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Murder of a Medici Princess Paperback – 18 May 2009

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Product details

  • Paperback: 397 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (18 May 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195385837
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195385830
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 2.8 x 15.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,385,431 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Ursula K. Raphael TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 7 Jun 2009
Format: Hardcover
At first I thought this would be historical fiction, but that was not the case. Unlike a murder mystery, this book explores more than just Isabella's untimely death. Caroline P. Murphy did an excellent job detailing everything about Isabella's life, especially her family and the influence of her father. There were so many names, I had a difficult time remembering who was who, but the family tree at the beginning helped me keep it straight.

Murphy uses a variety of correspondence to tell the story of Isabella's life, which was not typical of women in that period. She was very independent and intelligent, and pursued interests such as hunting. Between her father's affection, and Isabella's personality, it's not that shocking to find out how her life ended.

The book has drawings, such as a map of Florence from that time. There are also several color paintings. This helped make the story more interesting for me...faces with names. Murphy has once again written a great addition for women's history.

If you want to know more about the Medici family, read Medici: Story of a European Dynasty or The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall.
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Format: Hardcover
"Murder of a Medici Princess," by Caroline P. Murphy, is a nonfiction account of the life and death of Isabella de Medici Orsini, one of the more prominent members of one of the most important Florentine families - the Kennedys of their time -- during the Renaissance, that period when Florence was the world. The Medici, a banking family, had subverted Republican Florence during the early Renaissance, (generally considered to have taken place between the 14th and 17th centuries, and to have been centered in Italy.) They had made themselves dukes of the city, beautified it, and, in addition, become leaders of the art world by commissioning many important art works and buildings from artists still world famous today. The family controlled Florence's life and destiny; threw up several Popes, and intermarried with Italian and European nobility.

Isabella was the daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo; a marriage was arranged for her, to Paolo Giordano Orsini, of the ruling family of Rome. He was fat, dissipated, none-too-bright, dissolute, fiscally irresponsible, and not much of a soldier, in a family that traditionally made its living as "Condottiere,"soldiers for hire. Mind you, then, as now, princesses are traditionally raised with the understanding that they will have to leave their homes, to reside with the noble husbands found for them. But Isabella did not much care for Orsini, or for Rome, and, backed by her rich and powerful father, did not live with him, or in Rome, for any extended period of time. She was born beautiful, gifted, and rich: her father Cosimo doted upon her. She was the acting, uncrowned Queen of Florence during a particularly productive time in its history.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 121 reviews
113 of 116 people found the following review helpful
A story of family conflicts, furious politics and a mystery 23 May 2008
By Rebecca Huston - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
52 of 57 people found the following review helpful
A Renaissance woman's tragic fate 31 Mar 2008
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Isabella de' Medici (1542-1576) sparkled among the glittering ruling family of Florence, but she was tragically snuffed out in the prime of her life. In a further injustice, her brother Francesco, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, tried to erase her from memory, an injustice that Caroline Murphy has done an admirable job of rectifying in this fascinating biography of Isabella.

Isabella was the third child of Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence (second cousin of Catherine de' Medici, the Queen of France) and Eleonora di Toledo (of Spanish nobility). The Duke and Duchess enjoyed a very happy marriage, and Isabella had a happy childhood and particularly an excellent education. In 1558 it was arranged for her to marry Paolo Giordano Orsini, a degenerate profligate from a prominent Roman family. He was created Duke of Bracciano on account of his Medici connections, but Isabella visited his castle only briefly. She opted instead to stay in her beloved Florence, where she lived a luxurious, celebrated life independent of her husband in Rome. (She had an affair, and he had many.) Her independence was possible because of her husband's indebtedness to her father and her father's influence--he was soon elevated to Grand Duke of Tuscany.

After Cosimo's death, his eldest son Francesco became the new Grand Duke and was much less sympathetic to Isabella. He reneged on Cosimo's promise to provide for Isabella's two children (Paolo was busy spending his children's inheritance in Rome), so Isabella stayed in Florence to negotiate the children's affairs. Paolo started asking her to join him in Rome, but she used the negotiations as well as her health as an excuse to refuse. Eventually matters came to a head when Francesco banished Isabella's lover and Paolo went to Florence ostensibly to take Isabella on a hunting trip. Instead, Isabella was cruelly murdered by her husband and a henchman, apparently with Francesco's approval. Her cousin/sister-in-law was similarly killed at this time for the same reason: the Medici family honor. Murphy points out that Francesco sanctioned these honor killings to punish female adultery even though he let much graver crimes go unpunished in Florence--and even though he humiliated his Habsburg wife by keeping his mistress as practically a rival duchess. This is all in sharp contrast to his father Cosimo's having upheld law and order in the city and allowed loose (but not humiliating) morals at court.

Like other powerful and independent Renaissance women--Veronica Franco and Mary Queen of Scots spring to mind--Isabella was both a product and a victim of her time. She enjoyed a degree of autonomy that was rare until the 20th century, and she perished under a medieval system that subjugated women. ("Honor" was an admitted legal defense in Italy until 1981!)

Murphy tells this compelling story well--her writing is fluid if occasionally choppy, and the main characters come to life in the context of local and European politics. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Medici family or the lives of Renaissance women.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Maybe a little over-hyped on the cover and description 16 Jun 2009
By Bryan Newman - Published on
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
When I picked this book up, I was expecting a historical blockbuster, the kind that is better than historical fiction because it is all true. I was hoping for A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, instead I got a painfully researched, academic book that was a bit painful to read. The fact that it is meticulously researched was fabulous, the subject matter - extremely interesting. The book , eh. I kept thinking I will fall in love with Isabella and be crying when she is murdered. But it didn't happen. When she is bumped off - I felt relief, thank goodness the book is over, yet it continued for three more chapters. Seriously.

I love History, I love historical fiction, I don't know what was missing from this - perhaps it is the Midwife's Tale of Florence, but I kept finding myself wondering who cared about this person and why was this book written? The point? The time period is a fascinating one, the contrivances of court and how things got done in royal society was so intriguing but Isabella never came into her own. I never heard her voice through Caroline P. Murphy. However, I do not regret reading it. It was a good book. But it was also a book I could put down easily and fell asleep reading it more than once. I loved the details but got lost once in awhile with the names, everyone seemed to be named the same thing. Isabella, the Medici Princess seemed so vibrant and full of life but the book never captures that as well as I kept hoping it would. Does anyone know is there a good historical fiction book out there about Isabella?
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
"Princesses, she could reason, unless they became queens of England, did not, as a rule, get killed" 13 July 2009
By Misfit - Published on
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
My, oh my. What a family the de Medici - forget about Catherine and her poisons. At least for now....

I have to admit when I ordered this via the Vine Newsletter I was expecting a novel and not a work of non-fiction so I approached this book with some trepidation. That said I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Murphy recounts the life of Isabella de Medici, adored and doted upon by her loving father Cosimo. Even after a marriage to Paolo Orsini, a worthless spendthrift she continues to live in Florence with her father. Highly educated and cultured, she lives a life of leisure, decadence and alleged adultery, much to the ire of her husband and brother Francesco - although Cosimo always sides with his beloved Isabella. However, Cosimo cannot live forever and once he dies Isabella is no longer in charge of her fate and the resentment her husband and brother share bring on unforeseen consequences....

And that's as far as I go - read it for yourself. Despite being non-fiction (a genre that I normally do not care to read), this one did keep me entertained whilst I read about the foibles and machinations of the de Medici. The book was very readable and not as dry as some NF I've attempted. A nice family tree and map of Florence in Isabella's time is included, as well as some color photos of family portraits. This is a story that has serious potential for a cracking good historical novel. Hint. Hint. Hint.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Interesting but Not Fascinating 4 Jun 2009
By Janeite - Published on
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This biography of a somewhat obscure historical figure (Isabella de Medici Orsini)was interesting for its view into the complex world of 15th and 16th century Florence but still managed to produce a somewhat flat picture of its heroine. While the author takes great pains to tell the reader (repeatedly)that Isabella was unique, free-spirited, and influential, I never felt that I got close enough to her to make any such conclusions for myself. Granted, I'm sure it is difficult to get truly close to a woman who's been dead for over 400 years considering the relative lack of documentation. Isabella didn't do history the favor of leaving lots of personal notes and journals lying around, so the author is forced to piece together a personality out of what is available. From what I know of historical research (admittedly not that much, but I did go to grad school), Murphy seems to have done a first rate job of including information from a variety of excellent sources. Perhaps she is just a cautious writer who doesn't want to read too much between the lines of history, but I never felt I knew Isabella in a more than cursory way. The thing I like most about the book is the close look at Florence of the time. What I knew about the Medici family could be summed up in three words (rich, powerful, decadent), so this book was an education for me, filling in some specifics to back up what general knowledge I already had. Murphy gives a lot of detail about Isabella's family, some of whom seemed much more interesting to me and left me wanting to read a biography of them (in particular her father Duke Cosimo and her brother Francesco). Maybe the fact that so many chapters were really about other facets of Florentine history led to my dissatisfaction in the depth of information about Isabella, so I am willing to admit my expectations may have led to my disappointment. I also wish the title of the book hadn't given away the fact that she was murdered. Maybe in other circles this is a well-known fact, but to tell me up front that she was murdered left me to constantly question how and when it would happen. Murphy's style of writing left a bit to be desired, I thought. I was bothered by her habit of ending paragraphs and chapters with a "tantalizing" question. Chapters end with questions like,"Was..a human being replacing the forest fauna as prey?" and "Was she really immune to the 'sweetest temptations' so enjoyed by her guests?" I found this suspense-building device cloying after a while, especially as it didn't match the otherwise historical, fact-based, detached tone found elsewhere in the book. Murphy also has the habit of tossing in "purple prose" from time to time, providing some odd imagery. An example is the description of a dead body as having "the sickly sweet odour of cheese left to ripen in hell." The insertion of these odd details is in striking contrast to the rest of the book's staid diction. So my overall conclusion about this book is that it might be of interest to the reader seeking historical information about the Medici or the history of Florence in this time period. As a biography, it has lots of interesting information but fails to capture the spirit of the lively woman it purports to describe.
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