Grazia dei Rossi, private secretary to the world-renowned Isabella d’Este, is the daughter of an eminent Jewish banker, the wife of the pope’s Jewish physician, and the lover of a Christian prince. In a “secret book,” written as a legacy for her son, she records her struggles to choose between the seductions of the Christian world and a return to the family, traditions, and duties to her Jewish roots. As she re-creates Renaissance Italy in captivating detail, Jacqueline Park gives us a timeless portrait of a brave and brilliant woman trapped in an unforgiving, inflexible society.
A sweeping saga of intrigue and romance set during the Italian Renaissance, The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi is an unforgettable tale, told through the eyes of Grazia dei Rossi, a young Jewish woman torn between duty and forbidden romance and who wins our hearts with her recorded secrets of love.
About the Author
Jacqueline Park is the founding chairman of the Dramatic Writing Program and professor emerita at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She lives in Toronto.
Read an Excerpt
I will begin on holy Thursday in the Christian year 1487, Eastertide for the Christians, Passover for the Jews, a perilous time for all. Until that day I had lived the eight years of my life in a child's paradise. On Passover eve Fra Bernardino da Feltre preached an Easter sermon in the town of Mantova. After that day nothing was ever the same again.
The day began for me and my little brother in the ordinary way. Awakened at cock's crow by the slave girl Cateruccia, who slept at the foot of our bed, we washed up, said our prayers, and went on to Mama's room for a sweet bun and some watered wine. This repast had been added to the household routine the year before on the advice of the humanist physician Helia of Cremona. According to him a small amount of bread and wine at the beginning of the day gave protection against the plague by heating the stomach, thus strengthening it against disease. Since few of our neighbors ever served a morsel of food until dinnertime, this extra meal gave our famiglia a certain notoriety among those whose minds and habits were mired in the Dark Ages. But our parents were adherents of all things modern and humanistic. They believed in the superiority of the ancients, the beauty of the human body, and the new educational methods of Maestro Vittorino. Not for them the rabbinical axiom "First the child is allured; then the strap is laid upon his back." Our tutor was never permitted to use the rod.
Out of respect to the wisdom of the ancients, daily exercise was as faithfully adhered to as daily prayers. Mens sana in corpore sano. Even on Passover eve, we made our daily pilgrimage to the Gonzaga stud where our familyhad permission to ride, Jehiel and I on our pony, Papa on a black Araby stallion looking every bit the great lord in his sable-trimmed cloak. We often saw the young Marchese, Francesco Gonzaga, gallop by although he rarely troubled himself to acknowledge us. However, that morning he stopped to have a private word with Papa, whom he called Maestro Daniele, a term of some respect.
It was not a long audience. Francesco Gonzaga always preferred to converse with dogs and horses rather than people. But his demeanor that day was remarkably agreeable. He even had a smile for us. I thought he must be amused by the way we rode our pony, I in the saddle and Jehiel on pillion, contrary to the usual arrangement for boys and girls. Whatever his reasons, to me it was as if one of the gods had descended from heaven and smiled on us. I didn't even notice how ugly he was.
To my surprise, Papa introduced Jehiel to the Marchese by the name Vitale. I now know that Vitale is what Christians call all Jews named Jehiel, in the odd belief that they are translating the name directly from Hebrew into Italian, since Jehiel means "light" in Hebrew and Vitale means "light" in the Italian vernacular. My name, as is almost always the case with women, remains Grazia to both Jews and Christians. Apparently precise distinctions are not necessary in the naming of girls.
As for Jehiel, he was as perplexed to hear himself called Vitale as I. I think my brother had never heard his Christian name before. But he responded with a modest bow like a perfect little gentleman. And I bowed too since no one had taught me how to curtsy while seated on a pony. Again, the Marchese smiled. A fine beginning for Passover eve.
