NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In 1500, Italy bursts with some of the most influential and vivid figures in history, many still remembered by just one name: Leonardo, who balances art and sciences; Galileo, who turns his telescope to the heavens; and Machiavelli, who will soon calculate the ruthless politics of the day.
And then there's the prince himself. But we need full names here, for there is an entire family of Borgias. In her new novel, Sarah Dunant returns to the Renaissance Italy she mined for a series of best-sellers, "The Birth of Venus", "In the Company of the Courtesan" and "Sacred Hearts" to describe Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia, the brilliant, infamous and powerful Borgias.
So who was your favorite Renaissance character? Why? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, we look ahead with poet Nikky Finney. But first, Sarah Dunant joins us from the BBC studios in London. Her novel "Blood & Beauty" comes out next month. And welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.
SARAH DUNANT: Oh, it's great to be back. I just got off a plane from Italy. So I'm very pleased to be here.
CONAN: Well, one of the themes of your book - now there are two ways to look at this. One, is this sort of overarching historical theme, Spain is about to send conquistadors out to follow Columbus to the New World and upset the balance of power in Europe. It's a very interesting moment, interesting theory. Then there is the story that you tell of a Spanish pope.
DUNANT: Yes. Well, well of course we didn't really think about the Borgias as being Spanish. We just lump them in with a lot of other Italian families. But it is the great secret about this family that they don't come from inside Italy. They are in fact interlopers. And Italy, and especially Rome, is full of very powerful families, a bit like a kind of early version of "The Godfather", who really aren't interested in sharing power.
So when you come to look at the kind of press that the Borgias have had over the 500 years since they kind of died out, what you're looking at is vested interests out to slander them because they were the interlopers. Now, some of those awful things they did is true, but one of the things that I discovered while researching and writing this book is that there was a great deal more depth and nuance and subtlety and things of interest about the Borgias than our old version of how they used to be.
CONAN: And it's not as if they were outliers in their practices. They may have been a little bit more extreme from time to time, but everybody did it.
DUNANT: I mean, the point about this period, Neal, and it's so fascinating, is you don't get all the creativity out of the Renaissance without some of the corruption. You don't get all the beauty without some of the brutality. The things that we now think of as some of the great works of the Renaissance were financed by cardinals or rulers who in themselves were pretty corrupt.
So nobody has completely clean hands in this affair.
CONAN: I was - anybody who's read any of your other books know that there has always got to be an artist that is important to the conversation, maybe less so in this one, but Petruchio, his painting "The Chambers of the New Pope", as the story begins. In the meantime, I expected that. I did not expect expertise on the dawn of artillery and its influence on fortifications.
DUNANT: Ah, now if you're going to really write well in history, you've got to get out there and follow the soldiers, I tell you, because history is partly about violence and a lot about politics. And indeed there is a very interesting moment in Italian history here. Italy is invaded by the French in the 1490s, and the French bring with them something that's going to change warfare, which is they bring lightweight artillery in.
They bring cannons that you can move fast. And that changes the whole game. And when Cesare Borgia, the pope Rodrigo's eldest son, makes an attempt to basically carve out a dynastic power structure in the middle of Italy, which is why he's necessarily known as the prince later by Machiavelli, one of the things that he has is he has those cannons from the French army. And that makes an incredible difference to him as a commander and as a power force.
And if you're going to write history well, you've got to know your cannons. You've got to know how they fired, what they did, and in this period of time, Neal, they were like the atomic bomb of the era. You hear people talking about how brutally unfair it is that they should be damaged or killed by something that flies out of them from the sky and crushes them, because that has no courage attached to it.
That's not about meeting the warrior face to face and slugging it out. That's cowardly warfare.
CONAN: The drone warfare of the time.
CONAN: We're talking with Sarah Dunant about her new novel about the Borgias, "Blood & Beauty". We want to hear, well, your interest in Renaissance characters, who and why. 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Let's start with Roland, and Roland is on the line with us from Sarasota.
