One meets the most interesting (and sometimes heartbreaking) people around the fringes of history. Here, for example, is Camilla Martelli, the second wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first grand duke of Tuscany. But was she the grand duchess? No. Cosimo married her morganatically (meaning she didn’t get to share his title) and reluctantly, only because the Pope insisted he confess all his sins and regularize his life (Camilla had been his mistress for several years and borne him a daughter) before being elevated to the title of grand duke.
Poor Camilla. Cosimo’s grown children loathed her (she was younger than both Francesco and Isabella), considering her vulgar and grasping. If the dress she’s wearing in this portrait is any indication, she did have a rather gaudy taste in clothes and jewels. But to me she looks sad.
When Cosimo died in April 1574, the new grand duke Francesco immediately (the very same night!) sent Camilla to a convent called “Le Murate,” which means “the walled-in ones.” Needless to say, it was a prison for Camilla. Supposedly she made life for the actual nuns such a living hell with her hysterics that a few months later she was moved to a different convent with a somewhat less severe way of life—but imprisoned she remained, pretty much for the rest of her life. She was allowed out to attend the wedding of her daughter Virginia de’ Medici to Cesare d’Este (remember the “weedy little boys,” Duke Alfonso’s nephews, in The Second Duchess? Well, Cesare was one of them), and once again, briefly, toward the end of her life; she apparently could not help attempting to meddle in politics and was soon forced back into the convent, where she died in 1590.
One is left to wonder why Francesco treated his stepmother so harshly. There is a hint in a letter in the Medici Archive in Florence, which comments that in January 1576 Camilla gave up her property, including her jewels and the villa were she and Cosimo had been living, the Villa di Castello, to her eight-year-old daughter Virginia. For all practical purposes this gave the property back to the Medici, and this property, particularly the Villa di Castello, may have been at the bottom of it all. There must have been more hysterics when Camilla learned that even after giving up her property, she was to remain behind convent walls—forever.
Well, in my opinion, at least. I cobbled together two or three other recipes to come up with this, and experimented on my own with chopping the coconut finer and finer. I’m very pleased with the result, which combines the crispness of a shortbread with the chewiness of coconut. The trick is whizzing the coconut in the food processor until it’s chopped very very fine. The original cup of shredded coconut should be reduced to a rounded half-cup when finely chopped.
The chopped coconut also makes slicing the cookies easier, and I love slice-and-bake refrigerator cookies—so easy.
It occurs to me that if you like Mounds candy bars (which I do), you might like these with a bittersweet chocolate frosting instead of the plain (but deliciously vanilla-y) powdered-sugar glaze.
Here’s the recipe:
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut, chopped very fine in food processor
Cream together the butter, sugar, vanilla and salt until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg. Mix in the flour until just blended. Fold in the coconut. Roll dough into a log with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours.
Preheat the oven to 350°. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Slice dough into quarter-inch (or so) slices and bake just until golden around the edges, 12-15 minutes. Cool and ice thinly with powdered sugar glaze.
Naturally I had to look up some of the history of coconut as a foodstuff. Rather to my surprise, I found that the nux indica, the Indian nut, was at least known in Europe as a botanical curiosity as early as Marco Polo, and possibly earlier. The term “coconut” itself is later, and derives from the Portuguese and Spanish “coco,” “grinning face,” as a description of the face-like markings at the base of the shell. Vasco da Gama (who died in 1524) is supposed to have brought coconuts to Europe from India. So it’s entirely possible that the Este and the Medici, living in very wealthy Italian courts in the mid-sixteenth-century, could have been served coconut as an expensive and exotic delicacy. Rinette in faraway Scotland? Sadly I think it’s pretty certain she never tasted the sweet, chewy deliciousness that is the coconut.
One does come across the most interesting stories in the course of research.
At one point in The Flower Reader, Queen Mary and her household go off on a summer progress which includes a stop at Dumbarton Castle. My friend and long-suffering Scots beta reader Leslie Thomson pointed out to me that in the sixteenth century both the castle and the town would have properly been called Dunbarton, from the Scots Gaelic Dùn Breatainn, Fortress of the Britons. It turns out that only in the last hundred and fifty years or so has Dunbarton become Dumbarton, all due to a misprint on a nineteenth-century map. There are even old street signs still in existence—see image at right.
