Book Review: “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell

62237869A 16-year-old duchess, who lived a sheltered life, died in a remote villa after only being married to her husband, Alfonso Duke of Ferrera, for a mere year. Many suspect that she died of a fever, but there are rumors that her husband had her poisoned. Not much is known about Lucrezia de Medici, Duchess of Ferrara, except her marriage portrait and a brief mention of her in Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess.” Did she die of a fever, or was there a more sinister plot behind her demise? The mystery around her life and unexpected death have not been discussed much until now in Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel, “The Marriage Portrait.”

The last book I read by Maggie O’Farrell, “Hamnet,” was such an emotional ride for me, so when I heard that she would dive back into the 16th century with her latest novel, I was excited. I will admit that I had never heard the story of Lucrezia de Medici, so I was curious to see how O’Farrell would tell her tale.

We begin in the villa with Alfonso and Lucrezia, where Lucrezia feels uneasy and fearful for her life, but to understand why we must go back in time. We then jump to the past and Lucrezia’s childhood as the daughter of Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his wife Eleanor of Toledo. Lucrezia’s youth should be filled with balls and glamor, but she is different than her siblings and is treated as almost an outcast in her own family. Her only solace is her maid Sofia, who acts more like her mother, and her love of the arts.

As a daughter of nobility, Lucrezia knows that she will have to marry a noble one day, but it comes sooner than expected when her eldest sister dies, and she is betrothed to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. Her marriage to Alfonso begins smoothly; Alfonso is loving and caring, allowing Lucrezia to pursue her passions and have the freedom she desires. He even allows for a portrait painted in her honor to show the world how regal his bride is and how much he loves her. However, as time passes, Alfonso’s more erratic side shows its ugly head, and Lucrezia sees how dangerous her husband can be to those who displease him.

I will admit that it took me a while to get used to how this particular book was structured, as O’Farrell jumps from the present to the past in every other chapter and presents Lucrezia’s story in a very artistic way. I am unsure if Lucrezia was an outcast in her family, but I believe she could have been an artist and viewed the world differently than her family. As for Lucrezia’s relationship with her husband Alfonso, I think it is plausible that he had a more erratic side to him, especially when it came to those who displeased him. Still, I am not sure that he was responsible for her death.

This novel was thought-provoking and engaging with an unlikely protagonist in Lucrezia de Medici. Even though you know she will die at the end, you will root for Lucrezia and hope that she can find even the slightest thread of happiness in her short life. I found this an utterly gripping novel, and I hope O’Farrell will write more stories set in 16th-century Italy. If you want a thrilling book about a young noblewoman living during the Italian Renaissance, “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell should be at the top of your to-be-read list.

Book Review: “Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages” by Dan Jones

57347786When we study human history, in general, we tend to pick a country and a period to focus on and research. Books on the subject material tend to focus on one land with interactions between other nations. It is infrequent for authors to take on multiple countries unless concentrated on one event that affected numerous locations. Those books often read like textbooks and can be a bit dry. Finding the perfect balance between these elements and engaging with the reader is a monumental task for any author, but Dan Jones has taken on the challenge. His latest behemoth tome, “Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages,” takes on the gigantic task of telling the story of the Middle Ages from diverse perspectives.

To take on such a massive undertaking is no easy feat, but Jones seems to do it seamlessly. He breaks this book into four segments to not overwhelm his readers, each dealing with a different element that made the Middle Ages unique. Every story has a foundation, and the story of the Middle Ages begins with the fall of the Roman Empire. With the empire’s fall, we see the rise of Barbarian groups, the Byzantines, and the Arab states that would define this era with the Crusades. Jones takes his readers on a journey through climate change and pandemics that forced humanity to move from place to place to survive.

We encounter revolutions of all kinds; religious, political, artistic, architectural, and technological. Humankind was not as stagnant as many people believed during the Middle Ages. This was an age full of life and colorful figures that shaped the world around them, from philosophers and artists to kings and conquerors. Men and women like St. Aquitaine, Attila the Hun, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Leonardo da Vinci, Martin Luther, and Christopher Columbus defined this era. Although Jones does focus on more European figures, he takes the time to show people groups like the Mongols, the Franks, the Arabs, and the Byzantines to show how diversity ruled this period in history. Those who study the Middle Ages know the stories of the Black Death, the Crusades, and the Sack of Rome, but there are so many more stories that give life to this period in human history.

I felt nostalgic for my high school and college classes when I read this book. These were the classes that made me fall in love with studying history. Other stories in this book were brand new to me, which thrilled me to read. If there were an element that I wished he would have included, I think I would have liked to have seen more stories of medieval Asia and Africa. I think it would have added a new element to the story of the Middle Ages.

Out of all of the books that I have read by Dan Jones, I think this one is my favorite. I could tell how much passion and the amount of research Jones poured into this book, and it shows. Combining over a thousand years of history into one book is an impressive feat that Jones has mastered. “Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages” by Dan Jones is a triumphant tome that any fan of medieval history will appreciate.

Book Review: “The Real Leonardo da Vinci” by Rose Sgueglia

57165143A man ahead of his time who never finished the tasks that he was given as his mind was constantly racing, thinking of new ideas. This is what we consider a genius or a Renaissance Man today, but during Leonardo da Vinci’s time, it was just considered odd. Leonardo da Vinci was an enigma. He could make the impossible possible. His art seemed to leap off the canvas with its realism. However, there are still so many mysteries surrounding his life and his works. What made this one artist/inventor so fascinating for centuries? In her book, “The Real Leonardo da Vinci” Rose Sgueglia opens the curtain to reveal Leonardo da Vinci’s truth and inner circle.

I would like to thank Net Galley and Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. I am one of those people who is familiar with da Vinci’s works, but not so much with his actual life and what made him tick. I have always wanted to read biographies about the great artists of the Renaissance, but I didn’t know where to start. This was the perfect book to start my journey into art history.

To understand da Vinci’s lifestyle later in life, we have to understand his origins. His mother was an absent figure in his life as Leonardo was her illegitimate son, but his father seemed to have taken care of him. Leonardo was trained under Verrocchio where he would learn the skills that would be vital for his art career, however, it was his insatiable appetite for exploring new subjects that would make him a polymath to many.

Sgueglia dives into the intricacies of da Vinci’s life, including his love life which has been debated for centuries. As an illegitimate son, he was not tied down to one location so he frequently traveled and would be employed by some of the greatest families in Italy, including the Borgias, the Medicis, and Ludovico Sforza. Along the way, he would create his own following of artists that were loyal to him until the bitter end. Da Vinci would also encounter fellow masters Donatello and Michelangelo as he competed for commissions.

I think Sgueglia does a decent job introducing the Leonardo da Vinci that she has gotten to know through her research. She also included interviews between her and a researcher of the Mona Lisa as well as the director of a movie about Leonardo da Vinci within this book, which I found fascinating. I think it is these interviews and including the transcripts as part of the book that sets it apart from other biographies about Leonardo da Vinci.

There were a few things about this book that I found a bit off or lacking. My big concern was the lack of illustrations of his lesser-known pieces of art and the artwork of other artists that Sgueglia references. If this is a biography about a well-known artist and inventor, then let’s celebrate the masterpieces and the inventions. I had to find the obscure artworks online while I was reading to act as a companion to get the full impact of what she was writing about. I also think it was a tad repetitive and I would have personally liked to have seen more books in the bibliography for research purposes.

Overall, I found this book was an adequate biography about Leonardo da Vinci. It is easy to read with intriguing facts that will captivate those who are new to da Vinci’s story. There is something intriguing about looking at the man behind these masterpieces and I think Sgueglia does an excellent job of showing a unique side of this artist’s life. If you want a great book that will introduce you to this polymath’s life and times, I recommend you read, “The Real Leonardo da Vinci” by Rose Sgueglia.