Sarah Dunant

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

When Niccolò Machiavelli crossed this bridge every day to work there was no upper story and certainly no tourists. Instead it was a rough cobbled path leading through blood and offal…. This is what he might have seen…

January 1502

His journey takes him down Via Guicciardini on the south side of the city and across the river Arno via the Ponte Vecchio. A maverick winter snowfall has turned into a grimy frost and the ground cracks like small animal bones under his feet. On the bridge fresh carcasses are being unloaded into the butchers’ shops. Through the open shutters he catches glimpses of the river, its surface of the water a silvery apricot under the rising sun. A feral dog streaks across his path, going for a gobbet of offal near the wheel of a cart. It earns him a kick in the ribs for his daring but his jaws remain firmly clenched over the prize. Scavenging opportunist! Stick a feathered hat on him and give him a sword and you’ve got half the country.

Across the bridge, he passes by the side of San Pier Scheraggio church into the open space of the Piazza della Signoria. The great bells from the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore sound out, marking the starting hour of the day and his thoughts move briefly to the cathedral workshop where a Florentine is chiseling into a block of flawed marble, commissioned by the state to produce a great statue of David to be placed on the façade of the cathedral. Nine months he’s been at it with no one allowed near the work, though the leaked gossip talks more of its size than its beauty. It remains to be seen whether it will be powerful enough to shield the city from the Borgia Goliath.

As the last chimes die away, a series of contorted male shrieks rise up from somewhere nearby; a late coupling between the sheets or a few early knife thrusts into a belly? Niccolò smiles. Such are the sounds of his beloved city, the sounds indeed of the whole of Italy.

This extract from In The Name of the Family: A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias



Lucrezia BorgiaImagine history as an enormous pointillist painting, the whole swirling chaos of the past represented through millions of coloured dots. Close to, it makes little sense, but step back and your eye finds shape and meaning, an epic narrative that sets out to explore and explain the journey so far.

Except that for the longest time there was so much missing from it. And the most egregious absence was that of women. Up until as little as sixty/seventy years ago while there were queens, mistresses of kings, a few saints, witches, female revolutionaries and a clutch of heroines – usually nurses or troublemakers – the smell lifting off the paint was predominantly that of male sweat and male aftershave.

Now, thanks to generations of historians and writers (the majority of them women, and I include the work of Virago here) the picture is changing dramatically. It’s far from finished – you could make exactly the same argument from the perspective of race – but we’re getting there.

On this Women’s Day though, I want to highlight a figure that’s been on the canvas for centuries, but a dot so badly painted that she is virtually unrecognisable from the truth.

Her name is Lucrezia Borgia.

You will almost certainly know her by the colourful insults that have dogged her throughout history: wicked, siren lovely, lascivious, incestuous and murderous, with a predilection for poison. Some of that slander started in her life time, then rolled effortlessly on; a novel by Victor Hugo, an opera by Donizetti, sensational films by deservedly forgotten directors, right up to recent television series which painted her as a bright little vixen, pulled inexorably into the arms of her handsome brother.

But for the sake of truth, a beleaguered commodity in this time of Trumped up fabrications, I offer now a more nuanced, though no less extraordinary, story of her life.

Lucrezia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia, was a cardinal and vice chancellor of the church when she was born (the rules demanded celibacy, but word proved blurry when it came to chastity). His only daughter by a long-term mistress, she was adored, educated and protected, but her childhood ended in 1492 when he became pope and the Borgia project of dynasty building began in earnest with her marriage. She was thirteen years old.

By twenty-one she was on to husband number three. Number one lasted only a few years (they needed her for a new alliance), the marriage annulled on the grounds of his impotence, despite the fact that his earlier wife had died in childbirth. In furious revenge he announced that he had “known her an infinity of times and that the pope only wanted her back for himself.” Thus the slander of incest was born and sixteen-year-old Lucrezia became “the greatest whore in Rome.”

Number two was the illegitimate son of the King of Naples. Their union was sweet but violently short. She gave birth to a son and showed herself to be politically capable, acting as governor for two papal towns, even running the business of the Vatican while the pope was away. For a while her life lights up with joy. But Naples falls out of favour and since annulment can’t do the job this time, her jealous, psychopathic brother, Cesare, takes matters into his own hands. Her husband is attacked on the streets and then, as he lays wounded in a Vatican bedroom, is finished off by Cesare’s bodyguard.

Engulfed by grief, the dutiful daughter now starts to rebel. To survive her family she needs to find a dynasty as powerful to protect her. When a union with the old house of d’Este in Ferrara is mooted, she does everything she can to make it happen, though she knows she will not be allowed to take her son with her. In 1501 she leaves Rome, never to return.

Her battles are not over. In Ferrara she finds a miserly father-in-law and an indifferent, philandering husband. She charms both, surviving malaria and miscarriage to become duchess of the city, securing herself a place long after the Borgia project fails. She alone carries on the family line; she runs a vibrant renaissance court, takes over the reins of government when her husband goes to war and even manages a love affair or two of her own. Later she becomes quietly religious, protecting and endowing convents, and when she dies, painfully young (39) in childbirth, she is mourned by the whole city.

This then is the real Lucrezia Borgia; resilient, brave, clever, adaptable: a woman for all seasons. No poison, no incest, no siren seduction (it’s always been as easy to damn women as ignore them), instead a remarkable story of survival, proof that whatever life delivered many still triumphed over the huge odds against them. As we celebrate Women’s Day 2017, Lucrezia’s repainted dot, along with many others on the canvas, is evidence that not only is feminism changing the present, it is also changing the past.

In the Name of the Family: A novel of Machiavelli & the Borgias is out now

Trumping history with the Borgias

Pope Alexander VI and Donald Trump

A historical Comparison

There are moments when rather than feeling like a straight line, history starts to resemble a circle…

In 1492, having been viewed as an outsider for the biggest job in the Catholic church, Rodrigo Borgia barnstormed his way through a sweaty conclave, using threats and bribery to neutralise his rivals and win the papal crown. When the final vote was held, we are told that he jumped to his feet and punched the air with the words “Yes, I am pope”.

A corpulent, energetic man in his sixties, he was already famous for his great wealth, his ruthless financial dealings – he was the church’s vice chancellor for many years – and his inveterate womanising. Though his position as a cardinal demanded celibacy, for him (as for many high clerics) that did not mean chastity. He had seven children in all, four of them by a recent long-term mistress whom he discarded after some years for a much – much – younger model.

Right from the start, the Borgia papacy specialised in family self-aggrandisement. He staged a huge showy inauguration playing to the Roman crowds. Top positions went to family and friends. He built his own apartments in the Vatican, having them extravagantly decorated by the most fashionable painter of the day and when his daughter got married, he threw a lavish wedding inside those same rooms.

His eldest son Cesare was his closest advisor, finally moving into the Vatican and using papal funds to run a military campaign to annex Papal States into the Borgia dynasty. Rodrigo himself was by all accounts so fond of his daughter Lucrezia that when her first marriage was annulled in favour of a new alliance on the grounds of her husband’s impotence, the furious man (whose first wife had died in childbirth) remarked publically: “I have known my wife an infinity of times and the pope only wants her back for himself.” One lie led to another and what started as gossip soon became accepted in history as fact.

In a world not shy of brutality and ruthlessness the Borgias still stood out. When the Spanish came to ask for a lion’s share of the new world (America starts here) the pope got a royal bride for his son out of the deal. When one of the Roman families moved against him during a French invasion, he had the head of the family poisoned in prison and some years later annihilated half the rest. He lied and dissembled without compunction. The bodies of his enemies were found garrotted in the Tiber and when an anonymous letter damning the family’s actions was samizdated around town (renaissance media was mainly gossip but sometimes print), Cesare Borgia caught a Venetian on the streets distributing it and cut off his hand and tongue. When Venice’s ambassador complained, the Pope replied “Ah, he’s a nice boy but he can’t abide insults.’

Rodrigo died in 1503, felled by a mosquito bite during a viciously hot Roman summer: the gossip was that his bed chamber was full of cavorting bare chested devils (speaking if not in Russian, then a strange tongue, come to claim him after the deal made with him to let him rule. His body was so bloated that it started to decay almost immediately and had to be hurriedly buried, men pushing and shoving into a coffin, which was already too small for it.

