I like Sarah Dunant’s writing very much, for its lucidity, sense of colour and also her careful attention to historical detail which grounds her characters in a believable and three- dimensional world. In Blood and Beauty, as has been remarked on by a number of reviewers (see for example Christobel Kent, 2 May 2013, The Guardian; Lucy Scholes, 11 June 2013, The Independent ;Liesl Schillinger, 5 July 2013, New York Times ) this really allows her to put her formidable skills as a writer to the test. Where Mantel is rethinking Thomas Cromwell, Dunant has tackled a Renaissance woman (in keeping with her earlier novels, The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan ,Sacred Hearts) but possibly the most ‘infamous’ of them all, Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Rodrigo Borgia ( Pope Alexander VI), sister to Ceasare Borgia, famously lascivious, multi- husbanded, murderous, incestous, licentious- you name it, she has done it. Allegedly.
Blood and Beauty is the first part of a projected two-part mini series following the life of Lucrezia Borgia; the first installement focuses very much on the earlier part of Lucrezia Borgia’s life and especially on events situated either in the heart of the Papal Court itself or within its orbit, and it closes with the death of Pope Alexander VI, and Lucrezia leaving this familiar environment for the journey to her new home, the Duchy of Ferrara, where she remained until her death following gynaecological complications in 1520. The parallels between Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy and Dunant’s Borgia Diptych could be laboured endlessly, but suffice it to say that both authors excel at what marks out the great historical noveliest: both are meticulous in putting down the historical, documented events as the bones of the narrative, and flesh out the narrative by either filling in the gaps that lie in between or by taking the focus away from a well-documented event (the election of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia) and imagining the repercussions on this event on somebody else. Both novelists excel at this, bringing prodigious amounts of knowledge and boundless empathy and imagination to their task. End of Wolf Hall digression, and I promise, the last time that I shall make this connection.
So, who was Lucrezia Borgia? She was the only daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexnader VI, and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei, and the youngest but one of their four children, the other three being Cesare, Giovanni and Gioffre Borgia. Lucrezia was born at Subiaco, near Rome in 1480, and really, there is not much known about either her early life or that of her brothers; we certainly dont know what she looked like beyond a contemporary description that speaks of blond hair, a fair compexion and a graceful figure (which boild down to not much else beyond saying she was ‘pretty’) and the suggestion that Lucrezia was the model for the figure of St. Catherine of Alexandria in Punturrichio’s frescoes for the Borgia Apartment in the Vatican (1494/5). Documented facts about her attest to two broken engagemenst aged 11 to two minor Spanish noblemen, Don Cherubino Joan de Centelles and Don Gaspare Aversa , which were annulled when her father’s elevation to Pope in 1492 massively increased Lucrezia’s value as a bride. Her new bridegroom was Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro, whom she married in June 1493. Lucrezia was barely 13 at the time, and the marriage was a clear political union that signalled an alliance between the Borgia pope and the dominant Northern Italian dynasty, the Sforza. But, the volatile political developments in 1490s Italy soon rendered a Borgia- Sforza alliance superfluous, which made Lucrezia’s marriage superfluous and politically wasteful. So, the marriage was quickly annulled on grounds on not having been consummated (not a problem for the Pope to issue such an edict, especially with a bride aged just 13 and a husband heavily leant on), and in 1498 Lucrezia acquired a second husband in Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie while her younger brother Gioffre married Alfonso’s sister Sancha of Aragon. This double Borgia- Aragon union cemented Papal interests in Naples. It seems though that once again, shifting political alliances intruded that made a Borgia- Aragon alliance undesirable and when this second marriage could not be annulled by papal edict, another solution presented itself, namely the murder of the unwanted husband. Responsibility for the murder is usually ascribed to Lucrezia’s eldest brother, Cesare.
With Lucrezia widowed at 22, she remained a valuable diplomatic asset for her family and was promptly re- married (for the last time!), this time to one of Italy’s most prestigious aristocratic families, the Este of Ferrara. Aged only 39, Lucrezia died in 1519 of gynaecological complications following a miscarriage/still birth, her eighth or possibly ninth pregnancy. The documented facts of Lucrezia’s life therefore tell a tale of two halves, with a tumultuous early life centred on the Papal Court in Rome juxtaposed with a much more settled life as wife and mother in Ferrara. Dunant’s challenge as novelist is to balance these two stages of Lucrezia’s life and to pace her story in a way that breathes life into both parts- and judging by the handling of Blood and Beauty‘s narrative, she does so effortlessly. The sensationalism ascribed to Lucrezia’s biography by writers since the sixteenth century is neutralised by Dunant’s emphasis on the documented facts, and tempered even further through her deft and assured drawing on modern research about gender, and in particular, about the particular value of noble women in building networks, advancing diplomacy and an emphasis on the performance of noble identity through material display. It’s in the passages were the fast and furious pace of the historical narrative gets slowed down by the author to invite reflection and interaction between the characters that the quality of Dunant’s writing shines most clearly. What is also apparent is that she is laying down story lines and sub plots that will mature and resolve themselves in the second part of Blood and Beauty. So, this first instalment while superb in its own right, promises even more for the second part; Dunant will have a freer range as a novelist in the second story because Lucrezia’s 16 years in Ferrara might be punctuated by some references to deaths and births and possible affairs, but it will fall to Dunant to sketch out Lucrezia’s coming of age.