The Professor of Secrets
The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, medicine, and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy
By William Eamon
Published in 2010
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
There was a time when calling someone an “empiricist” was a slur that denoted quackery. Now, science is based on empirical observation. However, in the Renaissance, logical explanations mattered more than observed facts.
This book covers the life of Leonardo Fioravanti (no relation to Leonardo da Vinci), one of the pioneers of modern medicine. He was widely viewed as a quack / charlatan by the establishment during his time. In retrospect, he was one of the greatest doctors of the Renaissance.
His philosophy of empiricism was revolutionary: he didn't care why medicine worked; he only cared that it worked. The focus on the why was distracting for his peers. In a world without microscopes, they came up with odd causal explanations involving humors, God, and the Holy Spirit. By ignoring the question of why, and focusing purely on what worked, he was a better doctor. He was humble enough to understand that the reasons why something worked would remain mysterious.
He found many cures for tapeworms (a common ailment at the time) and performed one of the first splenectomies.
Leonardo Fioravanti’s life is fascinating. He was a traveling doctor, a monk, battlefield medic, and royal surgeon. He would travel everywhere from Sicily, to Morocco, to Spain to learn the secrets of medicine.
Like many great scientists, he suffered for his work. The mainstream academic doctors had him thrown in jail, possibly tortured, and eventually forced him to leave Italy to live in Spain in exile. There too, he was hounded by the medical establishment which resented his success. He died in poverty on the fringes of society.
The history of science is fraught with dead-ends that don’t lead anywhere. Leonardo Fioravanti’s school of empiricism died with him - although he would influence many later scientists.
This is one of the best written, most interesting, and all around awesome books about the renaissance that I have read. It is a true gem. The fact that this wasn’t a New York Times best seller is tragic.
Anyone can read “The Professor of Secrets.” Both complete novices and seasoned experts in the Renaissance will find something in it. This is one of the best history books that I’ve read this year.
MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman
By Ben Hubbard
Published in March 2020
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
This is a fascinating account of how Mohammed bin Salman came to power.
The writing style is great. It is very clear, and has this no-BS way of describing what happened and why. It has just the perfect amount of human drama; neither too much nor too little. I love the descriptions of places, people, and events.
MBS is a fascinating figure. Hubbard criticizes his free market economic policies and authoritarianism; however he praises his secularism. Hubbard writes from a Western liberal perspective. Western liberalism cannot understand figures like Deng Xiaoping, Lee Kuan Yew, or Pinochet. He doesn’t understand how MBS can be both fighting corruption and promoting free market capitalism.
This book will make a lot of sense to people who have seen past figures like MBS at work. Students of history will appreciate it. If you just are someone who is obsessed with the news cycle and lacks historical introspection, then this book will not make any sense.
While the book is well written, you better read it fast. It will become obsolete very quickly.
Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds
By Natalie Zemon Davis
Published in October 2010
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Trickster Travels is the story of Joannes Leo Africanus de Medici, also known as al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan.
Leo Africanus was a sort of Muslim Marco Polo. He was born in Granada, in Islamic Spain to a wealthy Muslim family. His family was forced to flee due to the war, and he spent his childhood and teenage years in Morocco. Eventually, he became a Muslim diplomat, where he visited what he calls “the land of the blacks” (Subsaharan Africa). There, he reports flourishing technologically advanced Muslim city states within the Songhai Empire and Sudan. He then is sent on diplomatic missions to Mali, Tunis, Arabia, and Egypt.
On his way back home, Christian pirates capture his ship and he is sold as a slave. Because he is literate and well educated, he is sent to serve in the court of Pope Leo X de Medici. There, he is (perhaps forcefully) converted to Christianity and adopts his Christian name Joannes Leo Africanus de Medici. Pope Leo X “adopts” him into the Medici family.
He serves as a translator and scribe for the pope. He lives with several other captured Muslims, including a black African, Jews, and Eastern Christians. He translates many important documents. Eventually, he wrote several books in Italian about his travels. After the sack of Rome in 1527, he escapes, making his way back to Morocco where he dies.
I absolutely love stories about long distance trade in the Middle Ages. The tone is very different from that of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta - first, Leo is not a gross sexpat. He seems very decent. Second, Leo is very learned while Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta are distinctly roguish and proletarian. Finally, he makes many anthropological and political observations, usually from a proto-libertarian perspective.
This book might not be suitable for people who have not already studied history. There are many references that could be quite confusing for those unfamiliar with Renaissance or Islamic history. Luckily, these are my two main areas of interest. The writing style is quite dull and academic. I really enjoyed it, and learned a lot. I recommend this book if you are up to it.
The Autobiography of Benevuto Cellini
By Benvenuto Cellini
Published in 1563
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Benvenuto Cellini is one of the greatest boasters in Italian history. He was a metalsmith and douchebag, born in the year 1500 near Florence. He would work for several prominent figures of the period such as Pope Clement of Medici and King Francis I of France.
Two things stood out from this book: Cellini is a raconteur and he is a complete asshole. This doesn’t detract from the experience at all, maybe even adding to it. Just go in expecting an anti-hero and enjoy the ride.
Cellini’s account of his life is obviously fanciful. He admits as much in the first chapter. He always recounts events in a way to make himself look as good as possible. Whenever things go wrong, he blames them on others. He justifies all of the many fights he starts as well as his constant unethical behavior. His justifications can be grating, but his exaggerations are often hilarious and exciting.
Cellini is a complete asshole. He murders dozens of people throughout his journey (although whether this is just part of the story or really happened seems debatable to me). He doesn’t hesitate to draw his sword at the slightest insult. He resorts to lies and trickery to sleep with as many men and women as possible (he was bisexual). He demands extreme compensation for his artwork, and has a very high opinion of himself. In other words, I would absolutely hate spending any time with him.
His adventures are action-packed. He fights bandits, escapes from jail, is a cannoneer during a war, travels across Europe, and faces all sorts of dangers. Whether these feats are real or imagined is irrelevant - it makes for a good story.
There are no explicit sex scenes, but quite a few references. It also describes quite a few scenes of torture, rape, and injury. Towards the middle of the book, he also starts worshipping the devil and practices what he calls “necromancy.” This isn’t suitable for children, but might assign it as required reading in a high school history class. I would give it a PG-13 rating.
As far as 500 year old books translated into modern English go, the writing style is incredibly clear and comprehensible. If you want to read a single primary source that takes place in the Renaissance, I would probably recommend this one. It gives an account from a middle class person who is blatantly unethical, and this alone makes it worth it.
The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal.
By Evan Ratliff
Published in January 2019
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
This book is a short account of the life and misadventures of Paul Le Roux.
Paul Le Roux was a white Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) who emigrated to the Philippines. There, he established an online prescription drug pharmacy. He hired Indian doctors to write prescriptions and the website's clients could get the prescription painkillers shipped to their homes. The drug pharmacy was gray market - neither strictly legal or illegal.
This online pharmacy made him very wealthy. However, he then started dipping into all sorts of other activity, this time strictly illegal - arms dealing, assassinations, political corruption, drug smuggling, illegal mining, illegal logging, etc… He was a very bad guy, engaging in murderous political feuds, and deranged sexual escapades.
Eventually, he was arrested while on a business trip in Liberia and extradited into the custody of the US Drug Enforcement Agency. There, he ratted out all of his minions, and escaped justice. They let Paul Leroux go so that relatively good meaning people could get unjust criminal terms.
The main moral of the story is that the government is far more dangerous, unjust, vicious, and evil than even the worst organized crime groups.
As an interesting side note, some people think he may have been Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin.
The book’s writing style is very engaging. It was a real page turner. I listened to the audiobook with my wife Katarina, and we couldn’t stop until the very end.
If you are looking for a good crime thriller, albeit one set in the real world, I recommend it highly.
Michelangelo, God's Architect
Michelangelo, God's Architect: The Story of His Final Years and Greatest Masterpiece
By William E. Wallace
Published in November 2019
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
This book covers the twilight years of Michelangelo’s life, when he is the architect of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
Michelangelo was a crotchety old man who left behind dozens of completely unfinished works. He was extremely superstitious, having been part of Girolamo Savonarola’s congregation during his youth. He worried that he would die too early before St. Peter's Basilica would be completed, and that this would curse him to hell. His fears would be proven right - it wouldn’t be completed for another 60 years after his death.
William E. Wallace is one of the world’s foremost Michelangelo historians. Often, the more pedigreed a historian is, the more pedantic their writing becomes. Luckily, Wallace is an exception. He has the courage to use his imagination to paint a vivid life-like picture of the daily life of Michelangelo during this period.
Writing about a niche topic in the Renaissance can be a little bit hard - there is a constant struggle in between including too much and too little context. I have read dozens of books about the period at this point, and found it very easy to follow. However, I worry that readers who are less familiar with the period might, at times, have difficulty following along.
Another added bonus: the audiobook is masterfully produced.
I highly recommend Michelangelo, God's Architect to anyone interested in learning more about Renaissance art history. It isn’t for everyone
Catherine de Medici
Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France
By Leonie Frieda
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
Catherine de Medici was a Florentine Medici sent to live in the French court in order to solidify political alliances. She had a rough life - her childhood was spent as a political hostage living in convents; her early reign was marked by rivalry with her husband’s royal concubines; and her time as dowager queen was marked by religious civil unrest.
Catherine de Medici is not beautiful; she is actually somewhat ugly. She is not particularly intelligent, but neither is she dull. She is not a great ruler, but she is not a horrible one either. Her reign stands out for its sheer mediocrity - which makes reading this book interesting. Don’t read this expecting to find either a great woman of history or a devil. In many ways, this book can be seen as the profile of a very average 16th century head of state.
The writing style of this book is quite good, and enjoyable. It walks the very fine line between being overly descriptive and flat. Frieda avoids academic pedantry. She also does not defend Catherine de Medici’s constant mistakes in judgment and incompetant policies - she simply looks at them for what it is.
The book is quite long and detailed - a little bit too much so for me. I only read about 60% because I’m tired of reading about politics and want to move on to art and science. However, had I read it at a different time, I probably would have finished it.
This book isn’t for everyone, but there definitely is an audience for it. I don’t recommend it to everyone, but if you are into real life Game of Thrones type of stuff this is the book for you.
Most of my articles are book reviews, but I also write about many other topics.