ROLAND: That's right, hi. My favorite Borgia is Lucrezia because she was ahead of her time. She was the first liberated woman. She would have sex with (unintelligible) man, with the best-looking men, then she would kill them.
DUNANT: That's so untrue. Every single thing that you've just said there, Roland, actually is the reason that I wrote the book. She is indeed a really interesting character, but all of those rumors about the murders and all the lovers come from the people who were the enemies of the Borgias who were out to slander her.
She's actually liberated in a rather different way because she's quite intelligent and she manages how to make a place for herself in a world which is full of men.
ROLAND: I agree with you. In those time, the pope, Pope Clement, and they used to have orgies, (unintelligible) orgies in the Vatican. So corruption was a quality then. But I disagree with you. I studied Borgia in Italy many years ago, and that's her reputation, OK.
DUNANT: Well that, yeah, it's her reputation, but what's been so interesting about modern history is historians have gone back and really kind of looked. You know what? The Borgias are like the first sort of celebrities of history, really. And you know how easy it for the gossip to move about celebrities. And you know how hard, once the gossip's out there, even if it's not true, to get it back. And I think that's what happened with them.
ROLAND: I agree with you. They were snobs.
CONAN: Roland, thanks very much.
ROLAND: Thank you so much, I love your show, bye.
CONAN: Thank you very much, appreciate that. Maybe she was not the liberated woman in the way that Roland was describing her. Tell us, though, a little bit about Caterina Sforza.
DUNANT: Well, Caterina Sforza, known as the vigaro at the time, and it's absolutely true, is an illegitimate daughter, rather like Lucrezia is, one of the big main powerhouses in Italy, the Sforzas in Milan. And she's married off to somebody, and she becomes the wife of a papal vicarage. So she runs a city-state in the middle of Italy.
And she basically survives two or three attempts at assassination. And there is one particularly favorite story about her, and it's really hard to know how far it's the truth - and I sit on the fence in the book about it - where when they've actually taken her children as hostage, and they're suggesting that they're going to kill her children unless she surrenders, she walks out on the battlements of her fortress in Forli, and she picks up her skirts, and she says: Do you think that I don't have the tools to make more children?
CONAN: Also reputed to have sent a poisoned garment to the pope.
DUNANT: Yes, she was very, very good at medicine and herbs, as indeed a lot of these women were, and she was probably - she was both an expert on cosmetics and certainly was a good hand at kind of forms of poison, which if you think about it, of course, women really can't really wield daggers and swords, but they can wield poison, and that's I think one of the reasons why Lucrezia has become wrongly famous for it because it's the woman's weapon.
But what she is supposed to have done is to find a piece of cloth and - which had been round the body of a plague victim and wrap a petition to the pope in it. So when the pope opened it, he would actually have his hands on this piece of cloth which was soaked with the kind of pus and germs of the plague, and thus she was hoping to kill him off by giving him the plague.
CONAN: And thus her fortress comes under siege by the pope's eldest son, and, well, the story goes on. We're talking of course with Sarah Dunant about her new novel about the Borgias, "Blood & Beauty". And let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. This is David, David with us from Austin.
DAVID: Hi, I had a question maybe you could answer because my favorite folks from the Renaissance, and one of the reasons is there's so many of them and that I think they all look like Jeremy Irons ever since that series came out, but the Borgias with all their conniving and Machiavellianism, did they have anything to do with a lot of the papal policies, particularly having to do with papal celibacy and with priesthood celibacy? And I'll take it off the air. I was just curious if there was a connection there.
CONAN: Having read your book, papal celibacy was not what they were about.
DUNANT: You know, it's really interesting. The Borgias have become infamous for the fact that he - in fact he had seven illegitimate children, Rodrigo Borgia. But what you also need to know is the pope before him had two illegitimate children, and the pope after him had an illegitimate child.
You know, celibacy was one way of putting it. Priests and cardinals and popes were not allowed to marry, but celibacy didn't always mean that these guys were chaste. There's a very different series of standards when it comes to male behavior and female behavior, even within the church 500 years ago. And it was quite possible that you could be in the church, which was after all a profession people in the family took up; you didn't need to be that religious to be part of that profession, and that could well include you having mistresses and having children.