But on the way home, when we attempted to cross the Piazza delle Erbe, three barefoot Franciscan brothers appeared out of nowhere to bar our way, cursing us for infidel Jews. The sainted Bernardino da Feltre was preaching in the square that day. How dare we trespass on this holy Christian event?
We looked to Papa to put these cheeky priests in their place. Instead, he nodded courteously, reversed his mount, and led us home by way of San Andrea. As we approached our stable, he did make a halfhearted jest about barefoot priests but I caught a glint of something like fear in his eyes.
The maids had worked far into the night cleaning and plucking chickens and fowl and skewering them onto the great spit. And when we entered the house, the steaming kettle was beginning to release into the air that heavenly scent of figs and cinnamon that issues from the Passover pudding and fills the house with its fragrance as it cooks.
Dinner consisted of minestra and bread -- scanty fare at our table, but no one complained. They knew they would feast that night at the seder. But as the soup was being served, Monna Matilda, the shohet's wife, rose to her feet, her beard hairs bristling, to challenge my father.
"Why were we not told that da Feltre was engaged to preach in our city this day, Ser Daniele?" she demanded on behalf of the assembled household. "And what is being done to protect the safety of this famiglia?"
I swear to God if the geyser at Vesuvius had erupted, that woman would have blamed it on the dei Rossis. But Papa, not always the most tolerant, man, kept a special store of patience in reserve for Monna Matilda.
"I well understand your fears, good woman," he began sweetly. "Remember, I have little ones of my own and a wife in a delicate condition."
"Exactly." Monna literally preened her breast with pride at having beenvindicated.
"I know you will be pleased to hear that this very morning I held a discussion on the matter with Marchese Francesco."
A restrained gasp went up among the diners at the mention of the title. True, Marchese Francesco Gonzaga was yet young, but in the Mantovan territory he shone with a luster equal to that of the Pope, the Emperor, or the great kings of Europe.
"The young Marchese was most gracious, as always," Papa reported. "He understands our unease. He is aware of what happened at Trento, even though he was a boy at the time."
At the mention of Trento, all heads dropped into a prayerful pose and murmurs of "God guard us from it" were heard all around.
"At the same time," Papa continued, ignoring the bowed heads, "the Marchese urges us to remember that his family has a long and close association with Fra. Bernardino. Thus, to use his own words, he must pick his way carefully between his loyalty to a valued family friend and his duty to preserve the civil peace of Mantova."
"Does that mean," Davide, our tutor, asked in a quavering voice, "that the Marchese will allow this friar to preach against us in Mantova as he did at Trento?"
"Not a bit of it," Papa answered with a smile of satisfaction. "He has given me his personal assurance that the friar is strictly prohibited from preaching against the Jews in this territory. In his own words, 'There will be no rabble-rousing in Mantova as long as Francesco Gonzaga rules here. Nor will we permit anyone to interfere with our Jews.'"
"And do you take this declaration to be sincere, Ser Daniele?" asked the old rabbi.
"I do, Rov Isaac," Papa replied respectfully.
"Christians have broken their promises in the past..." the old man reminded him.
"So they have," interrupted Dania, the tutor's wife.
Rabbi Isaac silenced her with a glare. The old man had no regard for the opinion of any woman. "I was inquiring of Ser Daniele, who knows the Gonzagas well -- the late father as well as this young son -- if he rests content with their assurance of our safety."
"I have a particular reason to depend upon the protection of the Gonzaga family, Rov Isaac," was Papa's reply. "A reason that extends beyond their promises."
In fairness to Papa, he did have a good reason -- a hidden reason -- to put his trust in the Gonzagas' promise of protection. It seems that the youngMarchese's grandfather, Lodovico Gonzaga, had initiated the practice of investing a sizable sum of ducats with the dei Rossi banco for the purpose of sharing in the high interest rate that he permitted us to charge. Put bluntly, the Gonzagas were silent partners in our banco.
