CATHERINE FLETCHER is disappointed by an unoriginal take on one of history’s most infamous dynasties
The Medici by Mary Hollingsworth Head of Zeus, 528 pages, £35
The Medici are a fascinating family. First documented in the 13th century, they rose to power on the back of a banking fortune. With “snares, traps and deceits” they made themselves de facto rulers, then lords of Florence. It’s a thrilling story, and this is a beautifully presented book, packed with gorgeous art images. Sadly the historical content does not live up to the packaging.
Mary Hollingsworth’s pitch is that the Medici were the bad guys, and she makes a decent case for it with tales of their sometimes murderous misdeeds. But Medici misconduct isn’t news, and her claim that Lorenzo the Magnificent’s corruption “rarely makes its way into the annals of Medici history” is overplayed. It’s more than a decade since the PBS documentary Godfathers of the Renaissancee compared the family to the Mafia, and the current TV show Medici: Masters of Florence is hardly more salubrious: it prompted one Medici descendant to complain it traduced his ancestors’ memory.
Out-of-date scholarship is, unfortunately, a consistent problem with this book. Hollingsworth tells us it’s “likely” that Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici died of malaria, but that is not supported by the documents from the murder investigation, discussed in a 2010 biography. She also insists, against the latest research, that Alessandro de’ Medici was Pope Clement VII’s illegitimate son. This will only be definitively settled by scientific testing, but the documentary evidence points elsewhere. In the past 10 years, a wealth of new books on the Medici have been published, on topics ranging from political culture to the family’s relationship with Machiavelli, perceptions of the Americas and patronage of the Jesuits. As far as I can tell, none of this work has informed The Medici. Readers hoping for an up-to-date synthesis of the historical research (some of it only available in Italian, behind paywalls, or in expensive university library editions) are destined to be disappointed.
The Medici women are also notable for their absence. While the men of the family get individual chapters, Catherine de’ Medici, queen and regent of France (and arguably the family’s single most powerful member), does not; nor does the other French queen of the family, Marie. Maria Magdalena of Austria and Christine of Lorraine fare marginally better, but by and large the women feature as wives and mothers. It’s true that Florentine politics were male-dominated (even by the standards of the day), but
Medici women are notable in the book for their absence
women could and did exercise informal power in political life and as artistic or religious patrons. Maddalena and Simunetta, the two enslaved women who bore illegitimate children to Medici men, are not even dignified with names. Problems with the documentary sources for these women do not excuse this absence.
As far as the Medici men are concerned, Hollingsworth presents a clear and straightforward, if somewhat dated, narrative of political events and alliances. She also argues the Medici were less significant patrons than they are often portrayed as. It’s an interesting point, but to be convincing this book needed much greater attention to the new research and the broader social context.
A painting depicting the marriage of Christine of Lorraine. The role of the Medici women is underplayed in a new book on the dynasty, says Catherine Fletcher