Reading Italy: The Deadly Sisterhood

In a week’s time I will finally be heading out on my honeymoon! Three glorious weeks away from regular life. We have a wedding to attend in Barcelona and then we’re going to Italy for two weeks before spending several days in Amsterdam, one of our very favourite cities.

So to prepare, I decided I’d better read up on some Italian history. And since I love reading about historical women most of all, I thought Leonie Frieda’s The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance 1427-1527 would be right up my alley.


This book is mainly about Caterina Sforza, Lucrezia Borgia and Isabella D’Este, but we also meet some of their more overlooked contemporaries like Isabella D’Aragona, Clarice Orsini and Beatrice D’Este. The biggest issue I had when I tried to read a Lucrezia Borgia biography in the past was that her life was told as it related to the men in her life. The men made the decisions about who she should marry and where she should live. It made it seem like she had nothing to do with anything. What I appreciated about Frieda’s book was that she showed that these women did play a more active part in politics and business, as well as family life.

That said, this book was not easy to read. Italian history is complicated. During the Renaissance, modern day Italy was a collection of independent duchies and kingdoms, each fighting to be the most powerful. Generations of Medicis, Gonzagas, Ferarras, Sforzas and D’Estes intermarried to try and create a most perfect political alliance. Seriously, the intermarrying! It made everyone related somehow and so many were called Isabella or Alfonso or Giovanni it was hard to be sure who she was talking about. I think that Frieda’s attempt at covering the lives and loves of no less than seven Renaissance women was ambitious. In order to understand the connections between the houses and why things are significant the reader needs to know a LOT of information about a LOT of different things: popes, battles, politics, the French, money, religion etc. I found it really difficult to keep it all straight.

Here are some other things I thought while I was reading The Deadly Sisterhood:

  • We need to bring back some of these names! Rodrigo, Cesare, Ippolita, Ferrante, Ercole, Lucrezia, Girolamo, Ludovico, Giodobaldo!  These need to come back.
  • Hey, they were on The Borgias! I was surprised at how much of the subject matter was already familiar to me from when I watched The Borgias last year.
  • Caterina Sforza was a badass. Seriously. Her husbands were useless so she had no issue running out and doing battle herself.
  • Getting married off at 15 would suck. I know that’s how things were back then and people live longer now but still. Getting married at 15, probably to someone who was 40, would suck.
  • People got stabbed to death a lot. Such a treacherous time to be alive. Mostly for men. But Caterina Sforza probably arranged a stabbing or two in her lifetime.

I liked learning a little more about the women who were such an important part of the early Renaissance but I’m not sure that anything stuck. There were too many people to keep straight, too many politics to have to understand for anything to really sink in. I appreciate what Frieda was trying to do in shining a spotlight on all these incredible women but I think that there were too many to do justice to any one.

17 thoughts on “Reading Italy: The Deadly Sisterhood

  1. This does sound like a challenging book. I’ve never been able to keep Italian politics during the Renaissance straight, even though it is such a fascinating time period. I’m sure you’ll post more before your trip, but I want to wish you lots of fun already. It sounds wonderful!

    • Thank you! I’m going to try and make sure to schedule some stuff before I go but time seems to be running along rather swiftly now!
      Yeah Italian Renaissance politics are tricky as all get out. Who knew? Hopefully what I did manage to retain will come to life when I go.

  2. Woohoo! 3 weeks. Italy is high on my list of places I would like to visit. I hope you have so much fun! Neither of us are very big travelers. Even for our honeymoon, we chose to bike around the perimeter of PEI on a tandem bike. It was fun, though. We plan on doing it again someday.
    But, about the book… it has such a great title, but it does sound complicated. I’m glad we don’t marry for political reasons anymore. Well, most of us, anyway.

    • I REALLY want to go to PEI one day though! Its had such a firm grip on my imagination for so long! I can’t believe that I’m finally getting to go to Italy though. Until I met my husband he hadn’t really travelled very much – but then I went away to school in Amsterdam and he came to visit and was infected with the travel bug.
      I was actually surprised by how pliable all the women were in this regard. They all seemed to do their duty, marry where they were told and knew their place. But they also knew that their positions were improved by an advantageous marriage and some ruled in their husband’s place because their husbands were imbeciles.

  3. Italy?! I’m filled with jealousy and excitement for you! That is going to be so wonderful!
    My best friend has always loved anything written about the Tudor/Borgia type royalty but I’ve never really read anything. This sounds really interesting but if you had trouble following, I will no doubt have even more trouble, so perhaps not for me lol.
    I can’t wait for all the wonderful things you will get to see and do on your trip! So exciting!

    • I think I need to read more about the Borgias as a whole…and maybe Caterina Sforza. I fear I’ve reached my Tudor limit after years and years of reading anything related in any way. I’m into the Yorks now. And the Victorians. Can’t get enough of them.
      It’s definitely not a biography for someone with a passing interest, like I had. If I’d been more like your best friend and had a pretty good handle on what was happening at the time, I think I would have enjoyed this more.

  4. First of all, I am soooo jealous that you’re going to Italy and Amsterdam! I hope you have the best time! 🙂 About the book, I’m sure that if you had trouble keeping the names straight, I will definitely have a hard time too. So I probably will pass on this one. But you’ve gotten me intrigued about Caterina Sforza!

    • And Barcelona. But only for a day and a half and to attend a wedding. I’m going to EAT ALL THE FOOD.
      There are books written just about Caterina Sforza – I think that’s where I’m going to direct my attentions in the future. And maybe the Borgias as a collective. And the Medicis.

  5. Mmh. Sounds really interesting, but I don’t think I can do hard to follow right now. I hope you have the BEST time in Italy! So excited for you!

  6. The book does sound a little too information packed to keep straight, but it sounds like it still got you in the mood for Italy. So jealous! Where are you going in Italy?

      • That sounds like the perfect honeymoon! I hope you have a blast! I can’t believe I’m about to make a request of the Princess on her honeymoon, but if you have the time, please take a pic of the Acqua Alta bookstore in Venice? I’ve never been and would love to live vicariously! -Tania

      • Um that’s a fantastic request! I need to bone up on more bookish things to track down! I’ve bookmarked certain libraries but not bookshops…what have I even been doing with my time??? Thanks!

  7. Spain, Italy and Holland: what a great trip! I know Italy and Holland well but which I knew Spain better. I love the sentence “People got stabbed to death a lot.” For some reason (the directness of it?) that made me laugh out loud. Have a great trip!

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