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Blood and Beauty

by Sarah Dunant

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9289820,350 (3.68)66
Acclaimed novelist of the Italian Renaissance Sarah Dunant now takes on the era's most infamous family: the Borgias. By the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and in the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: he is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women and power must use papacy and family to succeed. His eldest son Cesare, a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest - though increasingly unstable - weapon. Later immortalised in Machiavelli's The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. His daughter Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, hers is a journey through three marriages: from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player. Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood & Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of history itself: compelling, complex and relentless.… (more)

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Ahh, the Borgias are so addictive. Complex, unpredictable characters in an unforgiving and changeable world. ( )
  jennybeast | Apr 14, 2022 |
I loved this book! It was fictional-history with a soap-opera twist!

Having been raised a catholic girl, I did know the Borgia name. I did know the medieval church was a well of corruption. Sarah Dunant took it to a whole new level for me. In her epilogue she states "....the Borgias have suffered from an excess of bad press. While their behavior-personal and political-was often brutal and corrupt, they lived in brutal and corrupt times." She states that she drew her story from a host of modern historians, who studied the history with a more discriminating mind-set. If these historians went easy on the Borgias, I cannot imagine what earlier historians had to say!

15th century Italy was like a piece of pie, cut haphazardly into 7 or eight pieces. Each piece ruled separately by ruthless and brutal men. The Papal States were a small portion of Italy. But with Catholicism being supreme the Pope held power like no other ruler. With the death of Pope Innocent VIII in 1492, the throne of the church was up for grabs. Rodrigo Borgia, a Spaniard, had been waiting for just this moment. A Cardinal of the church, a henchman for Innocent, he was in the prime position to take over. The other Cardinals had their doubts. The main problem; he wasn't Italian. With force and bribes Borgia battled his way through the papal tribunal and won the crown of Christ.

Cardinals could not marry. There was nothing stopping them from having a mistress. Thus, Rodrigo Borgia fathered 4 children. At the time of his assent to Pope, all four of these children were at marriageable age. If you consider 12-17 marriageable! Borgia's plan: marry these children off to the most lucrative, powerful families of Italy and Europe and build a kingdom so strong, no one would be able to penetrate it. 3 sons, 1 daughter, these were his steps to wealth and power. It is a fascinating story, filled with wars, sex, family relationships and the church at the center of it all

When I read fictional-history, my phone is always near-by. I love to fact check, then grade the authors on their ability to get it right. Sarah Dunant gets a B from me. There were only a few things I could not verify. Of course she took liberties with conversation and events, but it's "fictional", so that never enters into my thought process.

I highly recommend this book to those of you who love history with a little spice!

( )
  JBroda | Sep 24, 2021 |
This (perhaps inevitably) felt a lot like the Godfather in period dress. It's a bit more like a TV drama than a sprawling family saga, though - there's a lot of plot events but the focus is firmly on a small set of leading characters, and there is much less of the background detailing. Unfortunately, the handling of the main characters was rather unsatisfying for me. Lucretia is frequently helpless (by the nature of her position), and the author chooses to make Cesare something of an enigma, which means that we get very little of his interior life. Pope Alexander is more compelling, but he springs into the narrative fully formed, and unlike Vito Corleone, we never get much sense of his journey to the point where we meet him, as an entrenched power broker with an established family.

Note that this is only the first book, and it pauses rather than reaching a finale. ( )
  StuartEllis | Dec 13, 2020 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I must admit that I don't usually enjoy Sarah Dunant books, having tried all three of her most popular works, including "The Birth of Venus." I always felt as if I couldn't quite connect with the characters, and that there was something off or stilted about the writing style. Dunant is a talented writer, but I just accepted the fact that her books weren't for me, although it did always annoy me that I couldn't quite put my finger on why.
When this one came out, I went against my decision to leave Dunant to other readers, because I am fascinated with the Borgias. And I am so very glad that I did! This book ended up being everything that I could hope for in a novel about the Borgias, or in a historical fiction novel, for that matter.
I'm not quite sure why I always felt so flatly distanced from Dunant's characters in her other books - but in this one, I was unable to put it down, completely immersed in the fascinating, lavishly dark story. The Borgias were such a drama-filled family, there's so much shocking material that it would be difficult to write a book that's not exciting. And yet, I also appreciated the details of the lavish and opulent setting, and the vivid characters themselves. Lucrezia was the character that I found most memorable and realistic, and her cold brother Cesare was chillingly sinister.
Corruption, rivalries, power struggles, dark secrets, passionate affairs, and of course the infamous incest story - it's all here.
With such material, it would be easy for a book to slip into the feeling of... off-putting sensationalism, as I have found in other Borgia HF. I did not get that impression at all in this book. Perhaps Dunant's more reserved, serious writing lends itself well to such a soap opera type story.
Recommended. ( )
  jordantaylor | Jun 28, 2020 |
Poison, Incest, Intrigue
By Liesl Schillinger
July 5, 2013

On June 29 in the jubilee year of 1500, lightning made a direct hit on Vatican City, striking the roof directly above the corrupt, scheming Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI — better known in our time as Rodrigo Borgia — while he sat on his majestic throne. The blast sent a stone fireplace on a higher floor crashing through the ceiling, leaving His Holiness “engulfed by an avalanche of wood and plaster.” In her evocation of this scene in “Blood and Beauty,” her novel about the notorious Borgias, Sarah Dunant sends papal guards rushing to save their lord, “throwing themselves onto the pile, tearing at the rubble with their bare hands.”

Before reading into this thunderclap a demonstration of divine judgment against Borgia and his power-hungry, lascivious sons — who conspired through murder, war and strategic marriages to dominate Italy at the height of the Renaissance — consider two facts. First: the Borgia pope survived. And second: lightning also made a direct hit this year on the dome of St. Peter’s, on Feb. 11, the same day Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Was it the wrath of God or a twist of fate — ordered, as Rodrigo suspects, by “that other deity, Fortuna”? Sometimes a lightning bolt is just a lightning bolt.

In the five centuries since Rodrigo Borgia’s death in 1503, his family name has become synonymous with poison, incest and violent intrigue, and has inspired a host of biographies, paintings, operas, novels, movies and television dramas — the latest of which, Showtime’s three-season series, has just concluded. The Borgias were definitely bad, but were they as bad as all that? Dunant, the author of several previous best-selling works of fiction set in the Italian Renaissance, doesn’t think so.

Did Rodrigo Borgia sleep with his daughter, Lucrezia, as her first husband charged? “Not true,” the author protests in a video on her Web site. Did Lucrezia have a steamy affair with her syphilitic brother, Cesare? “Not true,” Dunant scoffs. Was Lucrezia a serial poisoner? Again: “Not true.” Were the Borgias “tremendous murderers and ruthless merchants?” Well, you’ve got her there.

In “Blood and Beauty,” Dunant follows the path set by Hilary Mantel with “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” Just as Mantel humanized and, to an extent, rehabilitated the brilliant, villainous Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, Dunant transforms the blackhearted Borgias and the conniving courtiers and cardinals of Renaissance Europe into fully rounded characters, brimming with life and lust. Here they provoke, if not exactly empathy, then a new understanding, grounded in the context of their brutal times.

Dunant begins her story on a sultry August day in 1492. Pope Innocent VIII has just died, and a crowd of decayed, malodorous cardinals preen and scheme in the Sistine Chapel, striking poses against biblical frescoes as they wait to learn who will win the keys to the kingdom. The air, Dunant writes, “is sour with the sweat of old flesh. Rome in August is a city of swelter and death.” It is the cunning Rodrigo Borgia, Cardinal of Valencia, a “paunchy 61-year-old” and vice chancellor to five previous popes, who will receive the crown. At his nearby palazzo, three of his illegitimate children, Juan, Lucrezia and Jofré, and their guardian, Borgia’s cousin Adriana, receive the good news and prepare to shower the proud Papa with “twittering admiration.” He “sucks in their vigor like great lungfuls of fresh air,” Dunant writes, “so that he becomes stronger and more potent in their presence.”

Pope Alexander VI will receive a still heartier embrace from his teenage mistress, Giulia Farnese, “milk-skinned, golden-haired and young enough to be his granddaughter,” who lives with the family, a playmate to Lucrezia and, in a different sense, to her father — though Giulia is married, for propriety’s sake, to Adriana’s son, Orsino. “To be the mistress of a pope is to be in the eye of all the world,” Adriana gushes. “What about Orsino?” Giulia ingenuously asks. “Your husband is as much a Borgia as he is an Orsini, and he will be proud for the honor of his family,” the pragmatic mother-in-law replies.

While the family flutters expectantly around the palazzo, Johannes Burchard, the papal Master of Ceremonies, fits Rodrigo Borgia for a golden ring, which cardinals and kings will soon line up to kiss. And while Burchard measures the pope’s finger, a humble servant rides breathlessly on horseback to Siena to carry the news to the pope’s eldest son, Cesare. Papal legerdemain will soon make this debauched playboy a cardinal and later, conveniently, unmake him — freeing him to marry a wealthy French duchess. The new pope, his Milanese rival, Cardinal Sforza, observes, “is a carnal man and very loving of his flesh and blood.” Watching his family’s fortunes rise as his papacy lengthens, Rodrigo “roars his satisfaction,” envisioning “a new generation of Borgias,” with titles for all. Italy’s citizenry, inured to the vices of churchmen, does not so much look the other way as look on in awe: “The kiss of romance. The thrust of lust. Rome is hungry for it all. God preserve the family that brings them so much theater.”

But for all their Machiavellian magnetism, it isn’t the Borgia men who shine the most on Dunant’s stage. Whether it’s because they were less active letter writers and diary keepers than their English contemporary Thomas Cromwell, or because they lacked his innate subtlety and intellectualism, or because Sarah Dunant — adroit as she is — falls short of Mantel’s narrative mastery, neither Rodrigo nor Cesare speaks in a voice as sustained and nuanced as the one Mantel conjured for her central character. The star of this tale is Lucrezia Borgia, whose agonies over her older brother’s cruelty and her father’s disregard for her marital happiness stir compassion for a woman who possesses, in Dunant’s telling, more honor than her male relatives, and a strong intelligence she is prevented from fully exercising. Family dynamics, the author suggests, forced a queen to play pawn.

When, after the forced annulment of her first marriage, Lucrezia befriends one of Cesare’s servants, her brother accuses her of a scandalous dalliance. “How many women have you bedded in the last six months?” she thinks, indignant at his hypocrisy. But she’s wise enough not to say it aloud. “Every woman who walks through the world knows there are two roads: a wide, triumphal route for the men, and a second mean little alley for women,” she bitterly reflects. In Lucrezia’s universe, “freedom is so much men’s due that even to draw attention to it is to make them angry.”

Two weeks after her father escapes death in the lightning crash, Lucrezia’s beloved second husband, Alfonso of Aragon, is stabbed near the Vatican steps by a pack of assassins, a hit ordered by Cesare. When Alfonso survives, Cesare has him strangled in his sickbed. The brother, it seems, will manipulate his sister even more ruthlessly than her father does.

In “Blood and Beauty,” Dunant illuminates the darkened narrative of the Borgia record, reviving stained glass with fresh light, refreshing the brilliance of the gold and blue panes history has marred without dulling the blood-red that glows everywhere around them. To clear her name and heighten the family profile, Lucrezia — barely out of her teens and already twice a bride — would soon marry again to suit her father’s and her brother’s ambitions. “You will always be on the chessboard,” Cesare warns her. “Regardless of whom you marry, if your next husband is not powerful enough to take you away, you will always be a Borgia first and someone’s wife second.”
Mercy for Anne and a Rose for Lucrezia
Amanda Iacampo
Salve Regina University
Pell Scholar Thesis
Winter 2015

Historical fiction presents first-hand accounts of actual events that transport readers into the realm of the past. The retellings of these events are often narrated by fictional characters, crafted by the author’s own hand, while in other instances, an author will choose to breathe life into historical figures, the real life players of the past. The Tudors of the English royal court and the Spanish descended Borgias of the Papal States are two of the most powerful and sometimes notorious families of Renaissance Europe. Twice the Man Booker prize winner, Hilary Mantel realizes the notorious scandal of the Tudors in her novel Wolf Hall, while Sarah Dunant uses her New York Times best-seller, Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, A Novel to capture the relentless ambition of the first organized crime family, the Borgias.

Wolf Hall and Blood & Beauty have been widely received as leading novels of modern historical fiction, winning them a spot on the nation’s best-selling list, and various awards of distinction. Both novels have been reviewed by noteworthy publications—like The New York Times, The Guardian and The Sunday Review—and even featured in favored media magazines, such as Elle.

In the novels, both authors succeed in the humanization of the two families’ leading ladies: the harlot and usurper, Anne Boleyn, and the alleged mistress of lust and poisons, Lucrezia Borgia, both of whom have been rendered an archetypal villainess by generations of historians. While Mantel chooses to focus solely on the rumors and traditions surrounding the life of Anne Boleyn, it is Dunant who redeems Lucrezia Borgia from her soiled reputation through her rigorous historical research of life as a Renaissance woman—during a time where the advantageous life of men was often taken for granted.


III. Renaissance Italy’s Lucrezia Borgia as Portrayed in Blood and Beauty

Conversely, it is Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty that surpasses Wolf Hall in being the superior work of contemporary, historical fiction. Published during the summer of last year, Blood and Beauty covers 10 years of Borgia history—one of the most notorious and scandal-ridden families in Renaissance Europe. The name Borgia has become synonymous with murder, incest and intrigue. The family’s patriarch, Rodrigo Borgia, conquered the papacy through bribery and shrewd tactics—much like Mantel’s Anne Boleyn, who worked diligently to leave her lasting mark on the Tudor dynasty.

