Magazine article The Spectator

Viragos on the March

Magazine article The Spectator

Viragos on the March

Article excerpt

Viragos on the march RENAISSANCE WOMAN by Gaia Servadio I. B. Tauris, £19.95, pp. 274, ISBN 1850434212 £17.95 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

Lucrezia Borgia was not the fiend history made her out to be. According to Gaia Servadio, she was a radiant symbol of Renaissance woman and, moreover, a judicious administrator of her husband the Duke of Ferrara's realm. Lucrezia's ethereal blonde looks had so captivated Lord Byron that, in 1816, he stole a strand of her hair from a cabinet in Milan. Lucrezia's 16-year correspondence with the Venetian poet and future cardinal Pietro Bembo moved Byron almost to tears: 'The prettiest love letters in the world,' he declared.

Unusually, Servadio ascribes the birth of the Renaissance to the invention of the printing press in 1456. As a result, books and new ideas were made widely available to women. (Most commentators date the movement's birth to 1492, when Lucrezia Borgia's father Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI, and Columbus discovered America.) Of course the intellectual energy of the Renaissance was not confined to books; quite as much thought went into politics. When Lucrezia Borgia's affair with Bembo drew to a close in 1519, the lovers' 'storm-tossed souls' had come to rest at very adult ports-of-call: cardinalship for Bembo, motherhood for Borgia. Pietro knew that his letters from the duchess would earn him a fortune if published, and moreover ease his entry into what Machiavelli called the alti luoghi (high places) of Renaissance power factions. Lucrezia, for her part, had relished the thrill of an extramarital affair; adultery was commonplace among the Renaissance upper classes.

As Servadio reminds us in this marvellous study of Renaissance women and their men, Cardinal Bembo had featured in Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, that great Renaissance treatise on how to get on in life. Castiglione championed the superiority of courtly manners over arms, and insisted upon modesty, kindness and grace of deportment. The Renaissance was a time when people wanted to enjoy themselves, and it helped to create the independent, sexually confident 'modern woman' of today, argues Servadio. Physical love was celebrated unselfconsiously in poetry as courtesans, mystics, painters and grandes dames emerged from a mediaeval darkness.

While Renaissance women became more masculine, Servadio points out, Renaissance men became more feminine. Lucrezia Borgia's son Ippolito d'Este, for example, showed an effete delight in luxury: his chamber pots were fashioned from crystal, his air-fresheners were perforated copper balls filled with musk. …

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