Pope Alexander VI (formerly Rodrigo Borgia) believes God will ultimately forgive his lechery, simony, nepotism, greed, assassinations, and other sins simply because as Pope he is infallible and divine. Mario Puzo’s The Family focuses on this cunning, ambitious despot and two of his many illegitimate children—the ruthless Cesare Borgia and the beautiful but wicked Lucrezia Borgia.
A passionate love story runs through the novel, but it is a sinful one. Lucrezia lost her virginity to her brother Cesare when she was only thirteen, and the two have loved only each other ever since. Alexander marries Lucrezia off for political reasons. She remains submissive to her father, if not to her many husbands and lovers. The book is full of arranged marriages which have nothing to do with love and everything to do with Borgia lust for power and social preeminence. Pope Alexander aims to unify Italy’s feudal states under papal rule. Cesare, who exchanges his cardinal’s miter for a warrior’s helmet to become commander-in-chief of his father’s armies, carries out conquest after conquest to fulfill Alexander’s grandiose ambitions.
As in Puzo’s The Godfather, the lovemaking, the opulent festivities, the sub rosa plotting, the complex double-dealing, and the family bickerings are interspersed with hair-raising outbursts of animalistic violence, including one memorable scene in which the reformist priest Girolama Savaronola is torn apart on the Rack. The narration is often perfunctory with lapses into unabashed melodrama; the dialogue seems stilted; the episodic plot lacks a strong antagonist; but The Family holds attention by painting a colorful and eye-opening panorama of Italy’s bloody history.