Thank you so much for inviting me on to your blog!
I originally came to write about Renaissance Italy because of Robert Browning’s poem. His monologue, ‘My Last Duchess’, is narrated by Alfonso d’Este, the fifth duke of Ferrara (although the only clue to this Browning gives is the single word ‘Ferrara’ beneath the title of the poem).
When I very first had the idea of writing the novel, I actually thought that the poem was entirely fictional – just from Browning’s imagination – and was amazed to discover, as I started to research, that it was based firmly in history. The basic facts are these – that Alfonso d’Este married Lucrezia de’ Medici in 1559, and by the end of 1562, Lucrezia was dead. At least, she was presumed dead, either by natural causes, or by more nefarious means. Browning himself said that he had toyed with the idea that Alfonso had had his duchess committed to a convent, but that he (Browning) had preferred the idea that she had been secretly murdered. So, given all this, my era and location were decided for me, and I just had to get on and research, to discover what I needed to know to create the story I wanted to tell.
I think my fascination with the Medici family can best be summed up by a quote. This is from a gentleman called John Boyle, who was the Earl of Cork and Orerry, and a friend of English poet Alexander Pope. He lived in Florence as an ex-pat around the middle of the 18th century. He says: “ If you take a view of the princes of the Medici in a group, you will feel reverence and respect at one part of the picture, and be struck with amazement and horror at the remainder. To revere and know them you must consider their generosity, their benefactions, their policy, and their scientific institutions. To view them with horror and amazement, you need only listen to the undoubted outrages of their private lives.”
I would add, though, that His Last Duchess is not a historical account of the family described by Alfonso himself in my book as ‘a long line of mercantile upstarts’ – it’s the story of the ‘undoubted outrages’ of one particularly impossible and ill-fated Medici marriage.
The research for His Last Duchess was painstaking and detailed - and a whole lot of fun! I began by trawling the internet for the titles of suitable books, and located several in the British Library. These I duly ordered and read, and then I bought copies of a couple of them (the most useful being ‘Daily Life in Renaissance Italy’ by E and T Cohen – a wonderful book!)
Over the following months, I read dozens of books and websites about Renaissance fashion, Renaissance food, the history of the period, the politics, how to paint a fresco, how to joust, how to light a candle from a tinderbox – the list is nigh-on endless. I made email contact with experts on various subjects, such as the hideously dangerous business of slaking lime, and was always rewarded with far more information than I ever expected. People constantly amaze me by how generous they are with their time and expertise.
I also tried to do as much ‘hands-on’ research as I could, too. Flying falcons, talking to a medical herbalist, visiting the locations in Ferrara and Tuscany and spending a long and fascinating evening with a psychiatrist friend, analyzing my complicated and difficult duke to make sure that my depiction of his emotional confusion and disintegration made clinical sense.
I suppose people have always just dealt with living in the century in which they happen to have been born, however challenging, because they haven’t known anything else, but I have to admit that I should absolutely hate to be transported back to live in the sixteenth century! It might be a different matter if I were a man, but for any twenty-first century woman, used to financial, social and sexual independence, I’m sure that the sheer powerlessness of almost every woman in that era would come as the most terrible shock.
Putting that important issue aside, though, I really don’t like to even think of life without recourse to a knowledgeable doctor and a decent dentist!