It is 1502 and Rodrigo Borgia, a self-confessed womaniser and master of political corruption is now on the Papal throne as Alexander VI. His daughter Lucrezia, aged twenty-two, already thrice married and a pawn in her father’s plans, is discovering her own power. And then there is Cesare Borgia: brilliant, ruthless and increasingly unstable; it is his relationship with the diplomat Machiavelli which offers a master class on the dark arts of power and politics. What Machiavelli learns will go on to inform his great work of modern politics, The Prince.
But while the pope rails against old age and his son’s increasing maverick behavior it is Lucrezia who will become the Borgia survivor: taking on her enemies and creating her own place in history.
Having brought and loved Blood & Beauty a while back now, when I found out that Sarah Dunant’s follow up to that wonderful novel I knew I had to preorder it. Dunant’s previous Borgia novel was a gripping narrative of the early years of the Borgia papacy and the rise of Cesare to prominence in the military. So when I opened this book I had high expectations. Expectations that were met from the word go.
Dunant tells the story of the last years of Borgia prominence within Italy from the point of view of many different characters. Machiavelli is a prominent character in the narrative which pleased me greatly – he was an important part of Cesare’s story, as a diplomat and envoy to the man’s court after he had taken over parts of the Romagna. In many Borgia fiction works Machiavelli isn’t mentioned at all – the authors are more interested in bringing the incest and poisoning myths to life than telling the story as it actually was.
Yet again, as in Blood & Beauty, Cesare’s characterisation was written so well I could imagine myself being in the same room as him as he raged against his father, as he visited his sick sister, as he fought for his life after contracting a deadly fever. His famously bipolar mindset poured from the page and more so, I was struck by how he lost his grip on power following the death of his father. The gaunt, sick young man came across on the page as I imagine he would have in real life – panicked and confused yet trying to keep up the facade of being a powerful and dangerous man.
Lucrezia’s story was probably my favourite part of this novel. Twisted in with her narrative was the narrative of her new family in Ferrara – the utter dislike of Ercole towards the Borgia family and his cruelty in keeping Lucrezia’s allowance from her had me despising the horrid old man! Yet throughout it all, Lucrezia Borgia maintained her pose and grace despite the whispers about her. I particularly liked how she found comfort with the poet Pietro Bembo, how she had feelings for him that couldn’t be shown because of who she was and where she was. I have a book of letters between Lucrezia and Pietro and they truly are the sweetest things – she found comfort in his poems and with his friendship during a time when she must have felt incredibly lonely, surrounded by those who despised her simply because of her name.
I would highly recommend this novel to anyone interested in the Borgia family and the politics surrounding the last years of their power. It may be a work of fiction, however it tells the truth. It shows us how brutal the world was back then, how brutal Cesare could be, how Lucrezia was used as a pawn – and it is beautifully done. The only mention of the rumours are precisely that, rumours and whispers by those who wanted the downfall of the family – and I LOVE that about this work. Dunant tells the truth about these people- which is much more exciting than the myths (as many of you know I hate what Showtime did to the family with that show) and also included a detailed bibliography at the back of the work for anyone interested in learning more about the family and the time period.
A fantastic piece of work for which Dunant deserves the highest praise.