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Signora da Vinci
by Robin Maxwell

Published: 2009-01-06
Paperback : 448 pages
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I have to admit I worried about leaving England and Ireland behind after writing six Elizabethan and Tudor novels, but I'm happy to report a soft landing in Renaissance Italy. Well, perhaps “soft” doesn't properly describe the brilliant, bloody cauldron of fifteenth century Florence… or my ...
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Introduction

I have to admit I worried about leaving England and Ireland behind after writing six Elizabethan and Tudor novels, but I'm happy to report a soft landing in Renaissance Italy. Well, perhaps “soft” doesn't properly describe the brilliant, bloody cauldron of fifteenth century Florence… or my protagonists - the most extraordinarily creative man in history, Leonardo da Vinci, and the one who created him, his mother, Caterina. Signora da Vinci tells the story of a young alchemist's daughter whose unfortunate love affair brings her the greatest love of her life - her genius son - as well as an escape from the restrictions of her gender, and entry into a seductive garden of philosophy, art, learning and danger. From the dusty streets of Vinci and the glories of Lorenzo “The Magnificent's” Florence, to the conspiratorial halls of Rome and Milan, the book celebrates one woman's unquenchable ardor for knowledge, and a secret world that historical fiction readers rarely see. For more information about this book, as well as my other titles, visit me online at http://robinmaxwell.com To win one of FIVE SIGNED COPIES of Signora da Vinci, email me at mailto:[email protected] “Maxwell is one of the most popular - and one of the best - historical novelists currently mining the rich vein of Tudor history.” - Booklist “The powerfully lascivious intersections of sexual and international politics, combined with Maxwell's electrifying prose, make for enthralling historical fiction.” - Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Editorial Review

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Excerpt

Chapter 7

I had refused to shed tears that day when my boy of thirteen, fresh-faced and gangly-limbed, had climbed on the back of Piero's horse and disappeared from my sight. I believed that my other separations from Leonardo would prepare me for this one. I had initiated it. It was clearly in my son's best interests. He would be surrounded by a community of artists and be taught by one of Italy's greatest masters. It would put an end to his lowly status as the village bastard, and provide a chance for him to grow into manhood and rise to a well-deserved glory. We had both promised, of course, to write to each other. These were all indisputable blessings.

Yet it felt as though my heart had been wrenched forcibly from my chest. In the days and weeks after he left my breath came in short gasps. I slept poorly and when I did sleep my dreams were somber at best, nightmares at worst. I lost my appetite for food, and nothing Magdalena prepared had the slighted flavor in my mouth. I lost weight and developed an alarming pallor.

My work for Papa in the apothecary was lifeless and slipshod. He was forced to remind me several times of potions I was meant to prepare, and the keeping of the alchemical fire, once a mystical ritual, became nothing more than a tiresome chore.

Oh Mama!

I hardly have words to tell you about my new life. Except for missing you and Grandfather and Uncle Francesco and the countryside, I feel that, like some sailor from the Odyssey, I have washed up on the shores of Paradise. Not Florence itself. I hardly have time to go outside the bottega's front door. We work all the time. But I have made friends with all my fellow pupils, and I love Maestro Verrocchio. He is, I think you would agree if you met him, a very fine man and a teacher of much excellence and well-deserved respect.

The workshop is as busy as a beehive in spring, all of us apprentices and journeymen rushing around, or heads bent over in deep concentration. There is always something that needs doing. Until recently I was still a “dogsbody” who swept floors and made paint brushes or ground colors. But I am a full apprentice now, and the Maestro gives me great responsibilities, even though I am very young. He says I learn quickly (and he whispers that he sees greatness in me). Already I understand the principle of how to put figures on a plane, how to represent a man's head and the technique of perspective. And I have graduated into figure drawing - of the naked body!

At first, so I did not waste expensive paper, I was made to work in metalpoint on a coated wood panel. But now my draughtsman's studies are on paper and soon I hope to be allowed to use colors. Of course I am learning to sculpt in clay, and my favorite subject is horses. I have made dozens of little figures of them which the Maestro says are quite impressive.

