This book is meant to be a sequel to Dunant’s previous book, Blood and Beauty, a fictionalized account about Pope Alexander VI (who ascended to the papacy in 1492) and his children (who included Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia). In that book, as in this one, Dunant adheres meticulously to the historical record as much as possible. She fleshes out what is known with imagined dialogue, but her stories draw so heavily on the known historical record that they hardly seems like fiction at all.
This book picks up in 1502, and begins from the perspective of Niccolò Machiavelli, the author of the famous 16th-century political treatise, The Prince. That work was based predominantly on principles inspired by the effective uses of power by Cesare Borgia. While Machiavelli admired Cesare, “Machiavellian” has become an epithet for someone known for treachery, ambition, and ruthlessness.
Dunant provides a great deal of background for the story that in large part replicates what she wrote in the previous book. If you did not read that one, you will learn that Pope Alexander VI, originally Rodrigo Borgia, had a number of children. Mistresses were common at the time, and indeed, many of the cardinals in Rome evinced the tell-tale blush of syphillis. [The first written records of an outbreak of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1494/1495 in Naples, Italy, during the French invasion. After the departure of the French, the Italians – visiting the same prostitutes, became infected with the “French Disease” in turn.] Cesare Borgia was among those who suffered from the disease. In fact, it seemed like most of the male population, or at least those in power, contracted it, with the men passing it on to their wives.
Thus there are three primary subplots in this book: one focuses on the military and political prowess of Cesare, a second on the trials and tribulations of Lucrezia related to her third marriage, and the third is the physical and mental havoc that syphillis wreaked on the population.
Evaluation: While this book takes place later in time than the first, and with a slightly different emphasis, I thought it was too similar to the first to justify a second book. In addition, I thought the characterizations were a bit more shallow in this book.
Nevertheless, the story of the Borgias and the political and religious machinations of their time in power is a good one, and I didn’t mind reading much of it again, but I did feel like I was mainly doing a “re-read.”
Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House, 2017