The promised land in “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: a Novel” by A.J.Hartley and David Hewson

My edit of Richard Armitage's narration of "Hamlet: a Novel"
My edit of Richard Armitage’s narration of “Hamlet: a Novel”

*Warning – contains spoilers*

[Ophelia] Wondered what Italy was like: warm, and full of colour, she imagined. One day… Dreams.

While the cold bleak winter reigns in the state ruled by king Claudius, another land looms in the distance. A haunting presence, the promised land. Most of the main characters of A.J.Hartley and David Hewson’s audionovel “Hamlet” talk or think of Italy in one moment or another of the narration, referring to it as a refuge or a destination, for themselves or for others. The mighty republics and ducats of the Italian peninsula are idealised, they are the source of all things, both good and evil. Beautiful as some of the objects they have surrounded themselves with, the tiny Murano crystal bottle which contains the bergamot essence Ophelia will bath in, the statue of the jester Yorick, the tapestry, mute prophecy of Gertrude and Claudius’ treason to old Hamlet. Beautiful, but also lethal, as the poison prepared by the wife of Vortimand who “being Italian was familiar with the poisons from the Medici court”, the pistol with which Ophelia would like to kill Hamlet is Spanish, but invented by “a famous Italian, Leonardo da Vinci, to protect the Florentines against their foes”. There is a physical Italy of the objects and a dreamt one, bonded to desires and dreams. But, as the bergamot essence in the beautiful Murano bottle will drown Ophelia, this dream of Italy is inseparably united to the idea of death. Rosencrantz, in his way to the scaffold in the Tower of London, regrets that he won’t be able to eat oranges in Florence anymore, Fortinbras admits to Elias that, if he was not to attack Elsinore, an assault necessary to fulfill his plan to take both the Norvegian and the Danish crown, “he would be in a bark to Italy”. Paradoxically, the same land that can save Hamlet is the one that will kill him.

As I wrote in my previous post on this novel, one thing that I particularly appreciate about this novel, are what I have called the “Tom Thumb’s crumbs” left by the authors throughout the narration. If you are curious enough you can pick them up, and use them as a key to discover more things. I have chosen three of them, three keys that open three different windows to a world full of lights and shadows, the Italy of the Renaissance.

Benvenuto [Cellini]

It was made by a curiously nasty sculptor from Florence. A man named Benvenuto.

Benvenuto Cellini, was a Florentine sculptor (although he was not the author of the real statue of the Boboli gardens in which Yorick’s sculpture is based on) and the adjective with which Yorick defines him, “nasty”, can be definitely regarded as a compliment. There is a brilliant tv series called “Una vita scellerata” (A wicked life), directed by Giacomo Battiato in 1990, which renders sufficiently the idea. If you are not able to find it (as often happen with good old tv series they are not easy to retrieve), you can make yourselves an idea reading the way a man called Baretti, in a journal of the 1760’s called “La frusta letteraria” (The Literary Whip), defined Benvenuto Cellini:

“Peppy as a French grenadier, revengeful as a viper, superstitious to the utmost, full of extravaganzas and whims, gallant within a company of friends but unwillingly fond of tender friendship, more lascivious than chaste, a little bit of a traitor without believing him to be so, a little bit envious and wicked, boaster and vain without suspecting him to be so, without ceremonies and without stiffness, with a not negligible dose of madness accompanied by the firm confidence of being very wise, circumspect, and prudent.”

Cellini, during his life, was charged with three murders, accused of stealing the pope’s gold and imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, from where he managed to escape. He was thought to be dead once due to the fevers, but when his corpse was being prepared for the funerals, he “resurrected” and woke up as if after an afternoon nap. He served the Florentines, the Pope and the king of France, and, as happened with Caravaggio, notwithstanding such a disorganised life he produced many masterpieces. The most famous one is undoubtedly the Perseus’ statue exposed in the Loggia dei Lanzi at Florence: a daring composition very difficult to execute as the sculpture was made with a single bronze cast. If you have the chance to see “A wicked life” that scene will impress you, as it impressed me, even if I have just seen it once when I was twenty years old.

Firenze.Loggia.Perseus02” di JoJanOpera propria. Con licenza Public domain tramite Wikimedia Commons.

If Benvenuto Cellini had not had an easy life, neither did some of his works. The astounding salt cellar made for king Frances I of France, and kept in the Kunthistorisches Museum in Vienna, was stolen in 2003 and was missing for three years until when the thief asked a ramson for it (he sent the police Neptune’s trident as a prove that he possessed the piece). Finally it was recovered by the Austrian police, three years after, and the thief identified. He was not a sophisticated “pink panther style” thief, but a simple Mr. Nobody. The alarms were ignored as the guardians thought that there was a problem with the security system.

Saliera (js).jpg
Saliera (js)” di Jerzy StrzeleckiOpera propria. Con licenza CC BY 3.0 tramite Wikimedia Commons.

