NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY KIRKUS REVIEWS
The New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Italian Renaissance novels—The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, and Sacred Hearts—has an exceptional talent for breathing life into history. Now Sarah Dunant turns her discerning eye to one of the world’s most intriguing and infamous families—the Borgias—in an engrossing work of literary fiction.
By the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: He is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family—in particular, his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia—in order to succeed.
Cesare, with a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest—though increasingly unstable—weapon. Later immortalized in Machiavelli’s The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, hers is a journey through three marriages, and from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.
Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood & Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of history itself: compelling, complex and relentless.
Praise for Blood & Beauty
“The Machiavellian atmosphere—hedonism, lust, political intrigue—is magnetic. . . . Readers won’t want the era of Borgia rule to end.”
—People (four stars)
“Dunant transforms the blackhearted Borgias and the conniving courtiers and cardinals of Renaissance Europe into fully rounded characters, brimming with life and lust.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Like Hilary Mantel with her Cromwell trilogy, [Sarah] Dunant has scaled new heights by refashioning mythic figures according to contemporary literary taste. This intellectually satisfying historical saga, which offers blood and beauty certainly, but brains too, is surely the best thing she has done to date.”
—The Miami Herald
“Compelling female players have been a characteristic of Dunant’s earlier novels, and this new offering is no exception. . . . The members of this close-knit family emerge as dynamic characters, flawed but sympathetic, filled with fear and longing.”
—The Seattle Times
“Dazzling . . . a triumph on an epic scale . . . filled with rich detail and page-turning drama.”
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Sarah Dunant is the author of the international bestsellers The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, and Sacred Hearts, which have received major acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Her earlier novels include three Hannah Wolfe crime thrillers, as well as Snowstorms in a Hot Climate, Transgressions, and Mapping the Edge, all three of which are available as Random House Trade Paperbacks. She has two daughters and lives in London and Florence.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Dunant / BLOOD & BEAUTY
August 11, 1492
Dawn is a pale bruise rising in the night sky when, from inside the palace, a window is flung open and a face appears, its features distorted by the firelight thrown up from the torches beneath. In the piazza below, the soldiers garrisoned to keep the peace have fallen asleep. But they wake fast enough as the voice rings out:
“WE HAVE A POPE!”
Inside, the air is sour with the sweat of old flesh. Rome in August is a city of swelter and death. For five days, twenty-three men have been incarcerated within a great Vatican chapel that feels more like a barracks. Each is a figure of status and wealth, accustomed to eating off a silver plate with a dozen servants to answer his every call. Yet here there are no scribes to write letters and no cooks to prepare banquets. Here, with only a single manservant to dress them, these men eat frugal meals posted through a wooden hatch that snaps shut when the last one is delivered. Daylight slides in from small windows high up in the structure, while at night a host of candles flicker under the barrel-vaulted ceiling of a painted sky and stars, as vast, it seems, as the firmament. They live constantly in each other’s company, allowed out only for the formal business of voting or to relieve themselves, and even in the latrines the work continues: negotiation and persuasion over the trickle of aging men’s urine. Finally, when they are too tired to talk, or need to ask guidance from God, they are free to retire to their cells: a set of makeshift compartments constructed around the edges of the chapel and comprised of a chair, a table and a raised pallet for sleeping; the austerity a reminder, no doubt, of the tribulations of aspiring saints.
Except these days saints are in short supply, particularly inside the Roman conclave of cardinals.
The doors had been bolted on the morning of August 6. Ten days earlier, after years of chronic infirmity, Pope Innocent VIII had finally given in to the exhaustion of trying to stay alive. Inside their rooms in the Vatican palace, his son and daughter had waited patiently to be called to his bedside, but his final moments had been reserved for spatting cardinals and doctors. His body was still warm when the stories started wafting like sewer smells through the streets. The wolf pack of ambassadors and diplomats took in great lungfuls, then dispatched their own versions of events in the saddlebags of fast horses across the land: stories of how His Holiness’s corpse lay shriveled, despite an empty flagon of blood drained from the veins of Roman street boys on the orders of a Jewish doctor, who had vowed it would save his life; how those same bloodless boys were already feeding the fishes in the Tiber as the doctor fled the city. Meanwhile, across the papal bedclothes, the Pope’s favorite, the choleric Cardinal della Rovere, was so busy trading insults with the Vice-Chancellor, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, that neither of them actually noticed that His Holiness had stopped breathing. Possibly Innocent had died to get away from the noise, for they had been arguing for years.
Of course, in such a web of gossip each man must choose what he wants to believe; and different rulers enjoy their news, like their meat, more or less well spiced. While few will question the cat claws of the cardinals, others might wonder about the blood, since it is well known around town that His Holiness’s only sustenance for weeks had been milk from a wet-nurse installed in an antechamber and paid by the cup. Ah, what a way to go to heaven: drunk on the taste of mother’s milk.
As for the conclave that follows, well, the only safe prediction is that prediction is impossible: that and the fact that God’s next vicar on earth will be decided as much by bribery and influence as by any saintly qualifications for the job.
