This wonderfully written historical novel tells the story of Catherine de' Medici, the last surviving member of the Medici family directly descended from Lorenzo Il Magnifico Medici, who was Catherine's great-grandfather. The opening chapter provides young readers with the background information about Catherine's life before the age of four, which is when Meyer picks up the story. Catherine's parents died just weeks after her birth and she was brought to Rome under the orders of Pope Leo who was her uncle. Pope Leo made her Duchess of Urbino, resulting in her nickname, "la duchessina".
Readers get a brief history of the Medici's but it helps to understand more about this famous family. Lorenzo Medici brought fame, prestige and power to the republic of Florence through his immense patronage of the arts. However, it was his grandfather, Cosimo who began this patronage, spending his vast fortune on both the arts and the government in Florence. Lorenzo continued the patronage. Some of the famous artists who were supported by the Medici included , Piero, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Michaelangelo Buonarotti.
The Medici's had long been involved in banking but by the 15th century (1400's) the Medici bank had became the largest bank in Europe. It is also likely the Medici's were the wealthiest family in Europe during this time and with this wealth came great political power. They were the de facto rulers of Florence often exerting power through the city's politicians and through arranged marriages with other important families. But the Medici banking business soon became entangled in the running of the government. Bank failures and other mismangement resulted in the Medici decline in power in the later 1400's. The Medici family, once beloved by the people of Florence, were despised and hated now by the people who wanted a ruler other than a Medici. It is this time period that Catherin di Medici was born into.
At the beginning of the novel, Catherine is living at Palazzo Medici under the guardianship of Cardinal Guilio. Her Aunt Clarissa visits her frequently, helping her to understand her family background and becoming somewhat of a mother figure to Catherine. At the age of four she comes to know her older cousins, Ippolito and Alessandro. Both boys were much older than Catherine but had very different natures. Ippolito was handsome and kindly, while Alessandro was a brute and loved to taunt Catherine. When Catherine was almost eight years old, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles who was in conflict with Pope Clement, ordered troops to sack Rome as a punishment for the pope's support of the French king, Francois I. Fearing that Florence would be next, and as the hatred towards the Medici grows, Clarissa tries to escape with Catherine to the Medici villa in the country. However, they are discovered and forced to return to Florence where Catherine is placed in a convent for her own protection.
Meyer traces Catherine's difficult childhood as she endured the seige of Florence and was during this time, sent to different convents in Florence, sometimes as a virtual prisoner. When the seige of Florence ended, Catherine by the order of Pope Clement is sent to Rome so that she can be prepared for the day when she will be married off to royalty. Her wishes in whom she marries are of no importance, as she is a political pawn in a world dominated by wealthy and powerful men, including Pope Clement. When she is thirteen years old, Catherine learns she is to be married off to Henri II, King Francois's second eldest son. Catherine, hopes for the same kind of love in her marriage, that her parents had for one another. What will her future hold, living in a strange country, far away from her beloved Florence?
Carolyn Meyer has crafted another rich historical novel that captures the essence of life during the Italian Renaissance, along with all the political skirmishes of the period. She also effectively portrays the role of wealthy women in society during this time and her focus in this novel is on a historical figure many readers might not be familiar with. There is some historical background provided throughout the novel, just enough to provide readers with an understanding of the events Catherine found herself caught up in. Catherine de Medici is a strong female figure, who suffered through the loss of all those close to her, who had little choice in the path her life was to take but who was determined to make the best of every situation. Meyer succeeds in creating a great deal of empathy for the young Catherine as she struggles to cope with situations beyond her control throughout her youth and a disappointing marriage. There is even a tragic loss of love in the novel that adds a sense of misfortune to Catherine's life. The author is able to capture Catherine's human qualities of intelligence, independence and strength of character, and make them very real to her readers.
Catherine eventually became Queen of France, and after the death of Henri II in 1559, she was deeply involved in the political life of France and Europe. She was the mother of ten children, three of whom became monarchs.
Duchessina: A Novel of Catherine de Medici is an excellent fifth book in Carolyn Meyer's acclaimed Young Royals series. There is a Medici family tree at the front of the novel, that is helpful to understanding the relationship between various people in the Medici family and a good Historical Notes at the conclusion of the novel. I just hope Carolyn Meyer continues her trend of writing impressive historical fiction for young readers!
Duchessina: A Novel of Catherine de' Medici by Carolyn Meyer
Toronto: Harcourt Books 2007