The Magazine

Iron Ladies

The wonderful, wretched lives of the Italian aristocracy.

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By JUDITH MARTIN
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That little American girls still yearn to be princesses only shows how little history they read. So it is too bad that The Deadly Sisterhood, which is about Italian Renaissance princesses, is not written for them. It verifies the reality of all those Disney lures: the sumptuous weddings to princes, the gorgeous dresses shot with gold and silver and embroidered with pearls, the fabulous jewels dotting their robes and entwined in their hair, and the imposing palaces laden with luxuries and lackeys.

aisa / everett collection

‘Saint Catherine’s Disputation’ (detail) by Bernardino Pinturicchio, 1492-4.

aisa / everett collection

However, those weddings of teenaged brides were reached by long, tedious, miserable, dangerous journeys. The princes were older strangers who might turn out to be debauched, ugly, mean, or crazy, and were pretty sure to have established mistresses whose illegitimate children enjoyed advantages that would rival and threaten the brides’ future offspring. The jewels had to be pawned in times of trouble—which were often—and the palaces were frequently pillaged by murderous mobs.

It turns out that the worst problem a princess can have is not being hounded by the paparazzi. Once these princess-brides had had a taste of Happily Ever After, they tended to trust in Ever Before, turning to their families of origin when they needed something extra, such as an army. Yet this is not a chronicle of long-suffering heroines. Rather, like the new-fashioned princess tales made to palliate feminist mothers, The Deadly Sisterhood is about female action figures. Not quite in the pure-and-plucky-little-girl tradition, however.

This was the heyday of the Italian city-states, with their volatile politics, shifting alliances, and ferocious competition for territory and thrones (including that of the papacy), expressed in barrages of war and assassination. The rulers’ brides, not having been plucked out of the general population because of their dainty feet, were familiar from childhood with the machinations of the ruling class. In addition to having learned feminine arts, they would have received the same classical education as their brothers.

Author Leonie Frieda follows the stories of women who were born, legitimately or not, into some of the most powerful families of the time—Gonzaga, Este, Medici, Borgia, Orsini, delle Rovere, Sforza, Visconti, Aragona. These families arranged strategically advantageous marriages for their daughters with men who were, though their actual titles varied, rulers. And when the husbands were busy pursuing one of those two chief princely interests, love and war, the wives took political and military charge of their realms, sometimes officially, as regents or, when widowed, as full rulers.

Yet the collective term “Deadly Sisterhood” makes these women sound like the witches in Macbeth, if not a bunch of disagreeable Real Housewives. These women were trying to protect themselves, their children, and their positions under horrendously perilous circumstances. And the author clearly has her preferences and prejudices among them, independent of the general consensus. Her frank assessments of the husbands—as when she calls Giangaleazzo Sforza, Lord of Milan, a “dribbling hysteric,” and the Lord of Squillace “a nincompoop”—make for entertaining reading. 

Yet her judgments can also be startling. The name of Lucrezia Borgia, the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander IV who married successively into the Sforza, Aragona, and Este families, survives as a synonym for the viciously immoral and treacherous female who would just as soon poison you as look at you. A kinder assessment is that she was a pawn of her brother Cesare, to whom she remained loyal even though his career of widespread murderous intrigue included killing her second husband—a husband she actually liked. 

But Frieda doesn’t just absolve the Borgias; she admires them. She repeatedly calls Lucrezia “sensitive,” and seems to suggest that Cesare’s desire to conquer and rule the entire peninsula made him some sort of proto-Garibaldi. As for their father, the pope, Frieda finds him “a kind and benevolent man,” unfairly judged for his sin of slaughtering innocent people rather than for his virtue of having strengthened the papacy and its territories. 

So it is apparently without irony that her chapter on Pope Alexander IV, with his huge brood of illegitimate children, is called “A Wonderful Family Man.” Indeed, he did look after his own, and there is no doubt that he loved his daughter Lucrezia—although whether they were actually lovers, as was widely believed at the time, is in doubt. (It may have been slander originated by Lucrezia’s first husband—whom the family disposed of on grounds of nonconsummation when a more advantageous match for Lucrezia presented itself. Never mind that she was pregnant at the time.) 

Yet Frieda apparently can’t stand Lucrezia Borgia’s last sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este, who is remembered as a great patron of the arts—the friend of Titian and Leonardo da Vinci, among others—who made her little city (Mantua) one of the great cultural centers of Europe. In the author’s opinion, this amounts to being a “greedy magpie.” That is, the lady was serious about collecting art, though evidently lacking the jolly spirit with which the Borgia troops celebrated a victory over Isabella’s brother-in-law, the duke of Milan, by using a large Leonardo study of him as a target.

Furthermore, the book is sprinkled with catty remarks about Isabella d’Este’s weight, which is unfavorably contrasted with the slimness of Lucrezia Borgia—of whom there survives only one possible life portrait. Several exist of Isabella d’Este, including one by Titian, and only Rubens made her look .  .  . not obese, but Rubenesque. Anyway, different periods of history have different ideas about what constitutes the ideal body. One has only to look at the decidedly fleshy, belly-heavy Venuses painted during the Italian Renaissance to know that Kate Moss would have had a hard time finding a modeling job in those days. 

Also among the “sisterhood” were: Lucrezia di Francesco Tornabuoni, a celebrated poet and strategist and the closest adviser to her son, Lorenzo the Magnificent; Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice Orsini, who came into her own only after her mother-in-law’s death; and Isabella d’Aragona and Beatrice  d’Este (Isabella d’Este’s sister), whose respective husbands both became dukes of Milan, the one toppling the other. (Because the families intermarried, and the given names are repeated, constant turning back to the family trees is required.)

The clear standout, however, is Caterina Sforza, “the Lady of Forlì,” aka the “She-wolf of the Romagna.” We first meet her at the age of 25, successfully defending her palace against the good citizens of Forlì, who had just murdered her brutish dolt of a husband. Among other tactics, she publicly gave them the finger (in Italian, this requires a thumb) and, when they held her son at sword-point, she exposed her pregnant belly to show that she would simply produce another legitimate heir.

This riveting episode is cast as a prologue, the confusing order apparently intended to demonstrate at the start that these heroines were no sleeping beauties. It is done, however, at the sacrifice of suspense in the depiction of a life spent heroically battling vicissitudes. By the time we get to the major scene of Caterina’s life, when, at the age of 21 (and also pregnant), she takes the papal castle of Sant’Angelo, we know she has the nerve and the military acumen to do so. 

Nevertheless, it is satisfying to have these stories, normally scattered on the edges of history, drawn together. Little girls of today should know that feisty, take-charge women were not invented yesterday. And we needn’t do away with romance entirely. Some of these heroines were eventually able to choose second or third husbands to their liking. And Leonie Frieda likes to believe that when her two favorite figures, Caterina Sforza and Cesare Borgia, met in a mighty clash, what happened when he captured her was not rape, as historians generally suppose, but love. 

Judith Martin, who writes the Miss Manners column, is the author of No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice.