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on 7 June 2009
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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"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. She lived her life in a way other women, or noblewomen of her time hardly dared dream about, and light-years away from what ordinary women might aspire to.

She set style for the city, had her own houses, where she entertained poets, musicians, artists, the elite of the city, her lovers. Like Icarus, she flew too high. Then Cosimo died and her misogynist elder brother Francesco acceded to the throne. He allowed her despised, cuckolded husband to assassinate her, an action approved by the mores of the time and place, and still, in fact,largely approved-of in Italy. She had had three children, whom Orsini claimed were not his, and disinherited; she was just 37 years old at her death.

I studied Renaissance History at Cornell University, even took some Italian. At one time, long ago, I tried to write a biography of another of the famous Isabellas of the Renaissance, of an earlier generation: Isabella D'Este Gonzaga, born of the Ferrarese ruling family, married to the Gonzaga duke of Mantua. I trudged around the New York Public Library, 42nd Street, and the British Library; and was stymied, as most of the original material was in Latin, which I've never studied.

However, I find the contrast of the two Isabellas to be most instructive. Both were of the nobility, obviously; both were married off young, in arranged marriages. Both were beautiful women, style-setters, deeply involved in the art world: a sketch of Isabella D'Este, by Leonardo Da Vinci, survives. D'Este, however, had children immediately, and always knew they were her responsibility; de Medici had hers late, after many years of, shall we say, fooling around. From the earliest days of her marriage, D'Este was Mantua's ruling duchess, and in the frequent, lengthy absences of her husband, another "Condottiere," or soldier for hire, she ruled in Mantua. She attempted to beautify it; also to improve its sanitary conditions, strengthen its economy, gain popedoms for it, and otherwise increase its influence.

Isabella De Medici was interested in nothing beyond her city; Isabella D'Este was interested in everything. The Mantuan moved heaven and earth to get Christopher Columbus to come see and talk to her, after his epochal discovery of the Americas in 1492. He came. She was very concerned about the future of the Catholic Church, attended, and was influential at, its ground-breaking Diet (Conference) of Worms. Her activities for the Church led to her being present in Rome, in 1527, at its Sack, by the mutinous soldiers of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor: she acquitted herself heroically, saving many women and children. She long outlived her womanizing husband, who'd caught syphilis, a disease then just come from the Americas: she enjoyed her grandchildren, and died in her own bed, at a good old age.

For me, at least "Murder of a Medici Princess" was an engaging page-turner, reading like fiction. It is extensively researched, is based on solid history, and is excellently written. We are given reproductions of paintings showing the most important characters. Evidently Murphy, previously author of The Pope's Daughter, understands Latin. In addition, she appears to have had access to some fresh, new materials; and has clearly done a lot of research. She is a cultural historian and biographer who lives in Cambridge, Mass. If you are interested in the Renaissance, women's history, or history in general, highly recommended.
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on 9 May 2016
A delve into a particularly unappealing chapter of Florentine history, Murder of a Medici Princess reads like popular history - fast, engaging and as entertaining as the subject matter allows - but is in fact very scholarly. There is an enormous amount of detail. The rise of the Medici dukes, who were the aristocratic but grandly unlikeable successors to Cosimo, Piero and Lorenzo, the great patrons of Renaissance Florence, is shown in its European context, but more interesting is the web of family connections, loyalties and frictions within the Medici, its interactions with the social and moral atmosphere of the time, and the way that even some of the most powerful women in Europe could not escape the revenge of jealous men. This is another side to Florence, much darker than the age inhabited by Brunelleschi and Botticelli but just as relevant and, in its own way, just as interesting.
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