Dr Catherine Fletcher associate professor in history and heritage at Swansea University, says her interest in history was kindled by a holiday in Florence, and hopes her Alessandro de’ Medici research will bring debates about historical concepts of ‘race’ to new audiences.
Tell us about yourself
History wasn’t my academic starting point. My first degree was in politics and communication studies. After I graduated I was on the National Union of Students Executive Committee for a couple of years and then worked in politics and the media, including as a researcher and producer at BBC Parliament. I got interested in Renaissance history after a holiday in Florence, so I took an evening class at Birkbeck, University of London then a part-time MA at Royal Holloway. In 2004 I went back to university full-time to study for a PhD. Since finishing I’ve had fellowships at the British School at Rome and the European University Institute and lectureships at the Universities of Durham and Sheffield. Academic work does have a habit of taking over, but outside university I enjoy singing (I once appeared in the chorus of The Full Monty musical). Now that I’m living by the seaside I want to learn to sail properly. And I have a big thing for noirish TV thrillers.
What’s your area of research?
My first big project was on the diplomacy behind Henry VIII’s ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon. I wasn’t interested so much in the well-known events as in the culture and practice of diplomacy at the papal court in Rome. I wrote about ceremony, ambassadors’ houses, gift-giving – and my questions were often inspired by my own experience of working in political environments. That research eventually became two books: Our Man in Rome (aka The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story), which was a book for a general readership, and Diplomacy in Renaissance Rome, an academic monograph that came out in late 2015.
Having started writing for a wider audience, I increasingly got into the world of public history. I have broadcast for Radio 3 and 4 on my research and advised the set team on the recent BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. I now draw on that experience to teach students about the practice of communicating the past.
My latest research has turned back to Italy: I’m just finishing a biography of Alessandro de’ Medici, first Medici duke of Florence, who ruled the city from 1531 to 1537. He was said to be the illegitimate son of an African slave, and that story adds a fascinating angle to the tales of Renaissance politics. The book, called The black prince of Florence: the spectacular life and treacherous world of Alessandro de’ Medici, is out in April.
Why is this research important?
With the diplomacy research there are lots of parallels with diplomacy today: how to deal with new states, for example, and how to deal with non-state actors. I have been working with colleagues to plan a big project linking early modern experiences with contemporary problems in diplomacy. One issue that I’m just starting to get into is weapons proliferation. In the early 16th century handguns were a new technology, and I’m going to be exploring how and why they were adopted and what people thought about them at the time. That again connects to questions today, about small arms specifically but also about technology adoption more broadly.
I am also exploring new ways to bring historical research to the public. I’ve live tweeted alongside historical TV programming; I’ve worked with actors and musicians to make a masked party performance based on my Medici research; I’m planning more creative history-writing. The Alessandro research will, I hope, bring debates about historical concepts of ‘race’ to new audiences. There’s a big appetite for historical TV and theatre, not to mention online content, and I think it’s very important for historians to engage with that, and make sure our expertise is used.
Dr Catherine Fletcher is associate professor in history and heritage at Swansea University, and was the 2015 BBC Radio 3 ‘New generation thinker’. Her research focuses on early modern Europe, including Britain, and particularly on Italy. She has published on the history of diplomacy, on material culture and on political life in this period more broadly. Her first book, Our Man in Rome: Henry VIII and his Italian Ambassador, was published in 2012 and explored the diplomacy behind Henry’s first divorce. An academic monograph, Diplomacy in Renaissance Rome was published in 2015, and a new publication, The black prince of Florence: the spectacular life and treacherous world of Alessandro de’ Medici, is out in April. Her new project looks at the cultural history of handguns during the early 16th century, when they were a new technology.
Featured image: ‘Coat of arms of the House of de’ Medici’ by Hugo Gerhard Ströhl – Oesterreichisch-Ungarische Wappenrolle. Licensed under public domain via Commons