And what I do have to say about Jeremy Irons, though, because I knew he'd come up, is that he's just completely physically and emotionally wrong for the part of Rodrigo Borgia. And I say this with great sadness at this moment because the man who could have played Rodrigo Borgia better than any living actor on this planet died in Italy last night, and that was James Gandolfini.
His Tony Soprano is kind of nearest that I've come to a contemporary version of Rodrigo Borgia, and he would have been stunning in the role.
CONAN: I have to say, though, yes, physically Jeremy Irons wrong of the part, but that voice...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BORGIAS")
JEREMY IRONS: (as Rodrigo Borgia) Here we are in a snake pit surrounded by venom and smiling vipers, and our son pleads ignorance. Maybe it was you.
CONAN: Well, all right, maybe he doesn't look like Rodrigo, but I'd listen to him read the phone book.
DUNANT: Yeah, but you're suckers for that Royal Shakespeare Company gravely accent, actually. And let's pick him up on that actually because one of the things that I did learn about Rodrigo Borgia as I was researching him, and I began to like him as well as admire him and fear him, was that though he could be ruthless, he also had quite a good sense of humor.
And I haven't been rolling about the aisles watching Jeremy Irons, I must say.
CONAN: Who is your favorite Renaissance character and why? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. More with Sarah Dunant in just a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Sarah Dunant's new book "Blood & Beauty" is set in Renaissance Italy, as is much of her best-known work. She joins us today to talk about the book and the research she did to bring her characters and her settings to life. And one of the settings she uses is one she has used in previous books, a little bit earlier in history than before, that is the city of Rome.
Sarah, can I ask you to read a passage that describes the city?
DUNANT: OK because it has a kind of checkered history, of course, Rome by this time. Right, this begins Chapter 4: (Reading) Rome, a city born from the milk of a suckling wolf. Rome, the center of the strongest empire the world has ever known. Rome, the birthplace of the Holy Mother Church. Rome, the very word paints pictures of splendor and wonder.
The reality, as any number of visiting pilgrims will testify, is a miserable disappointment, not so much a great city as small islands of wealth poking their heads up amidst a sea of festering slums and wilderness. It is history that is to blame. History, which had made Rome imperial, had gone on to rip out her innards and leave the remains for the jackals and the vultures to feed on.
Centuries of war and neglect have eaten like deep frost into the very structure of living. With no fresh water, no sewage system and precious little employment except the burying of the dead, much of the population had fled or bled with such government as there was undermined by the tribal violence of a few great families.
While other Italian cities - Florence with her cloth and Venice with her ships - were fusing wealth and scholarship in the great rebirth of classical culture, Rome was still waking from the nightmare of the great papal schism. The return of the papacy from Avignon 70 years ago had brought with it the promise of a better future: cardinals, bishops, papal lawyers, secretaries, copies, ambassadors and diplomats all with households to be fed and watered.
CONAN: And those households feed and water themselves and with great - well, a lot of verve, I have to say, in Sarah Dunant's novel "Blood & Beauty: The Borgias". Call, tell us who's your favorite character from the Renaissance and why, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And let's see if we can go next to Randy, Randy on the line with us from Virginia Beach.
RANDY: Hi, thanks so much for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
RANDY: I'm a big fan of this era that you're talking about. I love reading about the birth of Christianity and the Vatican and whatnot. And my question for you is whenever you talk about the Vatican, obviously you're going to talk about the Borgias, but also the Medici family comes into it, too. I was curious: Is there any run-ins in your book or in any research that you've done that shows there was any meeting of the minds between those families?
DUNANT: Oh, well, you know, it's so interesting you should say that because the book begins with a scene in the papal conclave of 1492 when Rodrigo Borgia is basically going to have to buy in enough votes to win the papacy. And one of the people he goes to try and convince is the young son of Lorenzo de Medici, Giovanni de Medici, the youngest cardinal ever to be made. He's only just 18 years old, and he's just arrived in time for this conclave.
