Isabella de Medici was the daughter of Cosimo de Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany. Born in 1542, she lived a short but often indulgent and exciting life as detailed in this biography by Caroline Murphy.
Born just 6 months after the death of her father's illegitmate daughter Bia (whom he adored), Isabella quickly became her father's favorite. His affection for her was obvious when he arranged as part of her marriage contract to a Roman (Paolo Orsini) that she did not have to leave Florence if she didn't want to. And she didn't want to. Cosimo sent Paolo on several diplomatic missions which ensured Isabella an independence that few women of her time possessed.A lover of art and music, Isabella was beautiful, cultured and intelligent. Her husband was a spendthrift who liked prostitutes. Their marriage was one filled with conflict and it doesn't take Paolo long to figure out that he will never be able make his wife do anything as long as her father is alive. Although she is one of 11 children (8 who survived childhood), Isabella is closest to her brother Giovanni. Only 13 months separate the two and they are more like twins with Giovanni being Isabella's closest friend and confidante. But when he unexpectedly dies in 1562, Isabella's free spirit takes over and she finds comfort and excitement in her husband's cousin, Troilo Orsini. Although their relationship is the worst kept secret in Florence, Paolo is powerless to do anything about it.
Isabella is the Renaissance equivalent of the celebrity party girl. She liked to have a good time and threw lavish parties. Artists sought her patronage. She also had political power as everyone knew that the surest way to Cosimo was through his daughter. But in 1574, Isabella's world crashed in on her when her father died. Her eldest brother, Francesco, had never been very fond of his spoiled sister and he had no intention of carrying out some of his father's wishes as they related to Isabella and her two children. He also seeks to punish Isabella by bringing trumped up charges against Troilo which force him to flee. As the pampered favorite of her father, Isabella had never learned how to survive on her own - a shortfall that would cost her dearly.
Under Francesco, Florence becomes unruly and unsafe. He is not the statesman that his father was, and he seems to care about only one thing - his mistress. Feeling that his inability to control his sister reflects badly on his ability to rule Florence, Francesco plots the ultimate form of control against her along with Paolo, who can finally have his revenge on his disobedient, unfaithful wife. Isabella is 34 years old.
Murder of a Medici Princess is full of period details that I found fascinating and entertaining. Occasionally, the cast of characters became a little overwhelming and confusing (despite an excellent Medici family tree in the front of the book). The Medici's are one of Europe's highly dysfunctional families and the intrigues and betrayals that made up their lives would make a really good movie. The book is full of excerpts from family letters which breathe life into the characters and there are several pages of full color family portraits.
How to fool yourself and others: "whatever one put in writing and to which one signed one's name could be perceived as the truth, even if it was a lie..." Explanation for Isabella's gushing letters to her husband.
Rating: Very Good
Although I usually read books set in medieval England, I have tried to broaden my book choices to include books set in other countries which is how Leonardo’s Swans came onto my TBR list. Set in late 15th century Italy during the Renaissance, it tells the story of two sisters – Isabella and Beatrice d’Este – who rise to power and influence in a world dominated by art, music and war.
Isabella and Beatrice are princesses of Ferrara and as such, are married to powerful men in order to strengthen their family’s position and security – Isabella married Francesco of Mantua and Beatrice, Ludovico Sforza (“Il Moro”) who rules the duchy of Milan as regent for his nephew. Isabella is the more beautiful and cultured of the two sisters and they develop a sibling rivalry over wealth, power, prestige and the artistic attention of the great Magistro painter, Leonardo da Vinci. Both sisters become major players in Italian politics in conjunction with their husbands as the Italian states squabble with each other and then unite against the French.
Despite the title, Leonardo da Vinci is a minor character whose role seems to be to provide an opportunity for discussions about art, including who the real life subjects are of some of his more well-known paintings and how some of them came about. It was actually Beatrice and her husband who commissioned the painting of The Last Supper and it was interesting to read about the creative process and work that resulted in one of the most well know paintings in history.
The artistic focus provides a nice change of topic from the sometimes monotonous litany of military and political intrigue which could have been presented in a more interesting way. One of the most annoying aspects of the book was the present tense used throughout most of it although there are also frequent flashbacks that go into past tense. I don’t know if the present tense was meant to create an intimacy between the reader and the characters, but I frankly found it rather off-putting.
Overall, I thought the story was enjoyable and I learned a little bit about this period in history. I wish the characters would have been a little more developed as the motivations for some of their actions isn’t always clear and seem to come out of nowhere. Essex also used some entries from da Vinci's notebooks at the beginning of each chapter which, although interesting, sometimes didn't seem very relevant. I was also puzzled by the headings of her chapters which included some seemingly random roman numeral. As a side note, I learned that the brother of Isabella and Beatrice was the third husband of Lucrezia Borgia.
