Was there ever a more notorious family than the Borgias? Using tactics more rotten than the corpses clogging the Tiber, Rodrigo Borgia thrusts his way to supremacy, becoming Pope Alexander VI and one of the most powerful men on earth. By 1502, Alexander’s bastard son Cesare is commander of an army, his daughter Lucrezia a plumptious piece of meat on the marriage market. The trio encapsulate the “violent pleasures” of the Italian Renaissance; but is there any truth to the whispers of incest, murder and madness, or have the facts been embellished as heavily as Lucrezia’s pearl and diamond-studded gowns?
This is the intriguing territory explored in Sarah Dunant’s new novel In the Name of the Family, the sequel to 2013’s Blood and Beauty. The exploits of lusty, capricious Alexander – “this monster churchman ripe with corruption” – and restless, ruthless Cesare – “a bastard marauding philistine” – are vibrant and arresting, but it is Lucrezia’s story which best reveals these sensual, dangerous times.
Lucrezia may wear dazzling dresses, but she is scrutinized by “spies from all over the country, their mission to note her every gesture and to price each piece of jewellery, every yard of cloth.” She has lost the love of her life through her brother’s brutal machinations, forced to leave her son in Rome as she travels to marry a stranger. The upkeep of her lucrative appearance is “hard work; all the plucking, perfuming, creaming, corseting, lacing, powdering…” Sex is perfunctory, its grotty realities apparent as she mops the “leftover liquid” from her body, noting how “women can bruise on the inside as well as out.”
And yet, her mental strength is a source of wonder, her courtly guile likened to warcraft: “conquering city after city with charm rather than cannon.” After wounding trysts with her new husband, Lucrezia is stoic: “there is much to celebrate.” She fights for every ducat of her dowry, knows her worth as the vessel of male heirs, and is adamant in her desire “to embrace gaiety” in the face of sickness and grief. In an era obsessed with women’s wickedness, from Eve to pox-bearing prostitutes, has history slandered Lucrezia?
Meanwhile, Pope Alexander, a rapacious “bear of a man”, is “in love with women, wealth, orange blossom and the taste of sardines”. He is arrogant, believing himself impervious to a tempest as he stalks his ship’s deck, singing. He has ordered countless assassinations, is changeable as a sprite, but he is also funny and theatrical, embracing life with every atom of his being.
As for Cesare, seen through the eyes of Machiavelli, iconic inventor of “Realpolitik”, he seems to care for nothing but war and sex. Cesare’s mercurial nature can spill over into galling cruelty. He is treacherous and animalistic, laughing, alongside his psychotic comrade Michelotto, as they butcher innocents. His sexual jealousy towards his sister – the source of those rumours of Borgia incest – can erupt into acts of shocking barbarism.
Dunant’s poetic style raises the novel above titillating gossip, and her striking imagery renders it as rich as a Pinturicchio fresco, whether describing frosty ground cracking “like small animal bones” or eels circling a fisherman’s wrist like a “living bracelet of snakes”. This gripping, sumptuous book shows that, excessive and ferocious as they doubtless were, the Borgias were truly something.
In the Name of the Family is published by Virago, £16.99