Friday, March 22, 2013

The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power, and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance 1427 – 1527, by Leonie Frieda. Harper, 2012

Leonie Frieda has taken on the task of portraying women of power from the Italian Renaissance. It’s a huge job, and, while she has meticulously researched the project, it falls a bit short.
Renaissance Italy was very different from the Italy of today. It was a loose collection of states ruled by dukes and counts who formed and broke alliances as it best suited them. The immensely powerful Catholic Church was corrupt. Intrigue, greed and war were the order of the day. With the men frequently away on military missions, the ruling of the states fell to their wives. Sometimes the men stayed home and sent their wives on diplomatic missions. Women may have been political pawns back then, but some of them managed to wrest power of their own. Isabella d’Aragona, Isabella and Beatrice d’Este, Catarina Sforza, Clarice Orsini, Lucrezia di Francesco Tornabuoni, and Frieda’s apparent favorite, Lucrezia Borgia, were women who did this.

To appreciate what these women did, one has to know the historical setting: the states, the families that ruled them, and how these families were all connected by intermarriage. A lot of the book is necessarily devoted to this. The women weave through story, born into this family, married into another, and, in some cases, into another and another. Thankfully, there are family genealogies in the front of the book so one can attempt to keep it all straight! The author doesn’t always refer to the people by the same name every time, adding to the confusion.

The most interesting thing to me was the author’s rehabilitation of Lucrezia Borgia’s reputation. Rather than the evil mistress of poison and pawn of her father, Rodrigo Borgia aka Pope Alexander, she is portrayed as an innocent, loving, woman of intellect and kindness. In fact, the whole Borgia family is described in a good light, something I never expected. Well, perhaps ‘good’ is pushing it; it’s more that they are all just products of their time.

Sadly, the women never really come to life. They remain flat, performing actions without us ever really knowing their feelings. It’s a pretty good history book, but not great on the biography part.

Note: This book came to me through the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. My opinions are in no way changed by the fact that the book was free. The link below is an affiliate link; if you go through it to buy the book, I get a tiny amount of money. 


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