Beyond the Ghetto Gates by Michelle Cameron


This, set in Ancona during Napoleon’s Italian campaign of 1797-99 is a fascinating book – something really different, about an important but often neglected part of European history.  Ancona was the first of several Italian cities in which Napoleon’s troops took down the ghetto gates, and ceremoniously burnt them; and we see that very powerful scene in the book, with almost all of the major characters present.

There’s an ongoing debate about Napoleon’s views on religious minorities.  Certainly he held prejudices against minority groups, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he gave civil rights to Jewish communities, and also to Protestant communities in Catholic-dominated areas where they’d been denied equality.  It’s quite strange to read a book which shows Napoleon as a hero, because that’s, obviously, really not how he’s usually seen in Britain; but he did bring about many changes for the better – and the effects of his actions are still felt today.

Napoleon does feature prominently in the book, but he’s only one of a rich cast of characters, mostly fictional, some real.  The protagonist, Mirelle, longs for more from life than marriage and motherhood behind the ghetto gates, but is being courted by the wealthy and influential widowed father of her best friend Dolce – a member of the real life Morpurgo family who played an important part in the events of the period.  Mirelle’s family run one of the world’s leading ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) printing businesses, but, after her father and brother are murdered by a Catholic vigilante mob, the business passes to an unpleasant relative.  This is all based on the reality of the times: Ancona was the centre of the ketubah printing industry, and there were attacks on the ghetto by vigilantes.

Meanwhile, amongst the French army are their distant relative David, who takes a shine to Mirelle whilst Dolce takes a shine to him, and his Catholic best friend Christophe, with whom Mirelle embarks on a romance.  And we’ve also got the murderer, Emilio, devout wife Francesca, and their two young children.

Emilio is fictional, but Francesca and their daughter really existed – their significance being that they claimed to have seen the eyes in a painting of the Virgin Mary move. The painting plays a big part in the book.  Napoleon is strangely obsessed with it.  And then it gets stolen – which does get a bit silly, and isn’t based on fact; and the talk about the Stolen Madonna kept making me think about the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies.  The whole plot actually gets a bit chaotic at the end, with everything happening at once and some slightly unconvincing tying up of loose ends, but no book’s perfect and it does keep you guessing about exactly how things are going to work out.

There’s a lot going on throughout the book.  We see life in the ghetto, and we see how different groups of people grow up with prejudices against each other.  And we see – OK, the idea of the spirited young woman who wants a life outside the home pretty cliched, but it works – Mirelle wanting to run the printing business, but facing prejudice, led by the local rabbi, against the idea of a woman in a workplace.  We see how the changes in France have liberated Daniel, but we also see how both he and Mirelle struggle to find their way between their old lives and the new world.

A brief summary from Wikipedia:

 In 1763, some 1290 Jews lived in Ancona. During the reign of Napoleon between 1797 and 1799, the Jews were fully emancipated. The gates of the ghetto were removed and the members of the Morpurgo family became members of the city council. In 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat and the return of the city to papal dominion, some restrictions were put once again upon the Jewish community by Pope Leo XIII. In 1843, an old decree was revived by Fra Vincenzo Soliva, Inquisitor of Ancona, forbidding Jews to reside or own a business outside the ghetto and imposing other restrictions, but public opinion had already turned in Europe by then and the edict was cancelled shortly after until the revolution of 1848 emancipated the Jews once again.

I think it’s fairly widely-known that the word “ghetto” comes from Venice, but it’s still quite strange for a reader from the Anglophone world to be reminded that this was going on in Italy as recently as the end of the 18th century – that the Jewish communities of cities such as Ancona were literally locked into the ghetto at night, and forced to wear yellow insignia when leaving it during the day.  The combination of the Enlightenment and the Code Napoleon brought about change – and that led on to the debates about secularisation and assimilation, especially in Vienna and Budapest.  France continued to be seen as the European leader in terms of rights for religious minorities right up until the Dreyfus Affair, and it was the fact that Theodore Herzl was in Paris at the height of the Dreyfus Affair which really kick-started the Zionist movement, something which has been rather misrepresented in the media in recent months.  That all goes back to the Code Napoleon, and the idea that France should have been somewhere where that wouldn’t happen.

