The late medieval period, Tudor kings and queens, has always intrigued British historical fiction readers. More recently those readers are getting turned on to re-imaginings of European history from the same period, something that is reflected in novels and TV series.  Matteo Strukul conveys his own love of fifteenth century Italian history in his Medici novels, they are very popular all over the continent and have been translated into a number of languages, including English by Richard McKennz. After all, what could be more fascinating than the machinations, perversions, double dealing and loves of the Medici? This is a family story synonymous with money, corruption, intrigue, cruelty, betrayal, war and murder.

Medici Supremacy is the follow up to Medici Ascendancy and takes place over a decade beginning in 1469 when Lorenzo de’ Medici succeeds his father as ruler of city state Florence. The novel follows the personal intrigues and relationships within the Medici family and the struggles of Lorenzo to maintain his control over the city council and the rival lords seeking their own personal glory and power. This is also about the relationship between Florence and the other Italian city states, the state craft, diplomacy and when all else fails, and it will, war. In particular the rivalry between Lorenzo and Florence and the Pope and Rome, long held grudges fester as Lorenzo refuses to submit fully to the will of the church.

The novel wears its scholarship lightly, complex issues are rendered credibly but very readably and Strukul understands that entertainment and pace are what readers look for most in an historical novel, things he provides in no short measure here. Nonetheless the novel is rich in detail and colour that brings Florence and it’s people to life for the modern audience; from how they lived their daily lives to their culture and their politics.

At a joust in February 1469 to celebrate Braccio Martelli’s wedding Lorenzo de’ Medici makes no secret of his feelings for Lucrezia Donati accepting her favours, by turn her joy at his victory with the lance is obvious to all, they flirt outrageously. Lorenzo’s mother has arranged a marriage for her elder son, a political alliance secured by wedding Clarice Orsini, a daughter of one of the most powerful Roman families. While Lorenzo accepts the match he refuses to abandon his love, Lucrezia. His mother warms that Clarice must be treated, and be seen to be treated, with the utmost respect if the alliance to survive and serve its purpose.

Meanwhile the enmity of the Pope is fuelled by the latest news from Florence. In Rome Girolamo Riario, captain general of the Pope’s army, briefs his pontiff uncle on events in Florence, the relationship between Lorenzo and Lucrezia and the popularity of the young man with the people of the city. Riario suggests that they may have to be clever in bringing the young man to heel, exile, possibly on a charge of high treason or heresy as a safer way of removing Lorenzo than the risk of war – which is more dangerous and has no guaranteed outcome. Lorenzo has a new engineer, Leonardo da Vinci, working on powerful new ballistic weapons. A first step might be to poison neighbouring states into believing that Lorenzo means to wage war on them. The Pope urges Riario to conspire with the archbishop of Florence and dissenting nobles within the city to further Rome’s cause, for now the Pope is content to play the long game.

Clarice arrives in Florence in June that year, she is clever and beautiful and is instantly aware of Lorenzo’s relationship with Lucrezia. The wedding goes ahead and the battle of wills between the three begins. Lorenzo’s loyalty to Lucrezia threatens the marriage and the stability of the family. Though popular, Lorenzo is not universally loved. There are those who want his place, others who blame the Medici for their family misfortunes. Laura blames the Medici for the death of her love Reinhardt Schwartz, she has poisoned her son, also her lover, against Lorenzo and suggests he ally with the pope’s nephew to work against the new ruler.

As the story unfolds the political and financial climate become more volatile, the personal and the political cannot be separated and relations between Rome and Florence become more belligerent. Can Lorenzo survive the pressures from Rome, the internal bickering between the nobles and the family intrigue?

I never understand why historical fiction writers mess with real history. The story of the Medici is so juicy and rich and Strukul makes good use of it. Medici Supremacy is a page turning adventure novel with a little depth to spice the mix. All life is here, lean back and enjoy.

Review by Paul Burke

Personal read 3½*
Group read 4*

Head of Zeus, hardback, ISBN 9781786692139, 12/11/20