The Medici Court

[…] supposedly from the Medici court, a place that had the best poisoners in Europe


In 1600 the Grand Duke of Tuscany was Ferdinando I and the Medicis were not worried those days with plots involving poison or sharp daggers as during the old times of Lorenzo il Magnifico and the Pazzi conjure. The main problem of each new duke was to secure the succession through the still prolific offspring of a family that, in 1743 will die together with Anna Maria Luisa, the “Palatine Elector”. Ferdinando dei Medici was a cardinal and had to renounce his vows when his brother the Duke, Francesco I, died. A brother that after holding for a few years the reins of the ducat, almost succeeded in vanishing the work of his famous father, Duke Cosimo I. Under Ferdinando the Great Ducat of Tuscany thrived again, the treasure was full of gold coins, the economic situation was boyant. The Livorno harbour became one of the most important of the Mediterranean (it is said also because Florentine ships not only fought the Turks but assaulted their merchant ships), Piazza della Signoria was embellished with the fountain of Neptune made by the Gianbologna, and the same artist made an equestrian sculpture of Cosimo I and of the new Duke himself in the Piazza of Santissima Annunziata. When Ferdinando I held the power, the only conflict within the family was the strenuous fight with his niece Maria de’ Medici about whose sculpture the Gianbologna had to finish first, if his own one or the king of France.

Fountain of Neptune.jpg
Fountain of Neptune” di Davide TavianiFlickr. Con licenza CC BY-SA 2.0 tramite Wikimedia Commons.

And what about the poison? Certainly it had nothing to do with the violent death of two women of the family. The duke’s sister Isabella felt under the hands of her husband Paolo Giordano Orsini, and his sister-in-law, Eleonora Alvarez de Toledo, was murdered by his brother Pietro; both women paid with her life their infidelity to their husbands, a “crime of honour”.

Nevertheless, Ferdinando’s predecessor, Francesco I, and his second wife, the Venetian Bianca Capello, died within a few days one of the other in mysterious circumstances. Although the official version was that he died of cirrhosis and she of a breast tumor rumours grew and the word poison was whispered throughout the city; the only beneficiary was the new duke, Ferdinando, but he was always a Medici. It was a family matter and, both the previous duke and his second wife were not loved by the people. Therefore the practical Florentines welcome with their arms open the Duke Ferdinando I, protector of the arts, who brought to the statues gallery in the Uffizi his classical sculpture collection, gathered in the roman Villa Medici during his years of Cardinal.

 The Italian women

[…] and the women in Venice” (Gregor Macbeth) […]

[…] with those pretty Italian girls” (Yorick)

Italy, the promised land, the land of beautiful women, saints and sinners. The renaissance painters’ mistresses posed for the portraits of saints. The most wicked painter of them all, Caravaggio, dared and scandalised the clergymen who commissioned the “Madonna dei Palafrenieri” portraying his mistress, Lena, as the Virgin Mary, and in his attributed “Maria Magdalena in ecstasy”, the mystic experience is more earthly than heavenly. As a French visitor would say in the seventeenth century in front of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s “ecstasy of Saint Therese”: “if this is the love of God, then I am an expert in the matter”.

Madonna dei Palafrenieri (1606)
Madonna dei Palafrenieri (1606)
Atribuito a Caravaggio - estasi di Maria Maddalena (1606 - 1610)
Atribuito a Caravaggio – estasi di Maria Maddalena (1606 – 1610)

The names of these courtesans of the Renaissance have arrived to our days. The most known one was Fiammetta Michaelis, the mistress of Cesare Borgia. As a testimony of the thin line that divided the saints from sinners, in the Roman church of Sant’Agostino are buried several famous courtesans, those who having powerful protectors could be buried in consecrated soil. Among this “onorate puttane”, Fiammetta Michaelis herself, but also Giulia Campana and Tullia d’Aragona.

Beatrice Ferrarese has been identified as the “Velata” portrayed by Raphaello, while it is unknown the name of another woman who we only know by a sublime portrait, “La Fornarina”. It is said that Raffaello was so dependent of this woman that he took her with him when painting the frescoes of Villa Farnesina for Agostino Chigi, the wealthiest banker of the Renaissance, who shared with princes and cardinals the favours of another famous courtesan, Imperia, but fell passionately in love with another woman, the Venetian Francesca Ordeaschi. Chigi, who was so in love as to marry her and renounce to the convenient match with Margherita Gonzaga.

 Raffael 045.jpg

Raffael 045” di Raffaello SanzioLa Fornarina. Tramite Wikipedia.

This is the Italy that the inhabitants of Elsinore Castle dream of. The land of the “Roman assassins” and the beautiful women, of art and cruelty, lust and sanctity.

Personally speaking, it has been a pleasure to hear the country I live in portrayed not as a place to run away from, as it happens now with the new generations of talented Italian men and women that leave the country for other promised and cold lands, but as a dreamed destiny.



Forcellino, Antonio – RAFFAELLO – UNA VITA FELICE – Laterza Editori (2008)

Pocino, Willy – LE CURIOSITA’ DI ROMA – Newton Compton (1985)

Vannucci, Marcello – I MEDICI, UNA FAMIGLIA AL POTERE – Newton Compton (2009)

Details of Benvenuto Cellini life RAI audio: La storia in giallo: Benvenuto Cellini


I told you…

John Hawkwood

… that John Hawkwood’s figure intrigued me. Therefore, as Amazon customer of the century, here I have now in my hands this beautiful book, 400 pages long, published by John Hopkins University and written by associate professor William Caferro. It gathers fifteen years of work of professor Caferro on the figure of Hawkwood or Giovanni Acuto. It won’t be an easy reading but I know that I will enjoy it a lot.