Anyway, that’s getting somewhat off the point, but, despite the mayhem at the end, this is a very good book, and worth a read if the 99p Kindle offer’s still available.


Leonardo – Amazon Prime


I was really looking forward to this.  Renaissance Italy plus Aidan Turner – what more could you ask?  However, it’s just … strange.  Our hero is handsome, charming, polite, kind, talented, full of integrity, flashes the odd brooding look, has risen above a difficult childhood and always nobly overcomes adversity.  He’s a dream, apart from sometimes throwing in a bit of annoying 21st century speak about everyone being on a journey and painting their truth.  However, what he *isn’t* is anything like Leonardo da Vinci.  Or indeed any other artist in Renaissance Italy, where you looked for a wealthy patron (rather than telling the Duke of Milan that you couldn’t come and work for him because you’d just committed yourself to a job elsewhere and couldn’t possibly go back on your word) and painted whatever they paid you to paint.

Oh, and he’s been wrongly accused of murder and is being pursued by a policeman whose dad used to be in Howards’ Way.  Er, yes.  I’ve read a million and one books about 15th and 16th century Italy.  Funny how none of them ever mentioned Leonardo and the Mystery of the Murdered Muse.

The Murdered Muse is Caterina da Cremona, who may or may not have existed, may or may not have been Leonardo’s muse, and may or may not have been his mistress.  However, the marketing for this series has focused on its exploring whether or not Leonardo was gay.   And, yes, it did bring in the true story of he and three other young men being charged over their involvement with a male prostitute.  However, it turned it into a silly plot in which a jealous rival paid the said prostitute to seduce him, and tipped off the authorities so that they went round and caught them in flagrante, all so that our man Leonardo would get the boot from Verrocchio’s studio.  So, instead of the focus being on Leonardo’s sexuality, it was on somebody else having it in for him.  Is it me or was that rather insensitive?

Finally, they’ve thrown in a storyline about an old witch telling his mother, when he was in his cradle, that he was cursed to be alone and destroy everything he loved.  Because a bird had flown into his bedroom.  And him being haunted by this. I’m not sure if this bit’s meant to be Victorian Gothic or the Brothers Grimm, but it’s certainly not Italian Renaissance.

Er, yes.  So this isn’t really what I was hoping for.  But, hey, it’s got Aidan Turner, and lots of nice shots of Milan and Florence.

So far, things have not gone well for our man.  Mainly because he is so obsessed with painting “the truth”.  He upset Verrocchio by refusing to paint Caterina as a Roman goddess, because that wasn’t how he saw her.  Then he upset Caterina by painting her as he actually did see her, but refusing to leave out a scar on her shoulder, which reminded her that she was unable to have children due to a carriage accident, and feared she would never find a partner.  It was a sad story, but how would internal injuries leave a scar on your shoulder?  Then he got the sack for being gay.  And upset his dad, who’d paid good money for his apprenticeship.  Then he upset the father of a wealthy bride-to-be by painting her holding a symbol of the family of the bloke she actually fancied, not the family of her fiance.  And then he upset the Church by making a mess of a painting of the Adoration of the Magi, and being obsessed with making St Joseph look like his dad.

But presumably things will get better.  Oh, and, just in case you were wondering, no, he didn’t really get accused of murder.  Amazon Prime made that up.  I have no idea why.

Other than references to the Church, an appearance by Ludovico Sforza and one mention of the Medici, I’m getting very little sense of any historical context here.  And I’m not really getting much sense of Leonardo da Vinci.  But it’s all very easy on the eye.




Court of Wolves by Robyn Young


This is a bit like the Champions League of Tudor-era detective novels, not because it’s particularly top level (the storyline isn’t overly convincing, and Robyn Young’s books about the Crusades were much better generally) but because it features lots of big names from various different countries 🙂 .  Whilst it’s not one of the author’s best books, it’s much better than Sons of the Blood, to which it’s the sequel, and it’s worth reading for the cast list alone.

