In the Name of the Family: Sarah Dunant, Lucrezia Borgia and Niccolo Machiavelli

The long wait for the sequel to Blood and Beauty is finally over, and oh my goodness, the wait was worth it.  In the Name of the Family delivers in spades on the promises at the end of the last book  for more searching into the motivations that drove the actions of Rodrigo  (Pope Alexander III), his brilliant but erratic son Cesare, and the much maligned  but superbly vindicated Lucrezia Borgia. Dunant tells us through her title , ‘In the Name of the Family’ what she sees as the key motive informing the choices of her protagonists. ‘In the Name of the Family’ suggests a sense of obligation, of loyalty, of honour  informing the actions and decisions made by the three Borgia, the Father, the son and the daughter. It also evokes an ungodly sense of an anti-trinity; it evokes Alexander III as the anti-Christ of his generation, and condemns Cesare and Lucrezia as devil and whore. In essence, Dunant, the superb word smith and consummate researcher, suggests with infinite subtlety and nuance through the title of her book alone, what lies at the core of her latest book, the struggle between ambition and delusion, integrity and corruption, that has shaped so much of the literature on this Renaissance dynasty.

Few subjects will divide opinions more than  a study of the Borgia Family, and one Renaissance contemporary who felt this pull and push more acutely than most was none other than the author of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli.In the book, Machiavelli becomes an observer and a foil to another bystander and chronicler of Borgia actions, Johann Burchard, Alexander III’s Master of Ceremonies and as such, the right hand man of Rodrigo Borgia during his time as pope, and after his death, in charge of his obsequies. Burchard is the author of the Liber Notarum, the record he made of the protocol surrounding key papal ceremonies that effectively established a  blueprint for the ceremonies of the Renaissance Papacy, but the Liber does more than that, it also acted as a quasi-official account of the papal court at the end of the fifteenth century and is a crucially important source for the Papacy of Rodrigo Borgia. Burchard also kept a more private diary, again including references to the Borgia. Where Burchard is the observer of the actions of the Father, Machiavelli is the chronicler of the military exploits of the son, Cesare, and Dunant plays with the opinions and observations of both men to offer ‘windows into the souls’ of the two Borgia men. Of course, the stage for the two Borgia men is the public stage of politics; Lucrezia’s stage is the female, domestic sphere and her observers are fellow women. As ever, Dunant’s skill in placing Renaissance Women in the social framework of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries remains unrivalled.

In the Name of the Family  is Dunant’s 5th book that is set in late fifteenth -century Italy, and all of these books have been exceptional pieces of writing with regards to her treatment of women. The best of her writing for In the Name of the Family is focused on another exceptional portrayal of a remarkable Renaissance woman, Lucrezia Borgia. Of course, Lucrezia as a woman of her time, has little real agency in comparison to the power wielded by her brother, or the wealth disseminated by her father, but Lucrezia’s legacy is family. It seems almost ironic that all of Rodrigo Borgia’s actions, as well as those of his son Cesare, were done ‘In the Name of the Family’ yet Lucrezia is the only one who builds family, who becomes a mother, rears children, builds a partnership with her third husband Alfonso d’Este that outlives any of the actions of their own fathers (and brothers). It is  Lucrezia who makes ‘In the Name of the Family’  her motto, but in her case her sense of family  speaks of magnificence and public duty, it suggests Aristotelian notions of integrity and honour and respect, earned through personal sacrifices that have purified and strengthened, rather than corrupted and twisted her.

There is just so much to like and far be it from me to introduce plot spoilers, but Dunant’s depiction of the Convent of Corpus Domini recalls Santa Caterina in Sacred Hearts; then there is the correlation between physical disease and moral corruption that gradually but inevitably fragments one of her characters. There are wonderful scenes describing such works of art as Piero fella Francesca’s magnificent Uffizi Diptych and which evoke the beauty and serenity of the Ducal palace at Urbino. The cameo appearances depicting Isabella d’Este are glorious; Pietro Bembo shines. There is…. well, I won’t say any more. In the Name of the Family is not a book to be described in a blogpost,it’s a book that needs picking up and reading. I turned back to the beginning for a second read the moment I had finished it the first time round. Says it all, right?

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