really, really fond of the Italian Renaissance, and in particular, that narrow sliver of time from the last decade of the 1400s to the very early years of the 1500s, during which the Borgia family came to power when their patriarch, the redoubtable and charismatic Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, became Pope Alexander VI. During the time that Rodrigo Borgia sat upon the throne of Saint Peter, he did his level best to improve the lot of his family – not least the lot of his four favored children: Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia and Joffre. Of the four, two eventually became as famous (some say infamous) as their father – Cesare and Lucrezia would each occupy a place in history. Together with their father, they would come to define the corruption of the Church, as well as have a hand in the shifting face of not just Italy, but of Europe as a whole.

As a result, the Borgias have been the subject of much speculation, both in actual historical research and in fiction. What make them even more interesting is that much has been said about them, but it is difficult to filter the true from the fictional – especially when it comes to the more extraordinary claims that have been made about them. More contemporary writers, however, have taken a far more pragmatic view on the many contradicting reports and accounts regarding the Borgias, and therefore when writing about them attempt to balance all the stories to create a picture of the Borgias that they believe is a relatively balanced picture of that great family as it might have been before their image was tainted by rumor and slander.

There have been a lot of fictional adaptations of the story of the Borgias, not least of which is the ongoing TV series The Borgias, created by Neil Jordan, and the novel The Family, Mario Puzo’s very last novel (he died while it was in progress; the novel as it is today was completed by Carol Gino based on Puzo’s notes). It is the TV series, however, that has generated a significant amount of interest in the Borgias, and there has been a subsequent rise in novels about them. Among the latest is Sarah Dunant’s Blood & Beauty.

Dunant is a writer I’m very familiar with: I read her novel The Birth of Venus when I was in my undergrad, and I absolutely loved it. Soon after I finished it a friend gave me In the Company of the Courtesan, and I fell in love with that too. And since I had come to love her writing a lot, when Sacred Hearts came out I read that as well, and enjoyed it quite a bit (though I am slightly biased towards In the Company of the Courtesan in terms of which of the three books I favor most). It would be easy to assume that I would like her other books, but none of them interested me much – not because of the quality of her writing, but simply because I much prefer Dunant’s historical fiction. So when I found out just this year that she had written a Borgia novel and that it was already available, the first thing I did was to contain my excited squealing, and since I was between books when I found a copy, I started reading it immediately.

Now, it must be said that I have read quite a few books about the Borgias, both fiction and non-fiction, and I’m already quite familiar with how their story goes, from their meteoric rise to their equally meteoric fall. I’m also quite familiar with the most notorious accusations leveled against them. This means, therefore, that when I picked up Blood & Beauty I was already aware that there was absolutely nothing, plot-wise, that would surprise me. Most of the weight would be on Dunant’s characterization off the key players, and her writing itself. And in both aspects, Dunant does exceedingly, exceedingly well in Blood & Beauty.

One of the problems that confronts any writer of historical fiction is how to portray the actual people as characters, which is to say, to portray them as people. Non-fiction treatments of history do not deal with the emotions of the major players of any event, (perhaps) rightfully arguing that emotion clouds objectivity, and though history cannot be truly and completely objective, there must at least be an attempt to be so as much as possible. Historical fiction, however, must treat historical figures in a far more different manner: as realistic and believable characters, whose reasons for making the decision that they do, making the choices that they do, likely lie in a far more complex web of emotions, motives, and relationships.

Not all writers manage to carry this off well, but Dunant has managed to do a fine job of it in Blood & Beauty. As with her previous historical novels, she does her best work with the female characters: Lucrezia’s characterization arc is beautifully done, to be sure, starting her out as an innocent young girl and ending as a young woman with more steel in her spine and a sharp awareness of what her family truly does, with an exquisitely painful progression between the two, but it is with the less-famous characters that Dunant works her real magic. Giulia Farnese, for instance, is masterfully written: in so many other stories it is easy to dismiss her as just Rodrigo’s mistress, but in Dunant’s hands she becomes someone with a far more complex comprehension of what it means to be not only the mistress of a cardinal and then a pope, but of Rodrigo Borgia, specifically. Sancia of Aragon, as well, is easy to overlook unless she is written as the major character (as she is in Jean Kalogridis’s fantastic The Borgia Bride), but again Dunant takes the time to develop her into a sympathetic and relatively complex character. Even the fictional Fiammetta de Michelis, Cesare’s courtesan mistress, is given a life and certain complexity of her own. The time Dunant takes to give all these women lives and thoughts and emotions when the history books have a terrible tendency to elide these aspects – or elide the women altogether – is something I greatly appreciate.