Now bear in mind that the Pope only allowed Jews to lend money at interest in order to prevent Christians from committing the sin of usury. Imagine then the extreme displeasure of his Holiness were he to discover that one of the great soldiers in his Christian service, such as a Gonzaga or a Bentivoglio, was using Jewish partners to cover over his own dealings in usury. It was clearly in everyone's best interests that such partnerships remain "silent." But whether secret or open, being a partner in our I>banco.And perhaps another thing. There lives within some of us Jews -- especially the banchieri and the physicians -- a powerful pull toward the Christian princes. Because of the intimate nature of our dealings with them, we are brought close enough to the perimeter of their lives to see into their very hearts. Yet no matter how close we get, no matter how many privileges we are accorded, no matter that we are invited to their fetes, permitted to ride our horses in their parks, made party to their secrets, we can never truly be a part of their world. Their sphere becomes a charmed circle; they themselves a breed apart. And no amount of contrary evidence, of brutal acts, coarse habits or broken promises can quite vanquish the charm they hold for us.
I believe that this aura wrapped the Gonzaga court in a kind of veil that obscured its all too human aspects from my father. He was a very clever man, and worldly enough to know that the gracious young man who welcomed him at his court, who called him maestro, who saluted him when we passed each other on our morning canters -- that this prince was quite capable of maintaining his pledge to protect the goods in our warehouse while, at the same time, withdrawing his protection from our persons...which is precisely what Francesco Gonzaga did to us on the eve of Passover in the year 1487.
The first hint of this betrayal came in the form of three wagons and a teamster that clattered into our vicolo just after dinner. They had been sent by Marchese Francesco, the wagon master announced, to transport the valuables in our warehouse to the Carmelite convent in the Via Pomponazzo for safekeeping.
From the astonishment on Papa's face, it was clear that this was an aspect of Francesco Gonzaga's gracious benevolence he hadn't counted on. Still he could hardly refuse the proffered help without offending the man. Hiding his distress under a flinty smile, he offered his arm to the factotum and led the way to the warehouse.
I remember asking myself, as I watched them turn the corner, why if we were so safe under the Marchese's protection, must our valuables be sequestered elsewhere "for safekeeping"? But something else bothered me even more. I could not get out of my mind the moment at dinner when everyone fell silent at the mention of Trento. What had happened in that place? I had to know.
I could not have chosen a worse time to trouble my father with my perturbation. But, to his credit, he put aside his own worries and responded to my question. "The events at Trento are among the blackest ever recorded," he advised me. "You are a maiden. Do you have the stomach for a diabolical mix of horror, lies, and slaughter?"
"Very well." He laid down his papers and took me up into his lap. "I suppose a girl who has weathered the Odyssey is ready for Trento. But you must agree to stay with me till the end of the story."
I agreed. And he began. "Twelve years ago, the Christian Easter coincided exactly with the Jewish Passover."
"As it does this year?"
"Exactly. And it so happened that the preacher who came to Trento to preach a course of Easter sermons that year was -- "
"Bernardino da Feltre!" I knew it.
"Now before you jump off into a sea of analogy, daughter, bear this in mind: That was Trento and this is Mantova."
"Analogy is milk for babes but reasoned truth is strong meat," I quoted proudly.
Papa sighed. Why was it that everybody always sighed when I quoted the ancients? "Now can we get on with Trento?"
"Very well. In the year 1475, Fra Bernardino was still merely one of a legion of itinerant preachers who roam the peninsula in bare feet exhorting Christians to revenge Christ and kill the Jews. Bur by the time he had delivered the last of his sermons, titled 'The Sins of the Jews'" -- here Papa's voice took on a deeper timbre -- "his name was inscribed in the Book of infamy. "
"What did he say, Papa, that was so evil?"
"The libel is breathtaking in its malevolent simplicity," Papa answered in the same stentorian tone. "He told the people of Trento that there was a secret ingredient in the matzoh that the Jews baked and ate at Passover time. And that this secret ingredient was human blood. Now here is the real cunning of the man. This blood, he told the people of Trento, was no ordinary blood, mind you, but the blood of Christian babies stolen from their mothers' breasts by the blood-hungry Jews, crucified in a mockery of the suffering of our Lord, and finally disemboweled, their tiny limbs torn from their bodies and their hearts milked for blood."
