by Leonie Frieda
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Italian peninsula was not a single unified state, as it is today. Instead, it was broken up into hundreds of small kingdoms, each vying with the others for prominence and domination. With so many rivals for power, war was inevitable. Although men dominated the politics of the day, their frequent absences to fight meant that women often ruled as their regents. In this book, Leonie Frieda examines the lives of some of the powerful women who influenced Italian politics during the Renaissance: Lucrezia Turnabuoni, Clarice Orsini, Beatrice and Isabella d’Este, Caterina Sforza, Giulia Farnese, Isabella d’Aragona, and Lucrezia Borgia. Like their husbands, many of these women were connected by blood or marriage or friendship…and like their husbands, the women could be rulers, politicians, lovers, and warriors to defend their families and their state.
Some of these women were truly intimidating. It’s hard to forget Caterina Sforza once you’ve heard this episode from her life: she is trapped in a fortress, and an enemy has her children. They threaten to kill her eldest son, who is shrieking and screaming up a storm. Instead of breaking down into tears, Caterina lifts up her skirts and flashes her lady bits, proudly declaring, “Foolish men! Can’t you see that la fica mia is full, and I have the mold to make more [sons]!” She sounds like a terrifying mother, but that’s the sort of woman you had to be to survive in Caterina’s Italy.
Instead of segregating the women into separate biographies, one narrative is told through the chapters, with the womens’ lives interwoven throughout. But when you have several Caterinas, Isabellas, and Lucrezias running around through multiple generations, it gets really confusing really quickly, even with the family trees at the front of the book for reference. Plus, for every woman a handful of men must be introduced, and their biographies briefly sketched to provide context for the mother/wife/daughter being discussed. There are simply too many individuals to keep straight!
It’s obvious that a lot of research went into this book; the amount of detail about the daily wives of these women is breathtaking. But again, there’s just so much of it that eventually my brain went into overload, and all I remember are the random, gossipy stories. Lucrezia Borgia’s beautiful blonde hair was maintained with a shampoo that contained “scrapings of horse hooves” – basically, the equine equivalent of toenail clippings. The older she got, the flashier and fatter Isabella d’Este became – were she alive today, I imagine she’d be the sort of middle-aged woman who can barely squeeze into her bedazzled leopard print jumpsuit with diamonds dripping off her arms and neck. But ask me a question about what exactly was going on politically at a given time, and all I can do is shrug. The marriages and the child-bearing and the stunning gowns and the endless rides across the countryside just blend together in my mind.
I wanted to like this book, I really did. I did enjoy parts of it. But it is so densely packed with information that it was difficult to keep track of everything, even though I’ve read biographies of some of these women before. The confusion of the book gave me a much greater respect for both these Renaissance women and modern scholars simply because their ability to remember the history of each of these prominent families and city-states is amazing.
3.5 out of 5 stars
To read more about The Deadly Sisterhood, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2012: Romeo & Juliet
2011: The Magicians by Lev Grossman
2010: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith
2009: Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper