The Deadly Sisterhood

Written by Leonie Frieda
Review by Lucinda Byatt

After her much lauded biography of Catherine de’ Medici, Frieda has shifted her chronological focus back a few years and broadened it to a cast of eight formidable 15th-century women. Some were related by blood (like the sisters Beatrice and Isabella d’Este), others by marriage (like Lucrezia Tornabuoni, mother of Lorenzo and Giuliano de’Medici, and her daughter-in-law, the Roman aristocrat Clarice Orsini), but all were renowned either as beauties – particularly Lucrezia Borgia and Giulia Farnese – political brides (like Isabella d’Aragona), or viragos like Caterina Sforza.

Frieda’s skill lies not so much in having researched these eight women’s lives – some of whom have been the subject of recent, often revisionist research – but in linking them to form a saga spanning an extraordinarily complex and dynamic period of history in the Italian peninsula with its patchwork of major and minor city-states and principalities ruled – apparently, as Frieda adds – by men. As Burckhardt first pointed out, this was the golden age of bastards in Italy, where men and women born on either side of the marriage vows could seize political control and ride the crested waves of Fortune. This libidinous, opportunistic age ended dramatically in the horrific violence of the Sack of Rome, and the years that followed it ushered in a stricter sense of legitimacy – of birth, nationality and religion – but many of the women who became influential in it were descended from these extraordinary 15th-century women whose lives are charted so magnificently here.