Today I helped with my first cartoon. That is where the Maestro's outline for a painting is drawn on paper. Then a student - me! - pricks holes with a pin all along the lines. The pricked paper is laid up against a prepared wood panel and dusted with charcoal. The dark dust filters through the pinholes and when the paper is removed, there is the outline of the drawing on the wood panel.

We apprentices are expected to give total obedience to our master, but this is no problem for me, as I adore my Maestro. He has such a big, warm heart, and he is so hardworking himself. He is never, ever idle. He always has something in his hands and expects us all to do the same.

He still supports his family, so I suppose he must be industrious, but I think work gives him great joy, and therefore the bottega is a joyful place to be. It is no secret, even among the youngest boys, that the Maestro was a bastard son and that he had the misfortune in his youth to kill a boy by accident. He was tried and imprisoned for a while and finally let go, but then the next year his father died. So he has had a hard beginning. Perhaps that is why he is so kind to me.

Father never comes to see me. He is very busy with the many convents he works for. But no matter. I am happy here with my new family, though of course I will always love you best.

Your son,

Leonardo

I'm ashamed to say I wept reading this and the others he wrote about his wonderful new life. I wasted many precious sheets of paper rewriting letters back to him, as I did not wish him to see my tearstains giving lie to the cheerful words I had written. I believed time would heal the gaping wound his departure had left in my soul, but I was wrong. Months growing into years only caused the chasm to fill with bitterness and, worse, self-pity.

On a spring day in the third year of Leonardo's absence, I mistakenly ground the poisonous leaves of belladonna, and not the healing leaves of marigold into a salve for Signora Carlotti's skin rash. Had it not been for Papa's keen eye as he pushed it across the counter to her, then retracting it, saying the salve must be remade with fresher ingredients, the poor woman would have died a horrible death.

When he later confronted me with my mistake I began to tremble violently, as though I'd been caught naked in an Alpine snowstorm. The strength left my legs and I dropped to the floor in a heap. But I was dry-eyed, my tears all spent.

Papa helped me stand, but I refused his arm as I climbed the stairs to my room. There I lay, still as a corpse for the rest of the day and night, wide-eyed and awake, though paralyzed with loathing for myself and the life I was leading.

The idea came with the first rays of dawn. It was an image of the Egyptian Goddess Isis, whose beloved husband, Osiris, had been killed in battle, his body broken into pieces by his evil brother and scattered all over the world. In her great love for Osiris, and with the greatest courage, Isis found every piece and putting them back together, breathed life into his resurrected body. What had become of my courage? I wondered. I had once possessed a great measure of it. Could I not resurrect it myself?

I dressed and walked up into the hills along the river path. At the waterfall I removed every stitch of clothing and stepped beneath the torrent of icy meltwater come recently from the snow-covered mountains. The freezing shock on my skin forced a shout from my lungs, but the sound, when it came, was a passing from the deepest part of me all of my pain and my fury. I stood there

bellowing my rage, daring Isis to come to this sad, wasted woman and infuse her with strength to do what must be done.

She came to me that day - Queen of the World, bringer of life and love. She came and brought me all I asked for, and more than I ever in my wildest imaginings could have dreamed.

I went to Papa in his laboratory that night and told him my plan.

Leonardo was in Florence, a young apprentice at Maestro Verrocchio's bottega, but his only family in the city was his father, an ice-hearted man who loved his son not at all. I believed, in fact, that Piero despised the boy, regarded him as an advertisement for his greatest failure. He had been unable to sire a single legitimate male heir on either of his young wives. His only son was a bastard, birthed by a girl not fit for marriage into his proud and ambitious family. Leonardo might as well be an orphan in the city, as much attention as his father was paying him. He needed family there.

He needed me.

I would move to Florence and set up shop as an apothecary. If I sold Mama's rings I would surely have enough to rent a small place until I began earning a living.

Papa sat himself down on the stool near his athenor and closed his eyes. He rested his chin on his chest remaining silent for a space of time that felt endless to me, for I was waiting word from my most honored advisor, tutor and sage. His hands, fingertips stained with the essence of herbs and burnt minerals, lightly clutched his knees. Finally he spoke.

