Signora da Vinci by Robin Maxwell
Much of what is known of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother was that she was young and unmarried at the time of the birth. In her latest novel, Robin Maxwell takes this morsel of information and builds a life for this woman full of heartache, intrigue, and triumph. Caterina da Vinci sees life at its lowest and lives life at its highest. In her attempts to remain close to her son, she renounces her femininity so that she can live alone in Florence. Maxwell made Caterina da Vinci and the world of the Italian Renaissance come to life in a Signora da Vinci.
Caterina, the beloved only daughter of a local apothecary, is raised differently from most girls in Vinci, let alone the Western world at that time. Her father is more than an apothecary. He is a man who values knowledge above all and runs a forbidden alchemy lab in his home above his shop. He educates Caterina in all aspects of his life. Caterina’s knowledge and belief in the Hermetic arts eventually set her up for her adult life in Florence where she had to disguise herself as a man to remain close to Leonardo. It is there that she runs into Lorenzo Il Magnifico and comes to be part of his inner intellectual circle. Although alchemy is not something that intrinsically interestes me, I found this section and the growing relationship of the male Caterina and Lorenzo the most engrossing parts of this novel. It was like taking a peak inside the Renaissance’s “Dead Poet’s Society.”
Caterina’s friends and family, although living in Roman Catholic Italy, are far from Christian. The growing threat of an Inquisition ultimately changes the face of Florence. They are all threatened with discovery and punishment under the theocratic rule of Fra. Savonarola and they must act before the world that they love is destroyed by a corrupt members of an increasingly corrupt Church. This is not the highlight of Catholic history and Maxwell doesn’t pull any punches in this regard. Criticism is warrented, but some of the content in Signora da Vinci might be offensive to Catholics and other Christians. There is a scene where Caterina and Lorenzo consume small cakes consisting of narcotics as their true sacrament while being housed at the Vatican. While I’m sure that the Eucharist is commonly attacked and desparaged by pagans, this scene was quite unsettling to me. I don’t consider myself to be very particularly religious. I can only imagine how this scene might affect those who are.
Caterina da Vinci lived quite an adventure in Signora da Vinci. I felt at times as if I was walking down the streets of Florence and basking in some of the most interesting aspects of the Italian Renaissance right along with Caterina. Her unique view of a man’s world from the inside was interesting and provided some excellent drama. The author’s subplot dealing with Leonardo and Caterina’s involvement with the Shroud of Turin was quite interesting. While I had reservations about some of the content, I did enjoy reading this novel. If you are interested in reading about Leonardo da Vinci or Florence, you should give this novel a try.
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