Seeing Maria

I’m never quite sure what my characters look like, even when there are contemporary portraits. I hear voices rather than see faces. That said, I like to pin them down visually and will often wile away a happy hour avoiding writing by ‘casting’ my characters, using the images of actors. This allows me to describe them very well, but see them? Nope.

Sometimes I get visual clues in snatched glimpses, clues that help me develop the character and make them more rounded. Thus Antonio, the villain in A Tabernacle for the Sun, was wooden and two-dimensional until I caught sight of a young man in the passenger seat of a car driving away in a street in Volterra. Mandred, a character in my current W.i.P, was spotted as I drove through Moreton-on-the-Marsh and saw this unusual character lurching along, helped by two others. That was the inspiration for the character though when I ‘cast’ him later, I used the form and face of a popular TV historian, but the Mandred in my mind conforms to neither image. He just is.

In Pallas and the Centaur and The Rebirth of Venus, one of the major characters is the sister of Angelo Poliziano. Almost all my characters were immortalised in contemporary portraits and, oddly, there is even an image of Maria surviving in a bronze medal cast for Pico della Mirandola. But she looks a little frumpy and the character who evolved in my story was different; still plain, but a lot more interesting. Maria sprang to life for me in the face of a young woman with whom I more or less shared the same space in a very crowded vaporetto. I looked up and, there she was. Very toothy but striking.

Judy Thompson is a retired costumier/set designer who is writing a novel using the same period and characters. She does things very differently, commissioning Paulina Gravagno to make dolls which she keeps in a dolls’ house called the Villa Querceto (Pico’s villa on Fiesole).

Villa Querceto.jpg

a photo of my “dollhouse,” peopled with 1:6 scale (1 human inch = 6 doll inches) Renaissance figures – Giovanni Pico, Angelo Poliziano, and Lorenzo de’ Medici among these). Enjoy! I’ve crowded them all together in one room; not usual, 😉 as there are several rooms/half-rooms at my “Villa Querceto.” The porcelain ball-jointed dolls were hand-made by Paulina Gravagno, based upon my specifications. The setting is, however, my work…. (Judy Thompson)

She has sent me photos regularly showing the stages in creation of Maria Poliziana. I’ve found these images very disconcerting. There is something slightly alarming to see your character reduced to a tiny head sitting in the artist’s palm.

Maria first stage.jpg

As she progressed, Maria began to look less like a manikin created for diabolical purposes and more like, well, a doll. Way cuter than I’d imagined but, as I said at the start, I never have that much of a clear picture.

Maria second stage.jpg

Now that she is finished, I can look at her without being disconcerted and think, possibly… possibly… Why not?

Maria puppet 1.jpg

During my researches, I went to Montepulciano to find out anything I could about Maria and had to suffer the humiliation of being laughed at. A woman? Birth records? Death records? They never kept records of women! This recreation of Maria in the imagination of at least three people (me, Judy, Paulina) is the least she deserves, is an honour, indeed, to all unrecorded women. Maria lives.

Maria puppet 2.jpg

Please don’t use any image reproduced here without permission of Judy Thompson or Paulina Gravagno.


Juliana Hill Cotton

In the early days of my research into the character of Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) I came upon the work of a scholar called Juliana Hill Cotton. In particular her paper Death and Politian, published by Durham University in 1954, was so dense with useful information that, having underlined everything I needed, I found it would have been quicker to underline the three or four sentences of no interest. What I have is a photocopy neatly underscored throughout in blue ink, a striking document I refuse to be parted with, no matter that I have a husband with a whizz-bang new scanner and a desire for a paperless future.

It is lofty in tone and full of phrases which imply much without actually saying anything concrete. You can’t get to the end of this paper without believing that Poliziano was murdered, one of several unexplained deaths in the same year that Juliana was the first to notice. In Appendix IV she tabulates all the ‘murders’ of 1494, and it’s quite a celeb list. Read Hill Cotton, you believe in murder, and you get to think that the prime suspect is Piero de’ Medici, but she never ever states this explicitly. Read Hill Cotton and you become fastidious in reading footnotes, trying to find out how she’s got this stuff into your brain without committing herself. She is the mistress of suggestion.

Was Angelo Poliziano murdered by his pupil, Piero? Find out in 'The Rebirth of Venus'!

I was young; I was ill-educated; I was in awe of all scholars but JHC was at the top of the pile. Over my years of research I met many scholars and all turned out to be helpful, kind, sympathetic, even a bit jealous that I was writing a novel. (It seems everyone wants to write a novel, really.) Anthony Grafton, F W Kent, everyone involved with the great Ficino project at the School of Economic Science, and Albinia de la Mare, Keeper of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, all looked benevolently on this oik who was writing fiction and did their best to help.

I got to know Albinia (Tilly) quite well and each time I was in Oxford (I lived in London at the time) I took her to tea at the Nosebag. I asked her once about the mysterious Juliana Hill Cotton who was apparently writing a thesis on Poliziano. Tilly promised to let me know if she heard anything about her.

