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.