Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wednesday, June 19, 2013: Maximum Shelf: Blood & Beauty

Random House: Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant

Random House: Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

Random House: Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

Random House: Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

Blood and Beauty: The Borgias

by Sarah Dunant

For those with even a passing knowledge of history, the name Borgia conjures a variety of images: corruption, adultery, bribery, debauchery, poisoning, simony... in short, the kind of juicy, gossipy details that give tabloids a vast audience and novels a place atop bestseller lists. For those new to these notorious characters, Showtime's popular series The Borgias has filled in some of the gaps with its colorful, salacious and over-the-top rendition of Rome's "original crime family." Television, however, isn't the only place this infamous family has been appearing. Still capturing the imagination after more than half a millennium, the Borgias have been the subject of numerous recent books, several including new scholarship to provide a more nuanced view of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and his powerful brood. Easily the most appealing and addictive of these reads is Sarah Dunant's Blood and Beauty, a meticulously researched and beautifully written novel that not only re-creates the late 15th-century Vatican in exquisite detail, but explores the psychological and spiritual landscape of its inhabitants with extraordinary depth and subtlety.

The story begins in the summer of 1492 (the same year "Columbus sailed the ocean blue" to discover the New World) with the death of Pope Innocent VIII. Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, a Spanish "outsider" who has been plotting and biding his time for years, manages, through manipulation, bribery and threats, to get himself elected as the new pope. Dunant expertly re-creates the sweaty backroom deals and wrangling, offering immediate insight into the new pope's character: "Tradition calls for only a single word. 'Volo.' 'I want.' But instead this big man, fine-schooled in politics and subterfuge, leaps up from his seat, brandishing both his fists high in the air, a prize fighter with his greatest opponent at his feet. 'Yes! Yes. I am the Pope...' And he lets out a great guffaw of childish delight."

Fist pumping wasn't the only way Borgia bucked papal tradition. He'd maintained a long-term illicit relationship with Vanozza dei Cattanei, with whom he had four children--Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Jofré--and, upon being elected pope, promptly installed his offspring in the Vatican. Vanozza was given other accommodations, but not for propriety's sake; the 61-year-old pope moved in mistress #2, the exquisite Giulia Farnese (Dunant's description of Farnese's legendary net of golden hair is, alone, worth the price of the book), aged 18, with whom he later fathered yet another son. Borgia was unabashed in his adoration of his children, for whom he had great political aspirations. He made Juan the commander of the papal army, Cesare a cardinal (who, a fighter at heart, later became the first man to ever resign the position), and arranged a variety of strategic marriages for Lucrezia--all in an attempt to bring the warring city-states of Italy under papal control.

The basic outlines of the story alone are enough for a captivating tale, but Dunant's ability to seamlessly blend historical facts with their emotional and psychological underpinnings is what lifts Blood and Beauty to another level. For example, she offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives and psyches of the Borgia women, especially Lucrezia. Dunant's Lucrezia is complicated, intelligent, beautiful and controlled by the men who adore her, most notably her father and brother Cesare (who, virulently jealous and a bit too affectionate toward her, has no problem bumping off his sister's lovers). In a way, the Borgias were the ultimate hot-blooded dysfunctional family, and Dunant captures their passion and infighting as vividly as she does their relentless quest for power. She also incorporates much of the new scholarship on the Borgias; while portraying the bitter rivalry between Juan and Cesare with great depth, she excludes Cesare as the perpetrator of his brother's murder. There are details here that are largely missing from other accounts of the Borgias; most fascinating perhaps, the role that syphilis (a new and confounding scourge of the time) played in the lives of those afflicted with it, especially Cesare Borgia.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dunant places the Borgias in context. While they may have set the gold standard for corruption and greed, they were very much of their time. Dunant is careful to illustrate how much of the Borgia infamy was the product of vicious and often completely fabricated gossip by their enemies. And while it is true that the Borgias gave their foes plenty of ammunition, their reputation was disproportionate to their reality. Dunant works all of this into her story with such grace it appears absolutely effortless. The result is an engrossing and wildly entertaining novel that has the added (and rare) benefit of being very smart. --Debra Ginsberg

Random House, $27, hardcover, 9781400069293, July 16, 2013

Random House: Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant: Utterly Seduced by the Past

photo: Charlie Hopkinson

Sarah Dunant is the author of the international bestsellers The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan and Sacred Hearts, which have received major acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, and now, Blood and Beauty. Her earlier novels include three Hannah Wolfe crime thrillers, as well as Snowstorms in a Hot Climate, Transgressions and Mapping the Edge. All these titles are available from Random House. Dunant has two daughters and lives in London and Florence.

Blood and Beauty is so well written that it appears effortless, but many readers may be unaware of just how much research and inspiration goes into crafting quality historical fiction. Can you share a little of your process?

Ah--this is a very interesting question. Because of course if people were aware of the effort that a book takes, then the final experience--reading it--wouldn't be working for them.

But you're right. The easier the read, the more work has been done. And I think that is particularly true of writing within history. Because the more truthful and accurate you are to the actual experience of the Borgia history--and by that I don't just mean what happened, but the larger, deeper world and culture that explains why those things happened--the more authentic and rich you can make the journey--the time travel--for your reader. But of course getting it "right" takes a huge amount of research and time.

Having said that, the work is also wonderful. Because it is the time when I get happily lost in history. I find it so exciting as the picture of the past starts to deepen, as the more I read I start making connections, feeling the characters move and grow like animated sculpture coming out of a block of marble.

