Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Interview with Robin Maxwell, author of SIGNORA DA VINCI

Robin Maxwell is the author of seven historical novels, most of which are set in Elizabethan times. Her latest novel, SIGNORA DA VINCI (NAL, 2009) explores the Italian Renaissance through the eyes of Leonardo da Vinci's mother, Caterina. It has been called Maxwell's "most remarkable novel yet" (Michelle Moran), a "sparkling epic" that "continually delights with intriguing details" (Vicki Léon).

I had the opportunity to ask Robin some questions about her research and the writing of her novel, and her enthusiasm for a Renaissance familiar to few shines through.

1. What were the challenges of writing about Renaissance philosophy for the modern lay reader?

Thanks for asking. Executing this philosophical aspect of SIGNORA DA VINCI well was critical to the book's success. It was central to the story, but it had the potential for being dry, dense, and hard-to-understand. I realized that these days, most people don't spend much time thinking about or studying philosophy of any kind, no less Renaissance philosophy or its origins -- Platonic and Hermetic thought, and even further back, Egyptian magic and astrology. Learning about this subject was utterly fascinating to me, but I wasn't sure it would be to anyone else.

It was a leap of faith in my readers, I suppose, thinking that if I presented the subject clearly, if it was relevant to and truly forwarded my story's plot, and if it was intrinsic to the book's main characters -- Leonardo da Vinci, his mother Caterina, and Lorenzo "The Magnificent" de' Medici -- that not only would my readers find it fascinating, too, but they would learn something about western civilization's evolution out of the Dark Ages into the brilliant light of the Renaissance and what is known as "Early Modern History."

Some of my favorite scenes in the book are set at gatherings of Florence's "Platonic Academy," where all the brightest lights of scholarship, the arts and politics, met to discuss classical philosophy -- itself an act so outside the parameters of the all-powerful Catholic Church and so heretical, that it was literally a burnable offense. Yet these courageous individuals were so persistent, so obsessed with the idea of learning the truths of humankind and the cosmos, and the road to true spiritual enlightenment, that they risked everything to continue.

The other challenge was learning the philosophies myself -- I'd never studied them before -- the Greeks, the Egyptians, Hermes Trismegistus, alchemy and astrology (the only "sciences" in those days). I realized that though Plato was the basis of all modern thinking, I didn't know anything about his writings. So I went onto Amazon.com and typed in the words "understanding Plato," and voila! Up popped a booked called UNDERSTANDING PLATO by David Melling. It was a fabulous book that perfectly explained in layman's terms what the man and his thinking were all about. I also relied heavily on the brilliant Frances Yates (four of her books) to learn about alchemy and Hermeticism.

All that was left for me as a writer was to fit this preposterously complex glut of material into the story I wanted to tell in an interesting and entertaining way, one that a broad audience could understand. My main technique was to impart the knowledge through dialogue between my main characters, which in itself was fitting, as so many of Plato's works were written as just that -- dialogues between his teacher, Socrates and himself.

2. I'm intrigued by the feminist angle that colors your depiction of the Platonic Academy (concretized in the prominence given to the Egyptian goddess Isis). Could you elaborate on this a bit? How open were Renaissance philosophers to the power of the feminine?

Another great question. I think the most shocking aspect of Renaissance philosophy was that when you dug into its deepest roots, you realized that it went far beyond 15th century Italian men studying and lionizing the ancient Greeks. Because the Greeks were studying the far more ancient and pagan Egyptians. And at the bottom of Egyptian thought was their belief in Isis, the original "Earth Mother" -- progenitor of all gods and goddesses, bringer of life itself, and the figure responsible for the first-ever "resurrection."

Then you had Plato, who believed women and men were equals!!! That noblewomen should receive as fine an education as men and should be allowed to participate in the public sphere -- even hold office. How radical is that?! Of course, by the time this stuff was revealed to the men of the Italian Renaissance, the "Goddess" was long-dead and there'd been 1,500 years of the Christian Church that had beaten women into the ground and made them irrelevant except as sex-objects and brood mares. Women had no rights in 15th century Florence, and it was the rare female (like Lorenzo de' Medici's mother, Lucrezia who, by the way, is a major character -- at age 18 -- in my new novel, O, JULIET) that received a good education (or any education at all).

So while the Renaissance men might have been studying these principles in the Platonic Academy meetings, for the most part, their wives, mothers, sisters and mistresses were still stuck in the traditional life of Italian women -- barely allowed to leave their fathers' houses as girls, and their husbands' houses as wives, and bearing children until they dropped dead. Why do you think I disguised my protagonist -- Leonardo da Vinci's mother -- as a man? If she'd been a woman she would never ever have been able to gain entree into the world I was determined to explore in this book.

3. If you had written the story from the perspective of Leonardo himself, how would the story have been different? What aspects of his life would you have focused on?

Actually, my first thought was to write a book about Leonardo, because he was -- and remains today -- much more than just an astonishing artist. He had the most original mind of any man of any century. He was an inventor, scientist, philosopher, atheist, believer in Nature as God, vegetarian (when such a thing was a heretical act!), a homosexual, a believer in freedom of the human spirit, and that learning did not come from books but from personal, first-hand experience. However, the publishing business today -- especially in the historical fiction genre -- is quite fixated on stories told from a woman's point of view. So I was forced to revise my thinking.

If Leonardo had been the lead character, I would have tried to delve more deeply into his psyche. For an individual to emerge as a full-blown, half-a-milennium-ahead-of-his-time genius just after coming out of the Dark Ages is mind-boggling to me. Since I was determined to illuminate the "Shadow Renaissance," the Medici, the Platonic Academy, and the Turin Shroud hoax, I probably would have placed Leonardo squarely in the center of that world, rather than his mother, Caterina. In retrospect, it might not have been quite as appealing a book as it was with Caterina, because with her as the protagonist, she was able to observe an all-male "inner circle", secretly, through female eyes, as well as have a love relationship with a man. If I'd only had Leonardo to work with, I would have been writing primarily about homosexual relationships and truthfully, though I have several close friends who are gay, I'm not familiar (from an "insiders" point of view) with that kind of sexuality.

4. I know authors often don't have much say in the cover design for their books, but is there a specific reason why the designers chose not to feature one of Leonardo's many portraits of women on the cover of SIGNORA DA VINCI?

The truth is, authors have very little (if anything) to say about their covers. The figure on the cover of SIGNORA DA VINCI is Raphael's "Veiled Lady," and the background is from something else. They are both evocative of the period and very beautiful, but I objected at first to the artwork because I felt the woman didn't reflect Caterina (at least the way I saw her). I doubt she would have had such fine clothing, being the daughter of a country apothecary, and of course she's disguised as a man in most of the book.

Actually I wanted another of Raphael's paintings ("The Madonna of the Chair" which you can see on my website at the top of the "Passport to the 15th Century" pages, the one called, "Was the Mona Lisa Leonardo's Mother?" In this, a much less "noble" looking girl is holding a baby boy in her arms and they're looking at each other with such love, that I thought this was a more appropriate cover -- it was so much a book about the love between a mother and her son. But I got shouted down.

That said, I think its the most gorgeous of my covers to date. Clearly, the designers were looking for an image that would make somebody pick the book up and want to buy it. In this, I think they succeeded brilliantly. Moreover, I personally wish I owned that dress the veiled lady is wearing!

5. How did you grow as a writer in writing this book?

Writing deeply about people who risked their lives to pursue their non-conforming religious/spiritual beliefs helped me to come out of the closet myself on this issue. I can now say, proudly and unflinchingly, that I am an atheist. I remember seeing Sebastian Junger (THE PERFECT STORM) a few years ago on Book TV at the National Book Fair on the White House lawn being interviewed by Laura Bush and stating, without batting an eye, that he was an atheist. I thought then, "How brave. Could I ever do the same?" Since writing writing SIGNORA DA VINCI I discovered the courage, in this deeply religious country of ours (and in the conservative community where I live), to speak truthfully about my anti-religious leanings.

6. What trends do you see in the field of historical fiction and how do you feel about them?

Aside from the ubiquitous "headless women running away" used on 99% of historical fiction novels' covers, I'm getting pretty tired of publishers only allowing us historical fiction authors to write from a woman's point of view. Of course I know that for the longest time women were shut out of history entirely, but I think the "women-only" trend is an over-reaction (like bra-burning during the early feminist movement) that was once useful, but has run its course. In my new novel, O, JULIET (to be published in 2010) I was able to convince my publishers to allow Romeo to have a first-person voice in the story, as well as Juliet. In the future, I hope to be writing more from the male point of view (as well as the female). To me, it doesn't matter what sex your protagonists are, as long as they're remarkable people.

There's a lot here to discuss here, so jump in with your comments! I'd like to thank Robin for her willingness to be interviewed and the insightful answers she provided. I wish her all the best with SIGNORA DA VINCI and her new book, O JULIET, scheduled for release in 2010. Visit Robin's website to learn more about her books and to read some interesting features she has posted about the historical context of SIGNORA DA VINCI.

To conclude this spotlight on Robin Maxwell, my next post will feature a short review of SIGNORA DA VINCI, which I very much enjoyed reading.


Character Education said...

Great one as she is hot favorite among the readers..Now I got many information about her..

Wayne said...

Brillient work no complaints just a correction:Issis, or her predecesor Nut, was a "sky godess" not an "earth mother". Geb her husband was a man of the earth or as displayed in the glyphs "a potter".

Danja said...

Beautiful interview! Thank you very much for posting it. Now, I need to get my hands on the book. :-)

elena maria vidal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ms. Lucy said...

Terrific interview! Very interesting:) Thanks

Ninon said...

"headless women running away" :DD
Great interview & good questions! It was really interesting to read. And I agree with the author, there is way too much historical fiction written from the woman's point of view, it would certainly be refreshing to see more male protagonists..

elena maria vidal said...

Very interesting. Julianne, you are a fantastic interviewer and I always enjoy your author interviews. The book has a beautiful cover. I am afraid that from a historical point of view, I can't agree with all the statements made by Ms. Maxwell. I am reading Regine Pernoud's masterpiece "Women in the Days of the Cathedrals." She demonstrates how, contrary to being "beaten down" by the Catholic Church, the status of women was elevated as the Christian faith spread in Europe after the fall of Rome in the fifth century.

The status of women was much elevated especially when compared to pagan Rome where women had little or no legal status. In medieval Europe, on the other hand, women could bring law suits, own and inherit property, seek decrees of nullity if they were in a terrible marriage. Many women were more highly educated than is commonly thought, and this trend spread into the Renaissance, as we can see from lives of the Tudor princesses, and how well-educated they were.

The life of Eleanor of Aquitaine was one example of how dynamic many women were in the Middle Ages. There were others, too, such as Bertrada de Montfort and Matilda the Empress.

Pernoud also makes it clear that many of the civil liberties that women enjoyed in the Middle Ages were lost during the Renaissance, for various reasons. I will be posting on this as soon as I finish the book.

Women's freedoms have ebbed and flowed throughout the course of history but to say "1,500 years of the Christian Church that had beaten women into the ground and made them irrelevant except as sex-objects and brood mares" is just not quite an accurate assessment. In fact, it is a statement which would have surprised educated and influential women such as Gertrude von Helfta and Hildegard von Bingen.

Sorry to have to disagree.

Margaret D. said...

Thanks for a great interview, Julianne! This novel sounds really interesting, and is going on my "must read" list. Another novel set in the early Italian Renaissance period that I loved is Linda Proud's A Tabernacle for the Sun, which I've reviewed at www.HistoricalNovels.info. It went on my "Ten Best" list for 2008. Perhaps it's less well known because it featured a male protagonist? I agree with Maxwell that publishers' prejudice against male protagonists is silly. A lot of women, like me, enjoy reading about both men and women.

Amy @ Passages to the Past said...

Wow...I am blown away! That was the best interview I have ever read...reminds me that I have so much to learn!

I liked very much the cover that Maxwell wanted, but the final cover is beautiful too! It's the story inside that mattered to me...it was fantastic, one I will definitely be reading again!

Thank you Robin for another awesome interview!

Shauna Roberts said...

Congratulations, Robin, for getting a cover with a head on it.

The philosophy you've put in this book sounds fascinating. I'm going to order it right now.

Hans-Georg (linking to one of my pages) said...

@ interviewer: good job

@/about author interviewed:

"... western civilization's evolution out of the Dark Ages into the brilliant light of the Renaissance and what is known as "Early Modern History." "

"Dark Ages" and "brilliant light" are not only metaphors, but very tendentiously chosen, and very misleading such.

"Some of my favorite scenes in the book are set at gatherings of Florence's "Platonic Academy," where all the brightest lights of scholarship, the arts and politics, met to discuss classical philosophy -- itself an act so outside the parameters of the all-powerful Catholic Church and so heretical, that it was literally a burnable offense."

Not so. St Thomas Aquinas had been studying Plato's disciple and correcter Aristotle as far back as the 13th C, he made that study mainstream.

Giordano Bruno was indeed burned, but he was not burned for classical philosophy in the sense of platonism, but for pantheism which was neither platonic nor aristotelian, but at best stoic (and stoics being regarded as "outside" the house of wisdom in a late antique allegory, therein differring from Plato and Aristotle).

Julianne Douglas said...

Thank you, Hans-Georg, for reminding us of the importance of Thomas Aquinas in disseminating the philosophy of Plato long before the Renaissance. It's important for readers to remember that Ms. Maxwell's book is one novelist's take on a very complicated era.