Blood & Beauty: The Borgias
Sarah Dunant, 2013
With an exceptional talent for breathing life into history, Sarah Dunant turns her discerning eye to one of the world’s most intriguing and infamous families—the Borgias—in an engrossing work of literary fiction.
By the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church.
When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: He is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family—in particular, his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia—in order to succeed.
Cesare, with a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest—though increasingly unstable—weapon. Later immortalized in Machiavelli’s The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, hers is a journey through three marriages, and from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.
Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood & Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of history itself: compelling, complex and relentless. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—August 8, 1950
• Where—London, England, UK
• Education—B.A., Cambridge University
• Awards—Silver Dagger Award for Crime Fiction
• Currently—lives in London, England
Sarah Dunant is a writer, broadcaster and critic. She was a founding vice patron of the Orange Prize for women's fiction, sits on the editorial board of the Royal Academy magazine, and reviews for the Times, Guardian, and Independent on Sunday. She teaches creative writing at The Faber Academy in London and biennially at Washington University in St. Louis in its Renaissance studies course. She is also a creative writing fellow at Oxford Brookes University. She has two daughters and lives in London and Florence.
Dunant was born in London. She attended Godolphin and Latymer School and studied history at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she was heavily involved in theatre and the Footlights review. After a brief spell working for the BBC she spent much of her twenties traveling (Japan, India, Asia and Central and South America) before starting to write. Her first two novels, along with a BBC television series, were written with a friend. After this she went solo.
Since then she has written ten novels, three screenplays and edited two books of essays. She has worked in television and radio as a producer and presenter: most notably for BBC Television where for seven years (1989–1996) she presented the live nightly culture programme The Late Show. After that she presented the BBC Radio 3 radio programme Night Waves.
Dunant's work ranges over a number of genres and eras. Her narratives are hard to categorise due to their inventive treatment of time and space, and a favoured device of hers is to run two or more plot strands concurrently, as she does in Mapping the Edge. A common concern running through her work is women's perceptions and points of view, with other themes included.
Her first eight novels were broadly written within a thriller form. Their setting was contemporary and allowed her to explore such themes such as the drug trade, surrogacy, terrorism, animals rights, cosmetic surgery and sexual violence.
Then in 2000 an extended visit to Florence rekindled her first love: History. The novels which followed—The Birth of Venus (2003), In the Company of the Courtesan (2006), and Sacred Hearts (2009) were extensively researched historical explorations of what it was like to be a woman within the Italian Renaissance. The trilogy looked at marriage, the culture of courtesans and the life of cloistered nuns. They were all international best sellers and were translated into over 30 languages.
Her 2013 novel Blood & Beauty centers on a depiction of Italy's Borgia dynasty. It sets out to offer a historically accurate vision of a family who have been much maligned by history. Dunant states in her afterword that she plans to write a second, concluding novel, about the family. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/22/2013.)
In Blood & Beauty, Dunant follows the path set by Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Just as Mantel humanized and, to an extent, rehabilitated the brilliant, villainous Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, Dunant transforms the blackhearted Borgias and the conniving courtiers and cardinals of Renaissance Europe into fully rounded characters, brimming with life and lust.... Dunant illuminates the darkened narrative of the Borgia record, reviving stained glass with fresh light, refreshing the brilliance of the gold and blue panes history has marred without dulling the blood-red that glows everywhere around them.”
Liesl Schillinger - New York Times Book Review
[Dunant’s] depiction of passionate people obsessed by the idea of a dynasty that will outlive them is not only intelligent and restrained but also lit by an affecting streak of lyricism. . . . Like Hilary Mantel with her Cromwell trilogy, Dunant has scaled new heights by refashioning mythic figures according to contemporary literary taste. This intellectually satisfying historical saga, which offers blood and beauty certainly, but brains too, is surely the best thing she has done to date.”
Hugely enjoyable....an old-fashioned rollercoaster of a story.... [Dunant] triumphs, like all good novelists...in a deft, shrewd, precise use of killer detail.
[Dunant] is in her element.... She brings fifteenth-century Italian cities vividly alive.... [Blood & Beauty] is an intelligent and passionate book that will no doubt thrill Borgia-lovers.”
Sunday Times (UK)
British author Sarah Dunant is the reigning queen of the historical novel set in Renaissance Italy.... This novel will be most rewarding for those with a keen taste for history and a willingness to stick with a lengthy story with no real heroes but plenty of fascinating and really bad behavior.