Now he is going to go on to become Leo X 25 years later or so...
CONAN: Oh, don't give it away.
DUNANT: Oh, well, no, but everybody knows they get a couple of popes. And the first chapter is a scene between the two men, with Rodrigo trying to persuade Giovanni. And in Giovanni's pocket there is a letter written by his father Lorenzo de Medici, who has recently died, which is advice to his son about entering the kind of cesspit of the papal court in Rome and how it would be very good if he listened and said nothing because vice was everywhere.
And that's a real letter. He actually wrote that.
RANDY: That is absolutely outstanding. I hope one day I can grow up and be you. I love your job.
RANDY: Thank you so much for taking my call. Everybody have a great day.
DUNANT: You're very welcome.
CONAN: Thank you. Where did you find that letter.
DUNANT: Oh, the letter is quite well-known if you know the history of the Medici family. And you can actually see the whole letter, and it is a really good piece of political advice. I mean, one of the things that, you know, you can't help feel - I was listening to you talk about all of those factions in Iraq now before I came on, and I was thinking, yes, that is what history is. Politics is complex. And if you go back 500 years to Italy, and you go back to Europe, what you are looking at is factions everywhere fighting each other.
So the Medici are one faction in Florence trying to protect themselves. The Borgia papacy in Italy are another. The Sforzas are in Milan. The house of Aragon is in Naples. It's a real bear pit there, and you have to be very smart and very ruthless and really on your toes politically to be able to survive in this climate.
CONAN: Let's go next to Ryan, Ryan with us from Palo Alto.
RYAN: Yeah, hi. I really love Cesare Borgia because I think more than any other person at that time, he was forward-looking and kind of had one foot in the past and one foot in the future.
CONAN: And another foot on your throat.
RYAN: But the thing about Cesare was that he had new ethics, he had a revolutionary sense of politics, he had a revolutionary sense of power at the time, and I think Machiavellianism really kind of grew out of him, and must of the Renaissance idea grew out of his power.
DUNANT: It's a really interesting thesis. You know, the thing about Cesare, and I spent a long time in his company, and I say this with a certain level of admiration, is I think the man was a sociopath. I think he had incredibly fast intelligence. I think he had very little empathy about him. But in a funny way that enabled to go out and do the job and not care about the impact of his behavior.
And it's certainly true what you say, that Machiavelli goes on to write "The Prince" some 10 years after he's met Cesare Borgia partly because he's watched Cesare Borgia in action. You know, he arrives just after Cesare Borgia has taken a city, and he sits with him and has a conversation with him, and he takes down word for word what Cesare Borgia says.
And then he sends a dispatch back to Florence saying we just have to come to terms with this guy because this guy's got us by the throat. And one of the wonderful things he says about him is he says he moves so fast that he arrives where he is going before his enemies know where he has left. And that's both classic Machiavellian understanding of pragmatic politics and classic Cesare Borgia, a bit like the cat jumping on the mouse before the mouse has even realized the cat's behind him.
CONAN: Did Cesare murder his brother?
DUNANT: You know, it is one of the great mysteries, and there are a number of mysteries in this family. And to really answer that question, you too would have to read all of the books I read in order to write the novel. I come out with a theory which is different from the theory that the more popular dramas would have, which is of course that he did.
I don't think he did, but I back it up with a lot of stuff that's come out of the history. You know, you won't notice this when you're reading the book with any luck, Neal, but there is an incredible amount in this book that actually comes directly from history, comes directly from historical records or gossip from diplomats or letters written between people.
And if you really study it at the cold face, and you're not looking for sensation, but you're looking for truth, I think what you find is a man who is capable of murdering his brother but actually didn't do it, that somebody else did it. But I'll leave that for you to find out by reading the book.
CONAN: Well, speaking of which, one of the fascinating characters - and Ryan, thanks very much for the call...
RYAN: Yeah, thank you.
