Be still my beating heart! Sarah Dunant remembers the romantic historical novels that sparked her interest in history.

Think of 3 adjectives to describe Lucretia Borgia. Now hold those thoughts while I describe Sarah Dunant in 3 adjectives.

Earthy, funny, cool.

This was by far my favourite event of the 2017 festival, and that was, in no small part, down to the author’s engaging style – she really connected with the audience, talking to us not to the chair.  She had us eating out of her hands in no time.

Of Lucretia Borgia’s reputation, she said: “I started my research and within about 15 minutes, I thought, hang on someone’s done a number on her.  This is a classic example of the victors writing history.  But if Lucretia has been maligned, then who else has received the same treatment?  And isn’t it about time someone set the record straight, instead of perpetuating the myth?”

And that is the purpose of her two novels, Blood and Beauty and In the Name of the Father.   It is an attempt to rehabilitate the Borgias, except that sometimes that is impossible.

On Rodrigo, Pope Alexander VI, Lucretia’s father: “I can’t rehabilitate him. Rodrigo is bad news, but he must be judged by the times he lived in.  He was a Spaniard, an interloper, not an insider in the Vatican court.  He had to be a consummate politician to get to the top.  His behaviour was no different from everyone else, except that he did everything in technicolour.  Rodrigo was a big man of insatiable appetites – that’s why Jeremy Irons (who played him in the recent Sky series) is too thin in many ways.”

“His Catholic church was corrupt but don’t forget that that corruption financed the creation of some of the greatest Renaissance art.  ”

Rodrigo loved all his illegitimate children and held them close, but viewed them as valuable political assets when they came of useful age – in Lucretia’s case at the age of 13, when he married her off for the first time.

Of Cesare: ” Cesare was a man of extraordinary physical presence, popular with his troops, asking nothing of them that he wouldn’t do himself.  A ruthless manipulator and strategist, aware that time was running out as his father got older. Frustrated at what he saw as his father’s dithering.  “The trouble with the old is that their blood runs tepid, while ours runs boiling hot”, he says at one point In the Name of the Family.”

Can Cesare, who did murder Lucretia’s second husband, be rehabilitated?  Partially … when we remember that he was afflicted with syphillis at a young age, (actually when he was a cardinal) and so badly disfigured by it, that he resorted to wearing a mask, and yet look at what he achieved, despite the protracted illness.  I began to think of him as a malevolent superman while reading Dunant’s novels.  What did Dunant say? “An extraordinary physical presence.” She also said of him: “I think he was, without doubt, a sociopath, but, looking at his patterns of behaviour, I also think he was bi-polar.”

Machiavelli makes an appearance in the second novel as a young Florentine diplomat, observing Cesare Borgia, whom he was later to capture in the pages of the infamous The Prince. A consumate piece of political reporting according to Dunant.  “His dispatches from that time are gold-dust,” said Dunant.  She also said: “I thought he was smart.  I like smart!”

But what of Lucretia? Have you been following how she has been used by the men in her life?  Married to Giovanni Sforza at 13, forced to divorce and marry Alfonso of Aragon at 18 (a man she came to love), widowed at 20 by the hand of her brother.  Her third marriage to the much older and syphilitic Alfonso de l’Este, Duke of Ferrara at the age of 21.  Does this sound like the well-known strumpet of ill-repute or more like a dutiful daughter?  She became Rodrigo’s and Cesare’s political tool at the age of 13, and look at the pain they put her through by the time she was 20!

Yes, she left her son by her second husband to be brought up by others when she married for the third time.  But Dunant stressed that she should not be judged by our standards, but thar we should live with her in her own moment when this was the done thing.  She’s not the feisty heroine the C21st desires, but – and here is where she earns Dunant’s admiration – she gradually realises that the only way to gain a measure of independence is to get out of Rome.  She agrees to the marriage with the Duke of Ferrara and rides away, knowing that the Ferraras do not want her.  Because of her family connections, she is tainted goods, but Rodrigo makes the marriage worth their while with the biggest dowry ever paid in Italy. She does not love her third husband, but is sufficiently savvy to understand that her marriage is a diplomatic alliance and eventually forges an effective partnership with him.  She establishes her court, and transforms herself into the well-respected Duchess of Ferrara.  This is the journey Lucretia makes in the pages of In The Name of The Family.

So where does the rumour of incest originate? Dunant pinpoints it to the first divorce.  Lucretia had been married to Giovanni Sforza for 3 years without issue.  But Sforza had outlived his usefulness and Rodrigo needed her to be free to make another strategic marriage.  He decided to annul the marriage on the grounds of Sforza’s impotence, and Lucretia, who still did everything her father demanded of her, signed papers to that effect.  How did Sforza react with the following statement: “I have known her an infinity of times, but he (Rodrigo) just wants her back for himself.” Thus is a reputation destroyed!  “Fake news!”, cried Dunant.

Had these people no conscience?  “The Catholic practice of confession allowed them moral wriggle room”, she explained. “But, at times, it became a wild dance.”  Indeed and it is one that she captures brilliantly in her two Borgia novels, which I devoured within a week.  They are truly compulsive; with such protagonists and shenanigans, how could they not be? And there is also a feisty heroine in the form of Machiavelli’s wife.  He didn’t have it all his own way.  However, I would argue that there is a character bigger than any named so far:  Syphillis – a pestilence that arrived in Europe when Columbus returned from the Americas and cut a swathe so rapidly that, following the first reported cases in Naples in 1494, brothels were closing in Aberdeen in 1497.  Dunant includes the then hopeless fight against the disease and details the gruelling treatments that Cesare had to endure.  The doctors were at a loss – all they could do was slow its progess in an individual, but they could not cure.  As Dunant pointed out, syphillis remained a killer until the discovery of penicillin in 1946.  She is also convinced that Lucretia died of it, contracting it from her third husband.  It was the final wrong done to her by the men in her life.

To conclude the session, the chair, Jenny Brown, asked Dunant to summarise Lucretia in 3 adjectives.  She chose:

canny, loving, able to learn

Were these the words you picked at the beginning of this post?