Beatrice d’Este, Duchess of Milan, 1475-1497 by Julia Cartwright

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Word PressThis, dating from 1903, is a wonderfully entertaining history book, of the storytelling type that some miserable modern historians are very snotty about but which are so much more interesting to read than books by, say, Annaliste or Marxist writers!  Much of it is, as the title suggests, about Beatrice, who was a member of the d’Este family who ruled Ferrara and who married Ludovico Sforza, who became Duke of Milan but was overthrown by the French during the Italian Wars, but it covers that period of Milanese and Italian history generally.  It’s a fascinating time in Italian history … and always takes me back to my A-level days, which makes me feel both comfortable and nostalgic.

Ludovico Sforza has tended to get a bad press,  maybe partly because the Sforza family generally are seen as upstarts but largely because Machivelli blamed him, because of his alliance with Charles VIII of France, for the Italian Wars.  However, Julia Cartwright evidently had a lot of sympathy and admiration for him – as many more people do these days – so he comes across quite well in this.  Beatrice and her sister Isabella, the Marchioness of Mantua, are generally thought well of by everyone, but, as Julia Cartwright pointed out, haven’t been given the attention they deserve, mainly because they were female.  There were so many fascinating women during this period of Italian history – Caterina Sforza, Ludovico’s niece, is an obvious one, and Lucrezia Borgia’s an interesting figure as well.  And the early period of the Italian Wars was a time of very clever, wily monarchs, notably Henry VII, the Emperor Maximilian I and Ferdinand of Aragon.  You wouldn’t have got any of them prancing about at the Field of the Cloth of Gold!

Oh dear, I seem to have got totally off the point!  What I was supposed to be saying is that this is a very interesting period of history, full of very interesting characters.  All sorts of people turn up in this book!  Leonardo da Vinci, obviously, because of his close ties to Ludovico Sforza.  Luca Pacioli, who has the dubious distinction of having invented double-entry bookkeeping.  Baldassare Castiglione, author of “The Courtier” (“Il Cortegiano” always looks to me as if it ought to mean “The Courtesan”, but never mind!).  And a long list of other royals, nobles, artists and musicians.

It’s just a fascinating portrayal of a time and a place.  Some of it reads like standard political history – war and diplomacy.  Some of it reads like an article in Hello! magazine, with long descriptions of the clothes, jewels and hairstyles which featured at big events, along with details of the menus, and of course who was and wasn’t there!  Plus descriptions of various palaces – including the Sforza homes at Pavia and Vigevano, as well as Milan – and a particularly enjoyable description of a diplomatic visit which Beatrice made to Venice.  There are extracts from letters – the d’Este family seem to have been remarkably good at keeping everything! – and accounts written at the time.  And plenty of gossip, romance and scandal.  So, so interesting to read!  Grumpy people who moan about this sort of historical writing don’t know what they’re missing!

If you aren’t familiar with this period of Italian history, it could probably get rather confusing, but, if you are, please do read this – you will love it!  It’s available in Kindle format for free.  Get on Amazon and get it downloaded!

2 thoughts on “Beatrice d’Este, Duchess of Milan, 1475-1497 by Julia Cartwright

  1. Chris Deeley

    What do you mean: “dubious distinction of having invented double-entry bookkeeping”? Double-entry bookkeeping is widely regarded as a great invention, on a par with – say- differential calculus. It’s also most doubtful that Luca Pacioli “invented” it. His published work on the subject is the oldest we know of, but that doesn’t mean he invented it. The ancient Egyptians had systems of “charge and discharge” accounting, which were very similar. But isn’t Villa D’Este on Lake Como enchanting? One of our (i.e. yours and mine) most favourite parts of the planet.

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    • I was forced to do … I think it was 16 exams in accountancy. 6 in the first year, 5 in the second and 5 in the third. Anyone who played a part in inventing all these boring systems gets a big black mark from me :-).

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