Friday, May 8, 2009


SIGNORA DA VINCI  by Robin Maxwell (NAL, 2009) is an entertaining and imaginative re-creation of the cultural cauldron of sixteenth-century Florence. The story is told by Caterina, a village apothecary's daughter who, after a brief liaison with a nobleman's son, gives birth to a boy destined to become one of Italy's greatest creative minds. Snatched from her by his father's family, Leonardo is doomed to lead the anonymous life of a bastard until Caterina takes charge of his destiny--and hers. She convinces his father to apprentice him to an established artist in the city. Determined follow Leonardo, Caterina disguises herself as a man and establishes herself in Florence as Cato, Leonardo's apothecary uncle. Educated in philosophy and the alchemical arts by her father, Cato/Caterina befriends the legendary humanist Lorenzo de' Medici and becomes a member of his Platonic Academy, a secret philosophical society established to further knowledge of the ancient arts. Eventually, Caterina and Lorenzo fall in love and she reveals her true identity to him alone. Together, the couple works to advance Leonardo's career while their circle battles Fra Savanarola, the Church reformer who seeks to curb the excessive luxury and pagan influences that saturate Florentine society. Even as she watches her son's genius flower, Caterina cannot escape the decline of her lover's health and great changes that overtake the city she has grown to love.

I applaud Ms. Maxwell for broaching a difficult subject and a setting that is little exploited in historical fiction. It was thrilling to see the likes of Sandro Botticelli, Pic de la Mirandola, and Marsilio Ficino coming to life in the pages of a novel. Lorenzo de' Medici was a fascinating individual, and the author does an excellent job of creating a character who was vastly learned yet at the same time politically savvy and personally engaging. The book's settings, from artists' botegas to noblemen's villas to Caterina's own apothecary shop, are vivid and historically authentic. The tension between the new philosophers and the Church authorities is well-drawn, though rather categorical; the author's sympathies in this struggle are never difficult to discern. Ms. Maxwell's writing style is accessible and engaging; I found myself completely drawn into Caterina's story and eager to discover how everything would play out.

The strength of the book lies in the relationship that binds Caterina and her son. Caterina recognizes Leonardo's giftedness from the beginning and encourages him to pursue his unconventional interests. Some of my favorite scenes are those where the young Leonardo explores the world and glories in the wonder of things. There is a true sense that Leonardo's genius unfolds precisely because Caterina provides the acceptance and love that encourages him to take risks. Caterina loves Leonardo with ferocious devotion, sacrificing marriage and living a life of deceit in order to be near him. For decades she lives as a man; although this opens up for her opportunities to which she never could have aspired as a woman, the strain of this double life gradually takes its toll. In this sense, Caterina mirrors in her personal life the sacrifices countless Renaissance scholars, artists and philosophers were often forced to make in order to expand their knowledge and pursue their dreams.

SIGNORA DA VINCI is an enjoyable and absorbing read, and I thank Ms. Maxwell for opening up the world of Renaissance Florence to readers of historical fiction. 


Danja said...

I am so excited to read this book, and I really appreciate you interviewing Ms. Maxwell and posting the review. What makes the book even more appealing to read is Ms. Maxwell openness about her view of the religion.

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks for the review. I ordered the book yesterday after reading your interview with Maxwell, so I'm relieved your review didn't find major faults!

Angela K. Nickerson said...

Ooh! This sounds delightful. I will have to pick up a copy. Thanks for the review.