Faber £20

Isabella de'Medici, By Caroline P Murphy

The grisly end of this vivacious noblewoman inspired Webster's 'The White Devil'

The spirited Renaissance beauty Isabella de' Medici (1542-1576) was the daughter of Cosimo, who established the Medicis as the pre-eminent political family in 16th-century Florence. She became the city's "First Lady" on her mother's death in 1562. Exuberant, profligate and hedonistic, she had an inordinate passion for hunting, music and poetry. In the womb she was so lively that her mother was convinced she would be a boy and, throughout her life, her "masculine" vivacity was remarked upon.

It is not altogether inappropriate then that, whenever Isabella paraded through Florence, the people shouted out "balls, balls" – the traditional salute to a member of the Medici family, whose coat of arms was adorned with balls. Not that there was anything manly about her appearance. Even allowing for some air-brushing in Bronzino's famous portraits, they clearly attest to a beauty which, like Juliet's, taught "the torches to burn bright".

Nature played its part in the formation of her character, but nurture had a hand too. Cosimo took the exceptionally enlightened step of bestowing on her the same humanistic education he gave to her brothers. Even after her arranged marriage, to the feckless and sadistic Roman, Paolo Orsini, Isabella was permitted to live on in Florence, at her father's side, rather than with her husband. There she passed several years in blissful independence, free from the toils of pregnancy and childbirth, dividing her time between art and love. She took as her paramour Troilo, her husband's dashing cousin.

Isabella's autonomy depended upon her doting father's protection; with his passing in 1574, the license of her liberty expired. Her brother Francesco, the taciturn Michael Corleone of the Medici clan, became capofamiglia and sanctioned her husband's scheme to murder her. Ostensibly it was a crime of "honour", with the cuckolded Paolo Orsini (himself no paragon of fidelity) bent on avenging Isabella's adultery; yet Orsini also wanted to punish his wife's general haughtiness and insubordination.

Officially, Isabella "died unexpectedly", while "washing her hair" – a curious way to go even by Renaissance standards. The reality was far more gruesome. Paolo invited his wife into his chamber and strangled her there with the help of a henchman who had been hiding under the bed. If in life she had combined the roles of Shakespeare's witty Beatrice and that archetypal daddy's girl, Cordelia, in death Isabella was forced to play the part of Desdemona.

Isabella's life is a promiscuous medley of the mirthful and the macabre, eminently suited to the stage; and, indeed, in 1612, John Webster famously dramatised it in his grisly tragedy The White Devil. Caroline P Murphy has elected, however, to use the novel as her model rather than the drama. Her biography is replete with portents and cliff-hanger chapter endings, and colourful thumbnail sketches of minor characters, and she outlines the rise and fall of her heroine with a novelist's panache and empathy.

She vividly evokes the highlights of the Medici social calendar, depicting jousts, poetry readings, horse ballets and even a football match. Her account of the latter seems curiously reminiscent of modern Italian calcio. The teams adopted "battle-field strategies" and employed any means, fair or foul, to achieve victory. The players dressed in the height of Florentine fashion and the game was sponsored by a vulgar nobleman, desperate to advertise his wealth and political power.

Another spectacle Murphy describes underlines the strangeness of the Renaissance past. As a two-year-old Isabella may have joined the rest of her family to witness a wrestling bout between the naked Morgante, the Medici court dwarf, and a monkey. After a few rounds, the animal was overcome, yet Morgante, misunderstanding the monkey's grunts and gestures, continued to pummel his head against the ground, and would have killed him, had Cosimo not intervened.

This episode reminds us that the past is a foreign country and, if there is a criticism of Isabella de' Medici, it is that it sometimes fails to bear witness to this. Murphy comments in passing on the brutality of the duel, but neglects to explore its possible appeal and significance for the 16th century audience: it may have been a cathartic experience, or an allegory of the menace of nature untamed.

Murphy is at pains to make her story accessible to 21st-century readers. She continually highlights the modernity of her heroine's character and frequently plays the tour guide, elucidating the history of Florence's buildings for present-day visitors. Yet, by anchoring her tale so firmly in the present, it loses something of its otherness. The best biographies of the period, such as The Reckoning, Charles Nicholl's life of Christopher Marlowe, preserve and recreate aspects of the past that are alien.

Yet, that aside, this is a wonderful story, and Murphy tells it wonderfully well. Faber are to be congratulated too, on having produced an attractive and lavishly illustrated volume at the bargain price of £20.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future