Our hero, Jack Wynter, finds himself in Florence, where he’s taken into the household of Lorenzo de Medici, gets to know the entire Medici family, meets up with Amerigo Vespucci, and rescues the future Ottoman Sultan Dzem.  Dzem – as we know from watching The Borgias 🙂 – would almost certainly have been in Rome, not Florence, but Robyn Young, unlike certain other authors, does clearly explain in an afterword where and why she’s taken slight liberties with history.  Meanwhile, Jack’s baddie half-brother, Harry Vaughan, is dispatched by Henry VII as an ambassador to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, but accidentally volunteers to join their Reconquista army, fighting alongside Edward Woodville, who did actually join the army deliberately, and considering killing Christopher Columbus but not going through with it.

I didn’t particularly enjoy Sons of the Blood, because there was way too much gratuitous violence and it included a ridiculously implausible Princes in the Tower escape plot, but this one was much better, and hopefully the third book in the trilogy will be too.

The basic idea is that Jack and Harry’s late father had a map which showed the way to what was to become known as the New World, and that he was involved in a secret society which wanted all religions to work together.  It’s not entirely clear what the two things have to do with each other, and a lot of other things aren’t entirely clear either, but presumably all the loose ends will be tied up in the third book.  This book’s quite disjointed, with Harry’s unintended adventures at the Siege of Loja, Jack’s romance with a girl in Florence, and frequent references to the Princes in the Tower not seeming to have very much to do either with the basic idea or each other, but it’s worth reading for the brilliant descriptions of both Renaissance-era Florence and Reconquista-era Andalusia, and for all the big names we meet along the way.

Incidentally, I could have lived without the Reconquista being made to sound so heroic – the destruction of the great Islamic and Jewish cultures of the Iberian peninsula was a tragedy – but, OK, we’re meant to be seeing it through the eyes of 15th century Christians.

This is definitely a distinct improvement on Sons of the Blood.  Even so, Robyn Young’s brilliant books on the Crusades, the Templars and Robert the Bruce, straight historical novels rather than having quite so much about Dan Brown about them, were much, much better; but, as I’ve said, it’s worth reading because it’s got some of the biggest names in early modern European history all in the same book.  And that rarely happens.  The Renaissance, the Reconquista and the Voyages of Discovery all tend to be taught separately at school, and books usually reflect that.  So this makes an interesting change.

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant


I love the idea of Lucrezia Borgia and Isabella d’Este, arguably two of the three most fascinating women (Caterina Sforza probably trumps both of them) of the Italian Wars/Renaissance period, having a really bitchy Krystle-Alexis type rivalry.  Unfortunately, Sarah Dunant’s books, much as I enjoy them – I’ll read anything set in 15th/16th century Italy! – never quite seem to go deep enough, and always leave you with a slightly frustrated feeling of only having skimmed the surface.  They’re good, but, given the subject matter, they could be so much better!

This is the sequel to Blood and Beauty, and follows the Borgias – Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI), Cesare and Lucrezia – from the time of Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este, brother of Isabella and Beatrice, in early 1502, to Rodrigo’s death in 1503.  It doesn’t cover the relationship between Lucrezia and Francesco Gonzaga, Isabella’s husband … I don’t think that really got going until later on, which explains it, but it seems a bit odd that the author wrote the book in a way that meant that such a juicy storyline was missing.  Maybe she’s planning another sequel.  The Lucrezia-Isabella rivalry, which could have made for such fascinating reading, is, disappointingly, largely shown as bitching about who’s got the best clothes. We do get to see the poet Bembo, and Lucrezia becoming his muse, though.

It’s Lucrezia who dominates the book, but Rodrigo and Cesare feature too.  We only really see Rodrigo as someone in poor health who knows that he hasn’t got long to live, but that’s the stage of his life at which the book’s set.  Ever since that Sky Atlantic series about the Borgias, I keep imagining Rodrigo Borgia as looking like Jeremy Irons, and of course he looked absolutely nothing like him – he weighed about 10 stone more, for a kick off!    As far as Cesare goes, this book is set after the really interesting bits, i.e. the conquests of Imola and Forli, not to mention bumping off his brother-in-law, but we do see him taking control of Urbino and Camerino, and then falling out with his own men.  It’s not the most interesting part of his life/career, either, though.

