The politics, society, and culture of Renaissance Florence are vividly reanimated in Marmorstein’s historical novel debut based on the life of Niccolò Machiavelli.
There is little that the young Niccolò adores more than escaping his family home and threading his way through the streets of Florence to watch old men play cards in a seedy osteria. Here, drawing on a “premeditated charm offensive” inherited from his mother, he casually triggers animated debate among the players as a way of gleaning information about Florentine politics. This delightful scene is an indicator of what Niccolò will become: a political realist with a keen understanding of the human condition. The novel flits elegantly throughout Niccolò’s life—his ascension through the ranks to a position in the Second Chancery; various diplomatic missions on behalf of the republic and his role in deploying a citizen-staffed army in the war against Pisa; later years after the second Medici restoration when he was arrested and tortured for conspiracy; and a period of exile in rural Tuscany, where he began to write his great political treatises. A number of the titles from the Mentoris Project (“a series of novels and biographies about the lives of great Italians and Italian-Americans”) adopt a wearingly generic approach, making Marmorstein’s narrative deviation from conventional linear chronology refreshing. Marmorstein also succeeds in bringing Florentine society to life, particularly with regard to feasting, offering sumptuous descriptions of the local cuisine. Niccolò indulges in “a hefty portion of gran bollito misto, a hearty stew made with seven different cuts of boiled beef and veal, and seven more supplementary varieties of meat including capon, broiler chicken, and beef tongue.” Marmorstein’s descriptive eye also falls on the city’s art and architecture, taking in the “three-dimensional reality” of Masaccio’s fresco and Brunelleschi’s “massive cupola atop the Duomo.” Sadly, he chooses not to fully elaborate on Machiavelli’s penchant for “late-night escapades,” which may have proven entertaining. Still, Marmorstein skillfully weaves a spellbinding tale of the making of a political luminary set against the vibrant backdrop of Renaissance Florence.
Thoroughly researched, masterfully embroidered, and enjoyable to read.