The Florentine Emerald by Agustín Bernaldo Palatchi

The Florentine Emerald The Florentine Emerald is historical fiction set in Florence during the Renaissance. The story begins in 1478 at Cardona Castle in Spain, where Mauricio Coloma is visiting his father, Pedro, who has been chained in a dungeon after being falsely accused of treason. Knowing that he is facing execution, Pedro reveals to Mauricio the truth that until recently converting to Christianity, their ancestors had been Jews. Before he is put to death he also tells his son of a valuable emerald ring hidden under a tile in the floor of their home in Barcelona and advises him to take it to Florence to sell to the Medici, the powerful Florentine family of bankers.

Arriving in Florence with the priceless jewel, Mauricio finds himself in the right place at the right time to thwart an assassination attempt on Lorenzo de’ Medici, the man who rules the Florentine Republic. As a sign of his gratitude, Lorenzo helps Mauricio establish himself in Florence. But then he meets and falls in love with Lorena Ginori, a girl whose parents are planning a more ambitious marriage for her with a man she dislikes. As the years go by, both Lorena and Mauricio have to confront some secrets from their pasts, while around them Florence is thrown into turmoil by the prophecies of the priest Savonarola and the conspiracies of those who want to cause the downfall of both Mauricio and the Medici.

This is an English translation of a Spanish novel by Agustín Bernaldo Palatchi, published by Barcelona eBooks, who if I’ve understood correctly are a spin-off of the Spanish publisher Roca Editorial and partners of Open Road Media, specialising in digital versions of Spanish and English translations. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read the ebook via Netgalley, but as I know not everyone likes or is able to read ebooks I thought it was only fair to point out that I’m not sure if or when The Florentine Emerald might be available in English in any other format.

Something I really enjoyed about this book was learning more about Renaissance-era Florence. In the fifteenth century, Florence was one of the most important centres of European trade and culture, which makes it an ideal setting for historical fiction. There were so many things happening both within Florence itself and in Europe in general during this period that had an effect on Mauricio’s story: outbreaks of plague; the voyages of Christopher Colombus; and the Spanish Inquisition and the threat to the Jews of expulsion from Florence. The first part of the novel is set during roughly the same period as Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series which I read recently and so I was already familiar with some of the characters and events that were covered in the book (the papal alum monopoly, the Medici and Strozzi families, the Duke of Urbino and King Ferrante of Naples). This was useful as I would probably have found some of the historical details much more confusing otherwise!

I did find it a bit hard to believe that Mauricio would have been befriended by Lorenzo de’ Medici and given a position at the Medici bank almost as soon as he arrived in Florence and I had to suspend disbelief again as Mauricio immediately began to associate with Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Columbus and so many other famous people of the period. However, this was only a small part of the story and overall I did enjoy the inclusion of so many real historical figures, especially as there were some I had previously known little or nothing about, including the philosopher Marcilio Ficino and the Dominican friar and preacher, Girolamo Savonarola who plans to reform Florentine society.

I thought the translation was generally good – the writing flowed well and I didn’t have any problems with it, except that it was maybe slightly lacking in emotion and passion. I enjoyed following the adventures of Mauricio and Lorena but something got in the way of me really being able to connect with them emotionally and whether that was due to the translation or not it’s difficult to say without having read the original. I liked the characterisation of Lorenzo de’ Medici, though, and it was interesting to read about the position of power and influence he held in Florence and the much less successful rule of his son and heir, Piero, who followed him. All of this left me wanting to read a good biography of the Medici family or even another fictional account, so any recommendations are welcome!

8 thoughts on “The Florentine Emerald by Agustín Bernaldo Palatchi

  1. Lisa says:

    This does sound interesting! I’ve always been fascinated by Florence, with its history & art. It’s great that e-book technology is making it easier to get hold of books from around the world.

  2. Leander says:

    Helen, with every fibre of my being I recommend Linda Proud’s “Botticelli Trilogy”, starting with “A Tabernacle for the Sun”, which is set in this period and which follows the members of the Platonic Academy – so you get Lorenzo, Pico della Mirandola, Poliziano, Ficino etc. – as well as dipping into the artistic circles associated with the Academy, namely Botticelli and Filippo Lippi. The second book, “Pallas and the Centaur”, is an absolute favourite and the entire series is beautiful. I discovered it completely by chance and it really stands out among other novels about this period. Something which has a Florentine Renaissance angle is Salman Rushdie’s “The Enchantress of Florence”, which I enjoyed much more than I expected to.

    I’m a bit of a Renaissance history geek, so there are plenty of things I can recommend. A very good recent biography of the family is Paul Strathern’s book “The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance”, which has a rather gossipy tone but is definitely engaging. Then you have Christopher Hibbert’s “The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici”, which is a bit less gossipy and maybe a touch more traditional. Lauro Martines’s “April Blood” is a very good account of the Pazzi Conspiracy. To find out more about the visual culture of this time, there’s a gorgeous exhibition catalogue from a few years back, “Renaissance Florence: The Art of the 1470s”.

    These are the best that I’ve read. It is immensely difficult to find a good novel about Renaissance Florence though, because you see the same problem that you mention above – the characters turn up and automatically become the trusted right hand of Lorenzo de’ Medici or Leonardo, in a completely implausible way and one which flies against all the historical records. That’s why I love “The Botticelli Trilogy” so much, because it deals so carefully with the art and philosophy of the time, respects the history, and has fictional characters and historical characters who blend seamlessly and are all equally convincing and well crafted.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for all those wonderful recommendations, Leander. Although I love history and read a lot of historical fiction I tend to be drawn more to either Medieval England and the Plantagenets or the Victorian period, so I know relatively little about Renaissance Europe. I’ll definitely consider reading the Botticelli Trilogy as you recommend it so highly!

  3. Charlie says:

    The book I’m currently reading is set around the same time and in Italy, it’s a fascinating period to read about. I imagine the backdrop brings more complexity to the book. I’d have to agree with Lisa, translation and discovery is a real bonus of ebooks.

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