The House of Borgia was distinguished by ruthless ambition and an uncontested (and almost unnatural) sense of familial love. Rodrigo Borgia did not rise to the seat of the papacy alone; he took his entire family with him. As Spaniards, the Borgia were seen as outsiders, since the majority of those holding positions in the College of Cardinals were of the usual Italian-Roman descent. Rodrigo’s uncle, Pope Callixtus III, was the only Spaniard to wear the holy ring of St. Peter and yet, his reign of papal influence only lasted from the year 1455 to 1458. However, during this time, the first Borgia Pope elevated two of his nephews into the religious life of royalty—including none other than Rodrigo Borgia (Hollingsworth, 74).

During his lifetime, Rodrigo served as Vice Chancellor to four different popes, giving him much time to deliberate his own plans for ultimate papal domination. In the 1490s, Rome and the Holy Vatican were at the hub of Europe’s affluence and aristocratic society. Italy was divided into city-states, which were governed by the select few ruling families of noble prestige. However, it was Rome that became known as a bear pit of… [these] established families jockeying for position, but also, more importantly, the seat of the papacy. While the Pope’s earthly territories were modest—and often leased out to papal vicars—his influence was immense. As head of the Church, the man himself…controlled a vast web of patronage throughout Europe, and as God’s representative on earth, he could and did wield spiritual power for strategic and political ends. With Catholicism reigning supreme and corruption in the Church endemic, it was not uncommon to find popes amassing wealth for themselves and favoring the careers and well-being of those in their families. In some cases, even their own illegitimate children. (Dunant, “Historical Note”)
One such patriarch who sought to raise the status of those he favored (as well as his bastard children) was Rodrigo Borgia, crowned Pope Alexander VI in 1492. Ideally, his main incentive should have been to serve God as the Holy Vicar of Christ, here on Earth. However, for the Borgias, family came before anyone else—even The Risen Christ.

Blood and Beauty showcases the Borgia’s ambition and desire for domination over the lands central to the essence of Renaissance life. A New York Times best-seller, the novel proves to be nothing less than historically accurate; especially since Dunant is already an award-winning, and internationally known author of historical fiction. Her previously recognized titles include: The Birth of Venus (2003), Sacred Hearts (2006) and In the Company of the Courtesan (2007). Blood and Beauty is the fourth of Dunant’s award-winning titles on the life and times of those who lived in Renaissance Italy.

The novel is the product of Dunant’s extensive and professional research, which includes approximately 28 different and reputable sources. These texts serve as Dunant’s blueprint for writing Blood and Beauty and include: Niccolò Machiavelli’s iconic publication The Prince (1532)—inspired by none other than Rodrigo’s eldest son, Cesare Borgia—and English translation of Master of Papal Ceremonies, Johannes Burchard’s At the Court of the Borgia (1963).

Dunant answers the pivotal question: “Why the Borgias?” in a blog post on her from her author webpage, dated January 2013. She asks:

Is there a family in history more dazzling, dangerous and notorious than the Borgias? A powerhouse of the Italian Renaissance, the very name Borgia epitomises the ruthless behaviour and sexual corruption of the Papacy…But how much of the history about this remarkable
family is actually true, and how much distorted, filtered through the age old mechanisms of political spin, propaganda and gossip? What if the truth, the real history, is even more challenging? “Blood & Beauty: The Borgias” an epic novel which sets out to capture the scope, the detail, the depth, the colour and the complexity of this utterly fascinating family.

Rodrigo’s daughter by Vanozza de Catanei serves as the novel’s real star of the show. Her name is Lucrezia Borgia and unlike Mantel’s Anne Boleyn, Dunant makes an effort to redeem Lucrezia from her marked reputation by choosing to introduce her character when she is at her most vulnerable stage in development, the onset of puberty.

The first we hear of Lucrezia in Blood and Beauty she is awakening to the joyous sound of Roman crowds exclaiming “HABEMUS PAPUM! WE HAVE A POPE! . . . Rodrigo Borgia, Cardinal of Valencia, is elected Pope Alexander VI. Bor-g-i-a! Bor-g-i-a! . . . BOR-G-I-A!” (Dunant
16-17). Lucrezia’s father is elected as the next Holy Vicar of Christ—the second and final Borgia pope—whose seal of the Borgia bull heralds a new Golden Age in Rome.

