The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park

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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.

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