Sibling Rivalry Played for Keeps

At times this book feels like one of the better seasons of Dynasty set in Renaissance Italy. There are fights for family power, adultery, borderline idiot husbands, unloved brides, over-indulgent fathers, trampy cousins; the only thing missing is the occasional catfight. With material like the Medici family of Florence, one expects a bit of entertainment and Caroline Murphy delivers. Murphy also acquits herself well as a serious historian.

The story of daddy’s-favorite Isabella de Medici Orsini has the drama and intrigue to sustain a book. Isabella is that rarity of Renaissance times – a woman who is not a ruling queen with a well-documented life. Caroline Murphy brings Isabella to live but more importantly, she brings the reader into Isabella’s life. We get a feeling for the rhythms, excitements and boredoms of life as a Medici princess. Isabella is not exactly a sympathetic character nor is she remarkable for anything beyond her birth but that in itself makes this book fascinating reading. It’s rare to know so much about a woman of those times who was neither a paragon of virtue nor a creature of great infamy.

Nasty gossip did attach itself to Isabella - stories accused of incest with her father and her brother – yet her murder went without official comment. In the epilogue Murphy makes the case that Isabella was killed for actions that had she been a man would have been tolerated. I have no difficulty believing there was a double-standard in 16th century Florence but Murphy’s stretching things a bit here. Helping your hare-brained cousin plot to murder her husband is going to rile up the family no matter what your gender.

Murphy’s style is clear and she does a remarkable job of weaving together the various sources into an enjoyable narrative. She does pad the story on occasion and several times she jumps around chronologically but the impact on the overall story is minor. She writes for a contemporary audience complete with mentions of Paris Hilton but doesn’t strain for popular references. This is is a well-written biography that I recommend to anyone interested in Renaissance history.

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