His papacy was to have a powerful impact on the history of Europe. His political and diplomatic dealings were followed with acute interest by a young Florentine envoy, who spent months at the court of Cesare Borgia. His name was Niccolò Machiavelli and used what he had seen and learned when he wrote his political masterpiece ‘The Prince’. A few years later Martin Luther, who had visited Rome as a young monk during the 1500 jubilee and been appalled at what he saw, nailed his 17 treatises to the church door at Wittenberg. The protestant reformation, spreading war and bloodshed across Europe, had begun. History, then as now, has consequences.

In the Name of the Family: A novel of Machiavelli & the Borgias is out now

On The Road Again

Outdoor literary festivals are fragile concepts at the best of time given the British climate but legend has it that Cornwall in May can be beautiful. Certainly the little town of Fowey, perched on the edge of the sea and beloved home of Daphne du Maurier, one of last century’s most accomplished and popular writers, must be stunning when the sun shines. One can imagine people strolling across the lawns towards the festival tent, stopping to look down on the great river mouth, imagining tea on the hotel deck after an invigorating encounter with a little literature.

Inside the festival tent where I am the “little literature” there is so much wind that the screen set up to show my images of renaissance paintings is behaving like a galley under full sail. I am delivering the first ever Daphne du Maurier lecture for a festival that used to bear her name but it is now called Fowey Festival of Words and Music. While the ways of festival committees and tourist boards are a marvel to us mere writers, it is possible that someone higher up the chain of command has taken exception to the name change, and is now tossing thunderbolts down to make the point. The audience huddle together for warmth at the front of a 600 seater venue. It is early afternoon on a Monday and while Bruce Springstein or Dan Brown might pull a full house I doubt anyone else could. Even Ken Livingstone over the weekend only reached half way to the back. Still of course we all make the best of it: in fact that flapping screen rather suits the image of Botticelli rising Venus who appears to be dancing in front of our eyes, though it works less well with Bellini’s great portrait of the Doge of Venice whose magnified lips vibrate in a kind of sneer.

I go to bed that night almost buoyant at the prospect of the next days session when I talk about Blood and Beauty, the novel’s first outing outside London since it hit the bookstalls ten days ago. I am woken long before dawn by the sound of water lashing against the windows of my room. By morning the sky is so low and the rain so dense that you can’t make out the sea. Torrential is the only word, though horizontal would better to describe the way it is moving. Daphne would have loved it. I can almost see her striding out across the fields with her dogs at her heel, another macabre twist in a story of deceit and betrayal arranging itself in her mind as she walks. I would join her, only of course I packed for spring and my cute canvas shoes are in danger of giving me trench feet.

At the back of the great tent I cower in a little green room made of furled sheets next to small fan heater. It is never good form to ask the festival organiser how many tickets have been sold because that way lies humiliation, but when I mutter something about loosing audiences to flooding his smile is not reassuring. The wonderful academic who is interviewing me – Helen Taylor is her name and an OBE would be not enough – takes my mind of the weather by running through her questions, which will keep me pirouetting on my literary toes.

As we fumble our way through expanses of black curtains I hear someone laugh. Whoever is out there, he/she has a sense of humour. Perhaps I could invite them back to my hotel room and we could do the session there. Then I walk out on the stage. And guess what? There are people there. I have no idea how many, but many more than I can count and while some of look as if they are wearing their duvets (how I envy them) they are smiling and give us a hearty round of applause. We spend the first five minutes congratulating ourselves on how we all got there at all (thank God for the Dunkirk spirit) and then we get going.

What can I say? I love every minute of it. The adrenaline flows and when the questions from the audience come, they are smart and engaged. As are all the people who come up later to the signing table. I sit with an early glass of wine (and why not?) listening to their stories with a huge grin on my face: the couple where the husband read Sacred Hearts at loud to his wife every night, or the trainee English teacher who wrote her A level dissertation on “The Birth of Venus.” Of course I am flattered. Who would not be? But it’s more than that. Suddenly ten hours on trains, soaking feet and the imminent need to build an ark, don’t matter any more. There is a Jackson Brown track of which I am particularly fond. It is about being on the road and it contains the memorable line.

“The only time that seems too short is the time that we get to play.”

It is exactly how I feel. I must go back to my hotel room and take some drugs (ibuprofen comes to mind) and wreck the furniture. If I don’t fall asleep first.