In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant

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I love the idea of Lucrezia Borgia and Isabella d’Este, arguably two of the three most fascinating women (Caterina Sforza probably trumps both of them) of the Italian Wars/Renaissance period, having a really bitchy Krystle-Alexis type rivalry.  Unfortunately, Sarah Dunant’s books, much as I enjoy them – I’ll read anything set in 15th/16th century Italy! – never quite seem to go deep enough, and always leave you with a slightly frustrated feeling of only having skimmed the surface.  They’re good, but, given the subject matter, they could be so much better!

This is the sequel to Blood and Beauty, and follows the Borgias – Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI), Cesare and Lucrezia – from the time of Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este, brother of Isabella and Beatrice, in early 1502, to Rodrigo’s death in 1503.  It doesn’t cover the relationship between Lucrezia and Francesco Gonzaga, Isabella’s husband … I don’t think that really got going until later on, which explains it, but it seems a bit odd that the author wrote the book in a way that meant that such a juicy storyline was missing.  Maybe she’s planning another sequel.  The Lucrezia-Isabella rivalry, which could have made for such fascinating reading, is, disappointingly, largely shown as bitching about who’s got the best clothes. We do get to see the poet Bembo, and Lucrezia becoming his muse, though.

It’s Lucrezia who dominates the book, but Rodrigo and Cesare feature too.  We only really see Rodrigo as someone in poor health who knows that he hasn’t got long to live, but that’s the stage of his life at which the book’s set.  Ever since that Sky Atlantic series about the Borgias, I keep imagining Rodrigo Borgia as looking like Jeremy Irons, and of course he looked absolutely nothing like him – he weighed about 10 stone more, for a kick off!    As far as Cesare goes, this book is set after the really interesting bits, i.e. the conquests of Imola and Forli, not to mention bumping off his brother-in-law, but we do see him taking control of Urbino and Camerino, and then falling out with his own men.  It’s not the most interesting part of his life/career, either, though.

Machiavelli also features – interesting idea to involve him.  He always turns up in books about the Medici, but not so much in books about the Borgias.  His wife, whom I don’t think I’ve ever seen mentioned in a book before, also has a role as a supporting character.  I think the Borgias probably had as much influence on the writing of The Prince (a book which I read over 25 years ago and do not particularly intend to read again) as the Medicis did, so I think that including him worked, although it made the story quite bitty – and, because it was jumping between the three main Borgia characters, it was quite bitty anyway.

But, as I said, the main focus is on Lucrezia – on her marriage to Alfonso d’Este, her grief for her previous husband, Alfonso of Aragon, how much she’s missing her young child, and her grief after she suffers a stillbirth which was probably a result of Alfonso d’Este contracting syphilis and passing it on to her.  Not the pleasantest of topics, syphilis, but you can’t really write about this period of Italian history without it.

The other week, I was waiting to get off the Palermo to Naples overnight ferry (I’d been to Sicily on holiday, but was flying back to Rome), and I was thinking about Neapolitan history to try to distract myself from the fact that everything was running late and I really needed my breakfast, and “See Naples and die” kept going through my head.  Yes, I know, it’s supposed to be because the city’s so beautiful (which it is), but it also has all these connotations of the spread of syphilis during the Italian Wars!   It’s not actually clear whether or not Lucrezia contracted it, but it would explain her sad history of miscarriages and stillbirths and general health problems during her marriage to Alfonso d’Este.  The book does go on about this quite a lot.  Er, and, as it’s not the pleasantest of topics, as I said, on to other things now.

All the rubbish that’s been written about the Borgias over the years, the incest and the poisonings and all the rest of it, is thankfully missing.  I don’t think anyone still buys that, but old stories die hard. The book shows Lucrezia as being quite a sweet person, and Rodrigo Borgia as being devoted to his family.  I quite admire Rodrigo – plenty of the senior churchmen in those days had mistresses and illegitimate children, but he was really the only one who had the nerve to act as if his children were equivalent to members of royal/noble dynasties, make grand marriages for them and encourage his surviving son to create a state for himself.  OK, he’s like a walking argument in favour of the Reformation, but you’ve got to admire that nerve!   The presentation of Cesare isn’t so favourable, but I don’t see how anyone can find much good to say about Cesare Borgia.  I cannot stand the man.

But I do like Lucrezia.  She, and Catherine de Medici’s another one, haven’t half been libelled over the years.  It’s good to see her being represented more as she actually was – and interesting to see her, like so many princesses and noblewomen over the centuries, having to cope with being packed off to a strange court and put under huge pressure to produce an heir.  There’s also an interesting interlude involving her staying at a convent, seeking physical and spiritual respite.

Machiavelli comes across as a decent bloke, as well.  I’m not sure what he’d have thought if he’d known that his name would be turned into an adjective meaning deceitful/unscrupulous!  It was a great idea to include him and the Borgias, and Isabella d’Este as well, in the same book.  It just doesn’t seem to be as good as it could have been.  It doesn’t help that this really isn’t the most interesting period of the lives of the Borgias, but, even so, with such a fascinating cast of characters, it had huge potential which it didn’t quite fulfil.  Or maybe it’s just me!

Incidentally, what is the obsession with Hilary Mantel?  I read the reviews of both this book and Nicola Griffith’s Hild on Amazon before buying them, and both were full of comparisons, evidently meant to be highly complimentary, with Hilary Mantel.  I’m obviously missing something here, because I didn’t get Wolf Hall at all, and it is not like me not to “get” a book about the Tudors.  I thought it was silly, quite honestly.  Oh well, never mind.  This is much better than Wolf Hall!  I just think it could have been … more.

6 thoughts on “In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant

  1. Chris Deeley

    An interesting question is: who were the two Italian ladies with the same family name who married French kings with the same first name? One of those Italian ladies traveled to Paris with a huge retinue, including many chefs, who introduced haute cuisine to France. (Not a popular story with the French.) Capri is much nicer than Naples, as is the Villa d’Este on Lake Como.

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    • Catherine and Marie de Medici! Both got stuck with husbands who preferred other women, although at least Henri IV didn’t carry on with the same woman all the time. I love Lake Como – I’m getting a villa there when I win the lottery 🙂 .

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  2. Chris Deeley

    Re Lake Como: Villa Flori is also very nice and much more affordable than Villa d’Este. It’s also close to a lake steamer jetty, so travelling around the lake from there is quite easy.

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