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