Tag Archives: Ferrara

Savonarola and the City of Florence

I was in Florence on the anniversary of Savonarola’s execution. On 23 May 1498 the Dominican friar and two of his fellow monks, Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro Maruffi, were hanged and burned for heresy in the Piazza della Signoria. Savonarola had been an outspoken critic of the papacy and had exhausted the patience of Pope Alexander VI. Although he had held a great deal of power in Florence, the tide had turned and the people were growing tired of the austerity he demanded, though many of his followers remained loyal even after what they saw as his martyrdom.

Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo

Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo

Execution of Savonarola

Execution of Savonarola

The spot of Savonarola's execution

The spot of Savonarola’s execution

Although he’s never been the focus of my work, he was an important figure in Florence during the period I study. A couple of years ago we took a trip to his home town of Ferrara. The highlight of Ferrara for me was Lucrezia Borgia’s grave, but the statue of the “little friar” is a major feature of the town centre. This year I also paid a visit to San Marco, the convent he lived in in Florence. It’s now partly a gallery of Renaissance art but you can visit the monks’ cells, including Savonarola’s, where some of his relics are on display (a belt, rosary and miscellaneous bits of clothing which he may or may not have worn).

However, the friar was executed for heresy in the Piazza della Signoria in 1498. Now, it seems, Florentines have had a bit of a change of heart. There is a bit of a performance, some roses laid and a costumed procession.

Costumed performers

Roses laid to commemorate the execution

Roses laid to commemorate the execution

More costumed people in the procession

More costumed people in the procession

 

I doubt he would have approved of women being part of the procession, though.

It was an interesting event, though I think a lot of the people watching didn’t realise what it was for. In truth, I don’t really know what it was for either. Has Florence changed its mind about him? Five hundred years later, does it matter if it has? If this was just a treat for the tourists, it was only partially successful. People enjoyed the spectacle, but  it was brief and it was not clear what it was about. An American lady who had overheard me discussing it with a colleague had to ask me about it.

Still, I’m not complaining. I enjoyed a little diversion from the serious business of history, to some of the more fun side.

 

My Favourite Fiction of 2011

Following on from the previous post, I thought I’d do a short round up of some of my 2011 fiction highlights.

First off, I should say that I am a rampant abandoner of books which I’m not enjoying. I know a lot of people will plough on to the end no matter how much they dislike a book but I’m not one of them. Life’s too short. If I’ve got to the end of a novel, that in itself indicates that I liked it. Having a Kindle makes that even easier- I can abandon a book on my way to work and have another to read on the way home. 🙂

Fiction-wise, I tend to read historical novels- a wide genre covering some wonderful depictions of the past and a whole lot of trash too. I also quite like a bit of European crime.

The Ground Is Burning, Samuel Black

My favourite novel of last year was Samuel Black’s The Ground is Burning: Seduction, Betrayal, Murder, a novel with multiple points of view telling the story of Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci in the early sixteenth century. Another point of view is that of Dorotea Caracciolo, a young woman who was kidnapped on her way to her marriage, thought to have been abducted by Cesare. Her uniquely female point of view is an interesting contrast to the various voices of the male characters. Black does a fantastic job of making these larger than life characters multi-dimensional, flawed and fascinating. There are battles, sex, betrayal and complex Italian politics. This is how historical fiction should be!

Another highlight featured the notorious Cesare: Sarah Bower’s Book of Love (entitled Sins of the House of Borgia in the USA). It’s mostly set in the much neglected Este court in Ferrara. Although enjoyable and clearly well researched, the central romantic relationship of the novel (though it’s by no means a romance), I found somewhat unbelievable. It was a bit rushed- the heroine falls in love within about 2 minutes of having met the man in question and the reader can’t quite understand why. If you can get past that (and I did), it’s a great read.

Secret of the Sands, Sara Sheridan

Veering away from my typical literary haunts of fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe, I read Sara Sheridan’s new book Secret of the Sands which is set in the Arabian Peninsula in the nineteenth century. The novel is a seamless blend of the factual (the story’s hero and heroine both existed) and the imagined (beyond her name, almost everything about Zena is invented). It’s a gripping account of slavery, cultural clash and adventure in the Arabian desert. Sara’s previous novel, The Secret Mandarin is a similarly engrossing tale of westerners in China just after the Opium War.

My non-historical favourites were Sarah Dunant’s Mapping the Edge, an account of a woman who goes on holiday to Florence and doesn’t come home. Dunant’s my favourite historical fiction author but her contemporary novels, though often neglected, are well worth a look too. This one is unsettling and disturbing but absolutely addictive. Fred Vargas’s most recent novel was translated into English in 2011 too. An Uncertain Place is another outing for Commissaire Adamsberg. A good novel though let down by poor translation. I was, for example, surprised to find out that the translator is a native English speaker.

I’m currently back in the fifteenth century, Venice specifically, with Michelle Lovric’s The Floating Book.

Michelle Lovric, The Floating Book

Ferrara

About an hour on the train from Florence (after a change at Bologna), in the Emilia-Romagna is Ferrara, where the rather magnificent Castello Estense was home to the Dukes of Este.

Castello Estense, Ferrara

The Este family rose to power in the late medieval period, building and expanding the castello over the centuries. Right in the centre of the town, the building, and moat, remain well preserved although the interior is rather Spartan, especially compared to somewhere like Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Still, the curators have done an impressive job with what little they have. There’s little furniture or wall decoration remaining but the ceilings are beautifully decorated and some rooms’ only floor furnishings are giant sloping mirrors so one can look at the ceilings without craning the neck. There’s also a lovely veranda with orange trees which feels almost Moorish in the bright sunshine: a stark contrast to the damp subterranean dungeons, used to imprison enemies of the Este family through to the sixteenth century.

It is in Ferrara, in the Castello Estense, that Lucrezia Borgia spent the second half of her life as the wife of Alfonso d’Este. She arrived in 1502 with two previous marriages behind her. She never returned to Rome and the nefarious influence of her father and brother. She flourished in Ferrara and although he had been reluctant to marry the notorious Pope’s daughter, Alfonso grew to love Lucrezia and despite numerous infidelities on both sides, their bond seems to have been strong and affectionate. They had six children, of whom four survived into adulthood. Her sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) never fell under the spell of the charming Lucrezia though and maintained a bitter hostility to her. No doubt fuelled by Lucrezia’s passionate affair with Isabella’s husband, Francesco Gonzaga.

Another point on the Lucrezia Borgia map of Ferrara is the little church, attached to the convent of Poor Clares, of Corpus Domini a short walk to the south. It’s hidden away from the hubbub of the town centre where bicycles trundle about in all directs. There’s little in the way of signs outside it: just a small plague erected in 2002, Ferrara’s Year of Lucrezia Borgia, which notes that inside is the Este tomb and Lucrezia’s grave.

The church is open to the public for two hours in the morning and another two after lunch. A door to the right of the altar leads through to the nuns’ choir where Lucrezia and other members of the Este family are buried, including one of Lucrezia’s daughters, Eleanor (1515-1575), who was a nun at Corpus Domini. Lucrezia is buried with her son Ercole, her husband, his mother, and the infant daughter, Isabella, Lucrezia died giving birth to.

As befits the convent, the nuns’ choir is very quiet and peaceful but brightened by the sun streaming through the simple coloured glass windows. Indeed, the nuns’ choir is much brighter, though more simply decorated, than the main church. When we visited just after Easter, the nun who was present, at the other side of a grill, was very helpful and pleasant though her English was no better than my Italian. She sqeezed a little English guide card through a gap in the grill so I could identify which of the six graves in front of the altar was Lucrezia’s. Sadly, they don’t allow photographs of the graves however I found this one (taken by someone less concerned for respecting the nuns’ wishes!):

Grave of Alfonso d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia

Research- It’s A Tough Job

Tomorrow I’m off on a rather exciting research trip/holiday. First off, we’ll be in Florence for a few days to look at art, bookbinding workshops, perfumeries and anything connected to Catherine de’ Medici’s childhood. She spent much of her life before her move to France to marry Henri in 1533. After that, we’ll be spending a few days in Ferrara. Lucrezia Borgia lived in Ferrara from her marriage to Alfonso D’Este in 1502 until her death in 1519. I’m hoping to get a better idea of the other Lucrezia here, the one who inspired the town to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of her arrival by declaring 2002 to be the Year of Lucrezia Borgia. We are also hoping to take a trip to Venice.

Painting reputed to be of Lucrezia Borgia

Painting reputed to be of Lucrezia Borgia

I’m also looking forward to having a look around the cities where three of my favourite novels are set. Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus is set in Florence; In the Company of the Courtesan in Venice; and Sacred Hearts in a convent in Ferrara.

I shall be back in a week, hopefully with lots of photos and Borgia information.