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.

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