Speaking as someone who read over 80 books last year, I can confidently say that Blood & Beauty was one of my favourites of 2013.
The story opens as Rodrigo Borgia is about to be selected as Pope, in a corrupt and filthy Vatican City. The Borgias are a scheming, ambitious and immoral lot, but as Dunant makes clear, they are not alone.
Rodrigo Borgia, now Pope Alexander VI, may have four children and a mistress, but so do many cardinals. Many of them also have syphilis – even harder to hide than an illegitimate child, thanks to the “purple flowers” that eventually begin to adorn their faces.
The Pope openly adores his children, adding a touch of humour to the story – that they shouldn’t exist. This causes problems for Johannes Burchardt, the fastidious Master of Ceremonies, who is forced to plan a huge ceremonial wedding for the Pope’s daughter without precedent.
Alexander has fond memories of Vanozza, his children’s mother, but his affections have turned to his new “ripe” young mistress, Giulia Farnese, who lives with his daughter Lucrezia. Women are often described by their fertility here – Lucrezia is “ripening”, and Giulia is “ready to drop more fruit.”
Sarah Dunant cleverly blends historical fiction with historical fact – the final pages make clear that she has read mountains on the subject, but that this is her own personal interpretation. She is clearly a Lucrezia sympathiser, portraying her as an innocent young girl and initially a mere pawn in her brother and father’s political machinations.
Cesare Borgia on the other hand is ruthless, fiercely ambitious and disturbingly protective of his sister, ceaselessly planning wars before descending into a syphilitic melancholy.
The characters are wonderfully fleshed-out, effortlessly coming to life. However, it is the small details, highlighting the ridiculousness and the unbelievable, which make the book such a joy to read.
Nearly 550 pages long, this is only half of the story, and I can’t wait for the second instalment that Dunant is reportedly writing. Recommended to anybody who enjoys historical fiction. Or reading for that matter.
Title image A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia by John Collier.