Sarah Dunant

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

When Niccolò Machiavelli crossed this bridge every day to work there was no upper story and certainly no tourists. Instead it was a rough cobbled path leading through blood and offal…. This is what he might have seen…

January 1502

His journey takes him down Via Guicciardini on the south side of the city and across the river Arno via the Ponte Vecchio. A maverick winter snowfall has turned into a grimy frost and the ground cracks like small animal bones under his feet. On the bridge fresh carcasses are being unloaded into the butchers’ shops. Through the open shutters he catches glimpses of the river, its surface of the water a silvery apricot under the rising sun. A feral dog streaks across his path, going for a gobbet of offal near the wheel of a cart. It earns him a kick in the ribs for his daring but his jaws remain firmly clenched over the prize. Scavenging opportunist! Stick a feathered hat on him and give him a sword and you’ve got half the country.

Across the bridge, he passes by the side of San Pier Scheraggio church into the open space of the Piazza della Signoria. The great bells from the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore sound out, marking the starting hour of the day and his thoughts move briefly to the cathedral workshop where a Florentine is chiseling into a block of flawed marble, commissioned by the state to produce a great statue of David to be placed on the façade of the cathedral. Nine months he’s been at it with no one allowed near the work, though the leaked gossip talks more of its size than its beauty. It remains to be seen whether it will be powerful enough to shield the city from the Borgia Goliath.

As the last chimes die away, a series of contorted male shrieks rise up from somewhere nearby; a late coupling between the sheets or a few early knife thrusts into a belly? Niccolò smiles. Such are the sounds of his beloved city, the sounds indeed of the whole of Italy.

This extract from In The Name of the Family: A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias



Lucrezia BorgiaImagine history as an enormous pointillist painting, the whole swirling chaos of the past represented through millions of coloured dots. Close to, it makes little sense, but step back and your eye finds shape and meaning, an epic narrative that sets out to explore and explain the journey so far.

Except that for the longest time there was so much missing from it. And the most egregious absence was that of women. Up until as little as sixty/seventy years ago while there were queens, mistresses of kings, a few saints, witches, female revolutionaries and a clutch of heroines – usually nurses or troublemakers – the smell lifting off the paint was predominantly that of male sweat and male aftershave.

Now, thanks to generations of historians and writers (the majority of them women, and I include the work of Virago here) the picture is changing dramatically. It’s far from finished – you could make exactly the same argument from the perspective of race – but we’re getting there.

On this Women’s Day though, I want to highlight a figure that’s been on the canvas for centuries, but a dot so badly painted that she is virtually unrecognisable from the truth.

Her name is Lucrezia Borgia.

You will almost certainly know her by the colourful insults that have dogged her throughout history: wicked, siren lovely, lascivious, incestuous and murderous, with a predilection for poison. Some of that slander started in her life time, then rolled effortlessly on; a novel by Victor Hugo, an opera by Donizetti, sensational films by deservedly forgotten directors, right up to recent television series which painted her as a bright little vixen, pulled inexorably into the arms of her handsome brother.

But for the sake of truth, a beleaguered commodity in this time of Trumped up fabrications, I offer now a more nuanced, though no less extraordinary, story of her life.

Lucrezia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia, was a cardinal and vice chancellor of the church when she was born (the rules demanded celibacy, but word proved blurry when it came to chastity). His only daughter by a long-term mistress, she was adored, educated and protected, but her childhood ended in 1492 when he became pope and the Borgia project of dynasty building began in earnest with her marriage. She was thirteen years old.

By twenty-one she was on to husband number three. Number one lasted only a few years (they needed her for a new alliance), the marriage annulled on the grounds of his impotence, despite the fact that his earlier wife had died in childbirth. In furious revenge he announced that he had “known her an infinity of times and that the pope only wanted her back for himself.” Thus the slander of incest was born and sixteen-year-old Lucrezia became “the greatest whore in Rome.”

Number two was the illegitimate son of the King of Naples. Their union was sweet but violently short. She gave birth to a son and showed herself to be politically capable, acting as governor for two papal towns, even running the business of the Vatican while the pope was away. For a while her life lights up with joy. But Naples falls out of favour and since annulment can’t do the job this time, her jealous, psychopathic brother, Cesare, takes matters into his own hands. Her husband is attacked on the streets and then, as he lays wounded in a Vatican bedroom, is finished off by Cesare’s bodyguard.

Engulfed by grief, the dutiful daughter now starts to rebel. To survive her family she needs to find a dynasty as powerful to protect her. When a union with the old house of d’Este in Ferrara is mooted, she does everything she can to make it happen, though she knows she will not be allowed to take her son with her. In 1501 she leaves Rome, never to return.

Her battles are not over. In Ferrara she finds a miserly father-in-law and an indifferent, philandering husband. She charms both, surviving malaria and miscarriage to become duchess of the city, securing herself a place long after the Borgia project fails. She alone carries on the family line; she runs a vibrant renaissance court, takes over the reins of government when her husband goes to war and even manages a love affair or two of her own. Later she becomes quietly religious, protecting and endowing convents, and when she dies, painfully young (39) in childbirth, she is mourned by the whole city.

This then is the real Lucrezia Borgia; resilient, brave, clever, adaptable: a woman for all seasons. No poison, no incest, no siren seduction (it’s always been as easy to damn women as ignore them), instead a remarkable story of survival, proof that whatever life delivered many still triumphed over the huge odds against them. As we celebrate Women’s Day 2017, Lucrezia’s repainted dot, along with many others on the canvas, is evidence that not only is feminism changing the present, it is also changing the past.

In the Name of the Family: A novel of Machiavelli & the Borgias is out now

Trumping history with the Borgias

Pope Alexander VI and Donald Trump

A historical Comparison

There are moments when rather than feeling like a straight line, history starts to resemble a circle…

In 1492, having been viewed as an outsider for the biggest job in the Catholic church, Rodrigo Borgia barnstormed his way through a sweaty conclave, using threats and bribery to neutralise his rivals and win the papal crown. When the final vote was held, we are told that he jumped to his feet and punched the air with the words “Yes, I am pope”.

A corpulent, energetic man in his sixties, he was already famous for his great wealth, his ruthless financial dealings – he was the church’s vice chancellor for many years – and his inveterate womanising. Though his position as a cardinal demanded celibacy, for him (as for many high clerics) that did not mean chastity. He had seven children in all, four of them by a recent long-term mistress whom he discarded after some years for a much – much – younger model.

Right from the start, the Borgia papacy specialised in family self-aggrandisement. He staged a huge showy inauguration playing to the Roman crowds. Top positions went to family and friends. He built his own apartments in the Vatican, having them extravagantly decorated by the most fashionable painter of the day and when his daughter got married, he threw a lavish wedding inside those same rooms.

His eldest son Cesare was his closest advisor, finally moving into the Vatican and using papal funds to run a military campaign to annex Papal States into the Borgia dynasty. Rodrigo himself was by all accounts so fond of his daughter Lucrezia that when her first marriage was annulled in favour of a new alliance on the grounds of her husband’s impotence, the furious man (whose first wife had died in childbirth) remarked publically: “I have known my wife an infinity of times and the pope only wants her back for himself.” One lie led to another and what started as gossip soon became accepted in history as fact.

In a world not shy of brutality and ruthlessness the Borgias still stood out. When the Spanish came to ask for a lion’s share of the new world (America starts here) the pope got a royal bride for his son out of the deal. When one of the Roman families moved against him during a French invasion, he had the head of the family poisoned in prison and some years later annihilated half the rest. He lied and dissembled without compunction. The bodies of his enemies were found garrotted in the Tiber and when an anonymous letter damning the family’s actions was samizdated around town (renaissance media was mainly gossip but sometimes print), Cesare Borgia caught a Venetian on the streets distributing it and cut off his hand and tongue. When Venice’s ambassador complained, the Pope replied “Ah, he’s a nice boy but he can’t abide insults.’

Rodrigo died in 1503, felled by a mosquito bite during a viciously hot Roman summer: the gossip was that his bed chamber was full of cavorting bare chested devils (speaking if not in Russian, then a strange tongue, come to claim him after the deal made with him to let him rule. His body was so bloated that it started to decay almost immediately and had to be hurriedly buried, men pushing and shoving into a coffin, which was already too small for it.

His papacy was to have a powerful impact on the history of Europe. His political and diplomatic dealings were followed with acute interest by a young Florentine envoy, who spent months at the court of Cesare Borgia. His name was Niccolò Machiavelli and used what he had seen and learned when he wrote his political masterpiece ‘The Prince’. A few years later Martin Luther, who had visited Rome as a young monk during the 1500 jubilee and been appalled at what he saw, nailed his 17 treatises to the church door at Wittenberg. The protestant reformation, spreading war and bloodshed across Europe, had begun. History, then as now, has consequences.

In the Name of the Family: A novel of Machiavelli & the Borgias is out now

Sarah Dunant’s 2017 events

Sarah Dunant will be touring her brand new novel In the Name of the Family across 2017, and we will be keeping this post updated with new events as they are confirmed.


  • 6 March, 7pm: Sarah Dunant at the Ropetackle Arts Centre (Brighton) in association with City Books

    Presented by City Books. This special evening will include a reading, Q&A and book signing.

  • 10 March, 6.30pm: Sarah Dunant at the National Gallery (London)

    Bestselling novelist of the Italian renaissance, Sarah Dunant marks the opening of the Michelangelo exhibition with an illustrated lecture showing how historical fiction, when combined with an understanding of art and cutting edge research can bring alive the past in all its dazzling complexity.

    Her new novel In the Name of the Family follows Niccolò Machiavelli, a jobbing diplomat in Florence and offers a ringside seat on the rise and fall of the Borgias: unscrupulous pope, marriage pawn daughter and psychotic son pushing to create a dynastic state inside Italy.

    Politics, the power of religion, the horrors of war and the wonder of art: the lecture explores how the red-hot lava of energy of the renaissance combined sex and spirituality, corruption and creativity and brutality and beauty.

  • 18 March: Sarah Dunant at the Creative Industries Trafford: Northern Lights Writers’ Conference in partnership with Manchester Literature Festival

    Sarah is the keynote speaker for Northern Lights Writers’ Conference 2017.


  • 23 March: Sarah Dunant at the British Institute, Florence (Italy)


  • 6 April: An evening with Sarah Dunant at Topping (St Andrew’s, Scotland)

    Sarah Dunant, the internationally acclaimed author of The Birth of Venus, joins Topping & Company Booksellers to celebrate In the Name of the Family.

    “It is better to be feared than loved…” – Niccolo Machiavelli

    Dunant’s new novel is a brutal, stunning account of young Machiavelli’s encounter with the notorious Borgia family. A follow-up to the acclaimed Blood & BeautyIn the Name of the Family is a fresh and vital experience for any reader with an interest in the Renaissance period or, of course, Machiavelli himself.

    “A wonderful novel – taking you deep into the world of Renaissance passion and Renaissance papacy. Part of me was happily lost in the time travel, part of me repeatedly struck by how vividly ancient Rome met modern Rome, and how the city of history came to life.” – Mary Beard on Blood & Beauty.

    Thrillingly written and historically accurate, Dunant’s masterclass of Renaissance fiction will capture your imagination and leave you breathless.