Duchess of Milan by Michael Ennis


Word PressThis was about the rivalry between Isabella of Aragon (the Neapolitan branch), wife of the ineffective Gian Galeazzo Sforza, Duke of Milan, and her cousin Beatrice d’Este, wife of Gian Galeaazo’s uncle, Ludovico Sforza, the de facto ruler during Gian Galeazzo’s lifetime and later the next Duke of Milan. It was an original take on this fascinating period in Italian history, the age of the Renaissance and the Italian Wars, and it also made good use of the important cultural concept of “Fortuna”/fate. There was a lot of action and a lot of description, and many important historical characters were featured.

However … well, it was all rather depressing, really. There was always the feeling that everything was doomed to end in tears, that happiness wasn’t really attainable, and that the world was generally a rather cruel and miserable place. The author seemed very keen on pain and suffering, some of it verging on the sado-masochistic, and also seemed to have an obsession with using as many Italian swear words, the cruder the better, as possible.

If the makers of the TV series about the Borgias ever decide to make a similar series about the Sforzas, it will probably be exactly like this!  Good points and bad points!

And I’m now on the lookout for a book about Bona Sforza, Isabella and Gian Galeazzo’s daughter, who became Queen of Poland. All I’ve found so far is a recent reprint of a 1904 book, only available at extortionate prices, and one other book which only appears to be available in Polish, but I shall keep looking …


Spirits of the Ordinary by Kathleen Alcala


Word PressHmm.  I didn’t really “get” this book.  That’s probably me rather than it: I’m better with a straight historical novel, rather than something which is a combination of historical fiction and imaginings/fantasy.   It sounded interesting – set in Mexico, just south of the US border, in the 1870s, with a cast of characters including indigenous groups, crypto-Jews, and recent Irish immigrants.  However, it was all rather disjointed – people were (literally) wandering about, and there were too many characters for a relatively short book and their stories didn’t really link together very well.  Also, the crypto-Jews (i.e. crypto Sephardi Jews) were using bits of Yiddish!

Interesting setting, and an interesting idea to write about characters representing different aspects of Mexico’s cultural heritage, but it just didn’t really work for me.  It’s probably me: this idea of including mystical/fantastical elements in historical novels is particularly popular in Hispanic writings, but, as I said, I’m better with a straight historical novel!


Mary Berry’s Easter Feast – BBC 2


Word PressJust think how much better a place the world would be if the only thing anyone did in the name of religion was to eat. This was such a lovely, happy, gentle take on Easter, with Mary Berry preparing an “Easter Feast” including both traditional British dishes and food from a variety of other cultures now represented in the UK. We also saw her enjoying an Easter egg hunt with her young grandchildren, and most National Trust properties and a lot of other venues are putting on Easter egg hunts over the long weekend.

Food symbolism is fascinating, and there’s a lot of that associated with Easter. It was quite moving, with the second programme of the two being broadcast, by an unfortunate coincidence, on the day of the horrific atrocities in Brussels, to see the preparation of the Italian “Colomba di Pasqua” cake, baked in (as the name suggests!) the shape of a dove, a symbol of peace. The Greek dishes were particularly interesting because they were so heavily imbued with symbolism, as so much associated with Greek Orthodoxy is. Nice to see Russian Easter bread included as well, although of course it’s several weeks yet until Easter will be marked in Russia.

Food from lots of other traditions too.   This was about Easter – well, it would be, seeing as it was called “Mary Berry’s Easter Feast” 😉 – but you could make similar programmes about major festivals in other religions, because most of them have particular foods associated with them. These days, with imports and preservatives, the idea of seasonal foods doesn’t apply much any more, because you can get things in the supermarkets all year round, but there’s still something special about eating particular foods at the “right” time of year, whether it’s something associated with a religious occasion (pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, mince pies at Christmas, etc) or whether it’s parkin on Bonfire Night or strawberries and cream during Wimbledon.

Likewise, you can get food from all over the world in the supermarkets these days, but there’s still something special about eating food in the “right” places. Sachertorte at a Kaffeehaus in Vienna, beignets in New Orleans, a croissant and a pain au chocolat for breakfast in France, ice cream in Italy, smaretter in Denmark, blinis in Russia, falafels and pitta bread in the Middle East … all right, all right, no wonder my life has been one long battle with my weight! Even within the UK, there’s something very nice about eating Kendal Mint Cake in the Lake District, bara brith in Wales, oatcakes in Scotland, and so on!

