Fam­ily val­ues

CATHER­INE FLETCHER is dis­ap­pointed by an un­o­rig­i­nal take on one of his­tory’s most in­fa­mous dy­nas­ties

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - Cather­ine Fletcher is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in his­tory and her­itage at Swansea Univer­sity

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Out-of-date schol­ar­ship is, un­for­tu­nately, a con­sis­tent prob­lem with this book.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

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