Sarah Dunant

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

Sarah Dunant’s 2017 events

Sarah Dunant will be touring her brand new novel In the Name of the Family across 2017, and we will be keeping this post updated with new events as they are confirmed.

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  • 6 March, 7pm: Sarah Dunant at the Ropetackle Arts Centre (Brighton) in association with City Books

    Presented by City Books. This special evening will include a reading, Q&A and book signing.

  • 10 March, 6.30pm: Sarah Dunant at the National Gallery (London)

    Bestselling novelist of the Italian renaissance, Sarah Dunant marks the opening of the Michelangelo exhibition with an illustrated lecture showing how historical fiction, when combined with an understanding of art and cutting edge research can bring alive the past in all its dazzling complexity.

    Her new novel In the Name of the Family follows Niccolò Machiavelli, a jobbing diplomat in Florence and offers a ringside seat on the rise and fall of the Borgias: unscrupulous pope, marriage pawn daughter and psychotic son pushing to create a dynastic state inside Italy.

    Politics, the power of religion, the horrors of war and the wonder of art: the lecture explores how the red-hot lava of energy of the renaissance combined sex and spirituality, corruption and creativity and brutality and beauty.

  • 18 March: Sarah Dunant at the Creative Industries Trafford: Northern Lights Writers’ Conference in partnership with Manchester Literature Festival

    Sarah is the keynote speaker for Northern Lights Writers’ Conference 2017.

     

  • 23 March: Sarah Dunant at the British Institute, Florence (Italy)

     

  • 6 April: An evening with Sarah Dunant at Topping (St Andrew’s, Scotland)

    Sarah Dunant, the internationally acclaimed author of The Birth of Venus, joins Topping & Company Booksellers to celebrate In the Name of the Family.

    “It is better to be feared than loved…” – Niccolo Machiavelli

    Dunant’s new novel is a brutal, stunning account of young Machiavelli’s encounter with the notorious Borgia family. A follow-up to the acclaimed Blood & BeautyIn the Name of the Family is a fresh and vital experience for any reader with an interest in the Renaissance period or, of course, Machiavelli himself.

    “A wonderful novel – taking you deep into the world of Renaissance passion and Renaissance papacy. Part of me was happily lost in the time travel, part of me repeatedly struck by how vividly ancient Rome met modern Rome, and how the city of history came to life.” – Mary Beard on Blood & Beauty.

    Thrillingly written and historically accurate, Dunant’s masterclass of Renaissance fiction will capture your imagination and leave you breathless.

Wonderful New York Times review for Blood & Beauty

The US edition of Blood & Beauty is out now, and is starting to attract great reviews, as this recent piece in the New York Times demonstrates:

In “Blood and Beauty,” Dunant follows the path set by Hilary Mantel with “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” Just as Mantel humanized and, to an extent, rehabilitated the brilliant, villainous Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, Dunant transforms the blackhearted Borgias and the conniving courtiers and cardinals of Renaissance Europe into fully rounded characters, brimming with life and lust.

You can read the full review here.