The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance (Book Review)

The great families of the Italian Renaissance are better known for the art and literature they commissioned and inspired than their own actions. The works of Michaelangelo, Da Vinci and Machiavelli have transcended the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries but the members of the Medici, Sforza, Goganza, Este, Aragona and Borgia families were people of their time, navigating the complex power dynamics of the Italian states. To modern eyes, Renaissance noblewomen appear comparatively insignificant, remaining in their palatial residences while their fathers and brothers faced each other on the battlefield. In The Deadly Sisterhood: A story of Women, Power and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance, Leonie Frieda brings eight of the most prominent noble ladies of the period to life, revealing just how important women and their connections were to the power and success of the Renaissance nobility.

Freida’s previous popular biography, Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France, examined the most famous example of an Italian Renaissance family increasing its prestige through an illustrious marriage. The eight central figures in The Deadly Sisterhood are either unknown to general audiences (Isabella d’Aragona and Beatrice d’Este) or have been reduced to villainous stereotypes in the popular imagination (Caterina Sforza and Lucrezia Borgia). Frieda challenges the legends that have emerged about Caterina and Lucrezia and presents all eight women as multifaceted individuals, raised to play influential roles in rival courts. Frieda looks at Italy’s most prominent Renaissance women together, presenting a story of rising and falling fortunes, lavish pageantry and last minute escapes that reads like a novel.

The late fourteenth century saw Italian noblewomen sharing a classical, humanist education with their brothers in addition to learning traditional feminine accomplishments such as dancing, music and needlework. As married women, many became patrons of artists and musicians in their right. Their lessons in rhetoric and reason were also useful because a noblewomen expected to reign as regent over her husband’s territories during his absences and persuade wavering supporters to remain loyal to the family. The understanding that noblewomen were capable of the same rigorous education provided for young men increased their status within their families and the expectations they faced as wives, mothers and regents.

At the centre of Frieda’s narrative are the controversial figures of Caterina Sforza and Lucretia Borgia. Caterina is most famous for a single episode in her life, refusing to hand over a key fortress to her late husband’s enemies who held her children as hostages. Her declaration that her children were expendable because she was pregnant and able to have more has been interpreted as a calculating bid for power at all costs. Frieda fills in the events that preceded Caterina’s capture of the fortress, revealing the danger to her entire family, including her children, if she did not find some means of persuading the rebels to retreat from Forli.

Frieda also places the entire Borgia family in context. Pope Alexander VI is famous as the corrupt figure whose excesses brought the Roman Catholic Church into disrepute. Frieda provides evidence that both the Pope and his daughter Lucretia shared a genuine piety that they separated from their worldly actions.

The Deadly Sisterhood: A story of Women, Power and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance brings together eight of the most influential and powerful women of Renaissance Italy. Their marriages connected the most prominent families of the period and their actions helped their husbands and children to retain their places in the shifting political structure of the Italian states. The sack of Rome by troops commanded by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1527, ended this unique period in history, reducing the opportunities for Italian noblewomen to rule states or command armies but the subsequent regencies of the Medici queens of France demonstrates that the tradition of female authority as educated wives and mothers continued in prominent Italian families for centuries.

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