At first, I scoffed at the title, thinking that this might be a work of fiction, and a real potboiler at that. And to be honest, despite my fondness for historical novels, nearly every other novel set in the sixteenth century seemed lately to be centered on either Tudor England or Renaissance Italy -- and both of them done to death.
But in spite of my misgivings, this turned out to be a stunning read. Caroline Murphy, author of a previous book on women and politics, has continued her stories of women who played an influental role in the backgrounds of Italian history. This time, the focus is on the city of Florence and the powerful Medici family.
Begining with the fall of the Medici, the book focuses on a member of the junior branch of the family who brought the glory back to Florence. Cosimo de' Medici was a consummate politican and manipulator, but also a fervid patron of the arts and architecture. With his wife, the beautiful Eleonora di Toledo (who was known as La Fecundissima) they had eleven children, many of them sons, but Cosimo's favourite was his daughter Isabella.
A middle child in a huge brood of offspring, she was closest to her brother, Giovanni, and they could be found together constantly, playing games and partnering each other in dancing lessons. Several paintings survive of the princess, a lovely dark haired child with expressive eyes and nearly a smirk on her lips as she surveys the world before her. Clearly she is her father's darling, and knows it. When it came time for her to marry, her father brokered a deal with the Orsini family, based in Rome, and a wedding to Paolo Giordano d'Orsini, a young man with an itch for power and money, and seemingly in love and adoration with Isabella to judge from his letters.
But Cosimo slipped a small clause into the wedding contract -- Isabella would only accompany her husband to his home in Rome if she wanted to. It was a curious condition to the marriage, especially in a time where women were considered to be not much more than two legged birthing machines and subject to abuse and violence from their spouses. For a time, all went well between the couple -- Paolo was off working for advanage of both the Medici and the Orsini, with Cosimo supplying plenty of money for his spendthrift son, and keeping his daughter by his side. He indulged her as best he could, supplying her with the trappings of the high life in the artistic capital of the world.
Isabella created a world of poets and music, sending a steady supply of letters to her husband, letters that were filled with assurances of her love and devotion. But read between the lines, and something else emerges. There's a sly quality to the letters, something that bothers the reader, and if read carefully enough, it becomes clear that Isabella doesn't care very much for her absent husband, and is determined to live her life as she chooses. Even if that means having a lover or two.
The story takes on a much darker tone as it progresses. Her beloved brother, Giovanni, dies of malaria along with another brother and their mother, word comes of Paolo's affairs with various prostitutes in Rome, and Isabella's own growing irritation of her husband. And when Cosimo dies, Isabella tries to keep her glittering fantasy of a life going, but it might already be too late...
This is a tale that is not for the squeamish, as Murphy doesn't hold back on the lives, and especially the deaths, of various members of the Medici family, and also of more ordinary folks. The book is filled with details about daily living, clothing, food, the art of spectacle, and the role of servants and those unseen. What I found very interesting was that the book shifts the focus to women, who usually get shoved to the background of most history. And the subject of the book, Isabella de' Medici, I had never heard of before.
I happily recommend this book for anyone interested in Renaissance Florence, especially for life after the heyday of Lorenzo di Medici. Caroline Murphy has created a story full of life here, creating a woman that is very vivid and aware. The use of family letters is very effective, giving insights into how their minds works, their hopes and moving them beyond the surviving images that have come down through the centuries.
Along with the story, the book is full of black and white drawings taken from the time, which give little snapshots of the world that the Medici moved in. A map of Florence at the time give a sense of place. A genealogical chart sorts out the many branches of the Medici family, and helps to keep everyone straight. Along with the illustrations in the text, there is a gorgeous collection of colour plates, with several paintings of Isabella along with the other players in the story. An extensive bibliography gives enticing suggestions for further research, along with footnotes and an index.
I suspect that this is a book that is going to hit one of my top-ten book lists for 2008. It is a stunning story that breathes new life into what I had thought was a stale topic, and has renewed my interest in Renaissance life and culture.
Caroline Murphy has also written The Pope's Daughter, which does have a tie-in to this story, as Paolo is the grandson of Felice della Rovere, another woman of the Renaissance who was able to hold her own and more in what was very much a man's world.
Five stars overall.