My process is decidedly pre-technological. I sit for months in libraries with notebooks and work my way through stacks of research books covering everything, from politics to herbs, literature to music, weapons of war to theology, education and medicine--anything from the period that I can lay my hands on. Gradually I fill up six or seven notebooks with facts, quotes, images, thoughts and ideas. Then as the story (for the story is always in there) starts to blossom, I can adorn it with all manner of truths and accuracies that you, the reader, don't notice, but I do. It gives me not just all the colors and shades of paint I need for the canvas I am painting, but also the confidence to apply them. Then when I can sit no longer at a desk, I go travelling. I visit the places to get a feel of them. In the case of Blood and Beauty, there is a huge amount left, albeit some of it ruined or changed by history: Cesare's campaigns can be followed, town to town, fortress to fortress, across Northeastern Italy and the Borgia apartments, and though they are now full of bad contemporary religious art (the Vatican is embarrassed by the family) they are pulsating with atmosphere.

But the final pleasure is when the book is out and people say, "Oh, that bit when..."--whatever it is that has caught their imagination--"how did you think of that?" And it is always something that was there in history. But it has gone through the alchemy of fiction so that it feels juicy with atmosphere and color, rather than dry fact. That is my job. And how I love it. However much effort it takes.

Cesare Borgia

What was the most surprising fact or aspect of the Borgias that you discovered in the course of your research for this novel? 

If I am truthful it was about a disease. I'd had an inkling during the writing of Birth of Venus that the arrival of sexual plague, which would be later known as syphilis, was a powerful moment in Italian history. But it was only when I got my teeth into the Borgias, when I watched an invading army take over Naples and loiter there having sex with the local prostitutes, and realized that some of those soldiers were back from the New World with Columbus and had contracted and carried this new disease home with them that I understood just what an extraordinary history this was. And then Cesare gets infected.... And oh, what a horror! The agony, the shame and the public disfigurement. It was perfect; a literal metaphor for the world of renaissance corruption. I think that was the moment when I knew the book was going to be richer and deeper than just a story of fantastic events. I wrote a big article about this for a paper in London. The link is here, should you want to know more.

There seems to be renewed interest in all things Borgia of late. To what do you attribute this fascination?

In an era when we are obsessed by celebrity, it was inevitable that history would start to provide us with new ones. And once we had squeezed the Tudors dry, the Borgias stand out as perfect fodder. They have all the ingredients: glamour, beauty, tribal loyalty, sexual misdemeanor, power, corruption and high-octane emotional drama. The trick is to sort out what is fact and what has grown up from layers of gossip and slander (just as it is with today's celebrity); to strip it away to get to the truth. Which, as ever, is actually stranger than any fiction you could make up.

Lucretia Borgia

On a related note, what, if any, are the parallels you see between the social and political machinations of the Borgias and today's sociopolitical arena?

Oh, so many. Italy and all of its city states (which I liken in the novel to a bag of spatting cats) are a perfect illustration of how warring political factions operate, the likes of which we have everywhere today. They tell such a modern story--of the lengths people will go to take and keep power, of the way alliances are made kept and broken based on pragmatism rather than idealism. The truth is that modern politics were born in this era. That is why Machiavelli writes The Prince about Cesare Borgia. It is a consummate study of how power works and how it corrupts. And how the end defines the means.

And then there is modern Italy: full of corruption still, with North and South in opposition to each other and a mafia presence based on family loyalties with a fat old charismatic politician, Berlusconi, still managing to control the show by ducking and weaving, and even having "bunga bunga" parties with prostitutes. I see images of Berlusconi and I think of Rodrigo Borgia. Except I rather like Rodrigo better! And then there is the Catholic Church, with its hidden sexual scandals and male dominated power structure. I mean it is Blood and Beauty!! The parallels are so powerful they make your eyes water.

But the other thing that is amazingly modern is the subversive power of gossip and the media. There was no direct media at the time of the Borgias, but there was a network of diplomacy by which gossip flourished and flowed through the pens of ambassadors and chroniclers. So you can trace slander against the Borgias emerging from one conversation and then sliding like slime into the public domain. Think of all the celebrity gossip you have ever read. How the more shocking it is, the more you remember it. Think about the fact that later you may find out it wasn't true--just selling newspapers of fodder for celebrity TV channels--but that once said it cannot be unsaid. Well, the Borgias' history was like that. Mud sticks. I am not saying they weren't at times brutal and corrupt. They were. But then so were the times in which they lived. My job is to allow you to put them in context. To enjoy the drama, yes, but also see through the propaganda.

As an author who has written both contemporary and historical fiction, do you find one genre more challenging (and, conversely, rewarding) than the other?

There is no contest here. I have been utterly seduced by the past: the imaginative challenge of sinking deep into history and re-creating an essentially alien wild world that the reader can see, touch, smell, hear, sink into and experience. It is a bit like writing good science fiction backwards: everything in the world you create has to make sense. With the added wonder--if you do your research--that it was true.

And then, of course, you can say so many things about the present (I hope my answers above have shown that). But you can say it subtly, so that it enters the imagination of the reader on a different level. While I suppose one should never say never, I cannot imagine ever wanting to write a novel set in the present again. Everything I want to say about human behavior, sexuality, power, politics and the endless emotional complexity of being alive--all of it can be said through the past. And while I am saying it, my head is busting with facts, places, ideas and an ever-growing cast of outrageous characters. Even when I am in despair that I cannot do them justice, I am in awe of their presence. --Debra Ginsberg

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