Words of wisdom: "Man destroys his own creations. Nature takes care of the rest. What survives does so by accident." Leonardo to Beatrice explaining how nothing is permanent and the legacy of the beautiful things he creates.
Most of what I've read about Henry VIII in non-fiction books have come from those dealing with his wives. I saw this book on PBS and decided to get it, hoping to get a more well rounded picture of this greater-than-life monarch. I wouldn't call it a complete success.
Rather than being a biographical portrait of Henry, The Mask of Royalty seems to be more a psychological look at the dynamics of being king in the 16th century. Smith analyzes the traits that Henry possessed and how they did or did not work within that framework and how Henry fit into the greater chessboard of European politics.
Little is said of Henry's matrimonial problems except in the context of how they shaped other things, and even Anne Boleyn is hardly mentioned during the discussion of Henry's break with Rome. The wife that gets the most coverage is Katherine Howard and how the hurt that Henry must have felt following her escapades led him to try and rebuild his injured pride by becoming deeply involved in the drama and intrigue happening on the continent.
A great deal of the book is spent covering the various plots, alliances and conspiracies that Henry, Francois (of France) and Charles (the Holy Roman Emperor) entangled themselves in, as well as those involving the Scots. I found it pretty dry reading and ended up skipping over large sections. Sections involving the nature and perceptions of royalty as well as the inner workings of the king's household were hit or miss.
The parts I enjoyed the most were those that tookk a look at what made Henry tick. Smith describes Henry as hardworking, detail oriented and knowledgeable on a number of subjects - but points out he was no intellectual. He often acted without thinking and behind "the mask", he was uncertain and insecure which often lead him to over-analyze matters and then stick to his decision - no matter what. Honor and conscience were the words most used to describe his personality but both were really just a front for self-interest and pride.
I'm not really sure what to think about this book. It seems to be well-researched with extensive notes, but I didn't particularly care for it. I don't think it's the fault of the author - it just really wasn't what I was expecting or looking for. Does anyone know of a good biography of Henry VIII?
Having read several Tudor-era books over the last couple of years, I was familiar with Thomas More and the role he played during Henry’s break with the Catholic Church. What I didn’t know was really how he managed to get to the position that he was in or much about his family. Jean Plaidy’s Saint Thomas’s Eve takes a look at the life of a man who defied his king as a matter of his conscience – and lost his life as a result.
For better or for worse, having watched The Tudors on Showtime, Sir Thomas More is ingrained in my head as the actor (Jeremy Northam) who played him. Northam’s characterization seems to fit with Plaidy’s and both must have drawn on More’s own writings as several passages in the book I remembered hearing on The Tudors. Plaidy’s Thomas is a young man who thinks about going into religious life, but he wants a wife and children and so he becomes a lawyer and hopes to have a quiet, fulfilling life. Fate however has other plans.
Known for his intellect and his sense of fairness, Thomas comes to the attention of Henry VIII and he quickly earns the King’s favor. But it is favor that he does not seek – nor does he want. He seems to understand better than most that the higher one rises, the farther and harder one will surely fall and the thought often worries him.
It also worries his oldest daughter Margaret – or Meg. Thomas had several daughters and believed that girls should be as educated as boys and his girls were known for their intelligence. Meg seems to be the most in tune with her father and they share a special bond that is often sweet, sometimes poignant and near the end, heart-breaking as Meg begs her father to just do what the king wants him to do. But she knows her father well enough to know that that is not possible.
The issue of Henry’s break with Rome, his divorce and his marriage to Anne Boleyn are not dealt with in any detail – only to the extent that they are necessary to tell Thomas’ story and how he fit into those events and their effect on him and his family. His quarrel with Henry over the Act of Supremacy makes sense in the context of his early religious leanings and the growing sense of hatred he felt towards heretics following Luther’s writings, although it is a hatred he doesn’t fully understand. He seems almost happy to die – as if by dying he will be able to put himself out of his misery and escape the difficulty of his position.
It is difficult for me to comprehend the notion of believing in something so strongly that you are willing to die for it. Certainly, I would give my own life for that of my daughter, but beyond that, it is hard to say. I guess most people probably don't really know unless they are faced with the choice. As is the case of most of Plaidy's books, the story is not overly complex or detailed. Saint Thomas's Eve is a nice look into the family and personality of a man who dared to stand up to Henry VIII.
"Is it better to be a wise fool or a brave coward?" Thomas as he talks with a friend after irritating Henry VII on the matter of taxes.
