Blood and Beauty opens with the announcement of a new pope. 23 cardinals have spent five days enclosed in the conclave, voting. Rodrigo Borgia, long-standing Papal Vice Chancellor has always been an unlikely contender for pope due to his Spanish blood. What Borgia is a main player in, however, is bribery and manipulation and knowing who to align himself with at which moment and the moment has come – the cardinals are tied in their voting, making Borgia a likely second choice upon which to transfer votes.
And Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, is a popular choice with the people of Rome:
…those with nothing to lose warm to a man who opens his purse and palace at the drop of a feast day…it’s always the streets outside the Borgia palace that are strewn with the freshest flowers, always his windows that unfurl the biggest, brightest tapestries, his fountain that turns water into wine faster and longer, his entertainments that tickle the most jaded palates with firework displays that light the night sky into the dawn.
And Borgia’s appetite for luxury is no less apparent inside his palace where he keeps his beautiful mistress Giulia Farnese, wife of his nephew, Orsino.
Borgia also has four children – Cesare whom Machiavelli based his novel ‘The Prince’ on. As you’d expect, he’s cunning and manipulative. Currently an archbishop – ‘We need a Borgia in the church’ – although desperate to leave and become a soldier. Juan, Rodrigo’s favourite and his legitimate heir (Cesare was conceived while his mother was married to another man). Juan’s marriage, therefore, needs to be a good political match. Jofré, flamboyant and silly. And Lucrezia, whose marriage will also be a political match but whose intelligence will allow her to rise above the domestic and into the political sphere herself.
Blood and Beauty is a fascinating portrayal of a family determined to leave their mark on the world. Dunant succeeds in making the main characters fully rounded rather than the caricatures history seems to have left us with and she’s not afraid to question some of the perceived ‘truths’ about the family. The novel looks at both the personal – the relationships between the siblings and their father – and the political – the maneuvering that takes place to allow the Borgia’s to maintain their hold on Rome – and how these two things are not mutually exclusive, largely through the decisions about who the siblings will marry. By moving the narrative viewpoint between Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia, we get a clear understanding about how the main players feel about the decisions made and a different viewpoint to that we might previously have held about the Borgias.
Any Cop?: If you like historical fiction or anything with a political basis, you’ll like this. Dunant says there’ll be a sequel and I’ll certainly be in the queue to read it.