“Surely you have the skills for an apothecary, but I do not like to think of you alone in that city. I have always believed that Florence is the worst of all places to be born a woman.”

“I'll just have to manage,” I snapped, unhappy at Papa's response. But I could see him wearing a certain expression of intense concentration he used when pondering the deepest mysteries or the most difficult of mathematical calculations.

“What if you went to Florence…” His pause was long and very grave, “…disguised as a man?”

“A man?”

“A young man.” He was thinking as he spoke. “You are thirty-one. As a male you would look twenty, perhaps. Luckily, men are clean-shaven these days.” He was regarding me intensely as he spoke. “And you are tall, so your height alone will not give you away. Of course you would practice lowering your voice.”

I was staring at him gape-mouthed, but my excitement was rising as the possibilities became clear to me. “Twenty is young for a fully-trained apothecary,” I reasoned, “but I might say I was setting up shop for my uncle and master… who is soon to follow.” The rest seemed suddenly logical. “My uncle could grow ill and die… but by then my customers would trust me.”

I saw him begin to waver, as though he suddenly realized how insane was his idea. I sat down next to him on the bench and took one of his hands in mine.

“How can I approve of this?” he said solemnly.

“Do you approve of me being separated from my only living child?” I asked. “Do you approve of my wasting away before your eyes? Do you approve of my endless grief?”

“Caterina…”

“It is the only way. I cannot ask you to leave Vinci. And you're right, it is madness trying to live a free life in Florence as a woman alone.”

He closed his eyes, comprehending the enormity of it all. Then he said quietly, “I own a house in Florence.”

“What?”

His brows furrowed. “Poggio's bequest. It's been so many years, I'd almost forgotten. When my master died, he left me his already-deceased father's apothecary in Florence, and the residence above it. It never passed through my mind either to inhabit or sell it. The place has been sitting idle for years. If it is still there, it will be a rat trap.”

“Will you write and discover its condition?” I said, hardly believing this stroke of luck.

He did not answer immediately. But now my determination had taken hold.

“Papa please. You love me as I love Leonardo,” I said. “How can you say no?”

Of course he had not said no, and our mad plan began immediately to take shape.

********

The guise we had chosen for me was that of a young city scholar. This meant a round-necked robe, pleated at the shoulders, hanging straight and untied at the waist to below the knee. Beneath were a shirt and hose. On my feet would be round-toed felt slippers with a strap across the instep. My breasts would have to be bound.

With the suffering of three years past having rent from me all appetite for food, the female curves had melted from my body. My cheeks were gaunt, and only the muscles in my limbs, worked hard in everyday labor, remained firm and healthy.

The small risings that had once been breasts the size of large Spanish oranges, needed little in the way of hiding. Aunt Magdalena had wanted to help me, but I'd refused, saying that I would have to learn to do the binding and unbinding of them with a broad strip of cotton myself, for it was alone that I meant to live.

Of my womanly functions I was, ironically, free. My menses had stopped, as if to say, “What use do you have of me anymore?”

It was strange and rather awful having to cut my hair. My father did it for me, shaping it into the page boy's length and style just touching my shoulders. This was how scholarly boys wore it, having borrowed it from the courtly lads of fashion. But the high, rounded, flat-topped cap required to finish the costume of a scholar ruined the stylishness of the haircut. It was a small price to pay to carry off my ruse.

In the end I made more than a passable young man. If you had put me in a brown robe and tonsured my head I would have been taken as a proper religious ascetic.

Perfect. Except that I was a heretic.

It was my day of leavetaking.

By candlelight, as I was making my final preparations to leave, Papa placed before the front door a good-sized casket. It had, in fact, been my mother's wedding chest, beautifully painted, as the custom was, with birds and flowers.

I looked at him questioningly and he lifted his chin to say I should open it. Inside were the most precious of his hand-copied manuscripts. Books that had educated him. The same books that had educated me, and Leonardo as well.

“You cannot mean to do this, Papa,” I said, my eyes filling with tears I had so far refused to let fall.

