Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Murder of a Medici Princess by Caroline P. Murphy (2008)

The always lovely Choo lent me this copy of Murder of a Medici Princess by Caroline P. Murphy (2008) awhile ago and it languished at the bottom of my ever-growing book reading pile for way too long. I have a thing for biographies of female nobles from the past, and this exploration of the life of Isabella de Medici in 16th century Italy totally fits in that category.

Isabella was the daughter of Cosimo de Medici, a savvy politician and strong businessman who strengthened the Medici family's grip on Florence and eventually worked his way up to being named Grand Duke of Tuscany. Cosimo was extremely dedicated to his family, particularly the women in it, and of all his children Isabella seems to have been his favorite. She was raised in style in a close-knit family, and educated every bit as much as her brothers. When she was married to Paolo Orsini, the playboy son of a powerful Roman family, Cosimo saw to it that Isabella remained the female anchor of the Medici family and made it possible for her to stay in Florence instead of joining her spendthrift husband in Rome or at his isolated country estate.

Isabella was able to lead a life that few Italian women in her era could -- educated and respected by her family, freed from any obligations as a wife, and funded by the deep pockets of her father, Isabella was the ultimate intellectual society party girl of her day. She sponsored musicians, artists and writers, mentored her beautiful cousin Leonora (who was married to her youngest brother), threw the best parties in Florence, and had some not-so-secret lovers -- all while deftly avoiding her husband's pleas for her to join him in Rome.

Everything was going pretty well for Isabella until the man who made it all possible, her father, died. After Cosimo's death, the leadership of Florence fell to his oldest son, Francesco. Isabella and Francesco had never really gotten along that well, and he never approved of her lifestyle. Francesco was not nearly the leader that his father was and the delicate balance of Florence society quickly began to fall apart. Francesco eventually took swift action to silence the dissenters and remove any obstacles to his power, which ultimately led to a very sad end for both Isabella and Leonora (one you could probably guess from the title of the book).

Murphy's book is nicely researched and illustrated, and reads almost like a novel -- she gives the reader enough context to understand what is going on, but doesn't dwell overly long on arcane details, names and dates. Highly recommended if you too have a thing for those crazy high-born ladies from history.

[Note: When I read The Agony and the Ecstasy (a historical novel about the life of Michelangelo that I didn't like that much), I vowed to read more about the Medici family. And I just did! I'd just like to congratulate myself on the follow through.]

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