Every country has its national myths, its defining narratives, its untouchable heroes and unspeakable villains. But most of the historical characters history enshrines or vilifies are far more complicated than their legends might suggest, and it is the task of revisionist historians to attempt to restore some balance and reality to their images. Thus Thomas Jefferson has been nudged from his high perch; thus many have tried—and generally failed—to salvage some of Richard III’s ruined reputation.

Catherine de Medici, like Richard III, is one of history’s caricatured villains. The so-called Black Queen, she was long supposed to have been not only a master intriguer but also an accomplished plotter and poisoner, the personification of all that the world found sinister in Renaissance Italy.

Reaction had to set in eventually. The first move to...


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