CONAN: One of the fascinating characters is the chief of protocol, you would not think that's an important position, but it is very much, in the Vatican, who you make it clear is writing everything down as he goes along, a German.
DUNANT: Yes, and he's a real-life man, you know, Burckhardt is his name, and he's the master of ceremonies. It's his job to know how you should do it in papal matters, which of course is a bit of a challenge at this time because one of the first jobs he has is to marry off the pope's illegitimate daughter. Well, that isn't written down in many of the books about what you do in terms of papal ceremony.
And then actually to have the baptism of her son in the Sistine Chapel. But he also keeps a diary, and we have that diary. Now, there's certain laconism in the diary. There are places where he doesn't speak, so we don't know what his opinion was. It's pretty clear that he disapproves of Alexander.
But also, you know, he is human, and there's an incredible moment in this story when one Alexander's children - I mean, we've given it away now - when Juan Borgia dies, Juan Borgia is murdered, and Alexander, who does love his children, whatever else is his faults, is beside himself with grief. And Burckhardt writes that for three days he's in his room locked up, kind of ululating with grief, sobbing and crying.
And he won't take food, and he won't take water, and there are little groups of cardinals outside the door begging him please to stop crying, and he can't. And even Burckhardt has a tone of sympathy at that moment, and it's bits like when you're reading the history that are just gold dust, and you think oh my goodness, if I can bring that kind of intensity of emotion into a book, then it doesn't matter whether people think I'm making it up, or it's true, they'll have a sense of sinking into the period.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Diana(ph), Diana with us from Pain Coast - Palm...
DIANA: Hi. Hi.
DIANA: Hello. I had a question about Michelotto, the assassin who worked for Cesare.
DIANA: How much is - what is said about him is true? I mean, I've heard that, you know, he strangled two of Cesare's rebellious captains simultaneously on one of their campaigns, and I've heard that he had known Cesare since they were at university in Pisa. And I was just wondering, I mean, what about him is actually true?
DUNANT: Well, actually, you've done a pretty good job historically, there, because there's not much that you can say that's good about Michelotto, except for the fact that he is clearly an extremely loyal follower. And if I were to just add there, Diana, of course, that he comes also from a Spanish family. Those Spanish families stay very close together. You know, the Borgias will always be talking Italian. Michelotto and Cesare will be talking Italian together, and they've grown up together, and he is very much his henchman.
CONAN: You meant to say Spanish Catalan.
DUNANT: Oh, I'm - well, it was - yes, all right. They speak Catalan, but they are all from Spain, that part of Spain, because Spain isn't united at that point. Yeah. And the really interesting thing about Michelotto - and it won't come in this book; it'll come in the next - is that after the whole great enterprise falls apart and the Borgias fail to get their state and Alexander dies, the pope that comes in afterwards, who clearly has an axe to grind, gets hold of Michelotto - he can't get hold of Cesare; Cesare's escaped - and he tortures Michelotto in order that Michelotto should tell him whether or not the pope poisoned cardinals or what did Cesare do, and Michelotto doesn't say a thing. Michelotto refuses to implicate anybody. And in terms of the sheer loyalty of blood in that family, I found myself enormously impressed by that, even though it is quite clear that the man is really quite a ruthless killer.
DIANA: Right. Well, thank you.
CONAN: Diana, thanks very much.
DUNANT: You're welcome.
CONAN: And here's an email about a favorite Renaissance character, Leonardo da Vinci, the first notable figure to challenge Aristotle in 2,000 years in art, mathematics, militaria, architecture, medicine, et cetera, a character in the wings, at least, in this first book.
DUNANT: Oh, yes. You know, he's a - he's in Milan. He's employed by the Sforza Duke in Milan, and he's trying to build that huge horse, which is supposed to be a war memorial to the original Sforza in Milan. And he gets as far as getting it into clay, but he never finally casts it in bronze. And then they need the bronze for the cannons because the French invasion takes place.
And when the French get into Milan - and there's a scene in the book here, but it's absolutely true - the archers used the clay horse as practice, and they smash it down with their arrows. So, of course, we don't have it at all.
