Sarah Dunant’s new novel, “Blood and Beauty,” her fourth set in the Italian Renaissance, tells the story of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia as he tries to build a dynasty after becoming Pope Alexander VI. She spoke from her home in London.
What made you decide to write about the Borgias?
If you spend any time in the Renaissance, the Borgias are tapping on your shoulder the whole time. At one level, they are the most infamous family in history. It’s not until an Italian historian in the 1940s goes back to the actual records that we discover that quite a lot of what we think we know about them is gossip and rumor put about by their enemies. The mud stuck.
I’m not sure your book exactly clears their name.
That was certainly not my intention. There is a lot of bad behavior in this period, and the Borgias are as badly behaved as a lot of other people, possibly in some cases worse. But you do have to understand the context. The Renaissance is not just pretty and gorgeous. It’s also powerful and at times quite brutal. Rodrigo Borgia takes the papacy having fathered four children of marriageable age, and as long as he is pope, he will use the spiritual and temporal power he’s got to try to create a dynasty. I was amazed by the audacity of how he sets out to do this.
Women often play a pivotal role in your historical fictions, including Lucrezia, the pope’s daughter. How much do you have to enhance the historical record of women’s roles?
For a while, I think there was a tendency either to go looking for the great heroines who had got lost or to tell a story about how oppressed they were. Both of those were admirable political statements about this moment in history and feminism. But the more we looked at history, the more we realized that the whole thing was more subtle; the weave was tighter. Women, rather like now, did what they could in the wiggle room they had in the time that they lived. In some ways that was a quieter heroism, an everyday heroism.
Why do you suppose people read historical fiction, as opposed to history?
There’s certainly a kind of wonderful exoticism about reading history, about going deep into the smells, the sounds, the touch of the cloth. There’s a visceral difference in sensation being inside a country 500 years ago. And despite all that, they were just like us. What’s the line in “The Merchant of Venice”? “Prick us, do we not bleed?” People love that combination. But I’ve got another version of this, and that is they’re not the same as us. If you grow up in a period when, of course, you believe in God, when there is no such thing as atheism, before Freud, before Darwin — doesn’t that somehow make you different? And so sometimes I think they’re not like us. We’re living in a time when across the world there are a lot of people who are thinking really differently from us. Prick them, they bleed, too. But there is something about the mix of the culture and the belief system and the history they’ve grown up in that means they don’t think like us. We should be going to history to understand difference. Not similarity.
Why do you write historical fiction and not history?
I’m continually being taken to something really interesting in history, and then I’m not allowed in the door. If you’re going to tell a story, you can’t say, “Well, the pope went to bed with Giulia Farnese, and we’ve never known what happened” — one of the scenes I loved writing most. She had the longest, most beautiful hair in the whole world, and if you go to bed with a lover who’s fat, the hair’s going to become a problem. How they handle it seemed to me a way of investigating their characters. No historian could do it. That’s the pleasure of being a novelist: You take the imaginative jump.
Burns, editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between,” teaches creative writing at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales.