Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
I have read books about Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander IV, and his family in the past. Each has portrayed the family as scheming, manipulative, and scandalous. One need not look far to see this perception of the family perpetuated through other materials at the library. G.J. Meyer's book, The Borgias: the hidden history, call these attitudes into question, especially when talking about Rodrigo and Lucrezia Borgia. The book focuses on three main members of the family: Alonzo (Pope Calixtus III), Rodrigo (Pope Alexander IV), and Cesare. Meyer conducted a lot of research for this book and believes the rumors started about the family were the result of political enemies hoping to tarnish the family reputation that were perpetuated as a result of historians that did not dig deeply enough into the stories to uncover the truth.
Alonzo was an obscure Spanish Cardinal before being unexpectedly elected Pope in 1455. This begins the ascension of the family to the upper ranks of Rome and the Church. Alonzo’s nephew, Rodrigo, moves with him to Rome, is appointed protonotary apostolic and, a year later, Cardinal. The book gives many details about Rodrigo’s life following Calixtus’ death as he continued to be one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church. Meyer works to debunk many of the myths about Rodrigo, especially the myth that he fathered a number of children with a longtime mistress named Vannozza. Meyer argues these children, which include Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, two renaissance figures greatly villainized in the centuries since they lived, were Rodrigo’s nieces and nephews. Meyer argues Rodrigo’s greatest weakness as a leader was his extreme nepotistic tendencies for these young Borgias, and though this is indisputable, there is no dependable proof that Rodrigo was their father.
The political situation in 15th and 16th century Italy was an every changing tapestry. Alliances were made and broken with ease, some seemingly changing with the moods of their young, spoiled, irrational rulers. The Papal States was a number of small city states in central Italy that were supposed to pay tribute to Rome and the pope but were, in reality, ruled by local warlords who had seized power of the cities and, generally, ruled over them with an iron fist. A serial headache of the Renaissance popes, the author does a good job keeping up with the ever shifting landscape of the Papal States, as well as the rest of the Italian peninsula and parts of Spain, France and Constantinople. Cesare, a military mastermind, aimed to reclaim these rebellious city states and carve out a kingdom for himself in the Romagna. The last section of the book details this quest. The thing I liked best about this book, besides that it challenged all that I thought I knew about Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia Borgia, was its “Background” sections between chapters. These sections allowed the author to distance the reader from the developing story of the Borgias to offer background information on different people, places and situations. These chapters unfailingly put the drama of the book’s characters in greater context. They were also very interesting (to one who is interested in learning more about Renaissance Italy). Meyer also concludes with a section titled “Examining Old Assumptions” that elaborates more on the characters of Rodrigo and Lucrezia bringing up things he was unable to work into the full text.
This is a dense book that takes some concentration to read. It is well written, comprehensive and definitely challenges the status quo understanding of the Borgias. I am so glad I stumbled upon it the library’s collection!
The Borgias: the hidden history
Though I find stories of heroines from the renaissance, medieval saint’s lives, and stories about art forgeries fascinating, these are not the best subjects for books blogs. I mean, there’s just not enough widespread interest in these topics. But that’s one of the great things about the library isn’t it? Everyone can find something they are interested in to read and enjoy. So I am taking this opportunity to transition out of my “I Geek Art History” mode into something more widely enjoyed…food!
I saw this book pop up on our new book feed and I almost ran down to the rotunda to check it out. Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales…oh my! The pictures look good; the food tastes better. Here’s an overview of what I made, how it tasted, and what I recommend.
“My doctor told me I had to stop holding intimate dinners for four unless there are three other people.” – Orson Welles
Recipes: Tacos of Roasted Poblanos and Cream (p. 16), Tomatillo-Árbol Salsa (p. 134), Refried Black Beans (p. 148)
Tunes: Moondance by Van Morrison
Before I begin talking about this meal, I will give a little information about my cooking style. I view recipes as suggestions, not rules. As a result, it’s common that I make substitutions (in this cookbook, oregano for epazote leaves) and I often don’t measure. I also live alone and frequently halve recipes. Some people like cooking once and then having the same thing as leftovers for a week but I get bored! I must confess, there is one ingredient I never halve: garlic. Sometimes I halve a recipe and add more garlic than what the full recipe asks for. A little extra garlic never hurt anyone (unless you’re a vampire, in which case you wouldn’t like these recipes anyway!).
This evening found me roasting both tomatillos and poblanos. I am not sure I toasted the tomatillos long enough to get much of a smoky flavor out of them. Another recipe I have found advises dry roasting tomatillos in a pan for closer to 30 minutes. In the future, I would like to repeat this salsa but roast the tomatillos in the oven like you would tomatoes (halve, place on baking sheet, drizzle with oil and salt, 450° for maybe 40-50 minutes). However you decide to prepare your tomatillos, they’ll go well with the remainder of the ingredients. Depending on your preference for spiciness, you may use less árbol chiles (they had me shedding a layer on a cold winter night) and I will likely add a couple tablespoons of lime juice next time I make this. The salsa was fresh and earthy and continues to be quite delicious with tortilla chips.
