The upside of corruption: Renaissance writer Sarah Dunant at Marlborough Literature Festival

29 Sep
Sarah Dunant at Marlborough Literature Festival 2014

Sarah Dunant

All the events I’ve been to at Marlborough Literature Festival this year have sparkled, and yesterday Sarah Dunant, Renaissance fiction writer, was no exception.

With enthusiastic continental-style gesticulating, Sarah imbued her talk with as many interesting metaphors as in her books.

And to give AC Grayling from Saturday a run for his money, she did it all without a seeming reference to any notes.

Sarah’s foray into Renaissance fiction came after a midlife crisis in Florence. “If you are going to have a psychological breakdown,” she said, “do it in a good city.”

Academic study of history and the importance of accuracy warned her off writing about her favourite subject and instead she forged a career in crime thrillers. Her moment of crisis came in the Italian city when she realised: “I grew tired of writing novels with an answer at the end…The faster I wrote novels, the faster people read them.”

She decided to show her two young daughters the cultural wonders of Florence but knew she had a ‘hard sell on my hands.’ All the Renaissance heroes seemed to be men. Were there no women architects, painters, philosophers at that time?

She decided there was a story to tell of Renaissance women, several as it turned out – courtesans, nuns, a merchant’s daughter. Luckily for her, feminism has led to much academic research into women of this era: “Scholars had mined the deep veins to find the nuggets of gold for me to use,” she said. “My books couldn’t have been written thirty years ago.”

Historical accuracy remains important to Sarah, “I like to put my feet down in fact.” She faced a dilemma when composing conversations between characters, but, steeling herself, found it was a place where her imagination could fly.

Sarah’s latest books are about the infamous family Borgia. She doesn’t believe them to be any better or worse than the other Papal families at that time, just better at the political game – and Spanish. And there wouldn’t have been a Renaissance without the corruption – the developments in architecture, art, etc, the beautiful buildings, were funded by the money brought in by a corrupt church.

Sarah left us with two thoughts. A member of the audience asked if she was startled by anything in her research. They probably weren’t expecting her to say syphilis. The sexually transmitted decease came out of nowhere and had ravaged Europe in three years. It was a real indication of the difference between how people said they behaved and how they actually did; even the Pope contracted it. And then – historical parallels – the same thing happened across the world in the 1980s with AIDS.

And more parallels? Given current issues with the Middle East, she believes: “We are living in an age where religion is again governing world politics.”

Written by Louisa Davison

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