One day I got a call — get to the Duke Humphrey Library tomorrow, Juliana will be there.

I arrived at the Bod the next day and Tilly introduced me to an elderly woman with long grey hair done up in a bun, every inch as formidable as I had expected. Here was the scholar I had always feared to meet, the one who would fulfil my forebodings.

She was nice enough at the start. We went to the King’s Head for a cup of coffee and must have talked affably although I have no recollection of the conversation. Undoubtedly it would have been about Poliziano, to whom she was as violently attached as I was, even if she did say spiteful things about his character. I do remember her saying, as we walked back to the Bod, that I should drop all this academic stuff and get married and have a life.

She had her thesis with her; I asked if I could look at it. I was duly deposited in the Upper Reading Room and there, in studious hush, I was given five minutes. Five minutes!

Of course, this work was like her paper only with knobs on. If I’d have had blue ink and a ruler… but no, I limited myself to making a note in my notebook. Suddenly there was a screech and she was flying at me like a banshee. From behind some stack close-by, she had been watching to see if I lived up to her worst fears, and I did. I was plagiarizing her work! Stealing it! What happened next was a full-blown row in the Bodleian Library which took the Keeper of Western Manuscripts to calm down.

‘Don’t worry!’ Tilly whispered to me as we were pulled apart, all flailing arms and loosening hair, ‘she’s not going to be with us long and her papers will come to us when she goes.’

I gave it about 20 years before I dropped in at the Duke Humphrey to ask. They remembered Tilly de la Mare, of course, but had no recollection of Juliana or any record of a deposit of her thesis. I toyed with the idea of finding her thesis  and completing it and publishing it (under her name, needless to say) because, without doubt, it will be the best, most detailed work about Poliziano ever. Pamela Tudor Craig and Carol Kidwell both put me off that idea, telling me to get a life (I’d already got married by that stage).

So all went dormant until recently when one of our esteemed Commentators on this blog, Judith Testa, became interested in the story and I promised to make some enquiries.

I went to the Bod this week to get a new reader’s pass. There have been many changes in that ancient building, including the installation of a lift for which I am mighty thankful, because each time I go enquiring about Juliana, it’s the same process, only the length of time in between visits is such that I forget the protocol. So you swipe yourself into the library with your card, and walk up the many flights of stairs to the Duke, stairs made for little medieval legs that are quite tiring for modern ones, and when you get there they say, ‘You can’t bring your bag in,’ so you go back down to deposit it, then make your way up again. Then they tell you to swipe yourself in, with the card which is in your bag downstairs. I tell you, I’m not the only person gasping and wheezing on those stairs. So now there is a swanky lift and I didn’t think twice about using it when I had to go back down for the card.

Safely entered, I spoke to a lady on the desk and explained my quest. A lot of the pomposity has gone from the Bod — Debbie said she’d make enquiries and would email me. Which she did, the following day. She wanted to know if I knew when Juliana died.

I started googling. Half an hour later, this person emerged from the ether, a Juliana I did not know and would never have known, who lived locally and not remotely, who had a dear, sweet husband who established the Sudan Archive at the University of Durham. In his retirement, Richard worked with her on her researches. According to his obituary in the Independent, ‘They made a touching pair, working together at the Bodleian, she sitting beside him after she could no longer work.’

I feel sick that we lived in the same city and I did not know, did not become her friend. There’s no mending that now, but at least I’ll pursue my enquiries to the end this time. Next stop, probate office, to find out who got the papers. I find it improbably that Richard did not deposit them somewhere safe, and where would be safer than the Bod?

Or did someone tell him pompously that they would not accept unfinished theses? I shall find out.

Meanwhile on a US forum for Italian Studies, it seems that the papers of JHC are sought-after, given the difficulty in locating them, especially the appendices. I have almost the full set, so if anyone needs them for serious research, get in touch. I’ll be putting a full bibliography up on my website, (under Notes).

Of the trilogy, it is in The Rebirth of Venus that I am most indebted to the work of Juliana Hill Cotton. As a novelist, I don’t have to suggest anything, I can state my ideas explicitly, but I felt very nervous of accusing an historical figure of murder, even in fiction. When I found the real murderer, however, such sensibilities went out of the window. All I’ll say here is that it wasn’t Piero de’ Medici.

The Children of Lorenzo de’ Medici

I’ve often wanted but never dared to make a case for historical fiction being more dependable than modern history books. Once the fiction writer is steeped in her research material, she has to make it add up in what Hilary Mantel calls ‘author’s arithmetic’: the facts have to be coherent. In the matter of the Medici children, I’d often been confounded by the history books but by tracking my way using the letters of the time, mostly Poliziano’s, and drawing up chronologies of events, it finally all fell into place with that lovely sense of a jigsaw puzzle solved which I tend, perhaps erroneously, to equate with the truth.

