In the history we learn (or, too often, endure) in school, the Renaissance is a shining light at the end of the medieval tunnel, itself an improvement over what came before. The names say it all, don’t they? The Roman Empire dies under the clashing swords of barbarians from the north, plunging Europe into the Dark Ages and a slow climb through that mixture of feudalism and religious monotheism known as the Middle Ages, ending in a burst of cultural creativity characterized as Rebirth.
But rebirth of what? In school we learn about the return to classical learning, the restoration of humanity to the center of our understanding of the universe, a secular approach supposedly recovered from antiquity—as if the ancient Greeks and Romans had no gods and exercised no control over inconvenient naysayers who refused to honor the emperor as divine. We encounter Michelangelo and his David, Leonardo da Vinci and his flying machine (and so much else), Martin Luther and his Ninety-five Theses—and, admittedly, the Borgias, although even they come across as somehow “modern” compared to Charlemagne and bubonic plague.
But as Erika Rummel shows in her interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, and even more clearly in her latest novel, The Road to Gesualdo, which we discuss in that interview, the reality of the Renaissance—even in its Italian birthplace—was a great deal more complicated than the simplistic picture would indicate. And since fiction tends to benefit from forays into the less savory elements of human nature, the result is a fascinating literary journey into the past.
The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
The Italian Renaissance introduced—or reintroduced—many valuable concepts to society and culture, giving rise eventually to our modern world. But it was also a time of fierce political infighting, social inequality, the subjugation of women, religious intolerance, belief in witchcraft, and many other elements that are more fun to read about than to experience. In The Road to Gesualdo, Erika Rummel draws on her years as a historian of the sixteenth century to bring this captivating story to life.
When Leonora d’Este, the daughter of the powerful family running the Italian city-state of Ferrara, receives orders from her brother to marry Prince Carlo of Gesualdo, she accepts the arranged match without protest. Her lady-in-waiting, Livia Prevera, does not. Prince Carlo, Livia argues, must have a secret, because the courtiers of Ferrara get quiet whenever his name comes up. Only after the wedding ceremony does Leonora discover that Livia is right. Prince Carlo murdered his first wife and her lover after finding them in bed together, his legal right at the time but an act committed with sufficient savagery to cast doubt on his mental health.
At first, Carlo and Leonora establish a bond through their love of music, but as time goes on, Livia becomes ever more concerned about a series of threats to her own health and, by extension, the future of those she cares about. Meanwhile, Pietro, the man she loves but cannot marry due to poverty on both sides, has been sent to Rome on a mission for Leonora’s brother: to discover whether the Gesualdo family really holds the power the d’Este clan expects and requires. Part of Pietro’s mission involves an arranged marriage with the daughter of a wealthy diplomat. Surrounded by plots and treachery, Livia and Pietro struggle to balance the demands of love, loyalty, and practicality—always hoping that fate will bring them together once more.
Image: Sixteenth-century portrait of Carlo Gesualdo by an unknown artist, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.