At the end of the third day, as the exhausted cardinals retire to their cells, Rodrigo Borgia, Papal Vice-Chancellor and Spanish Cardinal of Valencia, is sitting appreciating the view. Above the richly painted drapery on the walls of the chapel (new cardinals have been known to try to draw the curtains) is a scene from the life of Moses: Jethro’s daughters young and fresh, the swirl of their hair and the color of their robes singing out even in candlelight. The Sistine Chapel boasts sixteen such frescoes—scenes of the life of Christ and Moses—and those with enough influence may choose their cell by its place in the cycle. Lest anyone should mistake his ambition, Cardinal della Rovere is currently sitting under the image of Christ giving St. Peter the keys of the Church, while his main rival, Ascanio Sforza, has had to settle for Moses clutching the tablets of stone (though with a brother who runs the bully state of Milan, some would say that the Sforza cardinal has more on his side than just the Commandments).
Publicly, Rodrigo Borgia has always been more modest in his aspirations. He has held the post of vice-chancellor through the reign of five different pontiffs—a diplomatic feat in itself—and along with a string of benefices it has turned him into one of the richest and most influential churchmen in Rome. But there is one thing he has not been able to turn to his advantage: his Spanish blood. And so the papal throne itself has eluded him. Until now, perhaps; because after two public scrutinies there is deadlock between the main contenders, which makes his own modest handful of votes a good deal more potent.
He murmurs a short prayer to the Virgin Mother, reaches for his cardinal’s hat, and pads his way down the marble corridor between the makeshift cells until he finds the one he is looking for.
Inside, somewhat drained by the temperature and the politicking, sits a young man with a small Bacchus stomach and a pasty face. At seventeen, Giovanni de’ Medici is the youngest cardinal ever to be appointed to the Sacred College, and he has yet to decide where to put his loyalty.
“Vice-Chancellor!” The youth leaps up. The truth is one can only wrestle with Church matters for so long and his mind has wandered to the creamy breasts of a girl who shared his bed in Pisa when he was studying there. There had been something about her—her laugh, the smell of her skin?—so that when he feels in need of solace it is her body that he rubs himself against in his mind. “Forgive me, I did not hear you.”
“On the contrary—it is I who should be forgiven. I disturb you at prayer!”
“No . . . Not exactly.” He offers him the one chair, but the Borgia cardinal brushes it away with a wave of the hand, settling his broad rump on the pallet bed instead.
“This will do well enough for me,” he says jovially, slapping his fist on the mattress.
The young Medici stares at him. While everyone else is wilting under the relentless heat, it is remarkable how this big man remains so sprightly. The candlelight picks out a broad forehead under a thatch of tonsured white hair, a large hooked nose and full lips over a thick neck. You would not, could not, call Rodrigo Borgia handsome; he is grown too old and stout for that. Yet once you have looked at him you do not easily look away, for there is an energy in those sharp dark eyes younger than his years.
“After living through the election of four popes I have grown almost fond of the—what shall we call it?—‘challenges’ of conclave life.” The voice, like the body, is impressive, deep and full, the remnants of a Spanish accent in the guttural trim on certain words. “But I still remember my first time. I was not much older than you. It was August then too—alas, such a bad month for the health of our holy fathers. Our prison was not so splendid then, of course. The mosquitoes ate us alive and the bed made my bones ache. Still, I survived.” He laughs, a big sound, with no sense of self-consciousness or artifice. “Though of course I did not have such a remarkable father to guide me. Lorenzo de’ Medici would be proud to see you take your place in the conclave, Giovanni. I am sincerely sorry for his death. It was a loss not just for Florence but for all of Italy.”
The young man bows his head. Beware, my son. These days Rome is a den of iniquity, the very focus of all that is evil. Under his robes he holds a letter from his father: advice on entering the snake pit of Church politics from a man who had the talent to skate on thin ice and make it look as if he was dancing. Few men are to be trusted. Keep your own counsel until you are established. Since his father’s death only a few months before, the young cardinal has learned its contents by heart, though he sorely wishes now that the words were less general and more particular.
“So tell me, Giovanni”—Rodrigo Borgia drops his voice in an exaggerated manner, as if to anticipate the secrets they are about to share—“how are you holding up through this, this labyrinthine process?”
“I am praying to God to find the right man to lead us.”
“Well said! I am sure your father railed against the venality of the Church and warned against false friends who would take you with them into corruption.”
This current College of Cardinals is poor in men of worth and you would do well to be guarded and reserved with them. The young man lifts an involuntary hand to his chest, to check the letter is concealed. Beware of seducers and bad counselors, evil men who will drag you down, counting upon your youth to make you easy prey. Surely not even the Vice-Chancellor’s hawk eyes are able to read secrets through two layers of cloth?
Outside, a shout pierces the air, followed by the shot of an arquebus: new weapons for new times. The young man darts his head up toward the high, darkened window.
“Don’t fret. It’s only common mayhem.”
“Oh . . . no, I am not worried.”
