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.