The tacos themselves were tasty, though I may add bacon to them next time as a recipe later in the book does. (Is bacon ever a bad addition??) A note to readers and my future self: it is much easier to char the skin on poblanos that can lay flat on the burner rather than peppers that have a bend in them. The black beans were an earthy, delicious, and simple accompaniment. It was as I was making my black beans though that a sad thing happened…as I was reaching into the cupboard a jar of spicy mustard came tumbling out. I am happy to say the jar didn’t break and no mustard was lost however my blender that it fell on was not so lucky. To be truthful, this blender had seen much better days and I wasn’t that sad to lose it. But I was bummed that I had no way to make the Mexican Limeade from the cookbook. I’ll be watching sales on blenders and making the limeade in the near future.
“My weaknesses have always been food and men – in that order.” – Dolly Parton
Recipes: Potato and Chorizo Tacos (p. 39), pickled red onions, Fresh Green Salsa (p. 133)
Tunes: Robinella and the CC Stringband
Wow, this was a good meal. I generally like chorizo a lot so I can’t say I was surprised. I added eggs instead of potato to the tacos. I garnished them with pickled red onions (I used a recipe that I really like from bon appétit Magazine instead of the one found in the book) and the fresh green salsa. If you check out this book and only make one thing, let it be this salsa. I made the alternate recipe for the salsa adding more jalapeno peppers and avocado and it was fantastic! It was light, creamy, and a little spicy. And the combination of the fresh salsa, sweet and tangy onions, and spicy chorizo was excellent, plus it was pretty. As my mom always says, “pretty is important” when it comes to food. I have repeated this meal since I first made it and enjoyed it each time.
There are a number of other things I didn’t get a chance to try that sounded great from this book: Thick Mexican Hot Chocolate; Ground Beef, Olive and Raisin Tacos; and Yucatán-Style Pork Tacos. I was tempted by the Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream since I have made some before and it was excellent. If you are ever up for a little more intensive recipe I would recommend this one: Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream Cake with Orange Meringue. Definitely take a look at this book if you get a chance and enjoy your tacos, tortas, and tamales!
Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales: flavors from the griddles, pots, and streetside kitchens of Mexico
I have been familiar with many of Michelangelo's works since college when I took a class titled "The Arts and Letters of Michelangelo". A wonderful class, the professor greatly elaborated upon the Neoplatonic views that were circulating at this time among philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino, and how Michelangelo incorporated these views into his artwork. I was happy to find that this book does the same thing, as well as, discusses the political and cultural climate of Italy in the late 15th to early 16th centuries. The author John Spike seems to have a keen insight and understanding into the artist.
Young Michelangelo tells us about Michelangelo's upbringing including his beginning as an artist under the direction of Domenico Ghirlandaio and in the garden of Lorenzo de' Medici. We are introduced to Michelangelo's first works, the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs, as well as sketches he did after frescoes by Masaccio and Ghirlandaio. These extant works show how versatile and talented Michelangelo was as a young artist in different mediums. The book talks about his Bacchus, David, Pieta, and other early commissions before going into details about his long and complex relationship with Giuliano della Rovere, a.k.a. Pope Julius II. We see the beginnings of his longtime habit of taking on more in commissions than he could finish and leaving projects in an unfinished state.
The author, John Spike, is very good at explaining the different stresses in Michelangelo's life and interpreting his response to these stresses, whether they are the political climate of his native Florence, the wishes of a demanding patron, or competition from other artists. The opinion of many art historians is that three Italian Renaissance artists catapulted themselves above the rest in their ability to produce extraordinary artwork at this time. Michelangelo was one of these artists, the other two being Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio. Spike also discusses Michelangelo's interactions with these two artists. Michelangelo was put in direct competition with da Vinci through a fresco commission in Florence; Raphael he writes off as a young kid of mediocre talent until he also comes under the commission of the pope. Contemporaries who knew each other personally, it is very interesting to me to hear how they interacted with and perceived one another with their very different attitudes and quirks.
Spike has done a lot of research to write this book. I would like him to write a Part II that would be a biography of Michelangelo's later life talking about his continued issues with Julius II and his issues cooperating with his assistants. In my opinion, Young Michelangelo seems to abruptly end. There is no conclusion and the last work of art the author talks about in the work is actually a fresco by Raphael. The format of the book also seems a bit strange. The first chapters are of a nice length but the very last chapter of the book reminds me of a run-on sentence being much longer. It strikes me as unfinished and lacking conclusion; the subtitle is "the Path to the Sistine", so please, tell me about the Sistine in another book! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Michelangelo's early life though. It amazing the kinds of work he was able to produce at such a young age!
Young Michelangelo: the Path to the Sistine