Blood and Beauty: The Borgias – A Novel. Sarah Dunant. Random House, Inc. July 2013. 528 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9781400069297.
Rodrigo Borgia, a noble of Spanish descent, in 1492 wins a majority of votes carefully cultivated among the College of Cardinals, the vote that would mandate the rest of his life be spent as Pope Alexander VI. Totally besotted with his own children, Juan, Cesare, and Lucrezia, and endeared to his former and present lover, Alexander will spend the remainder of his life manipulating, severing and unifying the bonds of these faithless and troubled children. One can imagine what it was like to technically not exist as the children of a Pope and yet to live in the opulent lifestyle of what seemed like limitless power of the Borgia clan.
The Borgias have as many enemies as supporters and it’s Alexander’s job to keep his finger on the pulse of the yet to be enacted secret plots. While this is happening, Juan and Cesare barely tolerate each other and Juan’s amorous escapades are the talk of Rome. Cesare has received a church position but yearns for the life of a military strategist and campaigner. Alexander is trying to secure marriage betrothals for his children, all meant to secure the loyalty of both friends and enemies. For Italy is divided as city-states war with each other, and France has its eye on exploiting the divisions for its own gain.
A violent death and a serious illness temporarily devastates Alexander and gradually Lucrezia inwardly despises her family for using her as a marital tool and a not very effective one at heading off future conflicts within and outside of Rome. Revenge must wait while the all-out war Cesare wages for his father occurs. The outcome is devastating for so many and stifles all doubts of the strength of the Borgia clan, including another female warrior leader formerly respected for her indomitable fierceness and military successes. Yes, there is blood, beauty, lust, violence, murder, disease and enough verbal altercations to keep the reader rapidly flipping the pages to the very last word.
Blood and Beauty is a classic work of historical fiction written in the style of an embellished, thrilling account. The novel also includes vivid descriptions of the gorgeous art and architecture of Rome, especially within Vatican City. The unique quality of this story lies in changes wrought by Pope Alexander VI and his Borgia family in an extremely troubled time in Italian history. Rome at this time was a dirty, dangerous city that slowly evolved into the magnificent cultural and sacred icon. The author presents the immorality of the Borgias without commentary which this reader finds leads to some interesting reflection on how the Catholic Church operated in the 15th and 16th centuries. The writing is handled so deftly that one almost unconsciously dismisses the “right/wrong” issues because one is so caught up with the machinations of Alexander and Cesare Borgia, not knowing how each scenario will unfold!
Sarah Dunant is a superb author of historical fiction. Blood and Beauty is a memorable, phenomenal account of one of the most notable and infamous families in world history. Highly, highly recommended – and there is more Borgia impact to come which this reviewer eagerly anticipates!