The stories are well known: how in the interregnum between popes Rome becomes instantly ungovernable, old scores settled by knife-thrusts in dark alleys, new ones hatched under cover of an exuberant general thuggery that careers between theft, brawling and murder. But the worst is reserved for the men who have been too favored, for they have the most to lose.
“You should have been here when the last della Rovere pope, Sixtus IV, died—though not even Lorenzo de’ Medici could have made his son a cardinal at the age of nine, eh?” Rodrigo laughs. “His nephew was so hated that the mob stripped his house faster than a plague of locusts. By the time the conclave ended only the walls and the railings remained.” He shakes his head, unable to conceal his delight at the memory. “Still, you must feel at home sitting here under the work of your father’s protégés.” He lifts his eyes to the fresco on the back wall of the cell: a group of willowy figures so graceful that they seem to be still moving under the painter’s brush. “This is by that Botticelli fellow, yes?”
“Sandro Botticelli, yes.” The style is as familiar to the young Florentine as the Lord’s Prayer.
“Such a talented man! It is wonderful how much . . . how much flesh he gets into the spirit. I have always thought that Pope Sixtus was exceedingly lucky to get him, considering that three years before he had launched a conspiracy to kill his patron, your own father, and wipe out the whole Medici family. Fortunately you are too young to remember the outrage.”
But not so young that he could ever be allowed to forget. The only thing bloodier than the attack had been the retribution.
“Luckily, he survived and prospered. Despite the della Rovere family,” Rodrigo adds, smiling.
“My father spoke highly of your keen mind, Vice-Chancellor. I know I shall learn a lot from you.”
“Ah! You already have his wit and diplomacy, I see.” And the smile dissolves into laughter. The candle on the table flutters in the wind of his breath and his generous features dance in the light. The younger man feels a bead of sweat moving down from his hair and wipes it away with his hand. His fingers come away grimy. In contrast, the Borgia cardinal remains splendidly unaffected by the heat.
“Well, you must forgive me if I show a certain fatherly affection. I too have a son of your age who needs counsel as he climbs the ladder of the Church. Ah—but of course, you know this. The two of you studied together in Pisa. Cesare spoke often of you as a good friend. And an outstanding student of rhetoric and law.”
“As I would speak of him.”
In public. Not in private. No. In private, the cocky young Borgia was too closeted by his Spanish entourage to be a friend to anyone. Which is just as well, since whatever money he put on his back (and there was always a sack of it; when he came to dine you could barely see the cloth for the jewels sewn onto it) a Borgia bastard could never be the social equal of a legitimate Medici. He was clever, though, so fast on his feet that in public disputation he could cut to the quick, pulling arguments like multicolored threads from his brain until black seemed to turn into white and wrong became just another shade of gray. Even the praise of his tutors seemed to bore him: he lived more in the taverns than the study halls. But then he was hardly alone in that fault.
The young Medici is glad of the shadows around them. He would not like such thoughts to be exposed to daylight. If the emblem on the Borgia crest is that of the bull, everyone knows it is the cunning of the fox that runs in the family.
“Well, I admire your dedication and pursuit of goodness, Cardinal.” Rodrigo Borgia leans over and puts his hand gently on his knee. “It will loom large in God’s grace.” He pauses. “But not, I fear, in the annals of men. The sad truth is that the times in which we live are deeply corrupt, and without a pope who can withstand the appetites of the wolves prowling around him, neither he nor Italy will survive.”
While the back of his hand lies thick as a slab of meat, his fingers are surprisingly elegant, tapered and well manicured, and for a second the younger man finds himself thinking of the woman who graces the Vice-Chancellor’s bed these days. A flesh-and-blood Venus she is said to be: milk-skinned, golden-haired and young enough to be his granddaughter. The gossip is tinged with disgust that such sweetness should couple with such decay, but there is envy there too; how easily beauty snaps onto the magnet of power, whatever a man’s looks.
“Vice-Chancellor.” He takes a breath. “If you are here to canvass my vote . . .”
“Me? No, no, no. I am but a lamb in this powerful flock. Like you, I have no other wish but to serve God and our holy mother the Church.” And now the older man’s eyes sparkle. They say that while Giuliano della Rovere has a temper fit to roast flesh, it is the Borgia smile that is more to be feared. “No. If I put myself forward at all it is only because, having seen such things before, I fear that a deadlock could push us into hands less capable even than my own.”
Giovanni stares at him, wondering at the power of a man who can lie so barefacedly and still give the impression that his heart is in his voice. Is this then his secret? In these last few days he has had occasion to watch him at work; to notice how tirelessly he weaves in and out of the knots of other men, how he is ...
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Descripción Windsor, 2013. Hardcover. Estado de conservación: Very Good. Dispatched from the UK. *EXPRESS DELIVERY AVAILABLE AT CHECKOUT*. Nº de ref. de la librería mon0000174045
Descripción Windsor, 2013. Estado de conservación: Good. This is an ex-library book and may have the usual library/used-book markings inside.This book has hardback covers. In good all round condition. No dust jacket. Nº de ref. de la librería 4596405