It’s well-known among history buffs and the average TV viewer alike that the Borgias were the most notorious family of Renaissance Italy. Originally outsiders from Spain, they clawed their way to power by ruthlessly murdering anyone who got in their way, and brokering powerful alliances between Italy’s powerful noblemen – like a 16th century House of Cards.
Their patriarch, Rodrigo Borgia, became Pope Alexander VI, while his illegitimate children effectively conquered a large swathe of central Italy. The warlord son, Cesare Borgia, was the real-life inspiration behind Machiavelli’s iconic Realpolitik manifesto The Prince, which is still read by power-hungry politicians today.
Meanwhile, Lucrezia Borgia – Rodrigo’s daughter – became a marriage pawn moved across Italy’s turbulent political chessboard by her powerful male relatives. When the downfall of the Borgias eventually came about, history branded her as a villainous whore guilty of incest, murder and betrayal among many other vices.
But what happens when you try to dig deeper beneath the surface of history, only to find that the reality may be something quite different?
That’s what the acclaimed historical fiction author Sarah Dunant realised when she first became fascinated with the Borgias years ago, while working on her earlier novel Blood and Beauty.
Her latest work set in Renaissance Italy, In the Name of the Family, was published last month. It’s a pacy but deeply engrossing read, where the historical setting perfectly comes to life with vivid detail and colour.
And here is the d’Este power in the raw. A duchess dies screaming for mercy in here. Not a family to marry into lightly pic.twitter.com/Hu8cnh4KwT
— sarah dunant (@sarahdunant) March 21, 2017
The novel follows the Borgia family’s changing fortunes as the future of Italy hangs in the balance: while the elderly Pope’s health declines, how much longer can Cesare carry on his bloody war campaign? Will Lucrezia survive her latest power marriage with a Duke she barely knows? All these questions are threaded through the plot of Dunant’s novel, as well as the perspective of a young Niccolò Machiavelli who visits Cesare on diplomatic missions.
When I meet Sarah Dunant in her spacious Holloway home, her passion and enthusiasm for history is immediately evident. Having fallen in love with the Italian Renaissance after a visit to Florence over a decade ago – a place that she says “still has an umbilical cord to the past” – Dunant switched from writing detective thrillers to historical novels.
Based on groundbreaking historical research from scholars, Dunant’s first few novels gave readers a deeper insight into the previously hidden lives of ordinary women in Italy during that period: high-class female courtesans, nuns in convents and women trying to become artists.
“I asked myself, ‘Where were all the women?’” she says. “Everything that you see attached to the Renaissance has a male name.”
But eventually she couldn’t resist the allure of writing about Italy’s most notorious family, and their most iconic femme fatale: Lucrezia Borgia. When sifting through the historical research, Dunant found that the vast majority of the lurid myths surrounding her were slander and gossip.
“She’s a classic example of a famous women who moves from actually being a complex character trying to find her way through a crack in history, into being the most sexy, poisonous, incestuous woman you’ve ever met,” says Dunant. “Instead, I wanted to write the truth, and try and see if we can make it just as interesting as the scandal.”
The same nuanced approach could well apply for the Borgias. “Yes they’re brutal and corrupt, but so are the times in which they live,” she says.
And what about Machiavelli, one of history’s biggest villains? “He is actually an extremely sophisticated political philosopher, who instantly becomes a byword for evil and deceitful behaviour in the works of Shakespeare. But I think his great power was that he had a very clear-sighted vision of human nature, and how it translated to political behaviour.”
The delicate balance between the Renaissance’s good and bad sides is skilfully navigated within the novel. “The Renaissance was full of beauty and also full of brutality,” says Dunant. “People forget that substantial amounts of great Renaissance religious art were patronised and commissioned by a corrupt Church. So the Sistine Chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo is based on corruption!”
Despite all the evil surrounding her, are there things we can actually admire about the infamous Lucrezia Borgia? “She was a young girl who becomes a marriage pawn at 13 when her father becomes Pope, and is married three times by the age of 21,” she says. “But the great thing about her story is how, little by little, she frees herself and finds some independence.” While she’s not quite a modern-day feminist heroine, there is certainly an extraordinary strength to her story documented in the novel.
The similarities between the Borgias and another powerful political dynasty alive today – the Trumps – are too obvious to ignore. “They’re both political outsiders and they both trust family as much as anyone else,” she says. “So you have a son in the White House/Vatican, and a daughter you’re inordinately fond of. And you’re a very good wheeler-dealer!”
Will they perhaps make the same fatal mistakes as the Borgias in future? “People never learn anything from history, and that’s possibly because Machiavelli was right!” she says. “I don’t really see a lot of evolution in human nature.”