Lucrezia is everything that the men in her family should have been: selfless, kind-hearted and eternally faithful to The Risen Christ. Dunant introduces Lucrezia’s gentle spirit with her absolute faith in her eldest brother, Cesare Borgia:

She never liked sleeping alone. Even as a small child, when her mother or the servant had left her and the darkness started to curdle her insides, she would steel herself to brave the black soup of the room as far as her brother’s bed, creeping in beside him. And he [Cesare], who when awake would rather fight than talk, would put his arms around her and stroke her hair until their warmness mingled and she fell asleep. (Dunant 18-19)

Cesare is Lucrezia’s light to conquer the darkness, her protector and most trusted confidante, up until the day that she is given to another in Holy Matrimony. “How she worshiped her brother. For weeks she would not let him out of her sight, following him around, calling his name like a bleating lamb until he would have to stop to pick her up and carry her with him” (Dunant 21).

A few paragraphs into allowing readers to peer into this intimate relationship between the two siblings, Dunant describes Lucrezia’s physical attractiveness and girl-like charm. “Feast your eyeson that perfect nose, those cheeks plump as orchard plums… Her mother’s looks and her father’s temperament. What a woman she will become,” (Dunant 21-22) and one of the most revered princesses of the Holy Mother Church.

Sarah Bradford’s biography, Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy (2004), includes an eyewitness testimony on the physical description of Lucrezia, from Niccolò Cagnolo of Parma. He states that

She is of middle height and graceful in form. Her face is rather long, the nose well cut, hair golden, eyes of no special colour. Her mouth is rather large, the teeth brilliantly white, her neck is slender and fair, the bust admirable proportioned. She is always gay and smiling. (11)

Bradford then adds her own description of the Borgia princess, describing the young Lucrezia who had light hair and gentle grey-blue eyes, and she melted her father's heart...Lucrezia resembled her father in his cheerful way of believing that the future was full of promise. Like her father she had a receding chin, but this was so prettily shaped that it gave her an
appearance of perpetual adolescence. She was fair with light eyes, and graceful. In spite of her slenderness, her thick Spanish blood gave her a certain colour and robustness. (16-17)

During the years preceding her marriage, it is most likely that Lucrezia was educated at the Dominican Convent of San Sisto, on Appian Way, where she developed her strong sense of faith.Dunant briefly touches upon her time spent in the convent, which was filled with daughters of Rome’s most powerful families, all of them rich, most of them waiting for husbands either promised or yet to be decided…It was there, when the gossip turned cruel…that she [Lucrezia] was made aware of some scandal in her household; the hint of sin in her own birth. The nun of the boarders had found her in tears, so inconsolable that she had taken her to the abbess. (59)

The sanctuary of San Sisto was Lucrezia’s retreat from the throws of Rome—an “anchor in the tempests of her life…” where she “always felt safe when surrounded by the whispers of gentle voices in a world stripped of sensuality” (Bellonci 17).

Part II of Blood and Beauty, titled “Love and Marriage,” begins with Lucrezia knowing little about the ways of love and courtship. Having been born into a family where adultery is the norm, keeping a mistress or two was viewed as entirely acceptable. The men of the Borgia family were known to be the greatest womanizers of the Holy City, and Rodrigo’s mistress, Giulia “La Bella” Farnese is only six years Lucrezia’s senior. Giulia, as well as Sancia—Duchess of Squillace (her youngest brother disgracefully promiscuous wife)—are her two of her closest female companions in the novel.Although Lucrezia is surrounded by sex and scandal, she often feels ill at ease after hearing the sexual throes of her young friend (and father’s mistress), late into the night.

It is a strange sound, harsh, high-pitched, like a fox or some other animal in pain…But it is not an animal…Lucrezia knows that well enough. It is the sound of her father in bed with Giulia [Farnese]. She turns her head further into the pillow to muffle it. It comes again. She waits to hear if Giulia’s voice will join in; she makes the sweet warbling noise sometimes, a songbird
rising out of a tree. It is love, not violence, she is hearing. She knows that too…But she also knows that what they are doing is forbidden. That Giulia is another man’s wife. That by the rules of the church this is a sin. Yet the man is her father. And her father is the Church. More than that: without this same sin she would not be here. Not her, nor Cesare, nor Juan, nor Jofré. For their mother had been married to someone else as well. Does that make all of them sinful too, they who are loved so much and treated so well? Or does that mean that sin itself changes, depending on who commits it? (Dunant 57)

The latter question is essential to capturing the true scope of the Borgia ambition.