That period between Christmas and New Year is a natural for decluttering and in amongst my listless efforts a box of antiquated computer discs was examined critically before being put back where I found it; likewise all my files, occupying precious shelf space. Should they go into store? Is it time to part from them? I think my Renaissance research is finished, its results dead and dust-gathering, but you never know, you never know, and the files remain on their shelves.

Then at the end of December a comment appeared on the ‘Books’ page of this blog from Judith Testa, an art historian in the States, asking for what information I might have about the birth dates of the children of Lorenzo de’ Medici because she couldn’t find anything but muddle in the history books.

I’d found the same when researching the subject and, with Judith, am surprised, very surprised, that there appears to be no official record of the offspring of a very famous man, some of whom were destined at birth to be famous themselves. As Judith said in our continuing correspondence over the past few days, we know the correct dates for Michelangelo and Raphael, whose future glory was not exactly obvious at their birth, so why not the Medici children? Presumably the records were kept by the Medici themselves and were lost in 1494, at the time the family was sent ignominiously into exile and  its libraries dispersed.

Although I keep a bibliographic record of research and give my notes code numbers so I can track their source, I’m not meticulous about it, and then my note-taking is particular to my story and not to the subject; that is to say, I don’t take notes about absolutely everything, only what’s relevant.

Worried now that I might have got my facts wrong, Judith’s enquiry sent me burrowing into my computer where I was forced to confront what I’d dimly realised before, that there’s stuff missing, early notes, early drafts. For some novels all I have is a pdf of the final typeset. I presumed stuff had been lost in crashes suffered over the years, but Judith pointed out that in fact it’s because of advances in technology. So one of the many resolutions for the New Year, and one I mean to do today, is to send off all those floppies and zip discs I’d found in a box to a conversion service and get everything on to CD.

Anyway, after much toing and froing between us, we assembled what we’d gathered over the years related to the birth dates, the actual number of children when modern historians obviously can’t count above the fingers on one hand, and most importantly, establishing which child was the last born and when (given that we’re often led to believe it was about five months after the previous one).

We’d got our bits and pieces into agreement by January 1st, then yesterday a slightly embarrassed message came through from Judith saying she’d thought to consult The answer given was full and very detailed and satisfies me even though there is no citation made for sources.

So, with grateful thanks to Judith Testa and to, here are the facts that every modern historian of Lorenzo has ignored:

Clarice and Lorenzo had TEN children:

■            Lucrezia Maria Romola de’ Medici (Florence, 4 August 1470 – 15 November 1553); married 10 September 1486 Jacopo Salviati and had 10 children, including Cardinal Giovanni Salviati, Cardinal Bernardo Salviati, Maria Salviati (mother of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany), and Francesca Salviati (mother of Pope Leo XI)

■            Twins who died after birth (March 1471)

■            Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici (Florence, 15 February 1472 – Garigliano River, 28 December 1503), ruler of Florence after his father’s death, called “the Unfortunate”

■            Maria Maddalena Romola de’ Medici (Florence, 25 July 1473 – Rome, 2 December 1528), married 25 February 1487 Franceschetto Cybo (illegitimate son of Pope Innocent VIII) and had seven children

■            Contessina Beatrice de’ Medici (23 September 1474 – September 1474), died young

■            Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici (Florence, 11 December 1475 – Rome, 1 December 1521), ascended to the Papacy as Pope Leo X on 9 March 1513

■            Luisa de’ Medici (Florence, 25 January 1477 – July 1488), also called Luigia, was betrothed to Giovanni de’ Medici il Popolano but died young

■            Contessina Antonia Romola de’ Medici (Pistoia, 16 January 1478 – Rome, 29 June 1515); married 1494 Piero Ridolfi (1467 – 1525) and had five children, including Cardinal Niccolò Ridolfi

■            Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Nemours (Florence, 12 March 1479 – Florence, 17 March 1516), created Duke of Nemours in 1515 by King Francis I of France

Raphael's portrait of Giuliano, son of Lorenzo de' Medici, who grew up to be the Duke of Nemours. He was conceived in the immediate aftermath of the conspiracy which had caused the death of Lorenzo's brother, Giuliano, and was born when Lorenzo's wife and children were living outside of Florence for their safety.

Because I can’t stop sleuthing now, I’ve tracked the source of Ask to Wikipedia, which is very much better with references. The source of the above seems to be the entry on Lorenzo himself, subsection ‘marriage and children’. When I checked references at the bottom, I found a section called ‘Further Reading’ listing all those historians who have failed with the facts. But underneath that is a section on historical fiction listing three novels, all mine, and obviously a much more dependable source of information, because I’d got it all right.

And now I’m curious about something else. The name ‘Romola’ which is unfamiliar to me in any context other than the eponymous title of George Eliot’s novel set in the Renaissance, occurs frequently among the Medici girls. Whatever the source of Wiki’s piece is (Encyclopedia Britannica?), I strongly suspect it was one or derived from one which Eliot used.