The Deadly Sisterhood

Jerry Brotton is disappointed by a study of powerful women in the Italian Renaissance

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Reviewed by: Jerry Brotton
Author: Leonie Frieda
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price (RRP): £25

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In a landmark essay published in 1977, US historian Joan Kelly asked, ‘Did Women Have a Renaissance?’ Her answer was that, between 1350 and 1500, women experienced new constraints; although they began to have more power within economic and political roles, this was strictly limited to the household by humanist texts such as Alberti’s On the Family.

Over the next three decades, Kelly’s argument inspired some of the finest revisionist history in Renaissance studies, transforming our understanding of the lives of women from Eleanor of Aquitane to Elizabeth I. It enabled us to understand well-known subjects like the family, domestic management and artistic patronage in completely new ways, and to rewrite traditional accounts – penned by historians like Jacob Burckhardt – of the Renaissance, which were centred on Italy and dominated by its famous men.

Leonie Frieda has already exploited this turn in Renaissance history and biography in her last book, Catherine de Medici. Here she moves back into the high Italian Renaissance, c1470–1527, to examine how, through a series of dynastic alliances and accidents in succession, a series of women wielded political power, often in spite of their inept, ailing, violent and unfaithful husbands.

The book moves from Caterina Sforza, who survived her husband’s assassination, a political coup, and imprisonment in the Vatican, to Isabella d’Este, Machioness of Mantua, one of the period’s great patrons, caught up in the sack of Rome (1527), which is where Frieda’s book ends. In between we are treated to the stories of women like Lucrezia Turnabuoni, formidable Medici matriarch and wife of Piero di Cosimo, and of course Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, and briefly regent of the Vatican.

Despite the book’s subject matter, I think it safe to say that Joan Kelly would be horrified with The Deadly Sisterhood were she alive to read it. Frieda has appropriated recent insights into women’s history and mixed it with the violence and tyranny of the period with which we are by now all familiar to produce the most atrocious of historical potboilers. No rape, murder or act of sodomy, however scurrilous or unsubstantiated, is left undescribed.

Gone is any sense of the economic or anthropological difference of women’s lives in this period. Instead, we’re given the tired old argument that the Italian peninsula was a wonderful place, full of “balls, masques, banquets and song,” which was suddenly replaced with “the portentous feeling that danger lurked in the dark passages” following the French invasion and culminating in the Spanish sack of Rome. Frieda’s ‘evidence’ in support of such a claim is none other than the satirical English Protestant pamphleteer Thomas Nashe, writing in 1592.

Such simplistic history also leads to some excruciating prose: Frieda’s deadly sisterhood “danced upon the edge of a world that was about to end”, and individuals endlessly (and speciously) sigh, cheer, scowl, wave and exclaim. Ultimately, what remains is a fantasy of a pure, 15th-century moment of Italian cultural supremacy when tyrannical aristocrats ruled a series of city states after ruthlessly suppressing their republican antecedents, and where Frieda discerns women “who were great in their lifetimes, and proved greater still in their bloodlines”.

The Deadly Sisterhood is not so much history as a soap opera documenting what the author presents as a kind of Renaissance Spice Girls, with all the superficial hype that goes with it.

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Jerry Brotton is the author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps (Allen Lane, 2012)