My book club decided to read two books about the notorious Borgia family – the first, a work of historical fiction, and the second, a work of non-fiction. I delayed writing the review of this fictional novel until I had read the ‘truth’ about the Borgia family.
Sarah Dunant is known for writing historical fiction about Renaissance Italy. Blood and Beauty is the story of Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI, and his brood – Cesare, Giovanni, Jofre and Lucrezia. It is these family members, through marriage and war, who lifted the Borgia family to the ranks of the rich and powerful of Europe.
Dunant’s writing is typically interesting, exciting and even a bit steamy, but I found Blood and Beauty to be lacking in these qualities. It was slow to start, and did not pique my interest until Cesare and Lucrezia’s story took over. Dunant portrays Cesare as selfish and possessive, but unlike her historical reputation, Lucrezia is a more sympathetic character.
What we know about the Borgia family largely comes not from unbiased historical sources, but from the political spin of Borgia family enemies. Here’s Wikipedia’s take on Pope Alexander VI:
“He is one of the most controversial of the Renaissance popes, because he broke the priestly vow of celibacy, and had several legitimately acknowledged children. Therefore his Italianized Valencian surname, Borgia, became a byword for libertinism and nepotism, which are traditionally considered as characterizing his pontificate. However, two of Alexander’s successors, Sixtus V and Urban VIII, described him as one of the most outstanding popes since St. Peter.”
Interesting how he’s portrayed as corrupt and “one of the most outstanding popes” all in one paragraph. In reality, there is no evidence that he broke his vows or that he sired children. The “brood” listed above were family members, but according to The Borgias by G.J. Meyer, it is likely that they were sired by Rodrigo Borgia’s nephew.
Granted, Dunant could have portrayed the family far worse than she did, but apart from the basic historical events, there is much fiction in Blood and Beauty.
2 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013