But quite soon after this first volume of the book ends, he will be employed by Cesare Borgia. Cesare takes him into the Romagna, where he's taking his cities and fortresses, and he asks him to do some work on fortification.
And, in fact, just a few days ago, I was looking at the plans that Leonardo did for the city of Imola, and he has a city plan that he has done, which he uses compasses in order to get all the measurements, which is breathtakingly accurate and beautiful. It's both actually accurate, but it's also a piece of art.
CONAN: We're talking with Sarah Dunant about her most recent book, the "Blood & Beauty: The Borgias." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get Jules(ph) on the line, calling from Santa Cruz.
JULES: My favorite Renaissance character is Anne Boleyn, and I'm not too happy with the popular media depictions of her. They depict her as being fairly one-dimensional, and they completely overlook the back story before she ever had a relationship with Henry VIII. And I think that, kind of like Lucrezia Borgia, people just kind of want to jump on the juicy bits of it and not do any deep research into who she actually was and why she did the things that she did.
DUNANT: You know, it is interesting that when you come to women in history, either you ignore them completely or the ones who you make out to be monsters are the ones who become interesting. And I think you are absolutely right. I think she and Lucrezia were both more subtle than history has given them a lot of credit for, though I have to think Hilary Mantel has done a pretty good job on Anne Boleyn in a way.
You know, when it came to looking at Lucrezia Borgia, I must tell you - and this is also true of Anne Boleyn; it's true of all of these women - what you have to remember is that they come into politics and sexuality when they are very young. Lucrezia Borgia is 13 when her father becomes pope, and she's 13 when she marries her first husband. She's 16 when she marries her second. And by the time she marries her third, she's barely 20.
Now, you have to learn very fast the mixture of how you control your emotions, how you play the political game, how you try and keep some privacy, how you're loyal to your family. It's a very hard life for those women, and they have to be very smart, both emotionally and politically, and actually I think that, to a certain extent, both Anne Boleyn and Lucrezia were very smart.
And I really hope that the history that's now being written - and a lot of it is being written by women like myself, and Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory - that we're interested in telling the three-dimensional story of these women that, up until now, it's just been fun to slander and talk about sexuality and power.
CONAN: Which raises the question, though: Why are you interested, so much, in the Italian Renaissance when there's that Plantagenet and Tudor mafias you can be writing about?
DUNANT: Oh, because if you're British, trying to work on the Tudors is like trying to go to a supermarket on Christmas Eve and buy food, you know? Everybody's in there. It's overloaded. Everybody's been doing it. You know, I've had the Tudors coming out from both of my ears since I was six years old in school.
And when one talks about the kind of power of the English Renaissance and Shakespeare and whatever and all of that, I think, my God, Italy had these 100 years before. Everything that we achieved in Britain was achieved sevenfold before in Italy. The Renaissance began there. It was the cradle of some of the most profound things about modern Western civilization, and you have to go there if you really want to understand the modern world.
CONAN: Jules, thank...
JULES: There are two - oh, I'm sorry. There are two women in English history who have been extremely important to Western history that I think - one of them most people have never heard of, Katherine Swynford, the third wife of the Duke of Lancaster and then Anne Boleyn. Those two women shifted the course of history by their very presence, and they're both very much maligned. Most people don't know about Katherine Swynford, but the interesting thing about Anne Boleyn is that - and a lot of people don't know - is that she was actually engaged to marry someone else. And Henry decided he wanted her to be his mistress, and he forced her family to break their engagement off. She appealed to Catherine of Aragon for help because she was actually a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon, who refused to help her. So her options at that point in time were very few, because her...
CONAN: Jules, I'm afraid we're going to have to hear the rest of that story in another time...
CONAN: ...but thanks very much for the phone call. And, Sarah Dunant, we will await the next book with bated breath.
DUNANT: Oh, Neal, thank you very much indeed.
CONAN: Sarah Dunant joined us from the BBC studios in London. "The Birth of Venus" is maybe her best known, but "Blood & Beauty" will eclipse it. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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