Though I most often find myself neck-deep in sci-fi and fantasy novels, I harbor a great love for historical fiction as well. I typically venture towards Greek and Roman themes—Madeline Miller’s Circe is one of my favorites—but I wanted to test new waters with Strukul’s novel, Medici: Ascendancy

The Translation 

Originally published in Italian under the title I Medici: Una dinastia al potere, Robert McKenna delivers us this story translated into English.

image of Matteo Strukul's "Medici: Ascendancy"

I’ve started to dive into the broader literary world of translated titles, and I am often quite impressed with the quality of the translator’s work and the clarity of the translated story. However, McKenna’s translation is slightly less impressive. There are many instances in which the sentences lose their flow and become clunky and disjointed—some sentences are even incomplete. Other times, the language is overly flowery and descriptive, losing the reader in unnecessary adjectives and fancy synonyms that detract from the main idea. 

This style of translation, however, may be an endeavor to preserve Strukul’s own style. I fully admit that I do not know Italian and thus have not read the original in its native language. McKenna’s translation may be a direct change of the original from Italian to English, pompous adjectives and all; it would explain several incomplete sentences and odd expressions contained therein.

The Story

I remember snippets of information about the Medici from my European History class in high school and other college forums. Strukul (and McKenna) certainly deliver a striking tale about the Medici’s lives in Florence and the power that they wield between both the bourgeois and the peasantry. Their lives are rich and flavored by their wealth, and Strukul takes every opportunity to describe the opulence of the Medicis and the other powerful Florentine elite.

Amidst the descriptions of beauty and splendor, I certainly did not anticipate as much graphic sexual writing as is present in the novel. At the beginning, it seems as though every other chapter contains lurid depictions of sex and sexual acts between two (or more) figures in the novel. The first instance alone was enough to have my eyes bulge slightly and go, “Oh.”

It is in no way a criticism to admit that Strukul writes about sex in graphic and detailed ways. That is purely the nature of the story that he is trying to write, and it would be silly to think that people in the 15th century never had sex.

Sex aside, the rise of the Medici is captivating. I have not yet finished the book (though I’m sure I’ll be done within the next day or two) but I can see a vague trajectory of the Medici gaining the power that they are known for wielding.

Historical fiction is, in many ways, predictable. It is based on history and there is a certain amount of fact that is necessary for the success of any such story. For one, it would be ridiculous to pretend that Cosimo de’ Medici had a son named Chad or Brian or that the Signoria did not actually exist. In this way, Strukul stays quite close to the history of the Medici and does his duty in adding a certain flair of drama and intrigue.

I find that, while reading Medici: Ascendancy, I keep thinking of the Netflix series Medici created by Frank Spotnitz and Nicholas Meyer. Of course, the TV version of the Medici history is highly anglicanized, with Richard Madden taking on the role of Cosimo de’ Medici and Daniel Sharman adopting the mantle of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Both actors are from the UK, and (if I remember correctly) the characters speak with British accents, not Italian ones.

Fortunately, reading inspires slightly more authenticity. There are, however, numerous Italian and Latin phrases that remain untranslated (for emphasis, I’m sure) and cause a bit of a stumble when trying to read smoothly through a sentence. Even more frustrating is that a translation is not offered in afterthought to aid the reader’s comprehension. Again, I assume that this is McKenna’s attempt to stay true to the original Italian and not add anything that would make this version  more of a derivative than a translation.

Strukul has written an additional four books following this one to create his Medici series. It will be interesting to see if any of the next novels are translated into English, or if Medici: Ascendancy will stand on its own.

An addition: I forgot to mention that one of the most startling aspects of the writing is the frequency with which the perspective changes. One paragraph will be from Cosimo’s perspective and the next will jump to his wife, Contessina’s. It is devilishly confusing and does not make for easy reading. Too often will you lose precious moments attempting to figure out who is narrating at any given moment, especially when several characters appear in a scene together. It may begin with Lorenzo but then will switch dramatically to Laura Ricci’s perspective and then swivel back to Cosimo’s. I’m not sure if this is a facet of Strukul’s writing or McKenna’s translation. In any case, it’s not an aspect of this story that I favor.

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