A biographer delivers the scholarly yet very human story of some talented women who held surprising sway in the incredible clutter of city-states that composed Renaissance Italy.
Noting that Italy comprised some 250 individual states, Frieda (Catherine de Medici, 2005) focuses on three powerful families—Sforza, Este, Gonzaga—though others rise and fall throughout her tale, as well, principally the Borgias and the Medici. The stories (and families) are interconnected and extremely complex—witness the 10 pages of family trees preceding the text. (Assiduous readers will want to keep a finger among those pages.) The author follows the fortunes of such women as Caterina Sforza, her husband brutally murdered and mutilated, who flashed traitors in a crowd. Frieda also shows us the vilely corrupt papacy of the time. Greed, violence, sexual depravity, incompetence—all flourished. Throughout, the author wields a sharp rhetorical razor, too. Of Duchess Bona, she writes: “it would have been hard to find a stupider woman,” and Angela Borgia was a “brainless beauty.” Frieda does some restoration on the reputations of the Borgias, particularly Lucrezia, calling much of what had circulated at the time (and later) “a heap of fantastical stories and lies.” Among the most compelling of her accounts: the papacy of Rodrigo Borgia (Alexander VI) and the quest for power that consumed his son Cesare, who became a Spanish prisoner. Frieda also follows the international politics and military maneuvers of Italy, especially the incursions of France. Shifting alliances, deceptions and lies, the struggle for wealth and power—all are revealed in the stories of women who held (or manipulated) the reins of power when men were incompetent or away battling one another.
Richly researched and deeply complex—at times sufficient to bemuse as much as inform.