Machiavelli also features – interesting idea to involve him.  He always turns up in books about the Medici, but not so much in books about the Borgias.  His wife, whom I don’t think I’ve ever seen mentioned in a book before, also has a role as a supporting character.  I think the Borgias probably had as much influence on the writing of The Prince (a book which I read over 25 years ago and do not particularly intend to read again) as the Medicis did, so I think that including him worked, although it made the story quite bitty – and, because it was jumping between the three main Borgia characters, it was quite bitty anyway.

But, as I said, the main focus is on Lucrezia – on her marriage to Alfonso d’Este, her grief for her previous husband, Alfonso of Aragon, how much she’s missing her young child, and her grief after she suffers a stillbirth which was probably a result of Alfonso d’Este contracting syphilis and passing it on to her.  Not the pleasantest of topics, syphilis, but you can’t really write about this period of Italian history without it.

The other week, I was waiting to get off the Palermo to Naples overnight ferry (I’d been to Sicily on holiday, but was flying back to Rome), and I was thinking about Neapolitan history to try to distract myself from the fact that everything was running late and I really needed my breakfast, and “See Naples and die” kept going through my head.  Yes, I know, it’s supposed to be because the city’s so beautiful (which it is), but it also has all these connotations of the spread of syphilis during the Italian Wars!   It’s not actually clear whether or not Lucrezia contracted it, but it would explain her sad history of miscarriages and stillbirths and general health problems during her marriage to Alfonso d’Este.  The book does go on about this quite a lot.  Er, and, as it’s not the pleasantest of topics, as I said, on to other things now.

All the rubbish that’s been written about the Borgias over the years, the incest and the poisonings and all the rest of it, is thankfully missing.  I don’t think anyone still buys that, but old stories die hard. The book shows Lucrezia as being quite a sweet person, and Rodrigo Borgia as being devoted to his family.  I quite admire Rodrigo – plenty of the senior churchmen in those days had mistresses and illegitimate children, but he was really the only one who had the nerve to act as if his children were equivalent to members of royal/noble dynasties, make grand marriages for them and encourage his surviving son to create a state for himself.  OK, he’s like a walking argument in favour of the Reformation, but you’ve got to admire that nerve!   The presentation of Cesare isn’t so favourable, but I don’t see how anyone can find much good to say about Cesare Borgia.  I cannot stand the man.

But I do like Lucrezia.  She, and Catherine de Medici’s another one, haven’t half been libelled over the years.  It’s good to see her being represented more as she actually was – and interesting to see her, like so many princesses and noblewomen over the centuries, having to cope with being packed off to a strange court and put under huge pressure to produce an heir.  There’s also an interesting interlude involving her staying at a convent, seeking physical and spiritual respite.

Machiavelli comes across as a decent bloke, as well.  I’m not sure what he’d have thought if he’d known that his name would be turned into an adjective meaning deceitful/unscrupulous!  It was a great idea to include him and the Borgias, and Isabella d’Este as well, in the same book.  It just doesn’t seem to be as good as it could have been.  It doesn’t help that this really isn’t the most interesting period of the lives of the Borgias, but, even so, with such a fascinating cast of characters, it had huge potential which it didn’t quite fulfil.  Or maybe it’s just me!

Incidentally, what is the obsession with Hilary Mantel?  I read the reviews of both this book and Nicola Griffith’s Hild on Amazon before buying them, and both were full of comparisons, evidently meant to be highly complimentary, with Hilary Mantel.  I’m obviously missing something here, because I didn’t get Wolf Hall at all, and it is not like me not to “get” a book about the Tudors.  I thought it was silly, quite honestly.  Oh well, never mind.  This is much better than Wolf Hall!  I just think it could have been … more.