Friday, February 25, 2011

book review: The Princess of Mantua by Marie Ferranti

It is not until the novella is complete and the full scale of the author's literary invention hits you that you really start to appreciate what you have just read.

In a nutshell this story charts the life of Barbara von Brandenburg who levaes her home at the age of ten and heads off to marry an Italian Prince of Mantua, Ludovico Gonzaga. No sooner has she arrived and got married than her husband runs away and spends years fighting and making a name for himself leaving his bride alone to grow from a girl into a woman.

Once he returns they start to get cracking on producing ten children and in having a major influence on 15th century Italian life. In the principality run by her husband Barbara manages to tempt some of the great artists to produce works of wonder that are designed to cement their standing in society and immortalise the family.

Her picture shows an ugly dour looking woman who by the time it was painted was perhaps racked by loss and grief of her husband, the health of her children and the detoriation in relationships with her best friend and cousin Maria.

Told using the information contained in the letters between the cousins this story sketches out a behind the scenes tale of life at the top end of the scale in the 15th century.

The story itself is interesting enough and the relationships between Barbara and her daughter, who she seems to hate to the point of cruelty, and with her sons is intriguing enough. But it is on finding out that the letters never existed. The cousin Maria a work of fiction and the author's knowledge of the real Barbara of Brandenburg is not that great that you realise just how much imagination has been at play here.

It's perhaps a comment on the way that some of these historical biographies are put together that even one completely made up can be as engaging, if not more enjoyable a read, than its non-fiction contemporaries.

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