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Photo: © Charlie Hopkinson
Sarah Dunant is the author of the international bestsellers The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, Sacred Hearts, and Blood and Beauty, which have received major acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Her earlier novels include three Hannah Wolfe crime thrillers, as well as Snowstorms in a Hot Climate, Transgressions, and Mapping the Edge. She has two daughters and lives in London and Florence.
The Agony and the Ecstasy: The Story of the Writing of THE BIRTH OF VENUSMost novels come from the heart and the head. THE BIRTH OF VENUS began with the heart. January 2000: I am sitting in Florence with my lover: on the table between us, the remains of a bloody steak and our even more bloody relationship. I walk out of the restaurant alone, numb with shock. But even at such a dark moment there is something about Florence — that beauty, that artistic brilliance, the way she wears her history so lightly — that makes the worst of times bearable. That day I decide to buy an apartment there.Fast forward five months. Now the bank and I (well, the bank mostly) are the proud owners of a two bedroom flat in a 15th century building off Santa Croce Square. I fly to the city for the day to sign the contract. That night my plane is cancelled. I have nothing but my handbag and the key to my new home: inside there is no gas, no electricity, no water, no furniture save for three duvets, bought as a promise to myself and my two daughters that we would live there that we would live there part of the year. I lie in the dim glow of a candle borrowed from a restaurant and stare out at the palazzo opposite, its walls ghostly with frescoes. The sound of drunken Florentine youth bounces off the cobbles into the room. I sweat in the heat and itch in anticipation with the buzz of mosquitoes. The 21st century dissolves around me and I am back in Florence as it might have been 500 years before. The next morning I have the germ of what would become THE BIRTH OF VENUS. I read through a tower of books about the Renaissance. I walk the streets without a map, safe in daylight, lost at night, where the darkness and the labyrinthine streets are a time warp into the past. I begin to understand this pivotal time in history: how wealth encouraged high fashion and new learning, how the de Medici family infused Italy with ancient Rome and Greece, how Plato nudged God aside to make more room for man and how a new art grew into three dimensions with perspective and depth, putting flesh and blood men alongside the one-dimensional saints on church walls. It was a revolution personified by Botticelli’s painting of a naked woman rising from the waves; not Eve or the Virgin Mary, but the beautiful pagan siren, Venus. What was Botticelli thinking when he lifted the brush? What was it like to have lived through it all? That was the novel I was going to write. But where was my story?My daughters showed me the way. They arrived in the thick heat of summer: the 15-year-old was attitude on a stick — full of will, but fierce and open; ready to deal with anything life threw at her. The nine-year-old was still humble enough to be awed, reveling in the art, tasting the color, feeling the paint. Two bright young girls on the edge of adult life, strong in character, even stronger in their dreams. But where were the young girls of the Renaissance? Everything I had read was about men: men writing, men speaking, most of all, men painting. Yet women were there, as they always have been: smart, shrewd, talented and creative. They may not have been allowed to become apprentices, grinding paints and sleeping under trestle tables of masters until they were ready to work on their own walls, but surely they would have had the yearning, the enthusiasm, the talent and most of all the will?And so my girls inspired my heroine, 15-year-old, Alessandra Cecchi, a Florentine with talent in her fingers and character in her veins. Her father is a rich cloth merchant, her brother and sisters are children of the Renaissance, all of them living on the cusp of a cultural revolution at its most dramatic moment, when the Medici patronage gave way to the fundamentalism and hell fire of the Monk Savonarola. It was Savonarola who, breathing sulphur from the pulpit, so scared Florence, damning the new learning as pagan and the work of the devil. He built the original “Bonfire of the Vanities,” where the wealthy threw their luxuries on to a great fire and where artists like Botticelli, terrified by images of hell, burned some of their own works. The history of the Renaissance at its most vibrant told through my heroine’s eyes as she walked through the flames of fate into marriage, birth, death and her own whispered conversations with the devil.By the time THE BIRTH OF VENUS was finished I had a new home and my daughters had the best kind of history lesson ahead of them: a great story built on a scaffold of facts (even thought the younger one may have to wait a little while to understand the philosophy mixed in with the sexuality.)And last but not least, the moral from this story: the next time your relationship is as bloody as your steak, fall in love with a city rather than another man. Much more productive and creative!
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: It seems like, as a culture, we have a slight obsession with families of power. Where do you think that fascination comes from? What in particular fascinated you about the Borgias?