As for the men, they too get a pretty good characterization treatment – at least for the most part. Dunant’s characterization of Rodrigo is a familiar one, but it is her characterization of Cesare that I especially like. The thing about Cesare is that it is difficult to find a good balance for his characterization, mostly because the accounts about him are very muddled. Does one portray him as extremely violent? A sex maniac? And how does one balance this with his obviously powerful intelligence, and the fact that he was also famous for caring greatly for his family? These choices vary from writer to writer, but I am especially fond of Dunant’s particular version of him: cold, withdrawn, but exceedingly cunning and very, very ambitious. There is no hint of the madness and extreme anger that some writers attribute to him, and the viciousness that some others claim he had is, though present in Dunant’s version, is significantly toned down and far more nuanced. She has also retained the deep-seated jealousy some historians and writers claim he had for his brother Juan, playing this jealousy into several moments of high drama that may have the reader squirming in his or her seat to read about them.

As for the less notable male characters, they do get their own moment in the spotlight: Giovanni Sforza, Duke of Pesaro and Lucrezia’s first husband, is given some interesting character development, as is Johannes Burchard, the Vatican’s Master of Ceremonies whose records would eventually become one of the primary sources of information regarding the Borgias. Therefore, with such careful attention given to the lesser characters, it makes me raise an eyebrow that she would not give the same attention to Juan, who is characterized as a spoiled brat and nothing more – which is how he is often portrayed in other books anyway. I was rather hoping for something a little more complex when it came to Juan, but that does not happen. Is it because he disappears from the historical record relatively early? Because he really, truly was that way and it is difficult to picture him as anything else because there is nothing that proves him to be otherwise? Because he needs to be that way so that Cesare can have something to be pissed off with his father about? If the argument here is historical accuracy, I offer the counterargument that this is a novel: Dunant could have written Juan with a bit more complexity without having to go against the historical record. Why she chooses not to do so makes me raise my eyebrows a little bit.

But what really makes this book, in my opinion, is Dunant’s writing. The novel is written in the present tense, which adds a sense of immediacy to the story, as if the reader was experiencing everything right alongside the characters. This has the welcome (at least to me) effect of making the reader not think of future events, especially if they are coming to this novel with previous knowledge of the Borgia story. And then there is Dunant’s talent at creating a sense of time and place, a sense of atmosphere, which she has already proven she has a gift for in her three other historical novels, and which she applies to full effect in Blood & Beauty. In her novels the inner palaces, the piazzas, and the churches of Rome come to life, in all their beauty and, admittedly, in all their stench too. This is augmented by little details regarding custom, dress, and food, thus allowing the reader to sink into the story itself and go with the flow – something that can be difficult to accomplish with a historical novel.

Overall, Blood & Beauty is a wonderfully-written addition to the ever-expanding fiction based on the Borgias: the characters are, for the most part, interesting and sympathetic, and the narration is an exquisite pleasure to read because of the quality of Dunant’s prose, which she uses to great effect to bring these characters and their time and place in history to life. Dunant does not end it with the death of Rodrigo, nor of Cesare, nor even of Lucrezia, and in the epilogue she explains that she might write a second novel to this one, covering the Borgias’ fall from grace. Whether or not this second novel does materialize, it is easy to be content with the tale of the Borgias as it is told in Blood & Beauty, and if it does continue, I will be right there to read it as soon as it comes out.

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2 thoughts on “None Like Them Before, And None Like Them After – A Review of Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant

  1. Well, all I have to say is thank you. I came across you via the web , because these days writers have to follow their books like helicopter parents even after they have left home. Your thought and knowledge shines through. We might have a long conversation about Juan ( believe me in all the research I did no one comes up with anything on him that suggest that he any depth or “other” side. His father’s love really does seem to have spoilt him, not to mention the pressure of that elder brother) But It is a marvel to be reviewed by someone who knows that material so well.

    Best wishes

    Sarah (Dunant)

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my review, Ms. Dunant! I have to say, I was completely not expecting your message at all, but I’m really, really happy you’ve taken the time to read the thoughts of a(n admittedly) small-time reviewer such as myself.

      As for Juan, I always assumed that the portrayal of him as a spoiled brat that I kept on running into was my fault, due to the books I chose to read or had access to (rather narrow for my liking). It always felt to me like they were insufficient in giving a “full” portrayal of his character. Surely, I thought, no person is “just” like that all the time? I kept thinking: might there be some other book out there that I’ve missed, or perhaps some text in Italian or Spanish or some other language that I can’t read that gives another account of who Juan was?

      But if it is as you say, and the research you’ve done portrays Juan as nothing but a selfish, spoiled brat, then perhaps I’ve been wrong all along to look for signs of him being otherwise. It’s entirely possible archival research will bring up something that implies him to be otherwise, but until then, if the weight of current research says he’s a brat, then perhaps I’m wrong to assume he could have been otherwise.

      Again, thank you very much for taking the time out to read my review, and I await the next Borgia book with bated breath.

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