The scarlet contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis

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!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

What’s your favourite novel set in Italy?

The passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

Artemisia Gentileschi has learned to paint from her father Orazio and his colleague Arentino. When the latter rapes her and her father forces her to take the case to court, 18-year-old Artemisia becomes the talk of Rome. After being tortured and her father’s betrayal, Artemisia marries the painter Pierantonio who lives in Florence. Trapped in a loveless marriage she fights for acceptance as a female painter in a world full of men. In Florence, she will find a patron in Cosimo II De Medici and a friend in Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo The Younger. Her life will never be easy, but the greatest art springs from sorrow.

Ever since creating a Goodreads account, this book has been on the recommendations list. When I recognized the title in our library, I decided to give it a try. I love stories about art and painters and I adore novels about Italy and especially Rome and Florence. So yes, this might be something for me.

The story opens in Rome when Artemisia goes to court to defend her case against Arentino, a colleague of her father who raped her. She needs to endure some awful things and you immediately get an insight in the male dominated society of Baroque Italy.

I must admit that I didn’t know much of Artemisia’s life and work. But what a life she had! I loved to read about her search for acceptance and her journey through Italy. We travel to Florence, Rome, Naples and Genoa to look for patronage amongst the nobles. I was especially interested in her friendship with Galilei. As he is also struggling to be taken seriously by the Pope.

The story takes some leaps in time which made the transitions a bit too fast sometimes. Vreeland tries to include most of the key moments of Artemisia’s life and adds her own imagination to fill the gaps. The author takes some liberties regarding Artemisia’s relationship with her father and husband.

Artemisia first and only love was painting and in this novel she creates her most-known works such as her Judith paintings and Susanna and the elder. After every chapter where she created a painting, I Googled it to study the details. It certainly enriched my reading experience.

The book reads like a fictional biography. The writing style is dry and some characters feel distant. But I still enjoyed it a lot. I’ve added Vreeland’s other famous novel ‘Girl in hyacinth blue‘ about Johannes Vermeer to my list.

Rating: 4 out of 5.