Oh, and, speaking about both Easter and regional foods, I’ve always found it very strange that you never seem to be able to find Bury simnel cakes (big fruity bun type things, as opposed to the usual simnel cakes with marzipan, which are Shrewsbury simnel cakes) in the Bury area. The only places I’ve ever seen them are branches of Bettys, which is a bit mad considering that Bettys is such a Yorkshire icon and Bury simnels come from Lancashire! However, I was in Ramsbottom – just north of Bury, and a place with very strong Eastertide traditions, one of two places in Lancashire (the other being Preston) closely associated with egg rolling – at the weekend, for the annual Chocolate Festival J, and I’ve been advised that the Red Hall (the place you pass on the right as you head up the A56 towards Ramsbottom, just before Park Farms) serves Bury simnels as part of its Lancashire afternoon tea. So now I can stop worrying about it! I don’t particularly want to eat a load of Bury simnel cakes: it’s just always annoyed me that they never seem to be available in the Bury area! And, whilst I’m on the subject of Bury, I note that the Bury Pace Eggers put on a number of performances over the weekend. Pace egging pretty much died out after the First World War, but it’s been revived in East Lancashire and West Yorkshire, and it’s nice to see an old tradition kept going.

I’ve now got totally off the point :-).   Back to Mary Berry and her food! This was a feast for Easter Day, so the tradition of eating fish on Good Friday – watch out for the queues outside Armstrong’s in Prestwich, the best fish and chip shop in Manchester, in three days’ time! – didn’t come into it, but lamb, hot cross buns, simnel cake and, of course, Easter eggs, all did, along with a range of food from different cultures and traditions, and it was all really interesting, and just so nice.

In the Middle Ages, Easter was a time of year often associated with the persecution of non-Christian minorities.  Thankfully, those days have long gone, but yesterday we saw yet more examples of the evil that people carry out in the supposed name of religion.  These two-part series was a gentle, pleasant and very interesting build-up to the springtime festival that combines symbols of Christian, Jewish and pagan traditions.  As I said at the beginning, just think how much better a place the world would be if the only thing anyone did in the name of religion was to eat!

Tread Softly on my Dreams by Greta Curran Browne


Word PressI didn’t deliberately arrange it so that I finished a book about Irish history just in time for St Patrick’s Day, honestly!   This book starts with the 1798 (Wolfe Tone) Rebellion, but its main focus is the 1803 Rebellion led by Robert Emmet, and it generally does a good job of getting across the horror of the very heavy-handed way in which the rebellion was put down but without sounding like a piece of propaganda.

Robert Emmet’s a figure who has been romanticised, because of his relationship with his sweetheart Sarah Curran, and the rebellion itself is often portrayed as a working-class, Catholic uprising, which is unfortunate because it masks the fact that this was an uprising of the United Irishman, and that Emmet himself was from a Protestant Ascendancy background. This book successfully steers clear of all that. It shows that this was an uprising of Irish people from different social and religious backgrounds. And Sarah Curran comes across as … well, a bit of a spineless jellyfish. The reader’s left feeling that the real heroine of the piece was Anne Devlin, who acted as Emmet’s housekeeper but was also a fellow conspirator. After the rebellion failed, Anne was tortured, and imprisoned in very harsh conditions which permanently damaged her health, but refused to turn informer. A very brave woman … but, as the author points out, no-one’s ever written any songs or poems about her.

There were many nationalist uprisings, both in Europe and in South America, during the 19th century. Some succeeded, some didn’t. Some got outside support, some didn’t. Some have come to be viewed romantically, some haven’t. Some were viewed romantically at the time – the movement for Greek independence being the obvious one, and maybe the movement for Italian unification another .,.. and then there was Poland, but that’s a long story. The 1803 uprising in Ireland isn’t usually spoken of along with the general increase of nationalism in the 19th century, maybe because it came so early, and in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars.  Unfortunate timing. Obviously its leaders were inspired by what had happened in America and then in France, but the British ruling classes have always been paranoid about the idea of France using Ireland as a launchpad for an invasion of the British mainland, and so for this to happen in the middle of a war with France, and for the rebels to invite French support, was always going to lead to very severe repression.

The paranoia amongst the British upper classes because of what had happened in France, and what had happened in America, is something which isn’t always given the consideration it should be. Just think about what went on – in Ireland, obviously, but also over here. The Peterloo Massacre – I could write a very long essay about that! The Combination Acts – even 19 years after Waterloo, even after Catholic Emancipation and the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, the poor Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Australia, all because of this utter paranoia about uprisings. Maybe it can even be compared to the fear of slave uprisings in the Southern states of the US … er, I’ve only just had that thought, and it’s probably way OTT, but I thought I’d write it down anyway!

