Bloody battles within family

Sarah Dunant concludes her two-book novel on Italy's infamous Borgia family with In The Name Of The Family.
Sarah Dunant concludes her two-book novel on Italy's infamous Borgia family with In The Name Of The Family.

Fans of Sarah Dunant will no doubt be anxiously awaiting this novel, the conclusion of her two-book series on Italy's infamous Borgia family.

2013's Blood And Beauty wended its careful way through the first 10 years of Rodrigo Borgia's victorious rise to power as Pope Alexander VI and his multiple machinations as he sought to unite Italy's squabbling cities under his rule, using his illegitimate children as pawns in his power game. In contrast, In The Name Of The Family covers a relatively brief year, from 1502 to 1503, when the Borgia family is divided.

Rodrigo's son and war chief Cesare is criss-crossing the countryside conquering cities while his daughter Lucrezia has been shipped off to her third husband Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara in another political union of convenience.

Dunant's historical fictions are appealing because she brings the Italy of the Renaissance to vivid life. She has done her historical research, but the narrative wears it lightly.

  • FICTION

  • Sarah Dunant concludes her two-book novel on Italy's infamous Borgia family with In The Name Of The Family.IN THE NAME OF THE FAMILY

    By Sarah Dunant

    Virago/455 pages/$32.95 with GST

    4/5 stars

But in seemingly throwaway descriptions such as a scene in which Niccolo Machiavelli and a friend "eat fresh broad beans with seasoned pecorino cheese and new red wine - Tuscan fare marking the coming of spring", the rhythms of daily life spring off the page.

While Blood And Beauty was readable enough, it suffered from one major shortcoming. Dunant's determination to rescue Lucrezia's reputation as the "scandal-soaked Borgia whore" - a description which pops up twice in this book - also means that Lucrezia is whitewashed into a rather wan goody- two-shoes.

No doubt the real Lucrezia was not the vampy poisoner of multiple sensational histories written in the wake of the Borgias' fall, but the constant reiteration of her angelic nature got a little repetitive.

In The Name Of The Family fares much better in this respect as Lucrezia has now grown up, suffered one arranged marriage and the disastrous end of her second love match, and faces her final pairing with much more equanimity and political cunning as befitting a Borgia.

Dunant's portraits of the male Borgias are more nuanced, especially her empathetic depiction of Rodrigo as a man of Falstaffian appetites, for power, wealth and women.

The introduction of Machiavelli as an observer in this book also serves to distance the author a little from her beloved subjects and the perspective does her good.

Machiavelli's almost academic dissection of Cesare here is evidently inspired by a close reading of his classic thesis on political leadership, The Prince.

The brief window of a year also allows Dunant the luxury of filling in more detail on the intricacies of court life and intrigues.

The passages documenting Lucrezia's sparring with her sister-in-law, Isabella d'Este, Marchesa of Mantua, are hilariously entertaining, revealing the bloody battles hidden beneath the form of court manners and fashion.

The result is a nippy read, leavened by sharp observations about the many contradictions of the era - the political anarchy matched by the artistic ferment, the barbarity of war and violence balanced by the beauty of art and letters.

If you liked this, read: Anya Seton's Katharine (Chicago Review Press/from $14.51 from amazon.com). This 1954 classic is another meticulously researched, skilfully told historical fiction that follows the life of Katherine de Roet, who becomes the mistress, then wife, of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and father of King Henry IV.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2017, with the headline 'Bloody battles within family'. Print Edition | Subscribe