"Soon can be a long time for something you greatly wish for. It can be quick for something you hate." A young Margaret when contemplating how "soon" her father would return from a trip.
"How easy life must be for him. He has but to adjust his conscience to his desires." Thomas considering the nature of Henry early in his reign.
The White Rose tells the story of Edward IV - his struggle for the crown, his love for his wife and family and his heartbreak over the betrayal of those closest to him. The majority of the book covers the period of time from the death of his father (the Duke of York) until his own death in 1483. The aftermath, through the death of Richard III, takes a mere 40 pages.
There was a lot I liked about this book. It was enjoyable to read and appears to be well researched. The romance between Edward and Elizabeth is developed over a period of months, although Edward is away from her for most it. Their relationship is sweet, loving and often brings comfort to Edward as he sometimes struggles with the burdens of being king. But it's not sappy and, as it was written in 1969 there is no sexual content.
The Woodvilles play prominently in the story although there is no real explanation as to why or how Anthony Woodville (a former Lancastarian) comes to a place of prominence with the young King (before Edward meets Elizabeth). It is Anthony's failure to plead the young widow's case to the King for the restoration of her sons' inheritance that forces her to take matters into her own hands and the fateful meeting in the woods. The Woodville family is close knit, fun-loving and ambitious - all traits Edward seems to admire and he finds that he is comfortable in their presence and that he can trust them. Too bad he can't say the same for his own brother, George. Richard, for the most part is portrayed as cold, calculating and definately, guilty of murder.
As much as I liked this book there were a couple of things that annoyed me. I would be reading along, fully engaged in the story and BAM - the author would throw in references that would totally pull me out of it. These often took the form of "we know from 'so-and-so' that xyz happens later". There was also a reference to Elizabeth I, and a portrait of Elizabeth Woodville that is in the British Museum. Huh? Often, the "action" was merely a recitation of dates and events that literally could have be lifted from a history book. I also found a lengthy section on the intrigues between Edward, Louis of France and Charles of Burgundy overly long and a little boring.
Those things are really too bad because without them, I would have rated this book higher.
"The King, my husband, likes girls of all ages." Elizabeth snaps back to her mother in law after the birth of her third daughter as Cecily mentions that a son would have been preferred. Edward's infidelities are barely mentioned in the book.
"Only women are sane. All men are mad." Anne Neville as she ponders the grief and blood that have resulted from a man's ambitions.
Marion Meade’s Eleanor of Aquitaine is the first non-fiction book I have read about one of histories most fascinating women. Married to two kings and the mother of two kings, she lived a long and interesting life – especially by 12th century standards.
The medieval province of Aquitaine is located in what is now current day south-western France and together with the neighboring province of Poitou encompassed about a third of modern day France. It was known for its warm, sunny climate and a casual, leisurely way of life. Its dukes were from a long line of nobility dating back more than 200 years but in 1137 the people suddenly found they had a Duchess rather than a Duke when Eleanor’s father William X dies while on a pilgrimag.
Possessing an elegance and grace that few could match, Eleanor was also beautiful, intelligent and politically astute, traits that her first husband, Louis of France, did not seem to appreciate. After accompanying Louis on the ill-fated Second Crusade, Eleanor seeks a way out of her boring life and marriage. The fiery Henry Plantagenet seems like just the thing, so Eleanor manages to divorce Louis and marry Henry (who is still only the heir to the English throne).
Henry appears to be more of an equal match to Eleanor and he also appreciates her natural abilities at administration, often leaving her in charge of one area of his kingdom while he is off protecting another part. She quickly produces a number of children including four sons who she will later lead in rebellion against their father. Even in her later years, Eleanor keeps an eye on what is going on and does what needs to be done in order to achieve security for family’s dynasty.
Meade’s style is for the most part engaging, readable and entertaining as it seeks to rehabilitate the traditional view history has taken regarding Eleanor - that she was a bad wife and a worse mother. A very extensive bibliography is provided as well as an informal kind of footnotes that provides reference to many of the sources used. Written in the mid-70’s, Meade tackles one of histories earliest “feminists” – a woman who although years ahead of her time, also understood the world she lived in, her place in it and more importantly, how to maneuver through it.
My one complaint is that Eleanor comes out perhaps a little too perfect. Nothing ever seems to be her fault - usually the fault lies with Louis or Henry in all things. For example, in encouraging her sons to rebel against their father, it is only because Henry is being unreasonable in his treatment of them and of course has nothing to do with Eleanor's own feelings towards her husband. Things are rarely that one sided.
