The Shadow of This World takes place in 1515 Venice during an especially tumultuous time in European politics and on the doorstep of the most staggering advances in the arts and science as the continent eases out of the Medieval period into the full flower of the Renaissance.
The main characters in this epic drama of cultural and social change—and war as commerce—are from the fabled Famiglia de’ Medici, a dynasty founded in the Republic of Florence during the late 14th century. They made their fortune in banking and textiles, and they exercised control not only over commerce amongst the Italian states but also throughout the continent.
During this period, the family brought to power Pope Leo (second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent) who served in the Papacy from 1513-1521. A patron of the arts, Leo contributed to overseeing the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica, but his most significant contribution was of a negative variety. He seriously underestimated the growing Reformation Movement and was ‘immoderate in his personal luxury’ (translation: spendthrift) and prone to granting indulgences to secure financial backing for his various projects.
The senior branch of the Medici family extended from Cosimo the Elder and enjoyed a hundred year rule. The junior branch, descended from Lorenzo the Elder, includes the fictional Cosimo de’ Medici and his three sons: Antonio, the eldest, Nicolo, the half-brother and Stefano, the youngest. Each man has very special skills that Cosimo uses in the interests of family and state.
Venice in 1515 is a state in decline. The population was devastated by the Black Death in 1348 and subsequent wars against the Ottomans in the early 15th century cost the state a significant number of its Mediterranean holdings. When Columbus discovered the New World. Portugal rose to prominence and Venice lost its monopoly over the land route to India. In spite of these difficulties, the city was still considered to be the pearl of the Adriatic.
Florence was nominally a democracy but it was controlled behind the scenes by the Medici family. After Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494 Lorenzo’s son (Piero) made an abortive treaty with France that resulted in Piero being forced into exile, thus leading to the establishment of a republic.
The church and the Famiglia de’ Medici existed in an uneasy balance of power that later resulted in a confluence of interests when Macchiavelli was tortured and driven into exile under the pretense of ‘sedition’ because of his ties to the old democratic government. Rather than a period of enlightenment, the Renaissance was often the scene of mob violence as prominent families vied for power and influence.
If one were to characterize this period in Italian history, political factionalism, violence and corruption at every level of state and religious institution, along with a healthy dose of double-crosses and betrayals, would be the hallmarks of an era wearing the mantle of enlightenment.
Cosimo has good reason to rely on the very special talents of his oldest son, Antonio, known by all who have the misfortune to cross his path as the Demon de’ Medici, the man without a soul.
Known as Tonio but only to his family, he is a man of unusual and deadly talents, talents that make him the ideal interrogator and the ideal assassin. Tonio enforces his father’s wishes without question, a killing machine in the service of his family and his city-state of Florence. His allegiance, his resolve are unquestioned—except when it comes to matters of his youngest brother and the future their father has planned for the young man.
Those relationships—father, brothers, sons and lovers—infuse a complex landscape of intense loyalties, cut through with deceit, betrayal and corruption. Trust is a commodity to be negotiated, sacrificing matters of the heart in service to a greater good: the family.
To quote a favorite character in a favorite movie…
The Medici family fascinates me. I first got a taste of them in the biographical novel by Irving Stone, “The Agony And The Ecstasy,” a story of Michelangelo and how he came to be involved in the Medici family and other well-to-doers, i.e. Vittoria Cologna. I’d even seen a book on some love letters from Michelangelo to Vittoria. He had a way of winding himself in good with the families, and taking a favored female as a lover–though he was noted as being possibly gay.