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Catherine Fletcher

Catherine Fletcher: In Conversation

Catherine Fletcher is a historian of RenaissanceA European revival of learning, art and literature influenced by classical history and culture. It started in Florence, Italy in the 14th century and spread to the rest of Europe in the 14th to 16th centuries.A European revival of learning, art and literature influenced by classical history and culture. It started in Florence, Italy in the 14th century and spread to the rest of Europe in the 14th to 16th centuries. Europe, having written books on sixteenth-century Italy, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici, and the divorce of Henry VIII. She has also advised on TV series such as Wolf Hall, as well as contributing to a number of history programmes herself. When not busy with popular history, she is Professor of History at Manchester Metropolitan History. Despite her busy schedule, she managed to find time to talk to us about all things history at Chalke Valley History Festival.

I'd like to talk about your book, The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance. Can you summarize it?

The idea of the book is that behind a lot of famous names and works from the later Italian Renaissance, like the Mona Lisa or The Last Judgement, there is a set of major wars happening on the Italian peninsula. When we see these artworks hanging on the gallery wall, we don't necessarily think that they have come out of what is effectively a war zone. But they have. So, I started thinking of this book perhaps being about the Italian Wars that ran from 1494 to 1559. Then I thought about widening it a little bit, saying, 'Also, by the way, at the same time there was the first European contact with the New World, there was religious change, the ProtestantSomeone following the western non-Catholic Christian belief systems inspired by the Protestant Reformation.Someone following the western non-Catholic Christian belief systems inspired by the Protestant Reformation. Reformation’, and so on. I really tried to take these individual star names that we all know, and then explore how they fit into the world about them. That is really where the book came from: we know the stars, but how does the galaxy look behind them?

Your book is full of surprising bits of information. What are the things that really stood out to you when doing the research, that you felt you must include?

I think the Mona Lisa connections. Leonardo da Vinci is a very interesting person himself, because he has this interest in art and science, and you perhaps could predict that he would have a finger in every pie. But what I didn't know until I started doing my background reading is what Mona Lisa's family are doing. Lisa Gherardini's brother is involved in the expanding Spanish Empire as a trader in the Canary Islands; Lisa's husband, Francesco del Giocondo, has trading interests in Madeira and in Lisbon and actually brings enslaved people into Florence, whom we know about because they're baptised there. So there's this iconic painting, which is probably the most recognizable painting in the world, and yet researchers like Giuseppe Pallanti have only recently been able to trace it back to this expanding world of empire. It's finding those connections from the artworks to this wider world.

The Renaissance artworks have a very particular style. What do they represent for you? What do you think they tell us about that era?

Duke Alfonso d'Este
Duke Alfonso d'Este by Titian. Shared under licence.

I think they tell us all sorts of different things. Some of the ones that fascinate me the most are actually the ones that tie into the stories of battle and warfare. There are a couple of portraits of Duke Alfonso d'Este, who is the ruler of Ferrara and the third husband of Lucretia Borgia. He is really interested in new developments in military technology. There is a painting of him by Titian, and in it he's got his elbow on a cannon. This is not just a prop. The cannon is there because this guy actually used to go down to the forge and get his hands dirty directly with the blacksmith. People would raise eyebrows and think, ‘You're the duke; you're not meant to be mucking about with rather unpleasant modern technology'. It isn't proper, and nobody really liked gunpowder because it's not very gentlemanly or gallant. But he is right in there. There are a few different portraits of him with this cannon underneath his arm and, in the back of one of them, we can see the cannon actually in use blowing a set of Venetian ships out of the water. This is a real military incident. So, you can start to map the connections between particular artworks onto things that are happening and really see why that symbolism is there.

You mentioned the Borgias, and, of course, one always thinks about the TV series. How do you find that; is it at all representative of the actual Borgias?

The Borgias have this terribly salacious reputation, and everybody always talks about the sex and the murders. The specific allegations of incest seem pretty doubtful, but the murders happened: there's no question about that. In general terms, though, assassination is very common as a means of political activity amongst the princely states of Italy. They all use it as a technique. It's accepted that this is part of what is done. You do not get to run a Renaissance state by being a nice guy; it doesn't work like that.

I think part of the reason that the Borgias get a lot of stick for doing things that many papal families do – some with more success than the Borgias – is that they're foreign. They're from a Spanish background originally. So, amongst the Italians, they're not perceived as being 'one of us'. It's xenophobic criticism, and a lot of it has a slightly antisemitic  overtone because Spain had one of the larger Jewish populations prior to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Even afterwards, the society had a lot of ‘New Christians’ who hadn't properly converted. So, I think part of the reason that the Borgias get such hostility is because of this anti-Spanish feeling. It's not an objective assessment of how bad they were compared to other leading papal families.

