Book Review: “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola” by Samantha Morris

57165112When we think about men who challenged the Church and are known as Reformers, we tend to think of Martin Luther, Jan Hus, and John Calvin. However, a man fought against corruption in his beloved Florence who should be included in the list of great reformers. He was a Dominican monk who was not afraid to preach against sin and took aim at the most powerful men in all of Italy, including Pope Alexander VII. His sermons were so scandalous that they would lead to his demise upon a pyre in the middle of Florence. His name was Girolamo Savonarola, and his story is told in Samantha Morris’s latest biography, “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola.”

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this biography. I read Samantha Morris’s previous joint biography of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I heard that she was writing a new biography about a famous figure in Italian history, I was intrigued.

Girolamo Savonarola was a scholar, like his father and grandfather before him, destined to be a doctor like his grandfather. His plan for his life took a drastic turn when the girl he was fell for rejected his advances, so he decided to join the Dominican order as a friar. Talk about not taking a break-up well. Savonarola studied the Humanist teachings and incorporated them into the way he understood his faith. Of course, as a friar, he couldn’t keep his opinions to himself, so he began preaching against corruption and the vices that he saw during his travel.

Savonarola’s preaching was appealing to the people of Florence, yet it did not sit well with the leader of Florence, Lorenzo de ’Medici. Lorenzo tried to silence the troublesome friar, but his son Piero de Medici took on the challenge when he passed away. Piero was nothing like his father and was overthrown as ruler of Florence by Savonarola. Of course, Savonarola was not satisfied with reforming Florence, and he decided to take on the Catholic Church itself and attack another powerful family.

Charles VII of France wanted to conquer Italy, which to the Dominican friar was a good idea, so Savonarola helped the king. This incident drew the ire of Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, and Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza of Milan, who just wanted the friar to shut up. Even with numerous ex-communications, Savonarola kept preaching against corruption and vices, leading to the Bonfires of the Vanities in 1497. He took artwork and writings deemed inappropriate and burned them in a humongous bonfire. A year later, on May 22, 1498, Girolamo Savonarola lost his life because of his heretic teachings.

This book has so many scandals and dynamic characters that you will forget you are reading a biography. Morris has done it yet again, and this was a brilliantly engaging and extremely well-researched biography. The way she can capture the thrilling world of 15th and 16th century Italy is astounding, and I hope she will write more about Italian history in the future. If you want a fun biography about a man who fought to reform the Catholic Church, I highly recommend you read “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola” by Samantha Morris.

Guest Post: “The Inspiration Behind The Poison Keeper” by Deborah Swift

The Poison Keeper Tour BannerToday, it is my pleasure to welcome Deborah Swift to my blog to discuss the inspiration for her latest novel, The Poison Keeper. I would like to thank Deborah Swift and The Coffee Pot Book Club for allowing my blog to host a stop on this tour. 

Deborah Swift, The Poison Keeper Cover

I had enjoyed writing about Seville in A Divided Inheritance and was looking to find another setting where I could escape from the dull grey English winter. My husband suggested Italy and I remembered reading about Giulia Tofana, a notorious Renaissance poisoner, and the poison Aqua Tofana, named after her. I decided to investigate her a bit further to see if she would make a subject for a novel.

I was surprised to find that no one had written a novel about her in English, and so that made me even more determined. However, as soon as I started the research process I realized I was researching someone who was more of a myth than a real historical figure. Most of the information about her was from the 19th century, a good three hundred years since any proper record of her. Also, there were so many different dates associated with her life – for example, she is said by different sources to have been executed, to have escaped, and to have been bricked up behind a wall (!) – and her time of death was variously attributed to 1659, 1709 or 1730.

Antonio_de_Pereda_-_Allegory_of_Vanity_-_Google_Art_Project 1634

Three Generations of Poisoners

There were some peculiarities in the history and it soon became apparent that I was dealing not with one person, but with three – Theofania d’Adamo, her daughter Giulia Tofana and her daughter Girolamo Spara. In Italy at the time, women often took the contracted version of their mothers’ forenames as Christian names – hence Theofania = Tofana. I decided to focus on the middle generation because Giulia was the only one who escaped without execution as far as I could tell.

The one date that could be fixed by contemporary records was the death of Theofania who died on 12th July 1633. This concords with the first record of Aqua Tofana the poison named after Giulia Tofana, or more likely her mother Theofania, which was in 1632. This gave me a firm idea of the timescale for the book.

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The enticing City of Naples

I was fascinated by the geography of Naples in the 17th Century – a city in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius that had erupted only two years earlier in 1631. The city was still recovering from those horrific events which included not only the eruption, with the city choked by dust and lava, but also by the earthquakes that preceded it and the devastating tsunami that followed it. I was able to use these events in my characters’ backstories. Society was sharply divided into rich and poor areas with glittering Palazzos and squalid slums. Corruption was rife both in the Church and in business.

