1434 ~ The Year that a Magnificent Chinese Fleet sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance by Gavin Menzies, narrated by Simon Vance

View of the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge), a medieval bridge over the Arno river. Photo 31004862 © Ermess | Dreamstime.com

Like many readers, I found this volume disappointing after Gavin Menzies’ stunning debut 1421.

Empress Wu as a young woman, when she was a concubine to the Emperor of China. This image, while it may not be 100% accurate, does give some idea of the exotic nature of a Chinese concubine’s dress and hair styling. If even one had appeared in 1400s Florence, she would have caused a great deal of comment. However, such comments are absent from the historical record. Source: “The Empress of China,” a 2014 Chinese television series based on events in 7th and 8th-century Tang dynasty, starring producer Fan Bingbing as the titular character Wu Zetian

For starters, this book was a great deal dryer than 1421, filled as it was with descriptions about various kinds of machines as well as a dissertation on the declination of the stars. It is almost as if the author decided to use his leftover research from 1421 in this volume. Unfortunately, unlike 1421, this book lacked a narrative arc, and Mr. Menzies’ decision to end with a perambulation around a remote corner of Spain to discuss the Conquistadores of the early 1500s was puzzling.

But even more of a problem were the ideas that author Gavin Menzies put forth:

  1. Is he right to say that Leonardo da Vinci was merely a gifted illustrator, rather than the amazing inventor of parachutes, helicopters and airplanes that we know and love?
  2. Is it true that the Ponte Vecchio in Florence is merely a copy of a Chinese bridge?
  3. Could it be possible that a large crowd of Chinese concubines and their children suddenly appeared in Florence one fine day in 1434, without anyone remarking on the fact? If Mr. Menzies is right about this, then how come that not one of the many gifted artists resident in Florence in the 1400s painted them?

None of the above are backed up with enough evidence to make them even remotely plausible. Three stars.

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