One of the things that Pope Alexander VI gets stick for is that he's perceived to be too favourable to Jewish refugees. He's elected in 1492 in that same year as the expulsion. There's not a huge influx of refugees immediately to Italy, but a number of people do end up there, perhaps initially going via Portugal. But there is apparently an issue in Rome with there being Jewish refugees trying to get into the city. Alexander is quite sympathetic towards them, but people say, ‘You shouldn't let these dodgy foreigners in here’. Ironically, this is one of the times that by any modern account, the Borgias would be the good guys. They are the people who were actually saying, ‘We should perhaps think about the fate of these poor people’. Of course, that is absolutely not how it all plays out.

Thinking of TV, I believe you've worked on Wolf Hall?

Tudor coffins
The sketch of the coffins found at Windsor, by A.Y. Nutt, Surveyor to the Dean and Canons1. Clerics who live a semi-monastic life, but who are also involved in the community; 2. General rules or principles by which something is judged; 3. A collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.. Image thanks to the Tudor Travel Guide.

Yes, I worked as an adviser to the set team. That was really entertaining. Obviously, they had a research assistant doing a lot of work in preproduction and they were very well organized and tried to be as accurate as they could, being very conscious of decisions and thinking through why they were doing things. But inevitably, when it actually came to having to dress the sets from day to day, there were outstanding questions. Picking those up was one of the things that I did at the end of a phone and it would lead to all these marvellous questions like, 'We're filming Catherine of Aragon's funeral. We need to know what shape a Tudor coffin should be'. How on earth do I find out what shape a Tudor coffin is?! Actually, I discovered that Henry VIII’s vault at Windsor had been opened in the nineteenth century and somebody had done a sketch of the coffins. So I was able to say, ‘Here's a sketch of some Tudor coffins for you’. It's little things like that. You have to be quite creative in your research. Another time, there were three choices of cross to hang on the wall of a cell, and I had to decide which one of the options available should be used. I'm thinking, ‘Definitely not option C as it looks a bit art deco to me’! Sometimes we really don't have good evidence on something, so you have the space to invent.

Are there any resources that you visit time and again for this research?

It changes all the time in terms of what's online. When I started doing my PhD, which is back in 2004, there was scarcely anything out there that was usable. Now, you just go straight onto Google Books and, and you're finding things that were printed in the period to work with. Museums and galleries have got an awful lot better with the digitization of collections: you can go straight onto the National Gallery website and call up a painting and see a whole catalogue entry for it. Of course, that means things are at your fingertips in a way that they weren't in the past. Part of the skill, I think, is learning how to filter out the content that is not so good in favour of finding things that are going to be most relevant. It's not always straightforward, but there are some great websites out there to help you work through it. Increasingly it's just about playing around in new ways with the search engines and seeing what turns up.

You returned to academia quite late on?

My first degree was in politics and communication studies. After that I did a couple of years at the National Union of Students. I did some work in BBC News in the newsroom at Westminster, and the logical next career step was going into 24-hour rolling news. I just really didn't fancy it. I found it quite a soulless thing to do and I wanted to work on longer-form projects. That was a difficult thing to do in TV at the time because a lot of that work was, and remains, very freelance. I didn't particularly fancy going into a completely freelance existence at that point.

I had started to become more interested in early modern history, so I did a Masters part-time while I was still working, and I liked it enough and did well enough that I got money to do a PhD. I started looking at people doing politics five hundred years ago. I applied the knowledge that I picked up in the Westminster job to thinking about how people operated as diplomats, particularly in the 1520s and '30s, and that fed into the PhD and the first book.

Are there many similarities then? Is politics just politics, regardless of which century it's in?

Who someone’s related to, who they go for lunch with, or are giving gifts or jobs to – all of these things that we talk about today were talked about five hundred years ago. I spent a lot of time reading diplomatic letters that say something like, 'I was at lunch at Cardinal such-and-such's house and so-and-so was here. We had a nice chat, and he says he'll have a word about these prisoners of war.’ You could spot from the way people were talking that these soft skills in political activity were really important, as well as the formal negotiations that went on. A lot of the time they would talk about how they were in the garden having a chat, which was slightly off the record. They wouldn't have used the words 'off the record', but it's exactly the same sort of thing. It's something that's not recorded in the official minute books as an official meeting that ever happened.

And what do you think in terms of corruption?

They do have a concept of corruption, but there's an accepted level of tips and fees and gifts. Sometimes there’s quite formalized guidance for how much it's appropriate to tip a certain person in a certain context. There's a grey area about how much you have to pay for it to be considered as bribing somebody beyond the acceptable level of gift, but it's often fairly clear to the people involved when they're being asked to go above and beyond. My first book was about Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and I looked at this in detail: what the two sides were trying to do in terms of giving gifts and backhanders to the various cardinals who were involved in the decision making. One set of cardinals, the Accoltis – two from the same family – started taking cash from both sides, promising both sides that they would sort it out, and basically playing the one off against the other in the hope of getting more. To be fair, the elder one of those died and the younger one got his comeuppance when he was put on trial for abuse of power. He spent some time in jail before he was bailed out by Charles V. So, it's not that they've got no sense of it, it's that the rules of what's acceptable are somewhat different and less formally structured.

You are professor at Manchester Metropolitan University: how have you found it during lockdown?

