The US edition of Blood & Beauty is out now, and is starting to attract great reviews, as this recent piece in the New York Times demonstrates:
In “Blood and Beauty,” Dunant follows the path set by Hilary Mantel with “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” Just as Mantel humanized and, to an extent, rehabilitated the brilliant, villainous Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, Dunant transforms the blackhearted Borgias and the conniving courtiers and cardinals of Renaissance Europe into fully rounded characters, brimming with life and lust.
You can read the full review here.
I understand that the next words will be painful for everyone living in England so forgive me in advance, but for much of the last two weeks Florence has been in the midst of a broiling heat wave. There have been days when it is simply too hot to move, too hot even for art. With one exception: the exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi.
For years now the Strozzi has been one of the most innovative exhibition spaces in Italy. While the Uffizi and the Accademia pull their tourist hordes on pilgrimage for a glimpse of Botticelli’s Venus or David’s genitalia, the more discerning visitor heads for the Strozzi. In the courtyard of this exquisite renaissance palace – we have diary entries telling of its construction in the 1490’s – you can regularly enjoy some of the most witty and spatially challenging examples of contemporary art (check out the tree elevating from the earth in the photo here).
But it is the larger exhibition space upstairs that offers the real wonder. Until August it is home to one of the most exciting shows on early renaissance sculpture you will ever see. Bringing together masterpieces from museums all over the world it tells the story of the birth of renaissance sculpture in Florence during the first half of the 15th century.
Here you can witness how artists like Andrea Pisano, Jacopo di Quercia, and the great Donatello along with many others absorbed the influences of classical work and the gothic to create their own unique Christian humanist vision. In some cases you can even follow the moment of inspiration and transition. For instance, when in 1401 the Florentine government set a competition to find an artist to design the brass reliefs for the doors on the North side of the Baptistery, they asked the finalists, Ghilberti and Brunelleschi, to produce their version of The Sacrifice of Isaac panel to help them choose. The two panels are here for you to study. Look closely and you will notice how Ghiberti modeled the twisted torso of young Isaac on the fragment of a famous Roman sculpture of warrior. While Brunelleschi took another equally well known Roman sculpture of a young boy absorbed in removing a thorn from his foot and gave exactly the same pose to a servant attending the scene. From the statues themselves to the brass panels: the artistic journey is gathered here for you to see.
Then there is the room devoted to the irresistible soft/stone flesh of babies. This is the story of how sprits and winged cupids of Greek and Roman art transformed themselves into playful Renaissance Putti, and how that same mischief invaded images of the Christ child, creating meltingly lovely marble, stone and terracotta statues of a joyful Mary holding a plump, vivacious child. By the middle of the 15th century this was one of the most reproduced and best selling images in Florence, an early fashion sensation for a growing middle class who wanted to mix devotion and decoration in their new homes.
Like many exhibitions at the Strozzi, The Springtime of the Renaissance works on different levels. You can choose to be simply be stunned by beauty or dig a little deeper into the politics of this remarkable little Italian state that so punched above her weight in the 15th century. But perhaps the thing that really marks this out as a Strozzi experience is the interactivity.
The general director, James Bradburne, has long been on a mission to bring new, younger audiences into art. He understands that when confronted by the tactile wonder of marble or stone, one’s fingers are itching to touch as well as look. There is a story going on throughout the exhibition about the power and importance of our sense of touch. And, in two small rooms off the main galleries, you get a chance to get your hands on some objects; a few lovely little bronze figures from history and some larger plaster casts of well known works, all lying there waiting for your fingertips. For just a moment you can experience the same thrill of those early renaissance collectors as they were sat cradling their exquisite objects and enjoying the sensuality of touch.
“Close your eyes and see with your fingers” – the sign on the wall exhorts. “Then go out and look again.”
When the weather gets too hot to think, there is always something in the Strozzi to dazzle your senses and get your mind moving again.
The springtime of the Renaissance is on at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence until August 18th.
As you might have noticed, there is literary spat on going at the moment about whether unlikable women characters in fiction are judged differently from men. It all started with the American writer, Claire Messud, attacking an interviewer who suggested the central figure in her novel The Woman Upstairs was the kind of person you wouldn’t want for a friend, and therefore makes for grim company. Messud sank her teeth into the journalist’s jugular and shook her about a bit to make the point that men don’t get asked this kind of question and that fiction is full of unlikeable men who we follow avidly.
While there is a lot to say about this, it might help to define our terms a bit. What exactly do we mean by ‘unlikeable’? And does the word mean the same thing for men or women?
Certainly, unpleasant, amoral, dark, or outrageously cocky men in literature are common and often irresistible. As Claire Messud herself points out, the likes of Roth, Rushdie and Amis used to write them all the time. Indeed Roth still does, but it seems to be his life journey to penetrate the dark self-obsessed centre of masculinity and as a woman reader, I’m happy to be educated on the project, not least because he is fantastic writer. (It makes no sense in this debate for us not to give credit where credit is due.)
The follow up then might be – are men readers as interested and enthralled by the idea of reading about the dark centre of being female? To answer that, all you have to do is ask an even bigger, balder question: are men that interested in reading much serious fiction at all, regardless of who is writing it or what it is about? Because if they aren’t (and all the evidence shows that it is women who make up the great majority of the reading public) then this problem of unlikeable females and whether or not we enjoy reading about them is largely down to women to decide.