“I've read them all. A hundred times. I can recite them in my sleep. And I've kept enough for myself. But you will need the books, Caterina. To continue your studies. And when you are in the company of the great men of Florence…”

“I, in the company of great…?”

“When that happens,” he insisted, “these manuscript will be your currency, more valuable than a pile of gold florins.”

That he believed in me so profoundly - his skinny, shorn, pitifully flat-hatted boy-scholar - wrenched a sob from my throat.

“None of that,” he said sternly. “The only men in Florence who allow themselves to weep are rich men felled by cupid's arrows, ones who write poetry to their unrequited loves. You are a tradesman. `Cato the Apothecary.'”

We had agreed on that name, as much for the similarity to my own name as by his fondness for the Roman statesman and philosopher.

I wiped the wetness from my cheeks and put on the red hat. When he straightened it I saw tears brimming in his eyes, but he held them back. He stooped and picked up the casket of books.

I peeked out the front door and found the street as deserted as the church cemetery at midnight. He placed the chest in the cart and said goodbye to his mule who had served him well for so many years.

“Go on,” he said to me, “before the light comes.”

We did not embrace. After all, I was no more than a young scholar passing through the village who had visited the local apothecary. An elaborate scheme involving a sick aunt in a distant village had been devised to explain my sudden absence from Vinci. Caterina, daughter of Ernesto, had been an outcast, a persona non grata, for so long, that no one would have cared anyway.

“I will write,” I said and taking up the donkey's reins, turned, catching the last glimpse of my father.

“Beloved daughter,” I heard him say before clattering hooves drowned out his voice.

********

That morning I stole away from the only home I had ever known. Left behind my father, the house I was born in, a mountain village that had showered me first with love, then with scorn… and my sex. There was no doubt that of all of these I would miss my father most. The house was a house. Vinci, like any other small town, was filled with men and women quite as willing to be cruel as be kind. As for my sex, aside from getting Leonardo from it, when had it ever brought me joy?

I was very grateful, though, on a day of such deep severing, that Nature had gifted me with warmth, just a few wispy clouds and enough breeze to cool my brow. As I made my way down the steep path away from the hilltop church, the castle with its ancient wall, and the houses that called themselves Vinci, I questioned my own sanity. Had melancholy so unbalanced me that I would do such a thing as this? No. That was impossible. Papa would have taken me in hand and stopped me.

But this ancient mule pulling the cart, were he to have an opinion, might have thought otherwise. Poor old Xenophon, trussed to the rickety carriage and led by the mouth by me, groaned with his heavy load. When the sun finally rose and I was visible to him I thought he was eying me oddly. “Who is this stranger with my mistress's scent but the look of a lad?” I imagined him thinking.

My male disguise was a misery in two parts. The first was how cloistered I felt in the coarse grey wool tunic, with a fringe of white shirt beneath showing through at the neck. Second, and worse, was the fear of my disguise's failure - discovery that a Tuscan village woman was daring to deny her very sex and take up residence in the great city as a man, and a businessman at that.

But here I was. There was no turning back. And in truth, the adventure of it all was just beginning to dawn on me.

The road east from Vinci to Florence hugging the south bank of the river from Empoli to La Lastra was better than the north, which was hardly a horsetrail. The farmers with their summer crops, and merchants bringing their cargos of raw wool and silk from the seaside port of Pisa to the city of fashion that Florence was, clogged the byway, so I was never alone.

Some fellow travelers were friendly, the farmers especially. They wished for conversation, gossip mostly, news from whatever town you'd just come from. Still nervous and unprepared to launch myself into the wide world as a man, I pretended shyness and instead of talking, waved and smiled and quickly lowered my head as though I had a great deal on my mind.

By my calculations and my father's map I was roughly two thirds of the way to Florence when night fell. I pulled my cart and mule from the road and under a tree I made a crude bed for myself, with no fire. Though exhausted, I was barely able to sleep, and when the first rays of sun fell on my face I was up and moving.

As my grunting beast rounded a river curve I received the greatest shock of my life - first sight of the city of Florence, its enormous Cathedral dome and three high towers squarely centered in a sea of red rooftops. Even the mule was stunned into stopping, his weary eyes fastened on this odd vista.