In Blood and Beauty, Lucrezia is merely a pawn to be moved around the chessboard of the Borgia family’s ambitions. The Pope’s beloved daughter, who is widely revered for her beauty and sweet disposition, is even more valued for her singlehandedly being used as a means to securing the Borgia’s ends; and yet, surviving “in a world where the dice were heavily loaded in the favour of men, Lucrezia operated within the circumstances of her time to forge her own destiny” (Bradford, “Foreword”). Dunant includes a scene within the text, where we learn
that she is not nearly as green as the Borgia men believe her to be. Lucrezia inquires as to whether her husband will be from Milan or Naples, since the Papal States meant to strike a balance of powers between the two duchies. Dunant includes a scene within the text, where we learn that she is not nearly as green as the Borgia men believe her to be. Lucrezia inquires as to whether her husband will be from Milan or Naples, since the Papal States meant to strike a balance of powers between the two duchies.

Her first role in the securing of an alliance for the Borgia family is with her betrothal to Giovanni Sforza of Milan—from one of the Romagna’s ruling families to which Rodrigo partly owed the success of his Papal election. Lucrezia anxiously awaits her very first look at the man she is told to marry. “This is happening to me, here, now, she thinks. I am nearly fourteen years old and I am meeting the man I will marry. Dear, sweet Jesus, let him like me. Let me love him” (Dunant 99), and in a later scene, her brother Cesare tells Lucrezia that her marriage will not yet be consummated (Dunant 84). The very fact that Lucrezia turns to the men in her family for any subtle hint of direction for her wavering future—and without any disdain, or guile—showcases the young flower whose purity will help the redeem the reputation of the warring House of Borgia.

Dunant details Lucrezia and Giovanni’s first meeting in the novel on June 9, 1493, just three days
before the date of the official wedding ceremony:

Below, the atmosphere is carnival rather than procession: this colorful knot of squires,
knights, page boys and musicians attended by fools and jesters doing cartwheels, or
gibbering and playing with the crowds, one decked out as a priest offering blessings to anyone and
everyone. And in the middle somewhere, the bridegroom.

As the first drummers and flag wavers enter the little piazza in front of the palace, Lucrezia
moves forward to the balustrade and every goes up to look at her…this tender young woman emblazoned in silk and pearls, her virgin long hair under a jeweled net falling onto her
shoulders…At this moment she is everyone’s daughter. The new blossom on the tree. The spring that promises a great harvest. The kiss of romance. The thrust of lust. Rome is hungry for it all. God
preserve the family that brings them so much theater…Man on horse: woman on balcony…He takes off his hat and bows low to the side…In response, Lucrezia drops into a deep curtsy,
disappearing from view before rising up again. The moment is held. (Dunant 99-100)
Compared to the actual event in history, Dunant adheres to the truth, paying close attention to
such great detail and with the upmost accuracy. A retelling of this is included in Maria Bellonci’s
The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia, whose work serves as a testament to her extensive knowledge of the Borgia family.

Squires in coats of brocade followed by files of pages dressed in variously coloured silks; and an
atmosphere of levity and carefreeness was introduced by the clownings of a jester, Mambrino 'the
priest'…Then, to the merry music of fifes and trumpets, the vivid procession moved on.

...The girl [Lucrezia] had already received the good wishes and congratulations of the Roman
gentlewomen and had experienced, perhaps for the first time in her life, the heady intoxication
that comes from being the centre of all eyes. As soon as the first blast of trumpets was heard from
afar, all the women and children took up positions at the windows leaving the bride alone in the
place of honour in the loggia. In a moment, the piazza was seething with people; the squires and
pages came first, then the households of the Cardinals and finally the ambassadors with the
bridegroom in their midst. The gaze of all…was turned to…little Lucrezia, whom the Pope loved
'supremely', was to be seen with the sun shining on her long fair hair that fell over her delicate
shoulders to her waist, like serpents of fine gold. Giovanni Sforza drew his horse to a standstill
under the loggia. His glance met Lucrezia's, and for a second their problem was that of any man and
any woman. But the bridegroom knew his part. He had to bow like a courtier towards the window where he saw the bejewelled head. Lucrezia responded with a conventional curtsy. (Bellonci 26-27)
Dunant includes additional dialogue into her retelling of this scene, during which Lucrezia tells
her Aunt Adriana that she could not even see her suitor due to the intense glare from the sun.
Lucrezia’s attendants find the irony of the situation to be “wonderfully funny” (Dunant 100), but
this is just another instance where Lucrezia’s feelings are not taken into consideration. Dunant
uses this unfortunate shortcoming for a Renaissance woman to further develop Lucrezia into a
character that is more relatable, on a personal level.

Johannes Burchard also documents this first meeting in At the Court of the Borgia, a collection of
diary entries written on the family, which have been translated from dog-Latin into English. In
Blood and Beauty, Burchard is described not only as the Master of Ceremonies but as keeper of the
Borgia family secrets.

