Review: Blood & Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant


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 history itself: compelling, complex and relentless.

My Review

I find the Renaissance fascinating and terribly complicated. It’s hard to get one’s feet wet! I’m happy to say that the author presented us with a strong, balanced look at the Borgia family. Alexander VI was a doting father foremost, and a wily politician second. He was likeable as far as you can like a corrupt pope—but weren’t they all? Lucrecia was not a sex-craved, thoughtless girl-toy, nor did she have sex with her father and her brother. She certainly was a pawn in her family’s schemes, and throughout she made the best of a compromised situation, using her beauty, charm, and excellent brain to get ahead in a man’s world. She suffered the most for her family’s ambitions:

“Whatever you have heard about Pedro Calderon and myself is slander and calumny. He was a good friend to me when I was in need and has done nothing that deserves prison. I want you to release him.” She realizes she is trembling and tries to still herself.
“I told you she would be upset,” the Pope says mildly.
Cesare, lounging close to his father in the leather-backed chair that he has made his own, says nothing at all.
“Come, come, my dear. These are not things that should concern you.”
“Not concern me? A man is in prison because of me, Father.”

Poor Lucretia never gets a break. I liked and respected her as a character. Her brother Cesare was somewhat restrained on the surface, though his fearsomeness was palatable. He didn’t let his love for his sister get in the way of his plans. The dynamics of this family are engrossing, overshadowing the bloody and crucial events that stagger Naples and the Papal States. But we don’t lose track of what goes on. Dunant carefully weaves traumatic episodes with interpersonal relationships that drive them. It was a fascinating peek into a troubled time, and I already hastened to purchase the sequel.

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