"But that isn't true!" I burst out.
"It is a falsehood so monstrous that it has achieved its own cognomen: the Blood Libel of Trento." He shuddered slightly as he spoke the word, "Now you, my daughter, are schooled enough in the law of Moses to appreciate the magnitude of the falsehood. You know well the categorical prohibition in the Mosaic Code against the consumption of blood in any shape, form, or quantity. You know that a Jew would rather die than eat blood, so repugnant is it to his faith. But how were the people of Trento to know this? Their saintly friar had verified the libel as true.
"On fire with blood lust, the crowd streamed out of the church bent on vengeance. In the street where they lived, the Jews of the town were conducting the first seder, celebrating the escape of their ancestors from bondage in Egypt. As the Jews bowed their heads in prayer, the crowd of Christians stormed the street like an enraged beast, shouting, 'Burn the Jews! Avenge the children!'"
"No!" I did not want to hear any more. But Papa plunged on as if unable to stop himself.
"The people of Trento put the houses of the Jews to the torch one by one. Then they lay back and waited, the way hunters wait for their dogs to flush out the prey. And after not too many moments, the Jews began to emerge, choking, from the fiery furnaces that moments ago had been their homes. As they came out, the Christians cut them down one by one. It is said that no one there got out alive. Women, children, the old, infirm, all perished."
He leaned back, exhausted.
And I kept silent, thinking that the same preacher who had exhorted the people of Trento to a crime too vicious to imagine would, this day, be preaching in my town, in my square. And I knew why a roomful of people had lowered their heads in desperate prayer and why Papa shivered at the mention of the name Trento.
Copyright © 1997 by Jacqueline Park
What People are Saying About This
A remarkable book. Grazia is an unforgettable character. -- Author of The Queen's Man
Reading Group Guide
- In The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, fiction and history are seamlessly woven together. Discuss how Ms. Park achieves this. What "liberties" does she take that a non-fiction author could not? What details does she use to make the world alive and vivid? How does the device of the secret book contribute to the veracity of the world?
- Both God and fortune are invoked by the characters to explain existence. Grazia writes, "Fortune favors the bold," and "Fortuna is never as generous as she likes to appear." She also writes, "For a time, we stood huddled together in front of the wreckage of Gallic's banco, too stunned by the vastness of God's indifference." What is the difference between fortune and God in the novel? What is the role of fortune in the lives of the characters? What is the role of God?
- In The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, Ms. Park re-creates the life of the court and the great houses of the Jews. Grazia writes, "It is said that no one in Mantova, save the Gonzagas themselves, owned more elegant tableware than Rachel dei Rossi." Though the riches of the Gonzagas and the dei Rossis may be similar, their lives and values are different. In what ways do their views on money, education, and religion differ? How are they similar?
- In the world of Renaissance Italy, the lives of the Jews and the aristocracy are very separate yet closely entwined at the same time. How are their lives linked? How do they depend upon each other? What role do the Jews play in the cultural and economic life of Renaissance Italy?
- Grazia's father is a gambler and bargaining is a partof his business at the bank. Both the Jews and the aristocracy engage in gambling and bargaining. Discuss the role both activities play in their lives. Is the ability to bargain respected? What does it take to be a good "bargainer"? Are similar skills used in negotiating the affairs of state and the affairs of the bank?
- Grazia writes with regards to Isabella and her son that, "the correspondence between mother and son constitutes a veritable lexicon of double-dealing evasion and betrayal." Why does she characterize their relations this way? What circumstances give rise to this type of relationship? Finally, Grazia says that "the Palace is maintained by compromise and opportunism," and "why do sensible nations entrust themselves to these royal monsters and half-wits?" Why do you think they do?