I prodded Xenophon to go, as my excitement had in that instant multiplied tenfold, so much so that my terror subsided a fraction. As we hurried on more features of the great city revealed themselves. The river as it passed through it, more congested on the left bank than the right, was encircled by a wall of red ochre, its thickness ten feet or more, with a dozen stone guard towers remaining, placed all along its length.

Now I could see a few huge castles in the hills on the south side of the river, and to the north in Florence itself, amidst what had seemed at a distance an even mat of rooftops and churches of which there were more than a hundred, giant edifices that dwarfed even a three-story house. These must be the city palazzos of the wealthy families, the nobles and the famous merchants, bankers and lawyers whose true religion, Papa had told me, was commerce, not the Catholic Church.

It was not until I passed a portion of the outer wall and came to the western-most bridge crossing the Arno that I realized my time of reckoning had truly come. I could still turn back, spare myself the humiliation, and the jail sentence, and perhaps even torture I would suffer if I was found out to be a woman living as a man.

I admit I did pause at the brink of the Ponte alla Carraia. I watched the traffic fascinated, as I had never seen a bridge wide enough for two carriages to pass each other. Realizing the moment had come, I have Xenophon a tug, and the cart lurched after us. We joined the procession of commerce and thus entered our new life in “the city that ruled the world.” view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1) Caterina's life seems, from the beginning of the story to the last page, to be based on deceit. Did this bother you at all? Do you think she should have regretted it more, or do you think the ends justified the means?

2) Did you find it believable that Caterina fooled as many people as she did with
her disguise?

3) What did you feel were Caterina's strengths? Her weaknesses? How did you feel about her relationship with Lorenzo? Her father? Leonardo?


4) Did you ever feel that Caterina was an overbearing mother, or became too involved in her son's life?


5) What surprised you the most about Caterina's character as you went through this journey with her?


6) As portrayed in this novel, was Leonardo da Vinci a sympathetic character? If you had lived at the end of the 15th century in Italy, would you have like to have known him?


7) Did knowing that the heroes and heroine of Signora Da Vinci believed in pagan and Hermetic principles rather than Christianity make you like them any less? Any more? Have you explored any religions outside the Judeo/Christian/Muslim tradition?

8) Did the practice of Alchemy by the members of the Platonic Academy strike you as a plausible pastime? Do you feel, after reading this book, you have a better understanding of medieval alchemy?


7) What aspects of Leonardo's life and career were most interesting to you - his art, inventions, dissections and anatomical drawings, his philosophies and notebooks?
If you had had a chance, what questions would you have asked the maestro?

8) All the Medici men suffered from severe gout and many of them died of its
complications. Does this surprise you? When you think about the middle ages,
what other diseases do you associate with the times?

9) Does reading this book make you want to further explore any aspects of the
Italian Renaissance, the characters or plotlines Robin Maxwell has written about?

10) Some historians see the Dominican Friar, Savonarola, as a church reformer and
martyr. Do you feel that the citizens of Florence deserved his extreme “reigning
in” of their luxurious lifestyle, his “bonfires of the vanities?” Do you think he
deserved burning at the stake?


11) Before reading Signora Da Vinci, did you believe the Shroud of Turin was
authentic, or a hoax? After reading this book, have your feelings shifted? Is a
camera obscura photograph of a corpse's body and Leonardo's face a reasonable
explanation in your mind?

11) The author portrays Roderigo Borgia quite sympathetically. From what you know, or have read about the Borgia family in general, was his positive
characterization plausible? Did you find it hard to believe that even a pope might have Hermetic and pagan leanings?

12) Did Lorenzo il Magnifico Medici seem too-good-to-be-true as a medieval ruler? As a human being? Do you think he should have been written with more foibles, or did you enjoy falling in love with him as Caterina and the author, Robin
Maxwell, did?

13) Superstition, with its omens, heavenly signs, talismans and worshipping of holy
relics, played a huge role in medieval life. What are the modern equivalents of
these beliefs?

