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Atul & Ajay Borgia? Sarah Dunant’s In the Name of the Family redresses the historical reputations of the infamous Borgia family

Published in the Sunday Times

Bron Sibree on Sarah Dunant’s latest historical novel which asks ‘who was this family, the Borgias, that everybody loved to hate?’

In the Name of the Family
Sarah Dunant
(Little, Brown, R255)

SARAH Dunant is famous for bringing the Renaissance to life in her bestselling historical novels. Page-turning stories so richly anchored in historical fact that they’ve received accolades from scholars and literary critics alike, and have been translated into 30 languages.

“The same energy that gave you the wonder of the Renaissance also gave you the horror,” she says on the eve of the launch of her 11th novel In the Name of the Family. The second in a duology about that infamous family, the Borgias, she sums it up as: “Hanging Catholic history out to dry. We wouldn’t have the Sistine Chapel, for instance, without church corruption — you couldn’t fit a credit card between the corruption and the creativity.”

British-born Dunant was an established thriller writer when she moved to Florence in 2000 during a moment of crisis. “I no longer wanted to write thrillers, and it was out of being really lost in Florence, in all senses of the word, that I began to ask what happened there 500 years ago.”

And in so doing, she gave voice to the story of a 15-year-old girl in The Birth of Venus. It became a surprise bestseller, inspired two more novels about the forgotten histories of women, and was credited with making the ideas of the Renaissance dangerous all over again.

But it is the new perspective she brings to the dangerous ideas of that other notorious Renaissance figure, Niccolo Machiavelli, in In the Name of the Family that is garnering her some of the most lavish praise of her career.

“One of the wonderful gifts of working on this book,” says Dunant, “was the discovery of Machiavelli as an impoverished young man; that this man who wrote arguably the most famous treatise on statecraft, The Prince, didn’t come out fully formed. He learned some of those ideas by being a not very well paid, not very important diplomat.

“His job was to be the eyes and ears of the Florentine state during a period of terrible insecurity when Florence might be picked off by Cesare Borgia’s army. So he was writing batches of letters back and forth, and I was able to find his voice through those letters.”

In the Name of the Family also goes a long way towards redressing the historical reputation of Lucrezia Borgia, the impulse that seeded Durant’s desire to write her 2014 novel Blood and Beauty. It was only when she began to contemplate writing about Lucrezia as part of her series about Renaissance women, says Dunant, “that I began to realise that some really big conspiracy had taken place in history to slander her”.

“So I started to think, ‘Who was this family, the Borgias, that everybody loved to hate?’ And how far back, as always happens when the victors write history, do you have to go to find out what really happened?

“And what I discovered is exactly what I’m describing in In the Name of the Family which is yes, they’re brutal, yes, they’re corrupt, yes, they don’t behave well, but nobody else around them is behaving well either, and that’s the bit we forget. And that’s the bit that was so fascinating.”

Dunant is intrigued by the historical facts of Lucrezia’s story — unlike the gossip about her as vamp and poisoner which has reverberated through the ages. “She emerged, just as Machiavelli said of her, as the last Borgia standing.”

Yet it was the corruption of Lucrezia’s father, Pope Alexander VI, who juggled mistresses, political intrigue and bloody wars with unholy zest, that compelled her to write of the Borgias as a family. “I wanted to look at the phenomenon of this historical moment, because it is that level of papal corruption that triggers the 1517 Reformation. So this is a very important moment in church and Italian history.”

She is now embarking upon a BBC radio series about the discipline of history, how rich it is, how much it is changing. “I couldn’t have written these books 25 years ago, because so much of this history has emerged since then,” she says.

Dunant is as keen to acknowledge her debt to academia as she is to highlight the perils of our current age, which she views as one of half-truths and gossip.

“We need to understand how history is made more than ever now when the present is as dangerous as it is.” @BronSibree

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