From the Historical Novel Society: my feature article (rather than a review) on "The Black Prince." British author Catherine Fletcher has said that whFrom the Historical Novel Society: my feature article (rather than a review) on "The Black Prince." British author Catherine Fletcher has said that while she is an historian specializing in Renaissance and early modern Europe—the world of the Tudors, the Medici and the Borgias—she is not “exclusively interested in the glitzy people at the top.” Her first nonfiction book, The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican, explored the diplomacy behind Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Fletcher’s focus then was King Henry’s man in Rome, Italian diplomat Gregorio Casali, a relatively unknown key player in one of history’s great events. Research for that book involved Pope Clement VII, the Medici pope who refused to end Henry’s marriage. This led Fletcher to the shadowy figure of Alessandro de’ Medici, the “black prince,” who was a papal nephew. Her interest in Alessandro deepened when she became involved in a proposed production of Othello in Florence. “The show didn’t go ahead, but it did prompt me to read around the literature on early modern race and ethnicity, which is an important part of Alessandro’s story . . . (along with) the tradition he was of African descent.” Thus was born The Black Prince of Florence, wherein Fletcher, Associate Professor in History and Heritage at Swansea University, turns her spotlight on the rise and fall of the dark-skinned youth named the first hereditary duke of Florence when he was nineteen, and who was assassinated six years later during an adulterous midnight assignation arranged by his treacherous young cousins.
Born in 1511/12, Alessandro was the by-blow of a Medici duke and a maid or slave rumored to be a Moor or a “half-Negro” woman. Given the circumstances—Alessandro was a bastard, but he was a Medici bastard—a privileged boy who might have been lost to history but for a remarkable series of events. In 1519, his father—the duke of Urbino and the de facto, or behind-the-scenes, ruler of Florence—died, leaving no legitimate male heir and a yawning void in the leadership of Florence. Ironically, the fate of the Medici dynasty now lay with Alessandro and another Medici boy, both born on the wrong side of the blanket. (Since Alessandro’s legitimate half-sister, Catherine de’ Medici, was female, she did not qualify to “rule.”) Alessandro’s cousin Ippolito de’ Medici, whose father also was dead, trumped Alessandro in two ways: Ippolito was one year older and his mother a noblewoman. How then did Alessandro come to ride into Florence and accept the keys to the city when he was still a teen (July 1531), besting a host of oligarchs and family rivals?
Writing in an entertaining style that contains a wealth of scholarly research, Fletcher fills in the details, painting a sweeping portrait not only of Alessandro, but also of his family, whose power and survival always seemed to hang in the balance between magnificence and vile deeds. Because after his assassination many of Alessandro’s personal documents were destroyed, and since until now he has received little serious attention, Fletcher had to dig deep for her story. “Some intriguing material came from Mantua rather than from the archives and libraries in Florence,” she said when asked about her research. In Mantua, “there’s a marvellously gossipy set of letters from a secretary in the household of Alessandro’s chief minister.”
Regarding Alessandro’s controversial reputation, Fletcher writes it was his misfortune to be “assassinated twice: first with a sword, then with a pen.” After the twenty-five-year-old duke’s murder at the hands of his cousin Lorenzaccio (“Bad Lorenzo”) de’ Medici in 1537, Alessandro’s enemies labeled Alessandro a depraved tyrant. Yet, while Lorenzino claimed he had killed his cousin for the sake of the Florentine Republic, the anti-Medici faction failed to rise. Was Alessandro an oppressive ruler, or was he a youth who reveled in parties and sporting events, preferring, in the main, to leave political shennigans to others? In weighing the evidence, Catherine Fletcher has written a complex biographical narrative, one sympathetic but honest in relating the strengths and weaknesses of the last member of the senior branch of the Medici family dynasty to rule Florence.
Fletcher details the duke’s racial heritage with grace in both her prologue and in her afterword, “Alessandro’s Ethnicity: Historical Sources and Debates.” His contemporaries did not consider his parentage overmuch. In Renaissance Italy, “The color of one’s skin meant little but the strength of one’s allegiances meant everything.” Only in the years and centuries after Alessandro’s death did his roots become a focus, “first by those who wanted to emphasize his ‘savagery’ to justify his murder, and later to argue his case as the first ruler of color in the Western world.” Fletcher comes nicely full circle at the end of The Black Prince of Florence, writing, “Only in the 21st century has the question of Alessandro’s race begun to attract more serious scholarly interest. With a fuller account of his life now at hand, perhaps we may put paid to . . . ill-informed comment(s).”
Fletcher completed her PhD in History at Royal Holloway, University of London. In 2015, she was a historical advisor on the BBC’s television adaption of Hilary Mantel’s books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Asked how she organized her research for The Black Prince, she said, “This was the first project where I really got into using technology for organising my work. I had Zotero, which is free open-source bibliographic software designed for historians, to keep all my book and article references in order. And I used Scrivener to write the book, along with Simplenote on the iPad. It’s so much easier than trying to write with a traditional word-processing package, and I highly recommend it.”
In future, she says, “I’m sticking with the period of the Italian Wars, 1494-1559, and I have a new research project on handguns. The 16th century was the first time portable firearms came into wide use. I’ve been reading debates about gun control then and there are some staggering parallels with arguments in the USA today. So the next book will tie into that in some way—perhaps not directly but I’m finding it fascinating getting into the new material.” ...more
Although I enjoyed this book overall, my pleasure was dimmed by one glaring error on the part of the author, or his editor(s), perhaps. This happenedAlthough I enjoyed this book overall, my pleasure was dimmed by one glaring error on the part of the author, or his editor(s), perhaps. This happened when the text referred to "Matteo" Vespucci as the husband of Simonetta Vespucci (the famous, fetching blond of Botticelli's "Venus"). The fellow in question was named Marco Vespucci. One wonders how, after all Nicholl's research (he is a prize-winning author of many books of history, biography, and travel), something like this could happen. Errors like this, though minor, perhaps, in the main, undermine a reader's faith in the *entire* work, be it fiction or nonfiction. Read through Interlibrary Loan. ...more
Here is a wonderful book highlighting parents fighting to keep their children well at a time when Florentines were prolific in the number of childrenHere is a wonderful book highlighting parents fighting to keep their children well at a time when Florentines were prolific in the number of children they had. "They had to be. Their children died prolifically." And: "The cold dry statistic of 30 percent childhood mortality rates common for the premodern world takes on a stunning complexion when we realize that this rate or higher could occur in any individual family." Baptisms (in 1338, before the mortality of the Black Death, a priest at San Giovanni stated he had baptized 6,000 babies that year, an average of 16 a day) godparents, adoption and the practice of putting children out to wet-nurses (usually when babies were less than one month old) are described in a lively manner through contemporary journals and letters. ...more
This lovely book takes an in-depth look at Florence as the birthplace of the modern financial system (and banking) and was produced for an exhibitionThis lovely book takes an in-depth look at Florence as the birthplace of the modern financial system (and banking) and was produced for an exhibition at the Strozzi Palazzo in Florence. The exhibition offered examples of wealth acquired and monies spent (on work by Sandro Botticelli, for example) through public and private commissions and the wave of reform sweeping through Christianity (Savonarola). I enjoyed this book tremendously for the pieces and beautiful art reproductions regarding money (florins), cloth production (silks and velvets) and so on for the authenticity in my stories set in Renaissance Florence. A pricey book at $300 (since the close of the exhibition), I was only able to hold it in my hands through the Nashville Public Interlibrary Loan system. Thank you! ...more
Not as all-inclusive as the title suggests, though there are valuable tidbits here and there, for example, how washerwomen went about doing laundry...Not as all-inclusive as the title suggests, though there are valuable tidbits here and there, for example, how washerwomen went about doing laundry.......more
Found in an antique shop and purchased for $4.00. This is a lovely older book with a history of, well, Chianti and the wines of Tuscany with a thorougFound in an antique shop and purchased for $4.00. This is a lovely older book with a history of, well, Chianti and the wines of Tuscany with a thorough background history and plenty of maps. Happily, I have been to a lot of these areas, including Greve, Radda, and Castellina in Chianti. ...more
When I finished this memoir, I felt as if I were saying farewell to a valued friend. Marco Parenti's story of his life experiences in Renaissance ItalWhen I finished this memoir, I felt as if I were saying farewell to a valued friend. Marco Parenti's story of his life experiences in Renaissance Italy is unlike most others in that he was neither a Medici, nor the wealthy member of any other high-ranking Renaissance family. He was a moneyed silk merchant and ordinary citizen of Florence with minor political standing whose upward mobility in the city came from his marriage to Alessandra Stozzi's daughter, Caterina. Once wed, Marco found himself the go-between for Caterina's brother, Filippo Strozzi, who was in exile in Naples, and the Florentine government, which adamantly refused to allow Filippo's return to his homeland.
