A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias
This is the long-awaited sequel to Sarah Dunant’s wonderful Blood and Beauty, which takes up the story of the Borgias once again in the final years of their dominance in Italy. At the beginning of 1502, it seems that nothing can stand in the way of the family’s influence, which creeps its way across Italy, subduing its rivals with a blend of charm and violence. Charm comes courtesy of Pope Alexander VI’s lovely daughter Lucrezia, who is making her way cross-country to be married to her third husband, Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara, and using her journey as a way to captivate the Papal States with her elegance, grace and sweetness. Violence, predictably, sits in the hands of her dangerous brother Cesare who prowls around the borders of their state, ears pricked for dissent or weakness. And, while this remarkable family strengthens their grip on Italy, a young diplomat in the Florentine Second Chancery follows their progress with quiet admiration.
Of course, the only thing more likely to excite me than a novel purely about the Borgias is one which also features Machiavelli. I spent one heady term at university studying The Prince and The Discourses, and on one blissful evening in Florence I saw his play La Mandragola staged in Renaissance costume in the courtyard of the Bargello. He is one of the most pragmatic and unsentimental of thinkers, both philosopher and historian, and it’s so tantalising to imagine his meetings, as Florentine envoy, with Cesare, who would become the pattern for so much of Machiavelli’s ideal prince. Despite the prominence of his name in the book’s subtitle, Dunant’s Machiavelli is somewhat self-effacing, with far fewer appearances than his colourful subjects of study; but, when he does appear, he is perfectly characterised. Dunant has clearly not only read his works, but feels affection for this small, quiet, improbably idealistic man, whose forthright political sentiments sat so oddly alongside a robust bawdy humour. Her Machiavelli is just as I’d always imagined him: deeply impressed by Cesare’s swashbuckling career, yet always holding himself back from the brink of pure hero-worship. For Machiavelli may not have the vigour necessary to take cities, but he has a foresight that Cesare himself lacks, for all his brilliance.
In the last book, I found it all too easy to fall for Dunant’s Cesare, but it’s harder here. There’s still much to admire in this ‘dark prince‘, who wears a black mask to hide his pox scars and who receives Machiavelli with sublime arrogance, sprawled in a chair at midnight in a room lit by candlelight. But Dunant shows us a man who’s dangerously close to being convinced by his own legend. Cesare becomes more a force of nature than a man, slivering off his own humanity as he hones himself closer to an essence of subjugation and revenge. Shadowed by his scarred lieutenant Michelotto, he has forgotten how to love anyone except his sister, and his only true pleasure now is in killing his enemies and outmaneuvering those foolish enough to be his rivals. As he becomes ever more reckless, the world marvels at the course he blazes across the sky – but his doctor Torella begins to worry. Could Cesare’s vicious mood swings signify that his French pox (syphilis, to you and me) has returned and is now affecting not the body, but the mind?
While Cesare keeps the rulers of Central Italy hopping around like oil on a skillet, Lucrezia settles into her new role as Duchess of Ferrara (her husband is only Duchess-Elect, but as her mother-in-law died some years ago, she has no competitor). While she swiftly wins the love of her people, her new family is harder to convince: her miserly father-in-law, Duke Ercole d’Este, resents having to take in the Pope’s bastard daughter; her sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este, crafts a whole series of catty veiled insults; and even her husband Alfonso seems more interested in his cannon foundries than his new wife’s bed. Lucrezia has a battle to fight, one that will be made harder as her brother’s armies despoil the Romagna and her family name becomes ever more tainted with slaughter. And, back in Rome, Pope Alexander VI sits at the heart of the family’s web, burning with pride in his two children and dreaming of a Borgia state that will dominate Italy forever.
To write about Florence and Rome in the first four years of the 16th century is to enter a quagmire of historical fiction, where only a few firm paths prevent authors from falling into a swamp of self-indulgence. Dunant very admirably resists the urge to clutter her novel with ‘celebrity’ cameos. We have mention of Michelangelo, certainly, but we never meet him; Leonardo, likewise, is mentioned in an offhand fashion as an engineer, but he’s off somewhere else in the Papal States (‘with his pouty young catamite trailing behind him‘: Salaì is, once again, damned by history). There isn’t even a mention of Mantegna, who was Isabella d’Este’s court painter. And this is all good. I always bristle when authors shoehorn in cameos for the sake of it, and Dunant’s novel feels the stronger for focusing on a core of characters in each location.
This is another thoroughly enjoyable book on the Borgias, full of scandal, plots and broken promises. And yet its key strength is in Dunant’s ability to humanise her characters, no matter how shocking their actions. Although their names have such resonance for the modern reader, her Lucrezia is simply a young woman trying to find her way in a new family; her Cesare and Machiavelli simply two men meeting in a room, one of whom dreams of making history, the other of writing it. This thoughtful approach underpins the more dramatic moments of the book, making it a gem of a read. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Blood and Beauty, perhaps, but it’s still a very strong example of Renaissance historical fiction. Highly recommended, of course, for anyone who loved the earlier book, though it stands perfectly well alone.
Last in the series – Blood and Beauty