Mini Reviews: The Tigress of Forli and Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

17 Mar

The Tigress of Forli  Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici by Elizabeth Lev

Genre: History/Biography

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Pub date: 20 Oct 2011

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis (From GoodReads)
Wife, mother, leader, warrior: Caterina Riario Sforza was one of the most prominent women in Renaissance Italy–and one of the most vilified. In this glittering biography, Elizabeth Lev re-examines her extraordinary life and accomplishments.

Review
In this book, Lev pieces together the life and achievements of Caterina, a woman who was well-known for her courage. The accounts of Caterina Riario obviously change depending on who was writing them. When written by her admirers, we get a glowing account of her, but when written by her detractors, that is when Caterina’s notoriety comes through. Neither account can be believed entirely, just like the newspapers of today, they have an agenda. But reading between the lines, it’s clear that this was an extraordinary woman.

Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici was the illegitimate child of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, heir to the duchy of Milan. She was brought up with his other children, given a good education and lived in luxury. When she was 10, Caterina was married to 30-year-old Girolamo Riario, a military man, more importantly the pope’s nephew. For many years after this, Caterina did not really achieve much. But at the death of her husband, we see a new Caterina who fought all the odds.

Caterina Riario Sforza was a woman who was ahead of her times. Coming from a highly political family and married to a very ambitious man, Caterina was in the centre of the political turmoil at all times. In this biography, we see her grow from an innocent young woman to a wily, strong leader who would face any danger to ensure that her sons’ legacy was protected.

Through three marriages (two of them secret) wars, betrayals, imprisonment and more, we see Caterina’s extraordinary strength come to the fore. She is a fascinating characters and this biography celebrates her as a person in her own right without turning a blind eye to her faults.

Like all historical books, the sources for this story are hard to find. And analysing the politics behind the portrayal of a character by a biographer is important to ascertain prejudice and political background. While necessary, this kept taking me out of the story, fascinating though it is.

Verdict
Definitely recommended for an honest story of a fascinating woman in Renaissance Italy.

Rating: 3.75*

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy

Genre: Historical fiction

Publisher: Penguin Group USA (Penguin Books)

Pub date: 27 Sep 2011

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis (From GoodReads)
Roman historian Procopius publicly praised Theodora of Constantinople for her piety-while secretly detailing her salacious stage act and maligning her as ruthless and power hungry. So who was this woman who rose from humble beginnings as a dancer to become the empress of Rome and a saint in the Orthodox Church?

Review
Another fascinating woman from history, Theodora is not very well known. I had no knowledge of the Byzantine period either and this book introduced me to some of the issues from that time.

When we first meet Theodara, she is the daughter of a bear trainer, being trained to perform on stage. She is not very beautiful, but has that most important quality of a performer – to be able to entertain. Just as she is about to see success on the stage, she decides to follow her heart and gives up the theatre life and follows Hecebolus to Africa.

But all too soon, she has to run away from Africa and find her way back to Rome. Along the way, though, she meets Timothy who takes her under his wing. But first Theodora has to go to the desert to atone for her sins and find spiritual enlightenment. It’s not all spiritual however – Timothy has plans for Theodora which involve her and Justinian who has been chosen to rule Constantinople.

Her journey from dancer/prostitute to Empress of Rome is a fascinating one. Along the way, we also see the schism of the church and the consequences that has on politics and power games.

Verdict
Definitely recommended for a compelling story about a fascinating woman set in a turbulent time.

Rating: 3.5*

*See my Rating policy

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