So let’s go a little deeper into unlikeability.
In terms of successful fiction it’s true that often the nastier the character the more compelling and dynamic they are likely to be. No one could call Hannibal Lecter likeable, but oh my, his darkness is provocative, compulsive and, in plot terms, extremely dynamic. Indeed it is the action of the book. So can we have a female Hannibal? Well, we can get close. The deranged fan, Annie in Stephen King’s Misery is violent and psychotic. It is her psychosis with its grotesque vulnerabilities that runs the thriller narrative. Those are both male writers. So what about women writing bad women? Margaret Atwood is a clear star here. The Robber Bride (twenty years old now) has a female character who is devious, driven and treacherous. But all those attributes help fuel the action of the book. Or there is Fay Weldon’s classic Life and Loves of a She Devil – the study of a woman’s fury activating a tale of gothic revenge. You wouldn’t want either of those women in your immediate address book, but my God you want to keep turning the page.
What they all have in common in their ‘unlikeability’ is power. And this is surely the secret. Think of all the women in history who live on in popular imagination precisely because they have not been ‘likeable’: Catherine the Great, Elizabeth 1st, more recently the rewriting of Ann Boleyn. I would add to that Lucrezia Borgia, though having just spent some years in her company there is a big caveat here – more on that later. The reason they are all remembered at all, is that they were operating in a male arena, which meant that to survive they had to behave somewhat like men: ambitious, driven, potent. Not exactly nice attributes, but you don’t ignore them.
When it comes to Lucrezia Borgia the exact opposite is actually the truth. Say her name out loud and among the adjectives you get back are licentious, incestuous, poisonous, murderer. How unlikable is that? (I suspect the key here is ‘licentious and incestuous’ since sex always works well for giving women prominence in history). Yet if you dig deeper you find it is all rubbish. A fabrication. A case of a lot of mud slinging through the 15th century equivalent of tabloid journalism and the truth not getting a look in.
So when I wrote Blood & Beauty my challenge was to get the history right – which meant making her more likeable – without rendering her boring compared to her more genuinely villainous family. The job was made easier by the fact that whole book is driven by action, politics, survival, revenge and that as she gradually understands that she is being used as a pawn in the game and starts to rebel against it, so, in the end, she does gain some power over her future. Though it also follows that she isn’t quite as sweet by the time history has roughed her up a bit.
So if the secret is that the more power you have, the more you can afford to be unlikable, then maybe Clare Messud’s dilemma is that her lead character does not have any – or at least not in the outside world. As she herself says ‘We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation … not a soul registers that we are furious.’
While for some reviewers all that internalised fury has made for a wonderful character study, others seem to yearn for something more active, the pleasure of seeing what might happen when that fury (likable or not) is unleashed onto the world at large. To make up your own mind you’ll have to read the book yourself.
As to women and power, I offer this final thought. The reason I am writing this at all is because I was asked to debate this issue this morning on the BBC’s Today programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-22685719. (For those outside Britain, Today is our flagship radio news show with a huge listenership.) I sat for an hour waiting to go on and in all that time I never heard a single female voice on air. The presenters, the newsreaders, the commentators, the politician, the experts were all male: men talking about IMPORTANT matters with AUTHORITY, even a sense of their own POWER. And you know what? I genuinely don’t think anyone had noticed till we got into the discussion about women writers and I decided to mention it.
So – put that world into fiction through the eyes of a heroine and imagine the structure of a dynamic novel. I can’t help thinking she might have to be a tad angry and unlikeable to get things changed.
Blood & Beauty has been reviewed widely across the national media, and the verdict is unanimous:
‘A wonderful study of one legendary family’s much-vaunted blood ties and vaulting ambition from a master of historical fiction… an insightful, fresh take on the whole Borgia clan… A comparison to Wolf Hall is not out of place here’ The Times, Viv Groskop
‘The corridors of power are hotbeds of political intrigue, and few more so than those of the Vatican when the Borgias held sway… Sarah Dunant’s gripping novel… is a must read for anyone interested in the period, and for those who simply enjoy intelligent historical fiction.’ Daily Mail, Kathy Stevenson
‘It is in her asides that Dunant triumphs, like all good novelists: in deft, shrewd, precise use of killer detail.’ Guardian, Christobel Kent
‘While Dunant has always been a masterful storyteller, here she excels’ Psychologies, Emma Herdman
‘This is Dunant’s fourth Renaissance novel and she is in her element… She brings 15th century Italian cities vividly alive – the lawlessness and violence, the diseased and damaged bodies, the debauchery and corpses… an intelligent and passionate book’ Sunday Times, Lucy Atkins
‘The infamous Borgia family is the subject of Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant. Her epic breathes life into Renaissance Italy, challenging what we think we know about this corrupt dynasty’ Good Housekeeping
‘Blood and Beauty establishes her as a top-ranking novelist of the Italian renaissance. Its power lies in its seamless combination of historical expertise with a natural gift for storytelling… Dunant has promised us a sequel. I can’t wait.’ The Tablet, Susan Dowell