'Blood and Beauty' brings readers more of the Borgias

Sarah Dunant's new book on the Borgias family of Italy has gotten good reviews. It's one of several works in pop culture to take a fresh look at the infamous family.

'Blood & Beauty' author Sarah Dunant says that much of what we think we know about the Borgias is actually based on the lies of their enemies. "The mud stuck,” says Dunant.

As author Sarah Dunant put it in an interview with the Washington Post: “if you spend any time in the Renaissance, the Borgias are tapping on your shoulder.”

Almost everyone knows – or thinks they know – something about the Borgia family, a powerful group which maneuvered for power in Renaissance Italy and are perhaps today best known for their apparent skill at poisoning, their determination to promote their own, and their overall corruption.

Among the best-known Borgias are Rodrigo Borgia, who became pope as Alexander VI; his son Cesare, who was named a cardinal by his father; and Lucrezia, Rodrigo’s daughter who was married three times and – according to legend, anyway – was particularly notorious for poisoning people.

The newest examination of the family comes in Dunant’s novel “Blood & Beauty: The Borgias,” which was released July 16. In it, Dunant tells the story of the group in a fiction format but separates the facts about the Borgias from the myths.

“Quite a lot of what we think we know about them is gossip and rumor put about by their enemies,” Dunant said during her Post interview. “The mud stuck.”

However, the Borgias weren’t innocent, either. Dunant notes that “the Borgias are as badly behaved as a lot of other people, possibly in some cases worse.” Rodrigo Borgia did use his papal role to try to put his children in positions of power. 

Lucrezia's bent for poisoning people, however, was “not true,” according to the author, and contrary to some stories, she didn’t sleep with her father or brother.

“Blood,” which received positive reviews from The New York Times (writer Liesl Schillinger said Dunant “transforms the blackhearted Borgias and the conniving courtiers and cardinals of Renaissance Europe into fully rounded characters, brimming with life and lust”) and Kirkus Reviews (“Dunant’s biggest and best work to date”), among others, is only the most recent work to look at the infamous family. A Showtime series titled “The Borgias” starred Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo, beginning in 2011 and ending last month. (Seasons ran for one or two months.)

In addition, the second installment in “Assassin’s Creed” video game series, 2009’s “Assassin’s Creed II,” featured Rodrigo as one of its main villains.

No matter the form of our fascination, Dunant says the Borgias are more complicated than we once thought.

“There was a great deal more depth and nuance and subtlety and things of interest about the Borgias than our old version of how they used to be,” she said.

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