So not a good time for uprisings in Ireland, sadly. The real missed opportunity was the blocking by the House of Lords of Gladstone’s Home Rule Bills in the 1880s and 1890s. The upper classes strike again! That’s when there should have been a peaceful settlement for Ireland, and that’s when the real opportunity came to avoid all the bloodshed of later years. And it was missed. But that doesn’t really work for romantic ballads, and Robert Emmet does.

It’s a very sad story all round. Tales of repression and failed uprisings always are. But it’s a good book – it gets things across pretty well, and doesn’t fall into the usual traps.  Not a bad read at all.

The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park


Word PressThis book was inspired by an exchange of letters between Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua (and sister of Beatrice d’Este, whom I was reading about recently) and a young Jewish woman who was romantically involved with a courtier.  Isabella urged the woman to convert to Catholicism and marry her admirer, but the woman decided against it.  It makes a rather interesting contrast to some places, the obvious example being Spain – Aragon and Castile – where a convert marrying into a noble family would have been an absolute no-no.  Grazia, the heroine of this book, is, like the lady of the letters, a young Jewish woman, daughter of a prominent banking family, who has a romance with a Catholic courtier and is urged by Isabella to convert, but in Grazia’s case the decision is taken out of her hands when the man is paired off with someone else.

The book isn’t really about the romance between Grazia and (the also-fictitious) Lord Pirro, though.  It’s got a far broader sweep than that.  We see Grazia and her family – originally her parents and siblings, and later her husband – living in various different parts of Italy throughout the fascinating late 15th and early 16th century, the age of the Renaissance and the Italian Wars.  Ferrara, Bologna, Savonarola’s Florence, Venice as the Ghetto was being set up, Mantua, and, finally, Rome, ending with the infamous Sack of Rome in 1527.  All the cities are referred to by their Italian (proper) names, which is unusual in an English language book.  And we meet all sorts of people.  Prostitution features rather a lot, although only indirectly!   Grazia has a book published, and becomes Isabella d’Este’s secretary.  Various leading political and artistic figures of the time cross paths with the fictional characters.  And there are interesting descriptions of some lesser-known Jewish rituals, notably a cherem (excommunication) ceremony.

I’m surprised that I’ve never come across this book before, because it’s not like me to miss a book on the Italian Wars :-), but I’m not sure that it’s ever been published in the UK.  The author’s Canadian, and the book seems to’ve been quite a hit in Canada and the US but I can’t find any mention of it having been published here.  There’s a sequel out now, and a third book planned, but the sequel doesn’t seem to be available here either – although, in these wondrous times of the internet, it should be easy enough to get them from North America via Amazon.

It worked really well for me – I love getting stuck into the Italian Wars! – but there’s quite a lot to take in, and I can imagine that some of it might be hard going for anyone not familiar with either this period in Italian history or with some aspects of Jewish rituals and festivals.  It did work really well for me, though, as I’ve just said.  Well, apart from the ending, which I wasn’t keen on at all; but I’m still planning to get hold of a copy of the sequel, and shall be looking out for the final part of the trilogy when that appears.

The Renaissance Unchained – BBC 4


Word Press How brilliant is Waldemar Januszczak?   Very, very entertaining presenter. Some people can be a bit pompous when talking about art, but he’s got a wonderfully dry, ironic way of discussing it, without being so sarcastic that he sounded like he was taking the mickey.   This series had four episodes, respectively entitled “Gods, Myths and Oil Paints”, “Whips, Death and Madonnas”, “Silk, Sex and Sin” and “Hell, Snakes and Giants”. They don’t teach you stuff like that at school

Having started my A-level history course two months after “Turtle Power” hit the number one spot in the British charts, I always associate the Renaissance with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael/Raffaello and Donatello; but, to be fair, so do most people! Well, they associate it with Italy, anyway. It’s also, as the word “Renaissance” suggests, considered to be a time of the rediscovery of ancient Greek, and to some extent ancient Roman, culture, associated with the fall of Constantinople; and it’s also seen as being what Waldemar described as “orderly”. The point being made in this series was that there was a lot more to it than that.

It started off by covering the Northern Renaissance, and that is definitely something which tends to be overlooked. The names are familiar, but few people would come up with van Eyck or Durer if asked to name some well-known figures of the Renaissance. And the idea of the splendour of the Burgundian court is also very familiar, but, again, the idea of the Renaissance as being an Italian phenomenon is so strong that you don’t really think of the Burgundian court as being part of the Renaissance.   The next episode was the more standard Renaissance stuff, Italy and in particular Florence, but with some different angles on religious art. The Council of Trent’s ban on certain types of artwork did get a brief mention at the end of the fourth episode, but didn’t really come into it.

Then the third episode was about Venice. I’m very glad that Venice got an episode to itself :-). A lot of that was about Venice looking to the east. I think that that’s one of the main reasons I like Venice so much: there is that Byzantine feeling about it, which you don’t really get anywhere else in Italy. Murano glass also featured. I wouldn’t necessarily have associated that with the Renaissance, but some interesting points were made. And the final episode covered things I wouldn’t have thought of as part of the Renaissance at all. Rudolf II and all his alchemy and astrology and so on, the connection being a Milanese artist called Arcimboldo who worked in Prague and painted some rather “different” pictures – human heads made up of fruit and vegetables, for example.  As Waldemar pointed out, Leonardo da Vinci also painted some “grotesques”. Also featured was a Huguenot potter called Bernard Palissy, whom I’m afraid I’d never heard of before but whose pottery featured wildlife which can be interpreted as reflecting the Bible stories in which certain types of wildlife, most famously the serpent in the Garden of Eden, are presented as the bad guys.   And El Greco – yes, I’ve heard of El Greco, and I’ve seen his his house in Toledo – and his distorted figures … like van Eyck and Durer, all very familiar, but not something I would necessarily think of if playing Renaissance-related word association. Ditto Hieronymus Bosch.

All in all, a fascinating series. And I am so jealous that Waldemar Januszczak got to visit some of the most important sites in Europe and have them all to himself! Well, himself and his film crew, presumably. The Basilica of St Francis in Assisi. The wonderful cathedral of Toledo. The Sistine Chapel. How amazing to be able to look round these places without there being hordes of other tourists there!   Very jealous ;-). Also very impressed: I shall definitely be keeping an eye out for any future programmes with him as their presenter.



Doctor Thorne – ITV 1


Word PressI don’t think this is quite entertaining enough to grip the nation on Sunday nights in the way that Downton Abbey or Poldark did, but the subject matter’s quite possibly much more interesting.  I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how accurately the TV adaptation reflects it, but we’ve got a rural area of the fictional county of Barsetshire (maybe somewhere in the West Country?), at some point in the mid-19th century, in which live Dr Thorne, his niece Mary, Sir Roger Scatcherd who is a working-class man who’s made a fortune and been made a baronet, and the posh Greshams.  We’re told very early on that Mary is the illegitimate daughter of Dr Thorne’s brother and Sir Roger’s sister … and that Sir Roger, angered that his sister had been seduced and left with an illegitimate child on the way, killed Dr Thorne’s brother.  Well, that’s more original than seduced female obligingly dying.  She’d in fact come out of it quite well, going off to America to start a new life with a former suitor who was still keen on her.

Mary, instead of being sent off somewhere discreet, has been raised by Dr Thorne as if she were his legitimate niece, and has been a childhood friend of the Gresham children … but, as they reach marriageable age, poor old Mary is not allowed to be a bridesmaid for her friend.  Even worse, she and the Greshams’ heir have taken a shine to each other, but of course this won’t do, partly because of her illegitimacy and also because the Greshams have fallen on hard times and need him to bag an heiress.  Meanwhile, Sir Roger, who is in poor health (due to excessive boozing) has a huge pile of dough, so presumably the situation is about to become further complicated if Mary cops for it all.  Sir Roger does have a son, who rejoices in the name of Louis Philippe – I’m not sure why he would have named his son after the “Citizen King”, but never mind! – but, as we’ve been told that Sir Roger’s will leaves his money to his sister’s eldest child if his son dies young, presumably both Scatcherds will cark it in time for Mary to inherit before Frank Gresham has married anyone else.

Mary herself accepts the limitations which her illegitimacy imposes on her, but her uncle doesn’t.  There’s no “bad blood will out” going on here: there’s nothing about Mary which the Greshams or anyone else can criticise, other than her background and lack of money.  Enough of the irony now: this is all very, very sad.  There are two things going on.  One is the age-old story of a couple being kept apart by either the mores of their society or the needs of one of their families, and, in this case, it’s both.  Frank needs to marry an heiress to “save” his family, and Mary won’t do for a member of the gentry as she is illegitimate.  The other is the stigma of illegitimacy, which has fallen on an innocent young woman who is of irreproachable character and has done nothing with which anyone can find fault, but who cannot take a full part in her society, no matter how hard her kind uncle has tried, because of the circumstances of her birth.  “The tyranny of the majority.”  I’m assuming that we will get a happy ending here, but that’s because it’s fiction and fiction is supposed to provide happy endings.  Real life, unfortunately, tends not to be as obliging.

Sorry, that sounds rather grumpy!  But it’s true.  There are some things about Victorian society which it might be nice to get back to, but there are many other things which we have to be very glad that we’ve moved on from.