Barbarossa’s Princess by Elizabeth Vallone, a Review by Tiziano Dossena, L’Idea Magazine Volume II, No. 48 December 2011
Throughout antiquity, men have repeatedly and summarily destroyed cities and physical documentation of events. Because of that, we have accepted that the information regarding some historical figures have almost completely disappeared and very little is known about them. There are particular timed incidents, though, which place them in the chronology of history and sometimes even provides them with a mythical aura. Constance de Hauteville’s existence, for example, even though mostly lost in the fog of time, is as real as it gets. She sanctioned the unification of the Holy Roman Empire with the Kingdom of Sicily, through the union of her lineage (Hauteville) with her husband’s (Hohenstaufen). Her son Frederick II became accordingly the emperor of a much larger Holy Roman Empire, turning into a clear precursor of the Renaissance rulers, thanks to his profound culture, his designs and his visions for the Italian land.
Accustomed as we are to fictitious recreations of past events in movies, historical fiction becomes an accepted and welcome solution to the understanding and the presentation of characters, which lack the depth of records to allow for an accurate historical reconstruction, to the general public.
Barbarossa’s Princess is a work of art which bases its narrative upon historical facts, weaving a web of intrigue, lust and violence that amply reflects the times in which these events truly occurred. The main character, Constance de Hauteville, comes alive with her strengths and weaknesses, her sharp intelligence and her deep culture, drawing the reader in the plot more and more with each electrifying, inspiring and inspired page.
Elizabeth Vallone’s thorough research in the medical treatments of the times enhances the credibility of the storyline and allows the reader to plunge in the 12th century without hesitation. Her description of the places is factual, and so is the unraveling of the main events, but the author carefully plugs characters and small details of her creation in the story, intensifying the excitement of the tale by giving it a sharp characterization and a well-constructed setting.
Through her well-balanced amalgam of real historical episodes and characters with fictional ones, Vallone obtains a book which will thrill both history enthusiasts and lovers of adventure. Barbarossa’s Princess shows the drama behind the metamorphosis of the richest princess in Europe from a pious woman living modestly in a convent to a brave and audacious empress. It does so with an elegant style and a perceptive attention to the evolution of her personal feelings and thoughts.
The final product is therefore a well-knitted story, with developed characters portrayed as close to known reality and painted as colorful as they could have been without distorting that reality. Vallone shows at every step the rigorous research and she does that without becoming academic or exasperating the reader with unnecessary details. The accurate physical description of the environments are neither casual nor merely ornamental, but they aim at completing the characters through their milieus. For example, Constance’s sensibility may be understood better through the memory of her city: “In Palermo everything was bright. The walls of colored mosaics dressed in gold leaf, the brilliant geometric patterns on the altars and Moorish arches took my breath away. Sometimes when I entered, it felt as if I were witnessing the colors, the images, the architecture for the first time…”
Barbarossa’s Princess will also satisfy the readers who fancy love stories, because Constance is full of love, although lives mostly without it, finding herself, unfortunately and without any blame, in a loveless marriage with a brute: “Traveling and negotiating also made It more difficult to make time for his manly duties, which gladdened me, for I had come to absolutely abhor the feeling of his touch on my skin. If Heinrich never came to my bed again, it would have been all right with me.”
Constance will not deny herself a chance to love in spite of her position and will risk everything to be close to her lover, even if that meant to be playing chess in front of everyone at court: “Now the object of my affections sat across the chessboard smiling, and touching my pinky, my wrist. Though it was only the brush of finger tips, a fiery sensation passed between us. I watched him and shivered.”
It is the author’s ability of rendering the nuances of the main characters’ emotions that allows the reader to embrace Constance’s cause and root for this remarkable woman who preceded her times with her strength, her determination and her enlightenment.