Review: The Medici – Godfathers of the Renaissance

Featured

In 2017, a close friend coaxed me into watching an obscure period drama called Medici: Masters of Florence with her, citing its score and casting (of Richard Madden, to be precise) as reason enough. I begrudgingly agreed, purely out of my infatuation for period dramas, not knowing that it would spark an unhealthy and lengthy obsession with the Medici Family and their influence on epistemology and culture.

At the end of the final season (the last two are called Medici: The Magnificent, for those interested), I found myself seeking out books, essays, and frankly any written accounts of the Medici to fill in the gaps of information created by facts left out for the screen adaptation, because as much as I love a good dramatisation of a time long gone, I also like to bore people at parties with niche knowledge (who doesn’t?).

Having perused several short and poorly referenced books on the topic, I came across Paul Strathern’s The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, and after an in-depth study and 50 page markers, I can finally state with confidence that I’ve found just the right book to learn about this family — the most well-rounded and detailed narration of a convoluted timeline and myriad people.

Strathern begins his chronicles of the Medici with Ardingo de’ Medici, the first in the family to become gonfaloniere (high civic magistrates of medieval Italian city-states) in 1296 and ends with Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, who died in 1743, taking the Medici bloodline to the grave with her. In the 500 years in between, lived some of the greatest men who towered as godfathers of all they saw and liked and left a legacy whose impact we still see today, and some horrible men who brought incredible shame and tarnish upon the same legacy.

Apart from lending money, governing the Florentine Republic, and controlling trade across Italy, nearly every Medici generation also funded and inspired various facets of the Renaissance. While at the time they were famous (or infamous, depending on your interpretation of their reign), as a political and economic dynasty, today they are most famously known for their extensive patronage of the Renaissance and commission of works that formed the backbone of the movement.

The Medici had humble beginnings — known to be God-fearing men, they were extremely cautious in their financial dealings, for usury was a sin, and the likes of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici insisted on keeping a low profile at all times. This caution slowly moved to the backburner, when at the height of their greatness, political agenda and a desperate need to hold power in Florence came to the forefront for Cosimo Pater Patriae and Lorenzo Il Magnifico. It was at this stage that their patronage of the arts and the sciences flourished, a way to cover up for their growing sin counter, thereby permanently linking themselves to some of the greatest artifacts of the time. By the time the great Medici reputation was run to the ground by less ambitious and honestly, horrific Medicis, usury was no longer the only sin they needed to be worried about.

Strathern peppers the long and twisted timeline with notable figures — the lives and works of artists (Brunelleschi, Donatello, Michelangelo), scientists (Da Vinci, Copernicus and Galileo), politicians (Machiavelli) and religious figures (Martin Luther), described in direct relation to the Medici speaks heavily to the longevity of Medici power and its far-reaching influence. This narrative strategy serves as a helpful point of orientation for those newly learning about the Medici.

A little-known fact that Strathern highlights in this sub-plot is the role the Medici played in shaping both Italian as well as French cuisine that we all enjoy; that their understanding of culinary theory — to bring out native flavours of meat and fish, instead of concealing them — changed what was initially a rather rudimentary of cooking and eating.

Strathern’s research for this book and the level of detail he chooses to indulge in ties the messy history together remarkably well; he focuses on the minutia of the lives of the Medici as well as those inextricably bound to the Medici family, bringing out in explicit detail, what it truly meant to be a Medici and also, to be inspired, encouraged and supported by such a family. His prose is simple but strong, which is what makes the difference between Medicis such as Cosimo Pater Patriae & Lorenzo Il Magnifico and Cosimo III & Gian Gastone all the more stark and revolting.

The aspect of the book that I am not a fan of is the lack of in-text citations and references; Strathern’s research is well-done but not evident. He explains in his author’s note in the end that he meant his book to be a popular one and not laden with heavy referencing, but I believe it would have served the book well to provide references. He does provide an extensive reading list in the end, however, and I for one, am quite excited to go through the list.

My brain does not naturally retain too many dates or too many events in chronological order but Strathern makes it easy to remember the overarching themes and then orient dates and times to those themes. The never-ending dates and wars don’t feel overwhelming at all — perhaps the biggest reason why I will recommend this book to those even remotely interested in the history of the Medici and the Renaissance.

Pair this book with Paulo Buonvino’s impeccably composed soundtrack for the Medici Netflix series and you’ll find yourself reveling in the highs and the lows, the grandeur and the austerity of life in Florence in the 15th century, alongside the Masters of the Renaissance. Meanwhile, my next Medici read will be The Bookseller of Florence by Ross King.

Review: Us Three

Us three forever…come what may. A naive promise of lifelong friendship made at the tender age of 8. To actually hold on to a promise made in the frenzy of a playground during lunch break, however, is an achievement for the books and Ruth Jones has chronicled its journey over four decades for all the right reasons.

Welsh girls Lana Lloyd, Judith Harris and Catrin Kelly don’t remember a time they weren’t best friends. They’ve spent every waking moment together, and they’ve faced the trials and tribulations of school and teenage together. They’ve shared clothes and books and homes. They’ve relied on each other like they were life jackets.

Until they travel to Greece in the summer before departing to college. Life changing revelations, drunken mistakes, and a web of lies replace their childhood oath of unconditional love, forgiveness, and honesty. And when they are forced to choose between each other and beautiful boys, the bond between them begins to fray. The girls find themselves on the precipice of difficult choices over and over again, and they begin to question if their friendship will stand the test of time and adulthood. Keeping a promise like that can be demanding, especially when life has very different plans for all of you.

For all the drama that unfolds over a span of 40 years, Us Three is an easy read, to the point that it feels like it was written for the sole purpose of vacation reading. Although it begins Wattpad fanfiction-esque style (i.e., along the lines of he had burnt hazel hair and green orbs that caught me off guard every time he peered into my soul) that sounds all too overused, it’s the string of adjectives and lightheartedness that you yearn for towards the end, when the girls’ lives become impossible to disentangle.

What’s most remarkable though, is that the overarching sadness of the second half of the book stems not from the twisted situations our protagonists find themselves in, but their day-to-day lives, which have become entrenched in deception and pain. There is a certain nostalgia that seeps through the pages: all you want is for the girls to find the happiness that once came naturally to them.

Every character has a unique voice, and because Jones gives them all an immaculate story arc, the sense of ending that begins to creep into the final pages feels complete.

Unfortunately for this otherwise incredible book, Us Three falls short on emotional power. It is rife with cliches and repetitive sequences; once you discover the pattern, there is nothing left for you to be surprised by. Even in its darkest moments, I found myself incapable of producing a visceral reaction. It’s the roller coaster analogy: this book climbs all the way up, but then rolls back down, robbing you of the adrenaline you’ve been so excitedly waiting for.

Perhaps it is this absence of a compelling and impactful narrative that makes Us Three easy to breeze through. Dramatic enough to keep you invested, but not so much that you are a sobbing mess by the beach. If maybe, the book were converted into a script for an online drama series, this endearing yet heart-wrenching tale would fare better.

Review: The Only Story

Julian Barnes’ latest novel (2018) is every bit a love story, but in more ways than one, not. In this very long story that spans decades, there is love lost and love gained, love given and love taken. There is filial love, romantic love, unrequited love and pure lust. And our narrator, Paul, reflects on all these kinds of love; all the myriad kinds of love he has experienced in his lifetime.

But as we fail to recognise initially, The Only Story is also about anger and about trauma, about anger as a result of trauma and trauma as a result of anger. It is about the various pitfalls of adulthood and the naivete of adolescence, and it is about loss, tangible and intangible. All of it, borne and witnessed by someone madly, deeply and irrevocably in love.

The Only Story opens with university first year Paul (19), visiting his family in suburban London over summer. His mother has signed him up for the local tennis clubs, in the hopes that her son might meet some beautiful ladies. Paul heads there reluctantly, and meet some ladies he does. Only it’s a lady, Susan (48), who is married with two adult offspring. At this point, the novel is all too predictable: Susan’s marriage is in shambles; Mr. Elephant Pants — as her husband is lovingly called – is a morbidly obese alcoholic and a fantastic villain. Paul is young and rebellious, and he is reveling in masculinity. Paul believes that beautiful Susan (who is also wise and nothing like the rest of her ‘played out generation’) needs to be rescued.

And so follows a relationship that is for the tabloids and village gossip. While Susan is never too vocal about the relationship, Paul is far from ashamed. In fact, he wishes his relationship was even more scandalous. Little does Paul know that he would be in it for a lifetime, and that the consequences of his first and only love are beyond his comprehension.

The Only Story, Julian Barnes © 2020

It doesn’t take a lot of intellect to realise Paul and Susan’s relationship will go downhill and eventually end. The real mystery lies in the when and the why. Why did Paul believe Susan needed rescuing? What happened when they ran away to London? When did Susan first resort to the whiskey? The answers are hard to find: Paul is somewhat of an open book and Susan remains an enigma throughout their tale. No one, friend or for, ever knew Susan. Consequently, there are either vague answers given by a man in love, or no answers at all. Paul frantically searches for explanations and answers as well, but time is precious when you are watching a loved one succumb to alcoholism and you are helpless.

As put by The Globe and Mail, the characters in the book end up nowhere (unless they die). But Barnes’ writes exceptionally, knitting an elaborate tale out of a relationship that doesn’t have a lot of substance to it. Paul, now half a decade later, draws endless conclusions about love and its exploits, which when listed out, seem overly pretentious. More often than not, I found myself saying, “No one asked for your two cents.”

However, amidst pages of long due realisations, there are two worth thinking about: first, “most love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger”, and second, the lifelong power of prehistory on our relationships.

In the end, Barnes’ magnificent narration is what keeps the novel engaging, in spite of the lack of a significant plot twist or a dramatic cliffhanger. Perhaps, the cleverest device he uses is the shift of pronouns: Paul goes from “I” to “you” to “he” the farther he drifts from his relationship and the more estranged he gets from Susan. The anachronistic structure of the book, without emphasis on any specific event, is also intelligent, as it focuses on painting a larger picture of society and its perceptions of love.

I’d ask prospective readers to choose this book at their own risk: read it only if you are interested in the musings of a fifty something man as he looks back on his love story, his only story.