Launch: Katherine Mezzacappa’s The Maiden of Florence


Katherine Mezzacappa is an Irish author living in Italy. Her Booker-nominated The Maiden of Florence (Fairlight) was published in April 2024 and The Ballad of Mary Kearney (Addison & Highsmith) will follow in early 2025. Writing as Katie Hutton, she is the author of four novels with Zaffre, the first of which made the last fifteen in the HNS New Novel Competition in 2018. Twenty of her short stories have been published world-wide.

How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?

It’s 1584 and an unsuspecting girl is plucked from an orphanage on the orders of the Medici family with the promise of a dowry and a husband. Only when it is too late is she told how she must earn them.

What inspired you to start writing historical fiction and what has been most rewarding about it?

An interest in history, but especially in those who don’t get much of a mention in history books. In my formative years, I read all the classics: Austen, Hardy, etc. Consequently, I tend to write in a way that is not contemporary (I was told that on my master’s degree), so in that respect historical fiction is also a logical choice. Apart from being able to immerse myself in an era that isn’t my own, I’d also say that it’s great to be a member of a vibrant, supportive historical fiction community.

How is this latest novel different from your other novel, The Ballad of Mary Kearney, which will be released in January 2025?

Structure is probably the biggest difference. The Maiden of Florence is told through the points of view of Giulia and of her husband. The Ballad of Mary Kearney is built up through multiple points of view, including trial proceedings and newspaper accounts, through which Mary Kearney gradually emerges as having a central role.

Why the focus on this topic now? Is there a key historical event you found in researching that inspired you to write this story to portray a key message for now?

I discovered this story by accident. I’d accompanied my son to a doctor’s appointment but uncharacteristically I had gone out without a book. The waiting room choice was gossip magazines or a medical journal – dedicated to erectile dysfunction. There was a tiny historical column in which I found the bones of Giulia’s story.

How do you think the reader will connect with Giulia in this book, especially women of today?

It’s really a #MeToo story, though I didn’t set out to write one, because essentially Giulia’s body was used to enable a dynastic marriage, an arrangement brought about by powerful men – and one woman – and winked at by the College of Cardinals. Most of us do not have our lives controlled in the way that Giulia’s was, but some of her response to what happened to her will probably resonate with many women.

How did you balance the research with writing the story?

Very useful sources were the museum of the former Innocenti orphanage in Florence, the museum of the Pietà in Venice and the Textile Museum in Prato, for Giulia would have been a silk-weaver in her orphanage. I spent time in Mantua, Vincenzo Gonzaga’s dukedom. I read not just the Medici correspondence about the ‘Congress of Venice’ but also contemporary medical treatises and everything I could lay my hands on about the lives of Renaissance women and on crime and punishment in Florence.

What are you working on now? Is it connected to this one or your other work in any way?

I have just finished drafting a novel based on the life of Lucie Dumas, the mistress Samuel Butler shared with his best friend. Like Giulia, she is a woman largely denied a voice by history.

How have your life and work experiences been incorporated with or assisted you in your writing, especially a story from Ireland’s past?

My first degree was in History of Art, with a concentration on the Italian Renaissance, so writing The Maiden of Florenceput me straight back in that epoch. In a way, The Ballad of Mary Kearney has much older roots. I lived in Belfast until 1974. Not much Irish history was taught in my school, but I learned about the United Irishmen. In the context of the Troubles, the 1798 rebellion, felt to my eleven year-old self to be the last chance for peace in Ireland.

Every author has their own publishing journey. Tell me about yours.  

I only really started writing seriously in my forties, when a friend persuaded me to enrol with her in a master’s programme in Creative Writing. I wrote a novel during that course – historical, naturally. There was a gap then of longer than I care to admit, when I moved country, the boys were growing up and every excuse you could think of. Then I started writing again properly in 2016, at the urging of my friend from the master’s (the novelist and YA author, Anne Booth). The Ballad of Mary Kearney was that 2016 novel, but the one that got me an agent was my first Katie Hutton novel, The Gypsy Bride. I built my writer’s resumé through short stories, my confidence growing when I got shortlisted or published. My first ever published fiction was in Ireland’s Own magazine.

What advice would you give to other aspiring historical writers?

Where possible, read a lot of what people in the period you are writing about would have read, such as newspapers or popular fiction. I read a lot of Agatha Christie, for instance, when I was writing a book set in the 1930s, though I wasn’t writing crime. Christie really gets the ‘voice’ of that time. Haunt picture galleries, especially for portraits.

What is the last great book you read? Why?

Elizabeth Fremantle’s Disobedient. It tells the story of Artemisia Gentileschi’s struggles to become an artist, her rape by another artist and her judicial torture at his trial. I read it after I had written The Maiden of Florence, but the themes align.


In This Section

About our Articles

Our features are original articles from our print magazines (these will say where they were originally published) or original articles commissioned for this site. If you would like to contribute an article for the magazine and/or site, please contact us. While our articles are usually written by members, this is not obligatory. No features are paid for.