- Grazia writes that the Gonzagas let "the dei Rossi men display their colors...Jehiel was a prince that night. He made our house a palace. My father was a king and all of us were members of a royal family," adding that "Jews are back in style." Why does Grazia compare her family to nobility? Why do the Jews imitate the princes? And what are the reasons for banishing and then reinstating the Jews at court?
- Grazia's parents were "adherents of all things modern and humanistic." She writes that she was not raised by strict Jewish law that stated, "First the child is allured; then the strap is laid upon his back." What is the difference between a Jewish education and a humanist education? What characterizes humanism? What characterizes Judaism? What are the differences between the two tenets?
- Grazia's tutor at her grandmother's house says, "that it is not proper for a devout Jewish girl to speak Latin." Furthermore, her grandmother tells Grazia that "books destroy a woman's brains" and that books and study have corrupted Grazia's virtue. Why are knowledge and scholarship for women looked down upon in the Jewish religion? Is this a religious phenomenon or a societal one? Is it any different for the Christian princesses, and if so why? How does Grazia succeed in becoming a scholar?
- When Grazia's father is caught "coin clipping" the Duke's coins, the Duke forgives him and turns him over to his own people to administer justice. The Wad Kellilah tribune finds Grazia's father guilty, and in his excommunication ceremony they treat him horribly, spitting on him and shaming him in front of other Jews. Why are the Jews harsher to Grazia's father than the aristocracy? What is the psychology behind such behavior?
- Near the end of the novel, Gershorn recounts how he finally understands why Judah always said, "A Jew must be an observing Jew; there is no other kind; for ours is a religion of practice, not transcendence," and is relieved of the "agony of living a double life," of being a Jew and not practicing the rituals. Why was it agony for him? How could the idea of a double life be considered one of the themes of this novel? In what ways do Jehiel, Grazia, and Judah live double lives? Do any of the Christian characters lead double lives?
- Grazia gives her son a few pieces of advice in her secret book. One is that he must stake his claim as a man and the other is that he should never neglect the obligations of mourning. Why are these two pieces of advice so important to Grazia? What else does she want to impart to her son in writing this book? What kind of man does Grazia hope Danilo will be?
- Grazia says in regard to her Book of Heroines that a great woman is one who rises above others through, "intellect, daring, or strength." According to this description of virtue, could Grazia put herself in the Book of Heroines and if so, why?
- When Grazia fled Mantova as a child she took nothing because, "God had told them [the Jews] to carry forth naught of the flesh abroad out of the house, not even a bone." Grazia writes that she had persuaded herself that, "if she followed God's instruction to the letter, He might bring them forth safely." Later, when Asher is placed in )ail, she begins to question God. When Judah says to her "put your faith in God's mercy," Grazia thinks to herself that she does not have "serene faith in God's beneficence." Why is Grazids faith shaken when Judah's faith never is? What is Grazids relationship to religion and to God?
- When Grazia fled Mantova as a child she took nothing because, "God had told them [the Jews] to carry forth naught of the flesh abroad out of the house, not even a bone." Grazia writes that she had persuaded herself that, "if she followed God's instruction to the letter, He might bring them forth safely." Later, when Asher is placed in jail, she begins to question God. When Judah says to her "put your faith in God's mercy," Grazia thinks to herself that she does not have "serene faith in God's beneficence." Why is Grazia's faith shaken when Judah's faith never is? What is Grazia's relationship to religion and to God?
- What do you make of her final choice between husband and lover? What effects does if have on her son? What is Ms. Park trying to say through Grazia's decision? Is there a moral to this story?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was easy to identify with the narrator Grazia dei Rossi¿headstrong, passionate, independent, valuing knowledge and true love above social mores at a time where liberty of expression could be punishable by torture and death. The research for this book was obviously extensive and it was interesting to learn more about the politics and religion of the late XIVth and early XVth centuries. And then of course the love story; the common thread that holds it all together and is responsible for our heroines' doing and undoing. Reading this book within a book provided me the extra thrill of having the impression of peeking into someone else¿s correspondence, which in this case takes the form of a mother creating a legacy for her son. Worth savoring.
