This is a story to rival most works of fiction. Cesare Borgia, with the backing of his father (the Pope!), is trying to dominate Italy and create a family legacy. He will bluff, murder and fight his way into the territories he wants. The democratic(ish) state of Florence is within his range, and it falls largely to the diplomat Machiavelli to deduce Borgia’s plans and negotiate with him. One useful bargaining chip is Leonardo da Vinci, who is loaned out to Borgia as a military engineer, making Borgia’s weaponry as formidable as possible. Strathern cleverly weaves the lives of these titans of history together to create a rounded and fascinating view of this period of Renaissance Italy. Borgia’s machinations become more apparent when we read Machiavelli’s thoughts on him and the bawdy banter and political foresight of Machiavelli that we see in his letters makes him an easy and intriguing character to read. Leonardo lets the side down slightly; his secretive nature means there are fewer sources on him. The chapters on him are filled with ‘maybes’ and ‘might haves’, which slows down the pace of this otherwise fast-paced read. That said, Strathern does give an approachable ‘in’ to this fascinating subject. [Anna Howatt]
Out now. Published by Vintage. Cover price £9.99.