“The more outrage the better. This way people will fear us while we are alive and never – ever – forget us when we are dead.”
– Sarah Dunant, Blood & Beauty
It’s a little strange sometimes, the things that can pop into your head while you read. Frankly, in my case, it can get more than a little strange, but usually the connections at least make sense to me, even if not to anyone else. This time, I kept hearing snippets of “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago in my head, over and over again, as I worked my way through Sarah Dunant’s enthralling novel about the Borgias, Blood & Beauty – which is somewhat understandable, albeit in a really twisted way. My mind is a weird place sometimes. When it comes to one of history’s most notorious families, however, the parallels are startling: just like lawyer Billy Flynn in the aforementioned musical, one of history’s most notorious families all proved themselves quite adept at using theatrics and sheer audacity (among numerous other tactics) to get away with murder, both literally and figuratively.
Even for their time, the family of Pope Alexander VI (previously known as Rodrigo Borgia) represented something not only unprecedented, but also completely unheard of. A pope with a mistress (or several) and children was not a new phenomenon, but the very public acknowledgement of a papal family was something else altogether… and yet (at least initially), the people of Rome loved them for being everything they shouldn’t be. Part of their appeal was the stark contrast Alexander presented to his predecessors, bolstering his image of health and vitality; the rest was the Borgia mastery of theater, putting on a fantastic show, to conceal the darker inner workings of the family.
What Dunant presents is a humanizing portrait of a family that has been far too often demonized by both their contemporaries and by posterity. Oh, the Borgias of the novel are every bit as ambitious, cunning, unscrupulous and duplicitous as history and imagination have shown them to be – but this depiction is far more nuanced than the gossip and records of their time would have us believe. It’s as even-handed an account as one could ask for, deftly picking and choosing among the various tales that have swirled around this notorious family for centuries. Dunant teases out the personalities of her subjects through extensive research, and basing her narrative choices on that knowledge, spinning a story rather than writing a history. In the process, she acknowledges all the rumors and legends, all of the contemporary gossip, libel and slander, while at the same time never letting the reader forget that the Borgias were, first and foremost, a family. An unorthodox, complicated, back-stabbing one, with almost unparalleled dynastic ambitions and a ruthless streak to match, to be perfectly honest, but a family nonetheless.
The best part (in my opinion) of Dunant’s power as a story-teller comes from her ability to conjure up unforgettable images in the mind of her readers, images that convey far more than a mere mental picture. Scenes and vignettes punctuate the novel, beautifully illustrating the world she is creating – it’s really lovely language, saying a great deal that’s beyond words. I can’t think of anything that could better convey the atmosphere of the 1492 conclave where Alexander was elected as pope than the contrast between the important negotiations taking place in the latrine, while the official sessions and discussions in the Sistine Chapel were more for show than anything else. For all the glamour and pageantry of the celebrations for daughter Lucrezia’s third wedding, the real basis of the marriage is seen in the deliberate counting of her dowry, ducat by ducat, men examining each coin for the proper purity and weight, even as the festivities continue. All through the book, Alexander proves himself to be a doting father, caring deeply for his children, and yet still has no qualms about sacrificing their happiness to further cement the Borgias’ position as one of the major players in Italian politics. This curious mixture of paternal affection and political scheming is apparent throughout, but nowhere more so than in one of Cesare Borgia’s favorite childhood memories: sitting on his father’s lap after dinner, while Alexander created a map of Italy out of leftovers and cutlery and used it to teach political strategy to his young sons.
Gorgeous vignettes like this punctuate the novel’s slow but steady progression, unfolding deliberately under the unbending and inexorable weight of history. A student of the past can predict what is going to happen, at any given point, but how and why … not so much. There’s a lot of mystery between the facts, the uncontested who and what and when of the Borgia story. Dunant succeeds admirably in filling in the blanks, picking apart a historical record full of libel and exaggeration that’s become inextricably mixed with fact over time, and sifting through over five centuries of rumor, myth and infamy. The result is spell-binding, a delicious and fascinating plunge into what-might-have-been.