House of Niccoló by Dorothy Dunnet
I have a friend who was so taken with Dorothy Dunnett’s eight volume series based on the travels of a 15th century Flanders businessman and adventurer that she planned a trip around his base in Bruges, Belgium. Then again, I have another friend who recoiled at her name. "Things don’t happen like that in real life," he claimed! And he’s right.
Yet this matronly Scotswoman (born 1923; died in Edinburgh in 2001) crafted a series of fascinating fiction novels that read like sophisticated historical novels, popular romances, and yes, soap operas at times. But the intrigue and the layering of plot and the historical accuracy are so well crafted as to make the time spent following her wandering protagonists well worthwhile.
The time is 1460 to roughly 1480, the place, the "known world" for Europeans of the time. Dunnett chose a young apprentice in a Flanders textile merchant’s house as her protagonist. His name is Claes vander Poêle, later to become Nicholas de Fleury. In time he takes over the business, marries the widow of the founder, and moves on to dominate the banking trade in parts of Italy, Flanders, Scotland, and Burgundy.
All of this takes place before the great European voyages of discovery, which began, really, in 1487 when the Portuguese navigator, Bartolomeu Dias successfully rounded the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and opened the way for Vasco da Gama to sail on to India. So young Nicholas de Fleury’s world is limited to the far-flung corners of Europe: Iceland in the northwest, west Africa and the Sahara to the South, the Baltic republics to the northeast and Turkey, Egypt and Persia in the east.
A geographer colleague once defined "neighborhood" as the play area of a freely ranging ten-year old boy. The "neighborhood" of Nicolas de Fleury, using this definition included the four corners of Europe and the edges of the surrounding continents described above. His home was Venice and Bruges in particular, Italy and Scotland eventually, and western Europe in general.
As Nicholas ranges widely throughout Europe the reader encounters historic figures at every turn of the page. The cast of characters is sometimes so complex that you’ll find yourself referring to the list of characters that appears in each volume, over half of whom were real people. You’ll meet King James of Cyprus, King Alfonso V of Portugal, nephew of Henry the Navigator, Piero Bembo, a Venetian merchant, and Marietta Barovier, a Murano glassmaker among many, many others.
These novels will keep you busy all this winter and part of next (I started on this eight-volume series just about two years ago). There is some risk of overdosing on Dunnett. That’s why it has taken me so long to get to volume seven. She’ll grab you for a volume or two, then you have to put her down and admit, "these things don’t happen in real life." But so far I’ve continued to come back.
In the process of reading The House of Niccoló I’ve found myself turning often to my historical atlas of Europe (each volume has a pretty good map of where Nicholas is during the course of that book – a little bit like following the children’s character in Where’s Waldo!). I also have gone often to the encyclopedia or to my old history books to review trade routes, historic personages, and major battles in Europe in the 1460’s and 1470’s.
Looking back over the series, I’ve enjoyed the early volumes the most. This bodes well for those of you who have yet to begin to explore the world of war, love and commerce in Renaissance Europe with Dorothy Dunnett. Pick up the first volume, Niccoló Rising and see how you like it. Then you can decide if you want to continue on with Niccoló’s adventures to Venice, to Greece and to Trebizond, on the Black Sea coast of Turkey in volume II. I was in Trebizond in 1968, hitchhiking to Europe from Iran. Dunnett has inspired me to go back to both Bruges and to Trebizond just to look at these places with a fresh historical perspective. Perhaps she’ll inspire you as well.