At the time, the Medici were in the very air in Florence as the de facto "rulers" of the republican government. Through Marco, we live through a revolt against the Medici family after the death of Cosimo de' Medici in 1464—will Cosimo's sickly son and heir, Piero de' Medici, survive attempts to assassinate him and his son, Lorenzo, by those who wish to take their places? Will Filippo ever be allowed to return home from Naples? Yes, and yes, again.
The Medici remained at the helm of the Florentine government for another thirty years, until 1492, when Lorenzo de' Medici died a relatively young man. (It is primarily through Lorenzo and his golden circle of poets and philosophers that we have the Renaissance.) And of course Filippo Strozzi not only returned to his city but also became one of the richest men in Florence and the builder of the grandest private Florentine palazzo of his century (the Stozzi Palace, now a museum open to the public). (Success, Marco!)
What made Marco's observations (through his record book, his correspondence with his exiled in-laws, and the memoir itself) dear to me is that Marco is not part of Florence's inner circle. He is an observer—one who is startled and as wide-eyed as we are when on occasion he is not viewed as an outsider, but as someone who is welcome in the home of one of the government's most important men. It is also interesting to have Marco's "take" on that government—he is not a Medici man, by any means. No, as Mark Phillips states in his preface to this work, Marco has high hopes for a more open regime.
The connection with Alessandra Strozzi is interesting, too. Alessandra's own, well-known collection of letters—in which Alessandra laments, for one thing, that her family cannot possibly attend the latest Medici wedding: they cannot afford the clothes!—are a constant source of study for scholars of the Italian Renaissance. Seeing Alessandra and the Strozzi family come alive through Marco's comments is a nice peek into 15th-c daily life.
Note: This is not a "casual" read. The politics are in-depth—a close look at the machinations of powerful men and Marco Parenti's response to them. ...more
An excellent resource for Santo Spirito Church in the Santo Spirito quarter of Florence (left bank of the Arno). Michelangelo's wooden crucifix is herAn excellent resource for Santo Spirito Church in the Santo Spirito quarter of Florence (left bank of the Arno). Michelangelo's wooden crucifix is here, along with frescoes by Botticini and Rosselli. Sacristy designed by Giuliano da Sangallo. ...more
A terrific book whose subtitle says it all: "A 'slow' stroll through the heart of Florence's historic centre, on the discovery of curious facts, legenA terrific book whose subtitle says it all: "A 'slow' stroll through the heart of Florence's historic centre, on the discovery of curious facts, legends, anecdotes, and popular beliefs that have surrounded this city since medieval and renaissance times." Generously illustrated with photographs and maps, including one of the four quarters of the city. A "small" book that delivers a big punch. ...more
Excellent nonfiction featuring selections from Coluccio Salutati to diarist Luca Landucci and Galeazzo Maria Sforza, writing in 1459. The maps are finExcellent nonfiction featuring selections from Coluccio Salutati to diarist Luca Landucci and Galeazzo Maria Sforza, writing in 1459. The maps are fine as is the chronology of fifteenth-century Florence....more
Complex, close look at the 1427 Castato (tax) report conducted in Florence. Important for birth, marriage, and death dates, as well as marriage traitsComplex, close look at the 1427 Castato (tax) report conducted in Florence. Important for birth, marriage, and death dates, as well as marriage traits, etc. Includes many statistical graphs. Not for the general reader. Borrowed Through Interlibrary Loan January 2013....more
This is a lovely, detailed book about the restoration of Sandro Botticelli's masterpiece, "Primavera," or "Spring." It includes a nice biography of BoThis is a lovely, detailed book about the restoration of Sandro Botticelli's masterpiece, "Primavera," or "Spring." It includes a nice biography of Botticelli, too....more