Sarah Dunant is one of the best of the historical novel writers. Her speciality is Renaissance Europe. This novel is heavily researched, and she weaves a fascinating story of intrigue, incest, ruthlessness and war around the actual events of 15th and early 16th century Italy. Of course, it is hard to miss holding a reader's interest when writing about the infamous clan of Borgias who bring to the table a wealth of gossip and scandal, enough to keep writers busy for a lifetime. Despite all the stories and tales of the evil that surrounds this family, there is little real provable evidence available to the researcher. But, where there is smoke there is fire, and many novelist and screenwriters have hung their hats on the excesses of the Borgia family.
The Borgias originated in Spain and the partriarch of the family was Roderigo Borgia, the Cardinal of Valencia who at age 61 through wheeling and dealing and back room bribes, became Pope Alexander VI. As soon as he was established on the throne of St. Peter, the turmoil that had dogged Rome throughout medieval times intensified, largely to to his ambition for himself and his progeny. Alexander fathered numerous illegitimate children, the most famous being Lucrezia and Cesare. Through a series of political marriages and alliances, Alexander was able to consolidate and strengthen his rule over most of Italy. However, after his death, Italy once again fell apart into a group of quarrelling city states.
Cesare, the most ruthless of the Borgias, is the villain of the novel. He began his career as a cardinal, appointed by his father. Cesare clearly was not cut out for a career in the church. He was a soldier, and his goal was to conquer and return to the papacy the papal states as well as most of northern Italy. The Borgias had a special hatred and on-going feud with the powerful Sforza family, who ruled the Ducal state of Milan. It is said that Machiavelli patterned his book The Prince on the brutal Cesare Borgia.
Dunant displays sympathy for Lucrezia and it is hard not to agree with her. She is presented as a pawn in the political ambitions of her father and brothers. While there are many unproven rumors about her, there is no actual proof that Lucrezia led the life that was attributed to her. In Dunant's book, she was wed three times, her second husband, Alfonzo of Aragon, being the only one she loved. He was believed to have been slain by Cesare, to free Lucrezia to marry into the powerful D'Este family who ruled Ferrara. Dunant leaves us after the third marriage of Lucrezia and before the death of Alexander. The story will be continued in the next volume she is working on.
If you enjoy historical fiction that is well researched and not corny, this is a good read and will hold your interest and perhaps spur you on to look further into the Borgia family's history.