The Camorra or Mafia

Powerful aristocratic families controlled the city through extortion and racketeering – this was the early inception of the mafia, known as the Camorra. The etymology is from Camo – boss, or head, and Morra – a type of gambling game popular in 17th Century Naples. This provided me with a subplot that I could use with my main male character and allowed me to create a strong antagonist, the Duke de Verdi, for my story.

Aqua Tofana wiki

Aqua Tofana – A deadly poison

Aqua Tofana was supposed to kill by three drops in a drink or food. It was a colorless liquid, supposedly undetectable, but would cause death with similar symptoms to a wasting disease. The actual ingredients have never been confirmed, although many suspect arsenic to be the main ingredient. Naples was a city of alchemists and apothecaries, and the tradition of poison was well known in the city. There had been an epidemic of poisonings since the Borgias. This research area fascinated me, and I spent quite a few happy hours researching poisons in online libraries and through books.

The scope of the research was so interesting that the story soon grew into two books, and the sequel to The Poison Keeper, The Silkworm Keeper will be released soon. 

Thank you for hosting me!

NEW RELEASE 1(Blurb)

Naples 1633

Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.

Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell Giulia the hidden keys to her success. When Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.

Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother has been executed, and the cruel manner of her death, she swears she will wreak revenge on the Duke de Verdi.

The trouble is, Naples is in the grip of Domenico, the Duke’s brother, who controls the city with the ‘Camorra’, the mafia. Worse, her Aunt Isabetta, under Domenico’s thrall, insists that she should be consort to him – the brother of the man she has vowed to kill.

Based on the legendary life of Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and how even the darkest desires can be vanquished by courage and love.

‘Her characters so real they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf’ Historical Novel Society

Buy Links:

Is your book on Kindle Unlimited?  Yes

Universal Link (if you have it): mybook.to/PoisonKeeper

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0928WPHMH

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0928WPHMH

Amazon CA: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B0928WPHMH

Amazon AU: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B0928WPHMH

DeborahSwift-1018Author Bio:

Deborah Swift lives in the north of England and is a USA Today bestselling author who has written fourteen historical novels to date. Her first novel, The Lady’s Slipper, set in 17th Century England, was shortlisted for the Impress Prize, and her WW2 novel Past Encounters was a BookViral Millennium Award winner. 

Deborah enjoys writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and most of her novels have been published in reading group editions. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a mentor with The History Quill.

Social Media Links:

Website: http://www.deborahswift.com

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Amazon Author Page: http://author.to/DeborahSwift

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3297217.Deborah_Swift

Book Review: “Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family” by Samantha Morris

51351927A family mired in myths and rumors of incest, murder, and intrigue for centuries. A brother and sister caught in the middle, attracting the attention of gossips and historians alike. No, I am not referring to a royal family in England. In fact, this story starts in Spain with Alonso de Borja, who moved to Italy and helped create the infamous Borgia family. Caught in the middle were the son and daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, Alonso’s nephew, and his mistress Vanozza Cattanei; Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. How close were these famous siblings? What were their lives really like? In Samantha Morris’ latest biography, “Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Vilified Family”, she dives deep into the archives to find out the truth about the legendary Borgia family.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this book. I will be honest and say that I did not know much about this family before I started reading this book. I knew about the rumors and that they had to do with the papacy, but that was it. I was excited to learn more about them and to understand why so many people are so fascinated with the Borgia siblings.

To understand how the Borgias rose to power, Morris takes her readers on a journey through papal history and the many different councils that occurred in the 14th and 15th centuries. This was familiar to me as I took a class in college on Church History, in which we did discuss these councils, but for those who are not familiar with them, Morris takes the time to explain the significance of each event. We see how Alonso de Borja rose through the ranks to become Pope Calixtus III and how his nephew, Rodrigo Borgia, was the complete opposite of his uncle. Rodrigo, later Pope Alexander VI, was a ladies man, and his children by his mistress, Vanozza Cattanei, were all illegitimate, including Cesare and Lucrezia.

It is the lives of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia that historians, including Morris, tend to focus on. These siblings created so many enemies that rumors were bound to be associated with them. From incest between them to murder using poison, and numerous affairs, Cesare and Lucrezia endured scandals that made the Tudors look like a normal family. Morris takes on each myth and rumor head on to explore the truth about these siblings, which is of course more complex than the fictional tales of their lives.

I found myself enthralled in the true-life tales of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. Like most historical tales, the truth is much more compelling than the fictitious tales. The trials, triumphs, and tribulations of the siblings are so compelling and to realize that they lived when the Renaissance in Italy and the Tudor dynasty was still new in England is remarkable.

This book made me fall in love with the Borgia family. The story of their rise to greatness and what Cesare and Lucrezia had to endure to protect their family and its name was nothing short of extraordinary. Samantha Morris’s writing style is easy to understand but you can tell how much care she took in researching these simply sensational siblings. I want to study the Borgia family even more because of this book. If you want an engrossing nonfiction book about the Borgia family, I would highly suggest you read, “Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family” by Samantha Morris. A fabulous introduction to the Borgias and their tumultuous times.