As cliché would have it, the saving grace of most villains in history is that they loved their families. In the case of the power-crazed Renaissance Italian Borgias, this quality was possibly taken to an extreme. Father Rodrigo and son Cesare might have loved daughter Lucrezia a little too well.
The facts are not clear, but in the new historical novel from bestselling British writer Sarah Dunant, sensationalism and accusations of incest are tamped down. Although far from sanitized, this portrait of the Borgias makes use of modern research, which Dunant describes as “more scrupulous and discriminating.” Her Borgias are still plenty venal. Opponents are routinely disposed of; even a beloved husband of one of the siblings is murdered in his bed. Yet this is a villainous family that invites consideration, not just condemnation.
Dunant’s Rodrigo Borgia, the Spanish cardinal who ascends to become Pope Alexander VI in 1492 and seize a long-anticipated opportunity to grasp power across Europe, is not the saturnine malefactor familiar from the Showtime television series. Forget Jeremy Irons. Think James Gandolfini with a degree in theology. This Alexander is larger-than-life not just in his power-grabbing but in his physical appetites too. Rodrigo enjoys the pleasures of the flesh, including women: he loves his ex-wife, his current mistress (who happens to be married to his cousin’s son), and of course his daughter as well. He is avuncular, affectionate, compelling — deeply manipulative, naturally, but undeniably charismatic.
Dunant’s portraiture in this epic — the first of two volumes she will devote to the Borgias — is one of its strengths. Always notably effective in her depiction of women, she develops Lucrezia from an innocent teenage romantic into a battle-hardened player of her father’s power games. All four of Rodrigo’s children are pawns on his political chessboard, used to forge important strategic allegiances, but Lucrezia suffers most as she comes to understand the destiny of her blood line.
Cesare, the shrewdest of Rodrigo’s brood, but with a “strange, cold heart,” is the closest to being a hissable villain. In a career that switches from church to army as opportunity dictates, his unscrupulousness and appetite for influence seem to know no bounds. Yet the seeds of his destruction are developing quietly and relentlessly within his body. If any megalomaniac ever deserved syphilis, that would be Cesare.
The Borgias’ story — set mainly in Rome during a seismic period of history in which they played a significant role — is almost indecently rich material for any writer but Dunant’s cool grasp of it is impressive. Her 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. Marriages, wars, feasts and murders stud the story like cloves in a baked ham. There’s a cast of characters large enough to fill the stage at the Metropolitan Opera, but Dunant, who has expanded her historical skills over her last three novels, exerts the sort of authority that allows the reader to relax, accept that there is no over-arching plot to the novel, and enjoy instead the ebb and flow of a luxurious historical tableau vivant.
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.
Elsbeth Lindner is a writer in New York.