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.

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 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)

■            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.

Mummy, is it true?

There is so much to discuss on the topic of truth and accuracy in historical fiction that I hardly know where to begin. Let’s start with this article in The Australian: Passion for the past leaves little for nitpickers. It’s about the film, The King’s Speech, and how the director is so obsessive about detail that those who like to find fault are being quite exercised to find any. Interestingly, the film is on track to pick up lots of major awards without resorting to special effects, a sensational plot, hot sex scenes or a shark. It’s just the plain old fashioned recipe of a great script and terrific acting. But how important is it to get the details right?

I live in Oxford. Naturally I’m fond of Inspector Morse and, now, Lewis. But I’ve had to get used to the film makers playing God with the scenery. The police inspector comes out of the gate of a major college but not on to  the street that runs past it. He chases a villain towards the north of the city and, quick as a flash, they are in open countryside. Or, even worse, he’s now chasing him in a southerly direction. The director will probably argue that it cost less to film in open countryside than an arterial Oxford road, or that it looked better, or that it set off Morse’s pale complexion rather nicely. But each time someone plays merry with the facts, someone else is upset and, in the case of Morse, it’s everyone who lives in Oxford. Strange, to wantonly annoy your key audience.

So how lovely to hear of a film maker who is ‘obsessive’ about accurate detail. Let’s applaud him with as many Oscars as are appropriate.

Meanwhile, we have only just begun on this topic. I’ll continue with it over the next couple of posts. I’ll just leave you with this. My friend’s 7 year old son asked his mother to ask me if my book about King Arthur is true? I was disconcerted to say the least. It’s not my place to tell any child there’s no Santa Claus. I spoke to him about it and found myself describing the different levels of truth, how things may not be literally true (no, Sir Bedevere did not arrive on Port Meadow one day and have to tell twenty-one stories in order to get back to the Otherworld); but somewhere deep inside us there is a just king who is sleeping right now and needs to wake up. He accepted that (bright kid).

Yesterday I found him reading a book, author and title forgotten, but obviously it was an adventure story which, in my day, would have been ‘Biggles Flies Again’ by Capt. Johns. And so I asked him, ‘Is the story true?’ ‘No,’ he said at once, ‘of course it isn’t!’

Which raises the question, how does he know that? I discussed it with his mother, and we think that some stories have markers in them which alert you to the need to suspend all credibility; and others don’t. It’s the second kind which can be dangerous fiction. And the Da Vinci code is a prime example.

The question is, really, does it matter if gullible people get to believe things that writers make up? And what if the writer doesn’t think he/she is making it up, but is receiving it through the channel of divine inspiration? I’m not being facile here – all authors hope for that.

I suppose I’m a bit miffed that someone who believes Lorenzo de’ Medici was of the bloodline of Jesus is making a fortune. I’m not bothered about the fortune: I grieve for the truth. Because what is really important about Lorenzo will be lost in the glamour and glitz and sheer vivacity of conspiracy theories.

What does anyone else think about these matters? How far can we, should we play merry with the facts to ‘let the story have its head’. And what are facts, when it comes down to it?

PS. Dorcas Lane in ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ has pierced ears I noticed last night. True to period, I wonder?