A historical novel of the Rennaissance and a promenent Jewish family. Held my interest.
This is a fabulous book if you love the Italian rennaissance era, and all the political and religous intrigue that it brings. Grazia is an incredibly intelligent and scholarly heroine - quite unusual for the time and I loved the way this book fully explores and expands on her scholarly pursuits. I had recently read Tobsha Learner's the Witch of Cologne and initially I was tempted to constantly compare the two. I did find this book a better read, as I became turned off by the W.O.C.'s focus on the more "passionate" aspects of the book which I didn't think added to the story. That being said, I would definitely recommend this book to historical fiction fans and even those who aren't!
You know a book is long winded when the epilogue has chapters. I really didn't like Grazia. She's vain, and shrewish, and clueless about her own meanspiritedness, which might have been intended as irony, but something tells me it isn't. For example, Grazia's younger brother is the head of a household of poor relations. For some reason Grazia, who owns two estates, moves in and starts fighting with the other women, including a physical fight with a recent widow. Her brother takes her aside and tells her that it would be best if the two of them didn't share a roof. She agrees entirely, but feels bad since the girl has no money and will be forced to live in the street. No, the brother says, it's YOU who needs to go. She's mystified as to why she'd have to go, when clearly she's the smart one, but then it dawns on her that she might be too smart and her brother worries that he might not be regarded as the head of the household with his brilliant sister around. Sure enough, as soon as she's gone, he takes charge the house is filled with peace and joy...The book is filled with such laugh out loud moments that I'm not sure were intended as humor.
Finally! From international bestselling author, comes the sequel to The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi. I read and loved this book many years ago, and it was with great pleasure that I eagerly accepted both books to read and review. The most impressive thing of these two books is the meticulous research that Jacqueline Park did in order to write this wonderfully rich and comprehensive novel. She travelled throughout the country, researching not only the politics of 16th century Renaissance Italy, but church laws, Jewish history, fashion, food, and culture of the era. With such intensive research, she put together the story of a Jewish woman whose only legacy to her sole son is a book she wrote detailing her life. And what a sweeping story both books are! And there is a third book to come too! I highly recommend that you read the books in order so that you have a clear knowledge and understanding of the characters and their interactions with each other. The second book, The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi follows the lives of the heroine's son and father who have fled Jewish persecution in Italy to the safety of Turkey and the Ottoman empire. Both books come complete with glossaries and author's notes. Both books give a realistic view of how Jews were vulnerable, how they were treated prejudiciously and unfairly, how they could lose all their posessions at the whim of others, and how life and death hung in the balance. Stirring, poignant, and beautifully told, I highly recommend this novel to those who love a good story while expecting the highest quality of historical detail. I eagerly await the third installment of the series, entitled Son of Two Fathers. A wonderful series to add to your historical library!
This has to be one of the worst books I've ever read. The first 70 pages or so had me intrigued, but from there it only got worse, not better. The heroine epitomizes no noble qualities and the book is filled with vulgarities and almost pornographic scenes. The story loses its focus and purpose near the beginning and you find yourself rooting for the characters you are supposed to dislike. If I was her son, I would be embarassed and ashamed to read this 'secret book.' Don't waste your time.
The character, Grazia, was loosely based on a set of letters that the author found and was intrigued by. Jacqueline Park has a fabulous way of immersing her reader in the pomp and circumstance of the era. A bit slow in places, but overall a great read.
I had to read this book for school and I coudn't stand it...the book is slow paced and dragges on forever. I struggled to finish it.
Grazia dei Rossi is the epitome of all heroinesses. Her story is fascinating and moving. I could not put this novel down, it was absolutely amazing. A fantastic protagonist with a great story to tell, some of the best Jewish literature I've ever read.