Warfare, Terror, Murder and Bloodshed
Virago 464pp £16.99
With In the Name of the Family, Sarah Dunant continues her narrative on the campaigns of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, to carve out a family possession in Italy. Florence is hanging on to its Republican status, having booted out the Medici in 1494, while, elsewhere, old noble families are knocked aside by the mercenaries they had depended upon. One of them, Vitellozzo Vitelli, is driven by revenge for Florence’s execution of his brother, siding with and then double-crossing the pope’s eldest son, Cesare Borgia, the novel’s central character. Vitelli is garroted for his pains. The Borgias have little regard for the Italian nobles who dominate the peninsula. As outsiders, they can afford to be circumspect, playing the Italians at their own superficial game. Pius III, who briefly succeeded Alexander VI as pope in 1503, came from a bankrupt Sienese family, whose founder, Pius II, referred to the Medici rulers of Florence as ‘more cultured than merchants usually are’.
Niccolò Machiavelli gradually becomes more prevalent in the novel as the military and political double-crossing unfolds, his pragmatic observations facilitating the reconstruction of Cesare Borgia as a heroic, if flawed, figure. Equally important are the poet, Pietro Bembo, Torella and Johan Burchard, papal master of ceremonies, who is the foil for the pope at close quarters. This is Dunant’s genius: her ability to piece together fragmentary, disparate sources and conjure up a compelling and convincing narrative which, though fictional, communicates a better sense of history (‘only and always the story of human nature in action’) than many a textbook.
Carol M. Richardson is Senior Lecture in the History of Art at the University of Edinburgh.