SARAH DUNANT: I have spent the last fifteen years studying this amazing period known as the Italian renaissance. And alongside great art I have come to understand a lot about the power of family in that time. It’s no coincidence that the mafia and the Godfather come out of Italy. This is a country that until 160 years ago wasn’t a country at all, but a set of city-states, jockeying for power, and almost all of them at one time or another were run by dynasties. So family was a form of government. Even in the church in Rome you find that it’s families that control the main appointments. And given the corruption of this time that meant literally family: cardinals or even Popes not only had nephews, nieces, etc but also children of their own (illegitimacy was acceptable within family power structures) appointed. In such a world loyalty and trust was paramount. And family was the tightest unit you can have.
When it comes to the Borgia family, the high drama comes firstly from the fact that when Rodrigo becomes Pope he has four children of marriageable age which he can – and does – use openly as political pawns, both inside and outside the church. Secondly, they are Spanish and not Italian, so they have to fight the existing family power structures to make their mark. The comparison with the Mafia is rich here. Like the new family muscling in on another territory, they need to be smart, fearless, and up for turf warfare. That is the real story of Blood & Beauty: renaissance Mafia.
PRH: The whole Borgia family, from its Papal patriarch to vengeful offspring, is known for its ability to charm. As a woman, Lucrezia had to rely on different sorts of wiles and charms in order to make her way through her family’s legacy. Do you think she held her own in the game? Did her power, in its own way, rival that of her ambitious father and brothers?
SD: Like the whole family, Lucrezia has suffered from history. The Borgias lost their struggle for power when the Pope died. Their sworn enemies took power and, as we all know, since the victors write the history, the Borgias come out of it very badly. And since the easiest slanders are always against women, Lucrezia suffers most of all; reviled as a whore, a murderess, a willing participant in incest and a poisoner.
So to write Blood & Beauty the first thing I had to do was to scrape off all this encrusted scandal. When I did what I found was a quieter, more intelligent, sensitive and eventually powerful young woman, who begins at twelve years old married off as a family pawn and through seven years and three husbands has to learn “on the job” how to hold her own in the political bear pit into which she has been thrown. And little by little she does. By the age of eighteen such is her natural abilities that her father is giving her jobs as a governor of towns he holds and when he goes away on business she even takes over the running of the Vatican office: a scandal of course in one way, but those who work with her find her efficient and charming.
She finally comes into her own in her third marriage, after her father’s death, when the family ambitions are in ruins, but she manages to forge a working relationship with a husband who, while they do not “love” each other, become partners in the ruling of a state. So this is the real Lucrezia: a woman who, like her father and brother, had a natural appetite and intelligence for politics, which when combined with charm and femininity but also a streak of steel, allowed her to be a survivor and the founder of her own dynasty.
PRH: In a way, the story of the Borgia family is one of the ultimate outsider success; They were a Spanish family that became successful in Rome. There’s something wildly inspiring about that. Can you talk a little about how their success in a foreign court is unusual and unprecedented in history?
SD: In terms of the history of the Catholic Church, no other foreign family came close to making the impact that the Borgias did. Alexander was a natural, brilliant strategist with a huge appetite for life, politics, and women. Cesare had the intelligence, speed, and ambition to be a highly competent, sometimes necessarily ruthless general and a leader of men. Together and as a family they came close to forging a new dynastic state in the middle of Italy, and even Machiavelli – the most astute diplomat and historian of his age – has nothing but admiration for Cesare at this moment, as is clear when he uses him as an example in his masterpiece “The Prince.”
But what makes them so “wildly inspiring” is that everything in their lives is a high-wire balancing act. They are working against the clock of how long the pope (sixty-one when he takes the papal throne) will live. That is what makes Blood & Beauty as much a thriller as a historical novel. And with every step they take, each triumph and each mistake, the vultures and the jackals are waiting to move in for the kill.
PRH: You hint at plans for a sequel; how far do you plan on taking us into the Borgia history?
SD: I never planned to write two books. But the deeper I got into this amazing history, this race against the clock, the more I realized that to really understand this extraordinary family and their impact on Italian history, you had to understand the brutality, corruption, and complexity of the world they lived in. And that meant a longer book.
How much more is there to tell? Well, the next eighteen months of their history is high-octane drama: war, love, treachery, sacrifice, illness, and death. It is about the dizzying rise of Cesare and his equally dizzying fall and Lucrezia’s fight to keep her place in a family and state where once again she is the reviled foreigner.
How much of it will I tell? Oh, goodness. Ask me again when the book is finished.
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