It's been quite a strange experience, because I started in January 2020 and I barely had three months before we went into lockdown. I still have colleagues that I haven't met in person, which is an odd situation to be in. Of course, Manchester has had a very tough time with Covid, and I've been in heavier restrictions right from the summer of 2020, because our numbers started going up back then. It has not quite been the experience of moving to a city with a lively cultural life and lots of places to go like theatres and museums that I had expected! Obviously, things are gradually opening up now, but it has been a strain to manage. I'm extraordinarily impressed with what our students – and students across the country – have managed to get done in these circumstances. It's horribly tough to have to do all your research at home with just the books that you could find online and the occasional click and collect from the library. Nobody wants to work like that; I don't want to work like that as a researcher. The way that colleagues have switched over to doing online technology is, again, very impressive. But it doesn't feel the same as being in a room with people. That's been very, very hard for everybody: for all of the staff working at home with small children who can't go to school, and for the students, stuck trying to conduct their whole lives from an individual bedroom.

Do you think that that is one of the biggest challenges facing the discipline at the moment – this lack of connection, lack of access to resources – or are there other issues around the study and discipline of history?

I think that there's obviously been quite a premium put on encouraging people at school or university to pick subjects that will help them into employment. I think one of the challenges that history and humanities in general have is that the way you get from doing one of our degrees into a job is not necessarily as straightforward. You do a law degree, you become a lawyer; you do a pharmacy degree, you become a pharmacist. It's quite obvious that there's a linear career path if you choose to take it. Whereas, although actually the employment rates for humanities subjects are really good – in some cases they're better than in some of the sciences – they aren't necessarily as easily accessible, particularly not to first-generation students who think, ‘I don't know what I'm going to do with this topic. How do I get a job in history?' We have to do a lot more to talk people through the kind of work that you can go into, and the kind of skills that you acquire in critical thinking – the ability to analyse information, to detect fake news and unreliable information sources, and so on. We teach all these skills and they're very, very transferable, but that can be tricky to get across when you're comparing with a very straightforward way of going from degree to job.

With which historical characters would you like to have a Zoom chat?

Alessandro de' Medici, whom I wrote a book about, and who is an absolutely fascinating character: he was an illegitimateIn terms of children, those born out of wedlock (to unmarried parents).In terms of children, those born out of wedlock (to unmarried parents). member of the Medici family, his mother was quite possibly of African heritage, quite possibly enslaved. We don't really know a great deal about her. The most likely scenario is that she is a woman working in the household of the Medici who becomes pregnant when one of the sons of the family takes advantage. Yet when the Medici run out of legitimate male heirs in the 1510s, suddenly Alessandro is pushed into the limelight. It’s an incredible life story, which I had a huge amount of fun writing about. I would love to ask the question of how it really was. I would also like to talk to Alessandro's half-sister, Catherine de’ Medici. She was running France during the Wars of Religion, and is another very intriguing historical character.

If you could go to any place or time in history in a safety bubble, when or where would you go?

There are some very obvious Italian Renaissance answers, but I've also recently been working on a new book which is about people travelling to Rome. I would love to go to Rome just after the Napoleonic WarsThe Napoleonic Wars lasted from 1803 until 1815 (although some people also include the French Revolutionary Wars in this, which started in 1792 and continued until 1802. The Napoleonic Wars were therefore a continuation of the Revolutionary Wars). A number of European powers fought against the expansionist French Empire.The Napoleonic Wars lasted from 1803 until 1815 (although some people also include the French Revolutionary Wars in this, which started in 1792 and continued until 1802. The Napoleonic Wars were therefore a continuation of the Revolutionary Wars). A number of European powers fought against the… in the company of a woman called Mrs Mariana Starke, who wrote what is really the first modern travel guide for travellers to Rome. It includes all the tips about which museums are a tad cold, so you should take an extra wrap, and which ones are damp, and which are the artworks she would give five exclamation marks (rather than stars) to. I think she would be the perfect person to show you around in a very efficient and practical way. She's one of my new favourites at the moment.

I'd love to hear a bit more about your book. When's it going to be out?

It is a way off yet because central to this book is me doing some travel to Rome, and that is still somewhat off the cards. I think it is likely to be not for a few years yet. But I have got an Instagram account, which is called @ontheroadstorome, where I will be posting the occasional photograph – and probably more than the occasional photograph – once that project picks up. If you can find me on Instagram, you will be able to spot some of that as it develops.

Author Info

Debbie Kilroy

Having read history at the University of Birmingham as an undergraduate, where I won the Kenrick Prize, I worked as a trouble-shooter in the public sector until I took a career break in 2009. Thereafter, I was able to pursue my love of history and turn it into a career, founding Get History in 2014 with the aim of bringing accessible yet high quality history-telling and debate to a wide audience. Since then, I have completed a Masters in Historical Studies at the University of Oxford, from which I received a distinction and the Kellogg College Community Engagement and Impact Award. As well as continuing to write for and expand Get History, I am now a freelance writer and historian. I have worked with Histories of the Unexpected and Inside History, and my article for Parliaments, Estates and Representation won the ICHRPI Emile Lousse essay prize (2019).