Blood and Beauty is the fourth novel that Sarah Dunant has set in Renaissance Italy and it is by far and away the most weighty, in terms of both its content and its physical heft. In this work she takes as her subject matter the infamous Borgia family, dealing with the period that spans from the election of Rodrigo Borgia to the papacy in 1492 to the departure from Rome, in 1502, of his daughter, Lucrezia, for her third marriage, this time into the house of Este.
As Rodrigo ascends to the papal throne, taking the title of Alexander VI, so he turns his mind to how his four illegitimate children can best be ‘placed’ to enhance the fortunes of the family. For, as far as Rodrigo is concerned, family is everything.
His favourite son, Juan, he can deny nothing and so, disastrously, he gives him command of armies the young man is incapable of controlling – just as Juan is incapable of controlling his own, ultimately, fatal excesses. Casare, he sends into the church in the hope that one day there will be a second Borgia Pope. Again, Rodrigo miscalculates and eventually Casare is allowed to relinquish his Cardinal’s robes and take up the position at the head of the army for which he is undeniably best suited. Jofré, still too young to be given an active role in state affairs, is married off to an illegitimate scion of the throne of Naples. If you can’t beat them into submission bring them into the fold by making them family.
And this is inevitably the fate for his daughter, Lucrezia, who in 1492 is exactly the right age for marriage and thus one of the most valuable pieces available to Rodrigo in his games of power. Three times during the course of the novel she is used (and I choose that word advisedly) to bring about politically advantageous alliances, regardless of what her own feelings might be. As the winds of power change direction, unwanted husbands are sloughed off in whatever way seems most expedient until it’s amazing that any man is prepared to risk his life taking on such a hazardous enterprise.
And this is the central theme of the book, the clash between the personal and the political. With the exception of Juan, Rodrigo’s children have to put the political aspirations of their father before any personal desires they might have. It is most clear in respect of the women in his life, but it is also the case where his other sons are concerned. Even the powerful Casare Borgia, with a charismatic force that affects all who meet him and yet still feared by almost everyone with whom he comes in contact, for the most part has to bend to his father’s will. At this period in history, it is, after all, difficult when your father is not only head of your family but also head of the Holy Roman Church.
For the most part the characters that people this novel are very well drawn, especially, I think, Casare, who is clearly portrayed as a monster without Dunant ever resorting to some of the wilder stories that abound concerning incest and witchcraft. However, I was never really drawn in by any of them and given that this is a five hundred plus page novel that is a long time to be reading without feeling truly involved. The real problem, I think, lies in the style of the book. I’ve seen it compared with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and the clearest reason for this (apart from their both being historical fiction) is presumably the use of the present tense. But, whereas Mantel manages to bring the reader closer to Thomas Cromwell via this device, indeed to the point where I often feel I am sitting on his shoulder and listening to his thoughts, Dunant’s characters seem to be distanced by it and I feel I am watching them as an objective observer rather than becoming in any way caught up with their fate.
Neither is the novel helped by its overall structure. As you reach the end it becomes apparent that there is going to have to be a second book because the ultimate destiny of none of the major characters is clear. However, I suspect this wasn’t the intention with which Dunant began the work. It reads as if she has reached a certain point and recognised (rightly) that a single book can take no more. But, if a story is going to spread over two volumes then it is essential that each should have its own narrative arc and leave the reader feeling that the episode they have just read has its own complete and contained story line. This isn’t the case here and I was left thinking ‘and……….?’
So, all in all this book was a disappointment, especially as I had enjoyed the earlier three renaissance novels so much. Will I read a second volume about the Borgias? Probably not. In the end I simply wasn’t engaged enough with them to want to work my way through another five hundred page marathon.