Blood and Beauty, a novel which centres upon the infamous Borgia family, is the newest offering from historical fiction author Sarah Dunant. It is the fourth book which she has set in Italy during the Renaissance period. In Blood and Beauty, she has aimed to show that ‘the truth behind these maligned figures of history is even more interesting than the myth’.
This particular story begins in 1492, after the death of Pope Innocent VIII. Despite his loathed Spanish blood, Rodrigo Borgia has ‘clawed his way to the papacy’ against all odds, and has become Pope Alexander VI. ‘Each Borgia child,’ states the blurb, ‘will be tasked with advancing the family’s ambitions and securing their dynasty’s future’. Rome is entirely different to how it stands today, and Dunant evokes its general air very well indeed. Soldiers are garrisoned around the city in order to ‘keep the peace’; in summer, the city is ‘swelter and death’; many well-to-do men are locked up; and nasty gossip spreads from one quarter to the next like wildfire.
Rodrigo Borgia is one of the ‘richest and most influential churchmen in Rome’. His Spanish blood has, up until Pope Innocent VIII’s death, stopped him from ascending the papal throne, but he is given a chance at snatching power solely for the following reason: ‘after two public scrutinies there is deadlock between the main contenders, which makes his own modest handful of votes a good deal more potent’.
As one might expect, the rather hefty tome begins with rather an extensive family tree, a map of Italy, and a brief historical note. Dunant states in the latter that ‘while the Pope’s earthly territories were modest – and often leased out to papal vicars – his influence was immense.’ She goes on to explain that ‘as the head of the Church, the man himself, usually Italian, 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’.
Blood and Beauty is a sweeping novel, and the third person perspective which Dunant has made use of works well in order to track such a notorious family through history. The characters have been fully fleshed out on the whole, and they work well as an entire cast. The story is an intriguing and gripping one, and the entire novel is almost certain to sweep fans of historical fiction away.