There was a packed house in Edinburgh's Charlotte Square Gardens last night for Sarah Dunant's Book Festival appearance. We'd come to hear her talk about the Borgias and her latest novel Blood & Beauty, and what a vibrant, animated discussion it was!
To the book itself first:
"It is 1492 and Rodrigo Borgia has clawed his way to the papacy - the most powerful seat on earth - to become Pope Alexander VI. But in a city run by Italians, Rodrigo is hated for his Spanish blood. His passion for power is matched only by his passion for his children and for his young mistress. Each Borgia child, however, will be tasked with advancing the family's ambitions and securing their dynasty's future...
Larger than life characters are set against one of history's most important eras, that of the Renaissance. Could the Borgias - perhaps the most powerful patrons of the period's artists, thinkers and creators - have played a vital, and violent, part in the cultural movement that changed the world forever?"
In conversation with Jamie Jauncey, Sarah described how her extensive research led her to form an opinion of her subjects at odds with the received view. She came to appreciate Rodrigo Borgia's huge energy and his "genuine charisma and charm", his appetite for politics, even his vulnerability in terms of his love for his children. He was a man who liked women, as well as loving them, someone who towered over his family, and by force of will constructed a dynastic powerhouse.
In a book that is richly descriptive and highly detailed, she puts (much) flesh on the bones of the man, revealing many more aspects to him and to her other characters than the stereotypical 'heroes and villains' view admits. That energy and vitality which marks Rodrigo floods the novel as a whole, but Sarah stressed the importance of her preparatory reading: "If I've done the work then I have the confidence to make the jump into the past", she said, and she commented that recent research gives her much more information to draw upon than a novelist writing 20 years ago would have had.
Within her vivid and concise description of fifteenth century Italy, Sarah touched on its significance to the country today - the roots of the modern state are unearthed in her book. She mentioned the historic relationship between brutality and corruption and creativity, the Renaissance growing from what was most certainly that fertile loam, and talked passionately about the period and its people, her enormous enthusiasm clearly informing every page of her book.
If you'd like know more about the Borgias and Blood & Beauty, there's a video introduction on Sarah's website.