Blood and Beauty

Written by Sarah Dunant
Review by Ilysa Magnus

On the heels of an increased interest in the Borgia family, Dunant follows with her newest novel, an exploration of the House of Borgia reflecting what she avers is more the modern historical perspective on them.

Yes, unquestionably, the Borgias have earned a reputation as being corrupt and brutal, because they were. But, Dunant argues, they lived in a corrupt and brutal time, and I suppose that means they were compelled to rise to the task. Taking each person and each event as an independent variable, however, one wonders how much less corrupt the times might have been had they not been manhandled by the likes of Rodrigo Borgia, ultimately Pope Alexander VI, and Cesare Borgia, his son. We will never know.

The history is well-known and need not be repeated here. Suffice to say, everything anyone might want to know about the end of the 15th century, most of Alexander’s papacy, and Cesare’s cold intelligence as a cardinal – morphing into his cold fury as a brilliant military mind – is here. One might argue, perhaps, that too much of the history is here. The story is dense. At times, it is difficult to wade through it. I think some dramatic editing with a more focused purpose might have done the trick.

What, I think, saves the book – which, believe me, is beautifully written by an eminently talented writer – are the characterizations of the main female characters. It takes Lucrezia, the focal dynastic tool; Rodrigo’s former partner and the mother of his children, Vannozza dei Catenei; and the wickedly demonic Caterina Sforza to give the book life. Because Dunant is such an accomplished author, their lives, their words, their thoughts blossom.

For readers interested in this period, Dunant’s book is required reading. Just don’t expect it to be a lark. It’s rough slogging sometimes.