Between academic and popular history: exploring the Renaissance

A- A A+

Catherine FletcherBy Catherine Fletcher (HEC 2010-2011)

Most academics read reviews of their books with some trepidation. They can console themselves, though, that while a bad review might hurt professionally, it’s unlikely to be read outside a limited group of peers. Once you start writing for a wider audience, life is very different. In May this year, The Economist tweeted their review of my book to fourteen million followers. Fortunately it was a good one: they said The Black Prince of Florence, my biography of Alessandro de’ Medici (1511/12-1537) would make ‘a riveting TV series’.

Since my time as a Max Weber Fellow in 2010-11, my work has straddled academia and more popular history. Five years on from the end of my two years of postdoctoral research (the first at the British School at Rome, the second at the EUI), it’s interesting to look back at how I got here.

It can be hard to see the value of postdoctoral experience amid the frantic work applying for jobs, but between my two fellowships I learnt a lot that I’ve brought to bear on this project. Working alongside artists and art historians at the BSR I absorbed more than I appreciated at the time about visual and spatial culture, themes that became important to my later work. The EUI gave me an opportunity to think about the city of Florence, its places and history, that was invaluable when I came to write about the spaces that the people in The Black Prince inhabited.

During my Max Weber Fellowship, like most postdoctoral researchers, I was on the job market (and a very difficult job market at that, a couple of years after the economic crash). I was in a dash to finish my first book. But in part because finding academic employment was proving so tough, I’d decided to do something a bit unusual for my first monograph. I wrote a trade history book – one aimed at a broad audience, not just academics. Prior to my PhD I’d worked in the media, so I was accustomed to writing for general readers, and enjoyed it (and besides, I thought, it would give me a financial cushion if I needed to take a year of part-time work).

That book, Our Man In Rome, was an account of the diplomacy behind Henry VIII’s ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon, told largely from the point of view of Henry’s chief agent at the papal court. One of the main reasons Henry didn’t get his divorce was because the Pope, Clement VII de’ Medici, was seeking an alliance with Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and nephew of the wife Henry was hoping to leave. He wanted that alliance so as to get his own Medici nephews back into power in Florence. One of those nephews – Alessandro – became the first of the family to rule Florence as its duke, provoking in the process a murderous rivalry with an elder cousin. Alessandro, who was illegitimate, is also of historical interest because of the tradition that his mother was of African descent. Hence, The Black Prince of Florence.

While I was a fellow at the EUI I did some work with an English-language theatre company based in Florence, who were planning a production of Othello. For financial reasons the show didn’t go ahead, but the discussions prompted me to begin reading on the topic of race in the Renaissance. I was also interested, at the time, in the presentation of Florence’s past to the public, and I was struck by the absence of discussion of race and ethnicity in the city’s museums. (The Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, for example, has a marvellous interactive installation to explore Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes of the Chapel of the Magi. But while it labels every variety of angel in the images, it provides no information at all about the figure of a black African archer depicted in the procession.) In the market for public history jobs, I had been reading about debates in museology in the USA, Australia and the UK, where practitioners were being confronted with hard questions about how to present histories of slavery, colonialism and empire.

So for various reasons Alessandro’s story was at the back of my mind. But I put it on hold for a couple of years, partly because I wanted to finish publishing the academic research on diplomacy that I’d done during my doctorate and postdoc years. Fast-forward to 2013, and I was discussing what to write next.

Trade publishing is quite different from its academic counterpart. Subjects that are considered commercially viable are relatively limited. History bestsellers are often about one or other World War, about a Great Man with name recognition among the broader public (in the UK, Henry VIII, or in the USA, Lincoln). The promise of a book that connected the well-known Medici family plus the starry support of Machiavelli and Michelangelo alongside much lesser-known facets of Renaissance history proved attractive, and I decided to go for it.

The British academic context lends itself to this approach because of what’s known as the ‘impact agenda’. The ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF), a mechanism for assessing the quality of academic research, requires academic departments to submit case-studies of their impact outside academia – economic, policy, social or cultural. For historians, trade publishing is one potential route to that impact.

Public engagement is also encouraged by the national research funders. For the past five years, the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council has run a joint scheme with the BBC under the title ‘New Generation Thinkers’ to encourage early career researchers (up to eight years post-PhD) to present their work to the public. It’s popular and highly competitive, with a success rate of around 2%. Participants range from final-year PhD students hoping to move into alt-ac careers to established academics with considerable experience in public engagement. I was selected for the scheme in 2015 and have since contributed to programmes on Radio 3 and 4, as well as a short film for BBC Arts. A ‘riveting TV series’ is still in the future, but we’re working on it.

The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici is published by Bodley Head in the UK. The US edition, from Oxford University Press, will be out in September.

Follow Catherine on Twitter @cath_fletcher

The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme