The orphaned Dea is taken into the household of Bona, duchess of Milan, who also cares for the bastard children of her husband. Among those is the young and beautiful teenager Catherina Sforza who dotes on her father. But Duke Gian Galeazzo Sforza has many enemies and he is murdered during a church visit. Dea’s fate is now collided with Catherina as she accompanies her to Rome to her wedding with Girolamo Riario, the pope’s nephew.
After Engeland, renaissance Italy is my second favourite historical setting. I just love all the political intrigues, the art, romances and yes even the bloodshed. Catherina Sforza is by far my most loved character of this period and this is one of the only fictional novels about her life. I also enjoyed two other works from Kalogridis before. ‘I, Mona Lisa’ about Da Vinci and his Lisa (I don’t remember a lot from it) and ‘The devil’s queen’ about Catherine De Medici which I liked a lot. Needless to say, I was looking forward to reading ‘The scarlet contessa’.
However, the novel is told from the fictional perspective of Dea, Catherina’s lady-in-waiting who has a magical gift to read the future via tarot cards. A huge part of the storyline goes to exploring Dea’s background (her parentage, her gifts, her relationship with her husband…) and I was just eagerly waiting until Catherina’s story would really start taking off.
It did at a certain point. After the assassination of her father, she goes to Rome to marry into the forceful Riario family. There, she meets charming Rodrigo Borgia, who will become her arch enemy and also Giuliano Della Rovere, another future pope. When pope Sixtus dies, Catherina and her husband move to their estates of Imola and Forli and there will be a lot of trouble for them. I don’t want go into too much detail about the (complex) politics, but Kalogridis does a great job in making it understandable.
Unfortunately, she has to omit certain things from the story in order to do that. There is no mention of Catherina’s second marriage and a few of her children are also not spoken of. Instead, we again get some more insight in Dea’s gifts and a heavy focus on the Borgias.
I did like this novel, I just believe a less heavy focus on the fantasy part would have worked better. Regarding Catherine De Medici, I liked the magic because it is just part of how we look at her. In this novel, it felt out of place. Catherina Sforza was a formidable woman and commander of her army. Had she been born a man, she would have become a great military leader. In this novel, she turns from a vain young lustful girl into this woman that I admire. And no magic is needed to tell that story in my opinion.
I still need to read Kalogridis’ most famous book ‘The Borgia bride’ which receives higher ratings and is about Sancha of Aragon. If you have read and loved Sarah Dunant’s work about renaissance Italy, Jeanne Kalogridis is your next go to!
What’s your favourite novel set in Italy?