Monday, August 26, 2013

Melbourne Writers Festival: Sarah Dunant on Lucrezia Borgia in Italian Art

The Melbourne Writers Festival is currently on here in Melbourne, which means that there are great events for readers and writers to participate in. I have been to a couple of sessions featuring British author Sarah Dunant, so I thought I would share my blog posts of the sessions here. Hopefully some will find it interesting.


My first session of this year's festival was located at the auditorium at the National Gallery of Victoria Art Galley (NGV) and it was a perfect venue to host Sarah Dunant, author of books like The Birth of Venus and her latest book Blood and Bloody, and Carl Villis, paintings conservator at the NGV talking about Lucrezia Borgia and Italian Art.

The session started with Sarah Dunant talking about Lucrezia Borgia, about how the Borgia name has been slandered through history and how if you look past the gossip at what evidence there truly is about her life, you will see a picture of a very different woman than that we usually equate with her name. As part of her talk she showed a picture of a very young Lucrezia Borgia which until recently was thought to be the only known image of her in a painting.

Dunant talked us through how she first became interested in writing about Lucrezia Borgia. Her first three novels, during which she wanted to answer the question of what it would have been like to be woman in the Renaissance, had taken her on a journey from Florence (The Birth of Venus) to Venice (In the Company of the Courtesan) and then to Ferrara. It was at this point that I realised that I had completely missed reading her novel Sacred Hearts. Whilst researching in Ferrara, she came across a tomb slab dedicated to Lucrezia Borgia and praising her piety. Knowing that the woman had ended her life in a convent and was generally considered by her contemporaries (not her enemies) to be both beautiful and pious, how was it that her name is synonymous with poison, murder and incest 500 years later.

In giving us some background to the Borgia family, Dunant explained part of the reason for the level of vitriol against the Borgia family is that they were outsiders, a Spanish family that was trying to infiltrate a world that is dominated by powerful Italian clans. When Rodrigo Borgia was made pope, he was ambitious, determined and had four marriageable children which he was happy to use to build alliances with these families, including 12 year old Lucrezia who is married into the Sforza family. It is when that alliance is no longer necessary and the pope needs to marry Lucrezia into another family that the incest story starts after an annulment is granted on the grounds of impotence, something that the husband vehemently denies. A comment made by a man scorned soon wings it's ways all through the courts of Europe and it takes very little time for the story of Lucrezia being a whore and in incestuous relationships with her father and brother makes it into common usage. Mud sticks.

Sarah Dunant
A second marriage follows, once again for political reasons,  in which Lucrezia gives every appearance of being happy, but once again political alliances shift and her family wants Lucrezia to be married elsewhere, but she fights it. Given that she will not give up the marriage, her husband is murdered, leaving the still young woman to marry again, this time into the court at Ferrara.

Lest it sounds as though Dunant is a Borgia fan through and through, she does make it clear that there is no doubt that Rodrigo is an unashamed womaniser, comparing him to former Italian prime minister Sylvio Berlusconi during the question and answer section of the presentation, and that Cesare was pretty much a sociopath, but that the evidence just doesn't add up to support Lucrezia's vile reputation.

The second part of the session was focused on a painting that is housed at the NGV (click on the link to see the painting) which was for many years the subject of much speculation around who painted it, when it was painted and who the sitter was including whether they were female or male After many years of painstaking research and analysis, Carl Villis has been able to identify exactly who the painter was, and more importantly for the purposes of this talk, that the sitter was in fact Lucrezia Borgia.

Villis talked us through the evidence that he has found to suggest that the painting was done by Dossi Dossi, court painter only at the court of Ferrara during the years that Lucrezia was Duchess, including the type of preparation he used on the canvas, and the shape of the painting which is very unusual for that time in art history. In addition, there were the clues in the painting itself - the hairstyle which identifies the sitter as female, the dagger which seems to be representative of the Roman story of Lucrezia, the myrtle bushes in the background which are symbolic of virtue and beauty as well as the inscription on the painting.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Villis' talk was when he talked about the facial recognition technology that was undertaken by Victoria Police to compare the painting to a bronze medal which was cast for her second wedding. By comparing various points in the faces on the painting and the medal, the evidence confirmed that there was a very high probability that the two faces were portraying the same person. Fascinating, fascinating stuff! Whilst I wouldn't normally buy a non fiction book on the identification of a painting, the presentation was so interesting I will most likely be keeping an eye out for Carl Villis' book on this painting when it comes out.

During the question and answer section that followed, there were correlations made between the bad PR or spin that the Borgias received and the idea of modern celebrity where we love someone until we don't any more and how it is difficult to rehabilitate a personality once the mud slinging starts, about the Borgias TV series (which Dunant isn't a fan of), about how authors have to make a psychological decision on a character based on the evidence they have available and more. I seriously could have listened to these two speak for another hour quite easily and there was so much more content in what they did say that I haven't even touched on yet in this post!

Of course, after hearing this absolutely fascinating talk I had to go and look at the painting for myself, housed in a part of the gallery that I didn't previously know existed even though I have visited the building many times before.

You can read more about my Melbourne Writers Festival experiences here. Later in the week I will put up my post about the historical fiction session I went to which featured Sarah Dunant and Jane Sullivan.


  1. Lucky, lucky you. I caught part of one of the Sydney Writers Festival authors when I was in the car yesterday. He was talking about the history of Afghanistan and it was fascinating. I've just been over to Radio National and I see I can get several of the talks for download. No doubt the Melbourne ones will come up later so I will watch out for the ones you attended.

    1. There are often such fascinating sessions at these kinds of festivals.

  2. Wow, what a fantastic opportunity. I loved The Borgias mini-series, but haven't read any historical fiction about the family. I must seek some titles out!

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