Carol King talks to acclaimed author of the Italian Renaissance Sarah Dunant about her novel on the Borgias and more.

British author, broadcaster and critic Sarah Dunant’s first forays into writing fiction were thrillers. However, she then changed direction and began writing historical novels set in Italy during the Renaissance. Dunant went on to become a ‘New York Times’ best-selling author, thanks to her books ‘The Birth of Venus’, ‘In the Company of the Courtesan’ and ‘Sacred Hearts’. Dunant’s latest work, ‘Blood & Beauty’, tells the story of Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI and his family up to the point when his daughter Lucrezia was married for a third time in 1502.

Q: What attracted you to writing Italian historical novels?

A: I studied history as a student and grew up a fan of historical novels. I was aware that history is very complicated and did not imagine writing historical novels. I spent a decade writing contemporary thrillers and then in 2000, I spent the summer in Florence. I became intoxicated with what happened there 500 years ago: a great cultural revolution in a provincial city. I wanted to write about the shock of the new and what it was like living through such seismic change.

Q: Your historical novels feature strong female characters, why?

A: It’s worth saying that I could not have written my first three historical novels 25 years ago as the historical research was not there. The last 30 years, a powerful set of women has started asking questions about the past, for example, on the life of a courtesan. I wondered whether the Renaissance was simply a male phenomenon: what was the reality of being a woman at that moment in time. So, ‘The Birth of Venus’ looks at the experience of a female artist, ‘In the Company of the Courtesan’ courtesans and ‘Sacred Hearts’ nuns.

Q: What made you choose to write about the Borgia family?

A: I was fascinated by women at court – figures like Isabella d’Este and Lucrezia Borgia – and that led to the Borgias. That put the spotlight on Rome rather than Florence or Ferrara. I became aware of the papacy as powerful force. The church was very corrupt but it used a lot of its income to finance and patronise the Renaissance. That period of history is creative, beautiful, corrupt and brutal all at the same time: the Borgias are emblematic of what that meant. Yet people don’t put them into the social and political context of a violent, volatile time in history.

Q: How did you feel about the Borgias after you had written ‘Blood & Beauty’, do they deserve their notorious reputation?

A: They have had astonishingly bad press and have been maligned – their attempt to forge a dynasty failed and history is written by winners. They were not Italian and powerful families regarded them as interlopers. Their story is like a political thriller in how they coped with their enemies. I feel that Rodrigo Borgia had genuine affection for Giulia Farnese and his first mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei, and patent love for his daughter Lucrezia. He loved his children. I knew pretty soon that Lucrezia was a surprising and challenging woman, there is a case for slander in how she has been portrayed as a murdering whore. She was married when she was just a child and by the age of 19, she had developed some notion of politics: [her story] is less glamorous [than often portrayed] but a far more interesting one.

Q: You have said you intend to write a sequel to ‘Blood & Beauty’, what will that cover?

A: It’s moot how much of the Borgia family story I tell. In 1517, Lucrezia was 37-years-old and the story of her dying is the end of a dream dynasty. By then, her brother Cesare [had been dead for 10 years]; he had fallen like Icarus [as if] in a short, sharp thriller. It’s a great challenge to write accurate history: to fit a novel to the arc of history, not history to the arc of a compulsive novel. You can massage a story but you need to understand history and know the family.

Q: What do like most about writing historical novels?

A: One of the most moving things for me was when I met a 22-year-old woman at the end of a book signing. She was studying history and somebody had given her a copy of ‘The Birth of Venus’ when she was 15-years-old. It helped light a fire for history in her at that very powerful age.

Sarah Dunant has written several novels set in Italy during the Renaissance: ‘The Birth of Venus’, ‘In the Company of the Courtesan’, ‘Sacred Hearts’ and ‘Blood & Beauty’. Her website is at http://sarahdunant.com/ukbooks/blood-beauty/ and she tweets at https://twitter.com/BorgiaBlood.