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Book Title: The Deadly Sisterhood|
Loaded: 2267 times
Reader ratings: 4.3
The author of the book: Leonie Frieda
Edition: Orion Publishing Co
Date of issue: July 11th 2013
ISBN 13: 9780753828441
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 365 KB
City - Country: No data
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I was so excited to get my hands on this book. It seemed to be right up my alley: a study of eight aristocratic women and how their actions impacted on the political schemes and upheavals of Renaissance Italy. And Freida's chosen as her subjects some truly fascinating women: Lucrezia Tornabuoni, the politically savvy mother of Lorenzo de' Medici; Clarice Orsini, Lorenzo's oft-ignored wife; Caterina Sforza, the notorious "Tiger of Forli"; sisters Isabella and Beatrice d'Este, both great patrons of culture; Isabella d'Aragona, the ill-fortuned Duchess of Milan; Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI; and Giulia Farnese, the Pope's mistress. Some of these women I already knew about, others I didn't, but I was eager to learn more.
Here's the problem, though: Despite the promises of the book's introduction, these women don't really end up being the focal point of the text.
Frieda's intentions are good: seeking to demonstrate the impact these eight women's lives had on the politics and culture of Renaissance Italy, she attempts to weave their stories through the broader picture of alliances, rivalries, wars, diplomacy, power-plays and scheming. She takes a chronological approach, visiting and revisiting each woman at various key points in her life and frequently stepping back to survey the broader political landscape. It's a lot of balls to keep in the air, and unfortunately it just doesn't work. With so much of the book consumed by explaining the events of the day, Frieda is unable to give adequate time to any of her eight subjects. As a result, each woman's story is diluted, simplified and ultimately dwarfed by the big picture happenings, and I never got to know any of them as well as I would have liked to.
It bothers me how uncritically Frieda approaches many of her sources. Legends are presented as fact, as are pejorative accusations of insanity and sexual deviancy. She tells us that Caterina Sforza flashed her vag at Ravaldino (she didn't), that Gian Galeazzo Sforza and Isabella d'Aragona were both "mad" (a lazy and extremely unfair oversimplification), and that Anna Sforza was so unimpressed by her husband's sexual performance that she took to cross dressing and sleeping with women (are you fucking kidding me). As a history graduate, this is the kind of thing that drives me crazy, and I find it inexcusable that a history writer would repeat such obviously problematic claims without even bothering to unpack them. The lack of a complete bibliography or endnotes also makes it harder to easily follow up on some of Frieda's more questionable claims.
There is some decent material in there -- going into the book, I knew nothing about the Medici women, and I found Frieda's discussion of them and the roles they played in Lorenzo's regime quite fascinating -- but there's a lot more that either isn't satisfactorily fleshed out or is flat-out questionable. None of the women are explored in the depth they deserve, and more often what we see are one-dimensional characters -- and in a few cases, outright caricatures. Isabella d'Este is done the greatest disservice; Frieda delights in mocking her acquisitiveness, her petty rivalries, her pride and (most irritatingly) her weight, which barely even sparing a mention for her cultural patronage, her regency in Mantua or her famed studiolo and grotta.
The poor standard of editing evident throughout the book unfortunately does nothing to help Frieda's case. The whole thing is in desperate need of a copyeditor to make sense of the atrocious number of misspellings, typos, grammatical errors, misused words, nonsensical sentence fragments, poor wording and difficult-to-follow run-on sentences. It's more than just a few simple proofreading oversights; the book is riddled with serious errors which ought to put any editor to shame.
In one instance the author mentions a letter "written ... following Lucrezia's marriage to Giovanni Sforza by her brother-in-law". The somewhat clumsy wording makes it appear that Frieda is referring to Lucrezia's brother-in-law; it's only five sentences later we discover that she's actually talking about the brother-in-law of Giulia Farnese.
We also get nonsensical, incomplete sentence fragments such as the following:
-- "There are grounds to suspect that her reaction was hysterical enough even the idea that Poliziano might be homosexual"
-- "The idea that the bastard daughter of the Borgia from Valencia, otherwise known as marranos, made the marriage a preposterous fancy."
And some downright awkward wording:
-- "His [Rodrigo's] mother never saw Rodrigo [again]" (should have been "Rodrigo never saw his mother again" or "Lucrezia never saw her son again")
-- "Alexander [wrote] to the Dieci di Balia ... recommending Caterina to them, for whom he felt a paternal affection" (leaving ambiguity as to whether it's Caterina or the Dieci di Balia for whom he feels a paternal affection)
Good copyediting removes ambiguities; it ensures that the author's meaning is clear and that the text flows smoothly, rather than juddering to a halt as the reader struggles to make sense of an ungrammatical sentence. I can excuse an accidental double-parenthesis, a "Farmese" in place of "Farnese" or a "forge" where the author evidently meant "ford", but for so many glaring mistakes to go to print is unforgivable.
So, my verdict? As an introduction to the politicking and the women of the Italian Renaissance, The Deadly Sisterhood isn't bad. Each of the eight women it deals with are fascinating individuals who are very much worth reading about, and if you're not familiar with Renaissance history you might well find it an interesting read. However, I'm not a fan of Frieda's framing choices; the continual jumping between eight people, and between the individual and the big picture, results in a rather disjointed narrative and requires some patience from the reader. What's more, her uncritical acceptance of biased primary sources can be frustrating and causes me to take some of the things she says with a grain of salt. For all of Frieda's good intentions, there's a lot about this book that's problematic, and it's not necessarily one for a serious student of history.
If you're looking to learn a little about some of the fantastic women of the Italian Renaissance, The Deadly Sisterhood is an okay starting point. However, I'd urge anybody who picks it up to be wary of Frieda's willingness to take primary sources at face value, and to consider picking up some other books on the subject as well.
29/4/13: After some consideration, I'm actually going to amend this. I do not recommend this book to anybody looking for an introduction to this time period or the women who inhabited it. Unless you're at least somewhat familiar with the women of Italian Renaissance, or you're going into the book prepared to take things with a grain of salt, chances are you're going to be misled -- and some of the reviews that are emerging are reflective of this. There are people walking away from this book believing Frieda's bogus claims about Isabella d'Aragona's "madness", Caterina Sforza's vulgar retorts at Ravaldino, and so on, and it's really infuriating to see those kinds of falsehoods perpetuated.
If you are looking for an introduction to some of the women of the Italian Renaissance, I'd recommend starting with Elizabeth Lev's excellent Tigress of Forli, a well-researched and readable biography of Caterina Sforza which picks apart the legends to examine the complex and fascinating woman behind them. Caroline Murphy's The Pope's Daughter, while imperfect, is also a good choice -- it tells the story of Felice della Rovere, the illegitimate daughter of Pope Julius II and another amazing woman, who managed to attain wealth, influence and independence in a world dominated by men.
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Read information about the authorSwedish by birth, but educated in Britain, Germany and France, Leonie Frieda speaks five languages. Her researches on Catherine de Medici has taken her to Paris, Florence and Rome, as well as the châteaux of the Loire. Her next book is a biography of the Great War soldier and letter-writer Edward Horner. She lives in London with her daughter Elisabeth and son Jake.
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