There is a rumor around the Vatican that he [Johannes Burchard, the Pope’s Master of
Ceremonies] keeps a secret diary into which he writes every detail pertaining to matters of papal
ceremony…You should be grateful to us, he [Cesare] thinks. There have been none like us before. And there will be none afterward. Be careful what you write.” (Dunant 81)

He writes on the details of Lucrezia and Sforza meeting for the first time outside the Palazzo
Santa Maria in Portico, on the 10th of June 1493. However, due to his lack of attention paid to
precision and detail in this particular entry, Burchard misuses Lucrezia’s fathers name in the
place of her suitor: On the 10th of June, 1493, Alexander [His real name was Giovanni*], the son of
the Lord of Pesaro, arrived in Rome with a large suite of bishops, and on the very day of his
arrival was betrothed to the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander (Burchard 70).
Bellonci states in her biography “that Burchard was not friendly to the Borgias is proved by the
way his diary is written” (xxv). Although he never indulges in the hearsay, Burchard’s tone does
sometimes implicate “the impression of [his] wanting to deliberately confuse our judgment,” with
his taciturn description of everyday life and pontifical etiquette, in the House of
Borgia (Bellonci 27-28).

Burchard writes on yet another event of historical significance in his full collection of diary
entries, titled Liber Notarum. Dunant references this text only a page later, in Blood and Beauty,
for details on Lucrezia’s wedding ceremony.
…The great hall and other rooms were covered abundantly with tapestry and velvet
hangings, decorated and a throne was set up for the pope…On the pope’s orders, Don Juan Borgia, Duke of Gandia, son of the pope and brother of the bride, escorted his sister from the palace of Cardinal Zen, where she lived with her aunt, Giulia Farnese. They processed through the rooms, Don Juan on the left of his sister, whose robe had a long train carried by a young negro girl. She was followed by Battistina, the daughter of Teodorina, the daughter of Innocent VIII…After her came Giulia Farnese, mistress of the pope, followed by some hundred and fifty Roman ladies … despite my scolding none of the ladies genuflected when they passed the pope on his throne except for his daughter and one or two others who were near her…when all the ladies had kissed the pope’s foot, the Lord of Pesaro, the groom, and Lady Lucrezia, the bride, knelt on two cushions…
(Hollingsworth 183-184)

While Dunant’s description of the wedding ceremony is not as comprehensive, she does seek to
embellish readers with other major details in later pages. For instance, the Duke of Gandia’s lavish dress, which is always worth the most in ducats, and overtly eye-catching in style.

Things did not begin well. At the hour of the marriage ceremony Alexander sits
magnificent on his throne, surrounded by cardinals, ready to receive his guests, when
the doors open on the flock of Lucrezia’s gentlewomen who, reduced to starling status again by the
thrill of the moment, fling themselves into the room in such high spirits that they forgot to kneel
at the Pope’s feet before taking their place in readiness for the bride. A look of pure anguish
passes over Burchard’s face, as if that very moment he might be struck dead and his body pulled
into hell by a troop of devils. Later, the Pope himself is moved to excuse him of any fault. It
doesn’t help: it is not the Pope’s feelings he is worried about, but the insult to the office. It
will be his punishment to survive the incident with his shame intact.

For the rest, well, it is a wedding like any other between two great families: an exercise in status, ostentation, sentiment and pleasure… the Duke of Gandia’s fanfaronade entrance—a chest of jewels masquerading as a suit of clothes—is greeted with remarkable good humor. In contrast, the
bridegroom’s necklace speaks of both taste and dignity, and Lucrezia’s palpable purity and
vulnerability as she approaches to kneel beside him on the velvet cushions, the little Negress a shimmering black sprite at her heels, plays on everyone’s heartstrings. (Dunant 101- 102)

According to Sarah Bradford—who claims that her biography on Lucrezia allows her to speak for
herself—Lucrezia’s wedding dress was worth 15,000 ducats. Bradford also includes Sforza borrows
jewelry from the Milanese Gonzaga, so as to not look like a fool (29). Dunant includes another
minor, yet important detail to capture the grand scope of the Borgia grandeur, in which Giovanni
anxiously begins to plan out his garb for the wedding ceremony, weeks in advance
(Dunant 91). Lucrezia and Giovanni Sforza are married for nearly four years, before
Rodrigo decides that it is time to make a new alliance for Rome, with another marriage.
In year 1497, Lucrezia’s brother Juan Borgia, 2nd Duke of Gandia is murdered and her father spends months away from the family, in recluse. By December, it is officially time for the
annulment of the Borgia-Sforza marriage, and Lucrezia returns to Rome after her religious retreat
in the Convent of San Sisto.

she [Lucrezia] was summoned to the Vatican on December 22 for the promulgation of the sentence of her divorce, and she had to hear herself solemnly referred to as virgo intacta, Yet she went,
she listened and she smiled…she made a speech of thanks in Latin ‘with such elegance
and sweetness’…she possessed all the Borgia qualities of courage and dissimulation in a high
degree. (Bellonci 109)

Dunant illustrates this moving scene in Part VI of Blood and Beauty, titled “A Very Papal Divorce.” Lucrezia is coaxed into declaring the impotence of her husband to the College of Cardinals, after hearing that he falsely accuses her father of demanding the divorce for his own perverse interests of having her for himself (Dunant 285).

