Wednesday 22 February: The most infamous family in history: the Borgias - Sarah Dunant

‘Times vary and evil and good fortune do not always remain on the same side.’

The words of Niccolo Machiavelli, the smart, young Florentine diplomat with a ringside seat on the rise and fall of history’s most deadly and charismatic family – the Borgias.
Sarah Dunant, author of "Blood and Beauty: The Borgias" begins her story in 1492.

Pope Innocent VIII has just died, and a crowd of decayed, malodorous cardinals preen and scheme in the Sistine Chapel, striking poses against biblical frescoes as they wait to learn who will win the keys to the kingdom. "The air", Dunant writes, “is sour with the sweat of old flesh. Rome in August is a city of swelter and death.”

It is the cunning Rodrigo Borgia, Cardinal of Valencia, a “paunchy 61-year-old” and vice chancellor to five previous popes, who will receive the crown. At his nearby palazzo, three of his illegitimate children, Juan, Lucrezia and Jofré, and their guardian, Borgia’s cousin Adriana, receive the good news and prepare to shower the proud Papa with “twittering admiration.” He “sucks in their vigour like great lungfuls of fresh air,” Dunant writes, “so that he becomes stronger and more potent in their presence.”

Pope Alexander VI will receive a still heartier embrace from his teenage mistress, Giulia Farnese, “milk-skinned, golden-haired and young enough to be his granddaughter,” who lives with the family, a playmate to Lucrezia and, in a different sense, to her father — though Giulia is married, for propriety’s sake, to Adriana’s son, Orsino. “To be the mistress of a pope is to be in the eye of all the world,” Adriana gushes. “What about Orsino?” Giulia ingenuously asks. “Your husband is as much a Borgia as he is an Orsini, and he will be proud for the honour of his family,” the pragmatic mother-in-law replies.

While the family flutters expectantly around the palazzo, Johannes Burchard, the papal Master of Ceremonies, fits Rodrigo Borgia for a golden ring, which cardinals and kings will soon line up to kiss. And while Burchard measures the pope’s finger, a humble servant rides breathlessly on horseback to Siena to carry the news to the pope’s eldest son, Cesare. Papal legerdemain will soon make this debauched playboy a cardinal and later, conveniently, unmake him — freeing him to marry a wealthy French duchess.

The new pope, his Milanese rival, Cardinal Sforza, observes, “is a carnal man and very loving of his flesh and blood.” Watching his family’s fortunes rise as his papacy lengthens, Rodrigo “roars his satisfaction,” envisioning “a new generation of Borgias,” with titles for all. Italy’s citizenry, inured to the vices of churchmen, does not so much look the other way as look on in awe: “The kiss of romance. The thrust of lust. Rome is hungry for it all. God preserve the family that brings them so much theatre.”

(Text adapted from a 2013 review in the New York Times by Liesl Schillinger )

about our lecturer:

Sarah Dunant is the author of the international bestseller The Birth of Venus, which has received major worldwide acclaim and In the Company of the Courtesan. With the publication of Sacred Hearts, she rounds out a Renaissance trilogy bringing voice to the lives of three different women in three different historical contexts.

Sarah Dunant’s tireless research has resulted in vivid reconstructions of women's secret histories in the characters of a Florentine Noblewoman, a Venetian Courtesan and with Sacred Hearts the spellbinding and fascinating lives of the Sisters of Santa Caterina. Sarah Dunant has done detailed research of the Italian renaissance, a period she returns to in her writing.

In her latest work In the Name of the Family – as in Blood and Beauty – she sweeps away the myths to bring alive the real Borgia family; passionate, brutal, complex and glorious, holding up a mirror to the moment of history that bred them.

She has two daughters, and lives in London and Florence.