Suggested by Members

Ms. Maxwell writes so beautifully about a mother's love for her son...where in her own persona do you think that comes from?
How long did Robin Maxwell take to research and write this book?
How did Ms. Maxwell's descriptions of relationships - familal, romantic, platonic, even adversarial - make you, the reader feel?
by cindimonti55 (see profile) 04/30/09

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

For some time I’d been intrigued by the ridiculously fertile mind and staggering accomplishments of Leonardo Da Vinci. Long before The Da Vinci Code, he was a firmly entrenched icon in human culture and consciousness. But Leonardo’s secretive nature – despite thousands of pages of notebooks, various works of art, invention, science, architecture and philosophy – left us very little understanding about Leonardo the person.

While we do know something about Da Vinci’s father, Piero – his social climbing, business successes and his almost inhuman coldness to his bastard son – we know next to nothing about Da Vinci’s mother. By my own simple logic I deduced that Piero, while an intelligent and resourceful man, never displayed an ounce of creativity – that divine spark that utterly defined Leonardo.

That would, of course, leave his mother as the donor of the “genius genes.” But of the woman who gave birth to one of the world’s most remarkable minds we possess exactly two facts: 1) Her name was Caterina. 2) Leonardo was taken from her the day after his birth to be brought up, as a bastard, in the Vinci home of Piero’s father.

It was my obsession with Caterina, and my imagining of the role she played in her son’s life during the astonishing era of Lorenzo The Magnificent and the Italian Renaissance, that made the writing of this book not only a creative necessity, but a pleasure.

While we do know something about Da Vinci's father, Piero - his social climbing, business successes and his almost inhuman coldness to his bastard son - we know next to nothing about Da Vinci's mother. By my own simple logic I deduced that Piero, while an intelligent and resourceful man, never displayed an ounce of creativity - that divine spark that utterly defined Leonardo.

That would, of course, leave his mother as the donor of the “genius genes.” But of the woman who gave birth to one of the world's most remarkable minds we possess exactly two facts: 1) Her name was Caterina. 2) Leonardo was taken from her the day after his birth to be brought up, as a bastard, in the Vinci home of Piero's father.

It was my obsession with Caterina, and my imagining of the role she played in her son's life during the astonishing era of Lorenzo The Magnificent and the Italian Renaissance, that made the writing of this book not only a creative necessity, but

Book Club Recommendations

Great for a book club.....great for a departure from whatever is your "usual"
by cindimonti55 (see profile) 04/30/09
Take a leap from your usual reading the dive into Signora DaVinci with both feet. Use all your senses as you read it. Robin Maxwell is so descriptive you can actually see, hear, feel, taste, and smell much of old old Italy. This book was such a joy to read....and then to discuss later.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "Signora da Vinci"by loucrow (see profile) 05/04/09

This was an interesting historical fiction which went to great lengths to remain historically correct. Since so little is known of the real mother of Leonardo da Vinci, the imaginary life of the main... (read more)

 
  "Tread lightly.....walk heartily"by cindimonti55 (see profile) 04/30/09



Robin Maxwell's rendition of the life of Signora DaVinci is splendid. We have numerous opportunities to read about Leonardo DaVinci's life, but time seems to have forgotten his mother. M

... (read more)

 
  "A well researched book!"by PattyPP (see profile) 04/22/09

Our group had a great time reading this book. We learned a lot, and enjoyed discussing the book with Mrs. Maxwell! It was a real treat to have her answer our questions! Thank you Robin Maxwell!

 
  "This book is a fictional "what-if" about Leonardo's mother."by GigiMc (see profile) 04/22/09

Our bookclub enjoyed this book. I like historical fiction, and there was much of it in this book. The book was interesting and it made me want to read more about this time period and about Leonardo.

 
  "I am still reading the book and enjoy it but reserve a higher rating until finished."by sheena09 (see profile) 03/16/09

Robin has captured the essence of the Italian Rennaisance in a delightfully personal look into the life and times that made the amazing Leonardo da Vinci.

 
  "Very informative"by gooseharp (see profile) 05/01/09

It is a good premise and we checked a lot of the facts in her book and found them to be true and not even stretched much. It kept my attention for such a long book and I was not bored. I f... (read more)

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