Things have been a little quiet at The Idle Woman recently because I was away in Italy last week on the inaugural Arezzo Summer Course. This is aimed at doctoral students, curators and others with a professional or academic interest in prints. It offers the chance to hear from scholars in the field, who present lectures on their current research, as well as including field trips to various collections and print rooms. I imagine the feel will be different every year, depending on the scholars who come to act as ‘professors’, but this year the course was perfectly aligned to my interests. One of its themes was to look at the interaction between music and printmaking – specifically the way that prints were used to record ephemeral festivities, theatrical events and pieces of music like cantatas, which until the late 17th century existed only as part of an oral tradition.
(National Gallery, London, 15 March-25 June 2017)
The current National Gallery exhibition is a lovingly-crafted feast for the mind, focusing on a remarkable, though somewhat one-sided friendship. This is the tale of a talented young painter in search of new opportunities, who manages against the odds to become friends with the most difficult, most demanding artist of the age. Our painter is amazed when this great maestro decides to collaborate with him. But that collaboration must come at a price: the young man departs from the style of his youth and devotes himself to assimilating the master’s aesthetic. But what happens when the friendship sours? This is a story worthy of a novel, full of ambition, envy, manipulation and exploitation, Renaissance rivalry and tragically one-sided devotion. And some truly beautiful art.
It’s 1502. Women are being murdered in the Romagna, and their deaths may hold the secret to a mystery that has plagued Pope Alexander VI: the brutal murder of his beloved son Juan, Duke of Gandia. Eager for revenge, he sends an agent north to find out more. The former courtesan Damiata arrives in the town of Imola, the headquarters of the Pope’s second son Cesare, with a powerful motivation to succeed: her infant son is being kept as a hostage at the Borgia court. Yet she isn’t the only one seeking the truth about these murders. Two others are also trying to identify the killer: one is the put-upon Florentine envoy, Niccolò Machiavelli; the other is Cesare’s engineer-general, the Tuscan polymath Leonardo da Vinci.
A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias
This is the long-awaited sequel to Sarah Dunant’s wonderful Blood and Beauty, which takes up the story of the Borgias once again in the final years of their dominance in Italy. At the beginning of 1502, it seems that nothing can stand in the way of the family’s influence, which creeps its way across Italy, subduing its rivals with a blend of charm and violence. Charm comes courtesy of Pope Alexander VI’s lovely daughter Lucrezia, who is making her way cross-country to be married to her third husband, Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara, and using her journey as a way to captivate the Papal States with her elegance, grace and sweetness. Violence, predictably, sits in the hands of her dangerous brother Cesare who prowls around the borders of their state, ears pricked for dissent or weakness. And, while this remarkable family strengthens their grip on Italy, a young diplomat in the Florentine Second Chancery follows their progress with quiet admiration.
A very brief history
I’ve always wanted to like Thomas More, largely thanks to Hans Holbein’s magnificent portrait. It offers such an appealingly naturalistic image of the man. More is intense, slightly homely with that overlarge nose, his eyes crinkling at the corners and his mouth quirked benevolently at the corner. He hasn’t shaved: his jaw is scattered with soft grey bristles. The red velvet and fur-trimmed cloak look incongruous: you get the impression he’s indifferent to worldly finery, his mind resolutely fixed on higher things. We almost forget the artist’s craft: we treat the portrait as a photograph, a direct record of the man. But art isn’t like that. And nor is history. The problem is that history has left us so many Mores – the principled objector; the humanist; the saint; the idealistic author of Utopia; the burner of heretics. How can we find our way through the mire? Fortunately this short, lucid and lively book offers a crash course in all things More – and our guide is one of the world’s foremost Tudor historians.
A Novel of the Borgias
I’m on a bit of a Borgia kick at the moment. Having just finished Sarah Dunant’s new book In the Name of the Family (the post will go live on the 18th, nearer its publication date), I moved on to Cecelia Holland’s vision of 16th-century Rome. The Borgias are at the apex of their power, with Alexander VI on the Papal throne, his daughter Lucrezia being offered in marriage to the d’Este in Ferrara, and his son Cesare driving the fear of God into the Romagna at the point of a sword. As Italy shifts under the weight of their dominance, a sharp-eyed envoy at the Florentine embassy begins to wonder whether he can use the Borgias as a stepping stone to his own fortune. As a roistering story of the Roman underbelly, full of dark alleyways, abductions and subterfuge, this should have been an absolute stunner… and yet it’s oddly stilted and unsatisfying.
Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe
Over the years I’ve assembled a variety of John Julius Norwich’s history books, because he conveniently writes on precisely the topics that fascinate me: Byzantium; Sicily; the Normans in Italy; and so forth. However, although I’ve dipped into all of these books, I’ve rather shamefully never finished any of them, having been distracted for various reasons from savouring Norwich’s sublimely elegant prose. This new history, shorter than the others and full of a delightful liveliness, has the honour of being the first Norwich that I’ve read cover to cover. Taking the unusual format of a group biography, it focuses on the dazzling first half of the 16th century, when four men between them bestrode Europe like colossi. It’s an extremely accessible introduction to the period and the men in question.
What was the year that changed the world? We could probably argue about that until we were all blue in the face, but 1450 has more claim than most. For it was in this year, in Mainz, that a small team of artisans began work on a formidably ambitious project: the creation of the very first book printed with movable type. This novel follows the gestation of this project, drawing out all the sweat and labour of the process, under the beady eye of its suspicious, unpredictable, misanthropic begetter: Gutenberg.
Flavia knows she is ugly. It is the one constant in her life and, because of it, her mother resents her, her father pities her, and her younger sister Pia steals all the glory, savouring the betrothal and marriage night that Flavia herself will never have. With a purple birthmark in the shape of a bird soaring across her cheek, Flavia is irrevocably marked. And yet, when her vindictive behaviour leads her parents to wash their hands of her at last, and confine her to a convent, Flavia discovers a remarkable truth: beauty can be assumed. Assigned to the elegant Ghostanza Dolfin, serving as her ornatrix or beautician, Flavia discovers that beauty can come out of a jar and that ugliness can be hidden beneath the glowing white mask of cerussa. Suddenly, life is full of possibility.
It’s been three long years since River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay’s last novel, so the publication of Children of Earth and Sky is quite an event and a cause for some celebration. From a personal point of view, the new book is made even more exciting by its setting. While Under Heaven and River of Stars took me out of my historical comfort zone – unfolding in the alternate-universe empire of Kitai, which drew on the dynastic splendour of medieval China – Children plunged me into the knotty political world of my very favourite period: the Renaissance.