Actually the full title is Blood and Beauty: The Borgias; A Novel. And there’s so much punctuation in that title that I didn’t dare continue the sentence lest we all be terminally confused. Granted, the titles are not the strongest features of Sarah Dunant’s three previous historical novels about Italy, all of which are wonderful. But maybe the name “Borgia” had to be in the title to link to the Showtime series (anybody seen it? care to weigh in?). And then, of course, you’d have to add “The Novel” lest potential buyers think it was a published script?
Whatever. This is a book. This is a terrific, meaty historical novel that even tops Dunant’s previous Italian novels. And why not, with the great Rodrigo Borgia as the central character? Possibly better known as Pope Alexander VI, and as wily as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell. Only, no, the Holy Father is less steely, more emotional, more, well, Latin in his emotions than Cromwell. He storms, he cries, he hugs and rants. He’s a fool for his beautiful children and his beautiful mistress… up to a point. Lucrezia’s value to the Borgia family is as marriage material so married she must be and children she must produce. Marriages that don’t work politically can be ended, legally or violently.
Oh, am I giving too much away? No, I’m really not. There are almost 550 pages in Blood and Beauty and other central characters include the charismatic, brilliant, fatally charming Cesare Borgia, cardinal at eighteen, military commander thereafter. Which is important, because Italy, as the fifteenth century becomes the sixteenth, is a collection of warring states controlled by powerful families with names like Este and Sforza and, of course, Borgia. The King of France invades, bringing the new and lethal “French disease” with his troops. (That would be syphilis, naturally blamed on the French.)
So the basic story arc is the struggle for power. But Dunant has always had a strong feminist bent and this Lucrezia is no mere marital pawn. She is patient, canny, self-controlled. She grows, over the course of the novel, from a lovely teenager to a powerful matron, possibly a match for her brother Cesare. Possibly in more ways than one. (Dunant hints at sexual tension between them.) She is even capable of besting her father; when he comes to visit her shortly after the death of her second husband, the Pope is appalled by the grief.
‘Is she still crying?’ he says one morning, though the question is surely rhetorical.
‘Either the duchess or some of her ladies.’ His chamberlain is anxious. He has seen the Pope buried under a ton of rubble, but never have his master’s nerves been quite so frayed. A house of men besieged by women’s tears: it is a novel form of warfare.
‘Don’t they ever sleep?’
‘I think not all at the same time, Your Holiness.’
What is a man to do?
Blood and Beauty ends with Lucrezia about to depart for her third marriage. Dunant finishes her Epilogue with these words: “Fate — a capricious goddess, as we know — permitting, there will be a concluding novel in a few years’ time. It may not surprise you to learn that the story of the Borgias does not get any less exciting.”