She [Lucrezia] spends the time memorizing the composed address that she must give and
deciding which outfit will offer the best message of purity…Her marriage is ended and there is no
going back. Alexander, who inspects her before she enters the court, sheds tears as he embraces
her. “Ah, you are a sight for the sorest of eyes. Like a virgin saint standing out before torture
to reach God.”

… After the interrogation comes the examination: …two nervous midwives lift her skirts and probe
gently in the direction of her most private places, though never quite stepping over the threshold.
When she returns to court…she is virgo intacta and her marriage to Giovanni Sforza herewith
annulled. (Dunant 300-301)

According to one of the Sforza ambassadors, the speech delivered by Lucrezia was one worthy of the great Cicero in its eloquence (Bradford 66).

Many historians divide the life of Lucrezia into two different segments—the first with her life as
a daughter of Rome, and the second being her reign as Duchess of Ferrara. Blood and Beauty draws to a close soon after Lucrezia mothers her first child to Alfonso d’Aragona—her second husband and bastard born to the King of Naples (Dunant 372). In Chapter 54, Lucrezia is found screaming in hysterics after learning that Cesare murders Alfonso, whom he claims had been plotting treacherously against him (Dunant 446-452). It is at this point in the story that Lucrezia begins to open her eyes to the world and the ways of men. Cesare later goes to his sister, seeking her forgiveness, and is met with icy and unwelcoming derision. He reassures her safety in Rome and
Lucrezia answers, choking back tears, “After what has happened I will never be safe in Rome again”
(Dunant 452).

Rodrigo also tries to console his daughter by telling her that it will be through yet another marriage that she will achieve happiness. Lucrezia answers Rodrigo sharply, comparing her very existence to that of the Latrodectus spider, commonly referred to as the black widow: “You will
marry me again and I will kill someone else. Because I will. I am like that—the spider of death, which once it has mated destroys its own husband” (Dunant 454).

Dunant expands upon this growth in her character on the following page:

Lucrezia, though she would probably deny it if it was suggested to her, is discovering disobedience. She, who has been brought up to honor her family and to do everything she is told. She, who has asked only for two things directly in her life: that the two men for whom she felt affection should be spared, only to see both of them slaughtered. She, who has been so good for so long, is being good no longer. And though her rebellion will not bring back her husband, it is keeping the blood flowing in her veins.

Lucrezia seeks papal permission to leave Rome for her small palace, in the quaint town of Nepi (Dunant 455), and achieves final deliverance from Borgia control with her betrothal to Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara. She happily departs from Rome with the promise of a brighter future; meanwhile the Borgia Pope is left in tears, at the feet of Burchard (Dunant 500).

In the Historical Epilogue of Blood and Beauty, Dunant addresses the notion of there being various contested events of historical inaccuracy, for which she fills in the blanks wither imaginative power as a writer. This “is where the pleasure and challenge of fiction comes in” (Dunant 503-504). Dunant also promises a sequel to Blood and Beauty, where readers will accompany Lucrezia on her journey to a new life in Ferrara.
  meadcl | Jan 21, 2020 |
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Dawn is a pale bruise rising in the night sky when, from inside the palace, a window is flung open and a face appears, its features distorted by the firelight thrown up from the torches beneath.
More than many in history, the Borgias have suffered from an excess of bad press. (Historical Epilogue)
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Acclaimed novelist of the Italian Renaissance Sarah Dunant now takes on the era's most infamous family: the Borgias. By the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and in the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: he is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women and power must use papacy and family to succeed. His eldest son Cesare, a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest - though increasingly unstable - weapon. Later immortalised in Machiavelli's The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. His daughter Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, hers is a journey through three marriages: from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player. Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood & Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of history itself: compelling, complex and relentless.

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By the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: He is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family—in particular, his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia—in order to succeed.

Cesare, with a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest—though increasingly unstable—weapon. Later immortalized in Machiavelli’s The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, hers is a journey through three marriages, and from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.

Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood & Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of his reign.
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