Another achievement for Dunant is her ability to re-imagine history. Although the Borgias are often called the most notorious family in Italian Renaissance . . . Dunant manages to show different facets of their personalities. If history has left some blanks in this regard, Dunant fills them. The members of this close-knit family emerge as dynamic characters, flawed but sympathetic, filled with fear and longing, and believable.”
A brilliant portrait of a family whose blood runs ‘thick with ambition and determination’ . . . The Machiavellian atmosphere—hedonism, lust, political intrigue—is magnetic. With so much drama, readers won’t want the era of Borgia rule to end. (Four stars.)"
Perfect for readers who love danger, romance and lots of palace intrigue, Blood & Beauty is a triumph on an epic scale. Dunant takes us deep into this gorgeous but often deadly world, and we never want to leave.
[A] highly dramatic period in papal, Italian, and even European history as the Borgia family—the pope and his bastard children, two sons and one daughter, unhidden as such—extend their influence well beyond the confines of ecclesiastical matters.... For those who find Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Tudor novels too deep and demanding, Dunant offers less rigorous, more comfortable historical fiction. —Brad Hooper
(Starred review.) The big, bad Borgia dynasty undergoes modern reconsideration in [Sarah Dunant’s] epic new biofiction.... Dunant’s biggest and best work to date, this intelligently readable account of formative events and monster players has Hilary Mantel–era quality best-seller stamped all over it.
1. Discuss the novel’s title, Blood and Beauty. Why do you think the author selected this title?
2. Sarah Dunant has trained as a historian and says that it is very important for her to get the facts right for the story to work. When you are reading the novel does it matter to you one way or another if it is “true” to history? Or is the fact that it is a good story more important?
3. How much do you think Lucrezia changes from the beginning of the novel to the end? Do you think she ultimately lost her love for—and her faith in—her family? Do you feel she truly found herself by the end of the book?
4. Lucrezia and Cesare have a very fraught relationship. At one point, Cesare comments: “[Lucrezia] is struggling to hate me as much as she loves me.” (322) Do you believe there is ever a time when they truly hate each other? Do you think Cesare acts out of love for Lucrezia—that he actually believes he is serving her best interests—or that he uses loving her as an excuse to carry out his own agenda? Do you think he might’ve been a better politicial if he could’ve let his feelings for her go?
5. Do you believe it’s true that in the Borgia world, kindness was equated with weakness? Why or why not?
6. Michelotto, Cesare’s trusted guard, is one of the most enigmatic characters in the book. He happily kills on command, but reaps no clearly visible benefit. What do you think his motivation was? Do you think he simply enjoyed being a part of each move on Cesare’s chessboard?
7. There are various examples of marriage, romance and sexual relationships in this novel. Based on your reading, what do you make of the attitudes about marriage during this time? What about attitudes regarding fidelity, sex and love? Do you think a woman’s main source of power at this time came from how well she could manipulate her marriage (or sexual relationship) to her own advantage?
8. At one point Cesare says to Jofre, “But remember. You have to know when to step out of the way, before you sink the dagger into the bull’s neck.” (214) This is a very interesting statement, given that the bull is the Borgia family symbol. Do you think in some ways, Cesare was acting against his family members (especially his father) under the guise of furthering the Borgia name? That not being his father’s favored child made him wish to take revenge as much as it made him want to win approval?
9. Do you believe it was Cesare who arranged for Juan’s death? Why or why not?
10. Sancia and Lucrezia were both in somewhat similar situations (thrust into marriages based foremost on the political advantages the matches offered their families), yet their reactions to their circumstances were quite different. Do you think this strengthens or weakens their bond? Consider also that both women fell for the other’s brother in your discussion.
11. In your opinion, who was the true master in the political maneuverings of the Borgia family, Rodrigo or Cesare? Why?
12. How do you think each member of the Borgia family viewed God? For a family whose power came from the Church, were you surprised by their seeming lack of piety? Or do you think they truly believed God was behind them in their goal to unite Italy under their banner?
13. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? Did it turn out as you expected? Were you satisfied?
14. At the close of the novel, Burchard reflects, “ ‘The Pope ran from window to window to see her. Because he misses his daughter so.’ That is what those who saw it will say about the moment . . .” (500) Do you think that much of what we consider historical fact has been shaped by impressions, by gossip, by what people believed—and said—about a particular moment, rather than what was actually true? If so, how accurate do you think our image of the Borgia family is today? And how do you feel differently having read the novel?
15. There has been a great deal written about the Borgias, not to mention television shows, movies and even video games centered around them. What do you think is so fascinating about this particular family and the era in which they lived? Was there anything in the book that surprised you?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)
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