Published by Random House
Publication date: March 7th 2017
Apparently, all roads do lead to Rome—at least in my March historical fiction reading so far! On Monday, I reviewed The Confessions of Young Nero and today I’m jumping forward 1,400 years with Sarah Dunant’s new novel about the Borgia family. In the Name of the Family opens with the scandal soaked Borgias firmly ensconced in power. After much maneuvering and exorbitant bribes father Rodrigo is Pope Alexander. Son Cesare (yes, a pope with children—illegitimate children even!) was originally made a cardinal, but found the church to be a less interesting vocation than war and seizing power. He now has his own army of mercenaries, funded by the Church, and is wreaking havoc throughout northern Italy. Lovely daughter Lucrezia already has two dead two husbands by the age of twenty-one and has now been married off again for political gain.
When this is where a novel opens it’s hard to imagine where it can go, except when it comes to the wily Borgias. This is a family whose shameless self-promotion and lack of scruples in plundering the very institution they were sworn to protect makes the Trumps look like amateurs. Or maybe not. If you’re a fan of Italian history than there’s not much new to be found in In the Name of the Family but if you’ve not learned anything about the Borgias then Dunant does a good job at balancing the rumors about the family against known facts. She does this, in part, by including Niccolo Machiavelli in the novel. He was used by the leaders of Venice to keep an eye on Cesare and his intentions towards that city state. Dunant uses Machiavelli as an impartial observer of the Borgias. Much of what he sees and learns about Cesare becomes the basis for his most well-known treatise, The Prince.
Dunant’s touch is also evident in Lucrezia’s life. Her reputation has been shredded throughout the years, largely because slandering a woman is so much easier than going after a man. She has been accused of sleeping with both her brother and her father, poisoning bishops and any number of other unsavory deeds. The reality is that as a young woman in the 16th century she had virtually no autonomy in her choices. She did what she was told to do. Her wishes were ignored as shown by the fact that her brother killed her husband and she was forced to abandon her firstborn child for her third marriage.
Beyond Lucrezia Dunant uses careful research to highlight many of the key social issues of the early 1500s. Even among the aristocracy, medicine was still in its infancy and bleeding with leeches was the most common treatment for all ailments. More alarming, though, was the insidious pox brought to Italy by soldiers fighting in France. Pox was actually syphilis and there was no real treatment. Because interest in women’s health (beyond giving birth) was of no interest at the time, men passed the disease on to their unsuspecting wives who often had no symptoms until trying to get or stay pregnant or to have a healthy child. All could be seriously impacted, but with no understanding blame landed squarely on the woman for failing to produce healthy heirs. Lucrezia falls victim to this because her husband is infected.
Details like this are the sort of thing that makes In the Name of the Family compelling reading. The Borgias are the focus, but the addition of Machiavelli highlights the fractured nature of Italian political power at the time. A country dominated by local titled rulers it was also partially controlled by the French and the Spanish with their more unified government systems. Political intrigue and violence were the norm and were used by the Borgias to great effect. The novel does get a bit dramatic, especially regarding Lucrezia, but including these other elements keeps it from crashing into an operatic heap. Instead Dunant succeeds in making the sensationalistic material read like a natural by-product of times that were over-the-top in their drama.