I’m going to leave it as Dumbarton in the story, because modern-day readers would probably pounce on “Dunbarton” as a mistake. But “Dumbarton” itself sprang from a mistake. The lesson has to be: watch out for those darn typos, because you never know how long they’ll last!
My Scotland book has its final title at last: The Flower Reader. This was one of my top choices and I’m delighted—I think it’s intriguing and unusual, and it puts the spotlight right where it belongs, on my heroine Rinette Leslie, the girl who can read the future in flowers. I’ll probably have more to say about The Flower Reader next week.
Cressie is doing beautifully. She had another follow-up vet visit on Wednesday and Dr. Clawson (such an appropriate name for a vet!) pronounced her a champion healer. She’s still wearing her plastic bag (an invention of my own, of which I’m justly proud) and probably will be for another week at least, just to let the healing progress past the itchy stage. Here she is, “in the bag” and oh-so-bored with it all:
Boudin has been feeling quite left out, and so here’s a wonderful new picture of him as well, snapped by the Broadcasting Legend™:
In Second Duchess news, there’s a giveaway slated to start on January 15th on Goodreads. Twenty-five copies up for grabs! So mark your calendars to enter. And anyone in the Houston, Texas area—put a big red “X” on March 5th, because at 1:00 on that Saturday afternoon I’ll be signing at Houston’s iconic Murder by the Book bookstore.
My Link o’ the Week for writers: StoryFix from Larry Brooks. As Larry says in his subtitle: “Get it written, get it right, get it published.” A great resource, packed with energizing information.
My Link o’ the Week for historical fun: The page on Lochleven Castle in the Douglas Archives. I particularly like the sketch of what Lochleven Island would have looked like in the mid-1560s at the time of my story—the island today is much larger because the level of the loch has lowered. Lochleven! Just the word is embroidered with history and romance…
This past weekend, Nicolaus Copernicus’ remains were re-buried with great honor in a cathedral in Frombork, Poland, after spending over 460 years under the floor of the same cathedral in an unmarked grave.
This is all very well and it’s excellent to see Copernicus vindicated at last, but if his body was buried in 1543 in an unmarked grave—how did they know they had the right person?
It turns out scientists began looking for Copernicus back in 2004—they knew he’d been buried under the floor of the cathedral but didn’t know where. They found the skull and bones of a man of about the right age, and did a computer reconstruction of the face (hello, Bones) that resembled a portrait Copernicus drew of himself. Suggestive, but not conclusive.
Then the most amazing thing happened. They leafed through a book known to have belonged to Copernicus and found hairs. (I also pull my hair out over books from time to time, so I can relate.) They extracted DNA from the bones they’d found and from the hairs and eureka! A match.
So now Copernicus lies under a black granite tombstone identifying him as the founder of the heliocentric theory (well, not really, but the first to model it in full mathematical detail) and a canon of the Roman Catholic church. The stone is inlaid with a design representing the solar system, a golden sun encircled by six planets (the only ones they’d discovered at the time Copernicus lived).
One of the most poignant things about the whole story is that Copernicus published his masterwork De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium in the last year of his life. Supposedly the first printed copy was placed in his hands the day he died. One can only imagine what he felt.
Rest well, Master Nicolaus.
Am deep in sixteenth-century Scotland—want to join me? Here’s a link to photographs and details of the real silver casket which may (or may not, no one knows for sure, and of course the things no one knows for sure make the most delicious historical fiction) have held the “casket letters” which besmirched Queen Mary Stuart’s reputation forever.
Where did the casket come from? What was its history before Queen Mary decided to use it to lock up her letters? (If she did.) If it’s fifteenth-century work, could the crossed F’s under a crown (if they were ever actually engraved on the casket, and not simply embroidered on the case) refer to Francois I instead of Francois II? Could its history have brought evil fortune to the queen? Could it even have been cursed? And if so, by whom?
So many questions to answer. Such fun!