Rating: Very Good
There were several scenes last night that I thought really made this episode very good. Consider this a SPOILER warning, so if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to know some of what happens, don’t read any further!
In the beginning of the episode Anne is told that she is to die at 9:00. She begins dressing herself (with the help of a couple of ladies) while a clerk reads the psalm Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 "To everything there is a season...”. At the same time, Henry is on his way to see Jane and she is also dressing herself. The scene goes back and forth between Anne and Jane as each completes various parts of the dressing process – dress, jewelry, shoes etc. The giddiness of Jane provides a stark contrast to the solemness taking place in the Tower.
Charles Brandon pays a visit to Thomas Boleyn in the Tower and tells him he is released but stripped of various duties and is to leave court. With a big grin, Thomas’ response is “So, I get to keep my earldom?” What? Are you kidding me? Brandon, although no fan of Anne’s, is even disgusted and shoves Boleyn up against the wall and asks him if he watched his son die and what about his daughter’s suffering. He ends with “was it all worth it?” Of course Thomas doesn’t have an answer for that. Thomas Boleyn continues to show why he would never be considered father of the year material as he is leaving the Tower and he looks up to see Anne looking at him out the window. She smiles meekly and gives him a little wave. The SOB does not even acknowledge her – he simply turns his back on her and walks away. Her face says that she is heartbroken.
After having been told that the executioner has been delayed and her execution postponed until noon, Anne is informed that due to further delays, it has been put off until 9:00 the next morning. In disbelief, Anne suddenly grasps for hope in that the delays must mean something – maybe she is not meant to die after all but will be sent to a nunnery. Of course she knows this won’t happen, but what else does a person facing death have but hope.
As the hour of the execution approaches, Cromwell purposefully strides into a church, kneels before the cross and begins frantically praying. He seems distraught and then suddenly stops with a sigh and a look on his face that seems to say that he knows there is no amount of forgiveness for what he has done.
Amid a flurry of activity taking place at Elizabeth’s residence, a couple of the women are talking about how her is household is to be dismantled and that she is no longer a princess. As Elizabeth looks on and the women discuss the lot of their sex, the look on that child’s face is one of the most pitiful I have ever seen. I would love to know how they got that child to look like that.
Anne’s execution scene is gut-wrenching and I cried my eyes out. I don’t know if the speech she gave was word for word accurate, but I think it was pretty close. Dormer gave it an emotional passion that I will always remember and visualize every time I read about this in the future.
Finally, Henry’s swans. A pair of swans is prominently featured several times in the episode. I’m not exactly sure what the symbolism is there, but at the end, one of them is brought to Henry on a platter. The swan is surrounding some kind of pie and Henry breaks off one of the wings and digs into the pie with his fingers shoving the food into his mouth and dripping it down his face – while laughing. What a pig!
I spotted this book several months ago on Paperback Swap. Subtitled as a "A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine" I decided to give it a try. One of the great things about PBS is that you can find books you've never heard of and pick them up for the cost of postage.
The book covers a relatively brief period of time in the long life of one of history's most fascinating women - the revolt of her sons against their father in 1173 and her capture later that year. But for a book billed as a novel about Eleanor, for much of the story she plays a relatively minor role.
Mackin injects into the story two women who are much of the focus: Sophia, Eleanor's astrologer and Lucie - a runaway serf who comes to Sophia's attention and ultimately, to Eleanor's court at Poitier. Their stories are interesting enough and provide a glimpse of medieval life and of Eleanor's "Court of Love". Their own love entanglements also provide a little romance and a balance to the animosity between Eleanor and Henry.
Eleanor and Henry have a love/hate relationship and each often reflects on the early days of their marriage and what has brought them to where they are now - at war with each other. Eleanor certainly encourages her sons' rebellion against their father as much to secure the future of her favorite (Richard) as it is to hurt Henry for casting her aside. Hell hath no fury indeed. The scene between the two shortly after her capture (and Henry's surprising feelings to the rumors that she was in fact dead) is poignant and reflects that between a man and woman, deep seeded hatred can really only come from a deep love.
Eleanor is portrayed as strong, ambitious and as a woman who is willing to sacrifice her own happiness (and ultimately her freedom) in order to protect and further the interests of her sons.
After Eleanor's capture, the book's final chapter skips ahead 16 years to her release on the news that Henry is dead and Richard's upcoming coronation. Mackin uses this chapter to bring the reader up to date on some of the things that happened during those years and also wraps up the stories of Sophia and Lucie. Overall, the book was a little uneven - entertaining in places, rather slow/boring in others. I have yet to read a book about Eleanor that I really liked. I have several others on the TBR pile. Maybe one of them will do her story justice.