Review: Blood and Beauty, By Sarah Dunant

Virago, £16.99

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The Independent Culture

As an acclaimed author of Italian historical novels, it was only a matter of time until Sarah Dunant turned her attention to the notorious Borgia family, at the head of which sat Rodrigo, Pope Alexander VI.

The lascivious stories of political corruption, incest and murder have become not only the stuff of legend, but also prime-time entertainment: 2011 saw the dynasty brought to life in two US TV series, not to mention obvious similarities with the Lannisters in Game of Thrones.

Dunant, however, approaches her subjects with a judicious eye for the political spin and prejudice that has dogged them through the years, relying instead on the "more scrupulous and discriminating" work of modern historians. This isn't to say her story lacks brutality and corruption, but she is more circumspect when it comes to the most salacious of the speculations. Rome might murmur with rumours of Alexander's unhealthy interest in his beautiful young daughter Lucrezia, or the closeness between her and her brother Cesare, but Dunant errs on the side of caution.

Rodrigo Borgia, his blood "thick with ambition and determination", is 61 when he is made Pope. A man for whom "the pleasures of politics" are as distracting as those of the flesh, he has three sons, a "ripening" daughter, and a beautiful fecund young mistress. This papal family, "that ought not, by canon law, even to exist", is his own private army "he must move across the chessboard" of Europe, "each one bringing another silken thread of loyalty and influence into the web of family".

Although pawns in their "besotted", father's game, at the heart of Dunant's story are Cesare and Lucrezia. Cesare, whose hands were made to be drenched in blood, is a cardinal who becomes a brutal soldier, marauding around Italy to get his father whatever he wants. Lucrezia, a woman who understands politics better than most men around her, knows she's "a spider of death, which once it has mated destroys its own husband"; a "poisoned gift" to be offered again and again. Blood & Beauty, the first of a duology, is a rich and entertaining read that, for all its 500-odd pages, demands to be devoured as quickly as possible.