Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Book Review - "Blood & Beauty: The Borgias" by Sarah Dunant

This was the first historical novel about the Italian Renaissance period that I’ve read and, for me, it was undoubtedly one of the most thrillingly dramatic of such genre. Like icing on the cake, I also thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Dunant’s imagery-rich but non-cumbersome style of writing. I’m giving it 4 full stars.

For most European historical fiction lovers, the name “Borgia” is probably quite familiar. For me though, it is a historical name that I first came across while watching a few episodes of the Showtime TV series “The Borgias” several years ago. But the story didn’t even stick with me. While reading the novel, I couldn’t resist jumping over to Wikipedia from time to time to dig out facts relating to certain characters or events. Even so, and always bearing in mind that history is written by the winners (i.e. the enemies of the Borgias after the latter's fall from grace), I find it impossible to make up my mind over what to believe to be the true faces of the two principal characters: Rodrigo Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia. My mind boggles and oscillates between what historians claim to be facts, what the author portrays in the novel, and what has become over the years popular belief. The question that keeps reeling in my brain is: was Rodrigo Borgia a kind and loving father and suave politician on an even keel, whose hand was sometimes forced by circumstances, or was he a power-lusting, lascivious and materialistic glutton, or was he an innately duplicitous being? Another lingering doubt is about his daughter Lucrezia. Was she an innocent and malleable pawn in his father’s and brother’s elaborate political schemes, or was she a hypocritical, materialistic and licentious hedonist, or a bit of both? Perhaps of the principal characters, the painting of the blood-thirsting, vengeful and merciless Cesare Borgia seemed to be most consistent in all the three areas of history, fiction and popular belief.

The author does declare in the Historical Epilogue:

“While Blood & Beauty is unapologetically an act of the imagination, the novel draws heavily on the work of modern historians whose judgment on the Borgias is more scrupulous and discriminating than many in the past.”

“….I have taken the liberty of writing what feels to me to be the psychological truth of the personalities as they have emerged from the research. In this I am no more right – or possibly no more wrong – than anyone else.”

Fair enough. That said, the Renaissance period in Italy, or the parallel époque elsewhere in Europe for that matter, was one marked by ruthless power- and territory-grabbing and rotten-to-the-core corruption and immoral dealings both within and without the realm of Christianity. That those times were the nursery bed for players like the Borgias would render their story almost a natural course of event.

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