Friday, June 16, 2017

In The Name Of The Family by Sarah Dunant

Few family names reverberate through history like that of the Borgias of Italy.  The head of the family is Rodrigo Borgia, a Spanish Cardinal who comes to Rome and rises to become Pope Alexander VI.  He delights in the machinations of the Church and in his illegitimate children whom he disdains to hide.  Instead they are given prominent places in society.  His first son, Juan, is assassinated, a crime that marks Rodrigo's life ever after.  Cesare is a former Cardinal who turns instead to military matters, conquering city after city in the Borgia's quest to extend their power.  His daughter, Lucrezia, is used to solidify the family's power and influence through marriage.  She is married three times by the time she is twenty-two.

This novel follows the family in the last year of their power, 1502.  Lucrezia has just become the Duchess of Urbino, her husband Alfonso much the same kind of man as her brother Cesare.  Cesare becomes increasingly erratic as he pursues a campaign of conquest, perhaps as the aftermath of what is known as the French pox.  There is no alliance he won't make or break as it suits him, and both he and Pope make sure their enemies come to a bloody end.  Pope Alexander is at the end of his life and concerned about his legacy.  Finally, an outsider is also part of the story.  Niccolo Machiavelli is a diplomat from Florence who is sent to the court in Rome to discover what he can of the Borgia plans and how his city can best position itself.  He is fascinated by the Borgias, later basing his most famous book, The Prince, on Cesare.

Yet Dunant is interested in not just wars and betrayals but the life of women.  Lucrezia is maligned throughout Italy as a courtesan and faithless wanton woman, but the reality is closer to that of a woman used as most women were in titled families, as a pawn to consolidate power.  Her life in a forced marriage is explored as is the relationships within the family she married into, and her struggles to produce an heir.  She loves her father and brother but fate moves her far away from them where she rarely gets to see them and must carve out a life for herself.

Sarah Dunant is considered one of the finest names working in historical fiction today.  She is fascinated with Renaissance Italy and the powerful families that battle for supremacy.  Yet she also takes time to examine everyday life.  The influence of sickness, the fevers that annually take scores of lives and the new disease of syphilis, or French pox, is explored.  The interplay between the powerful families and the Church is discussed.  She skillfully dissects the connections between families and the alliances and betrayals that made the Borgia family name infamous.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction.

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