Signora da Vinci is Robin Maxwell’s retelling of the life of Leonardo’s mother, a person about whom only two facts are known: that her name was Caterina and that she was not married to Leonardo’s father. But because so little is known about Caterina, Maxwell is free to invent, and the result is this imaginative novel, which sometimes seems more like fantasy than historical fiction, but which is compellingly told. Caterina is the daughter of an alchemist/apothecary in a small town near Florence. Her father teaches her his trade, and also educates her in the works of Greek and Latin philosophy, which have recently been rediscovered. At fourteen, she falls in love with Piero da Vinci, a young man from a much wealthier family than hers, and she becomes pregnant. Piero’s family wants a wealthy wife for him, and he won’t stand up to them and insist on marrying Caterina. And so Leonardo is born out of wedlock, and, in a heart-wrenching scene, Piero’s family takes him away from Caterina the day after his birth. But Caterina, shunned by the villagers for having a child out of wedlock, comes to Piero’s house in the role of Leonardo’s nursemaid, to be with her son. She soon recognizes Leonardo’s genius, and when he leaves for Florence to be apprenticed to the artist Verrocchio, Caterina disguises herself as a man and goes to Florence, to be near her son.
In Florence, Caterina runs an apothecary shop, with an alchemical laboratory on the top floor, and meets the city’s leader, Lorenzo de’ Medici. Lorenzo introduces her to his circle, including the artist Sandro Botticelli and the philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who are part of a secret society called the “Platonic Academy”, dedicated to reviving the works of ancient Greek philosophy. Caterina, in her male disguise, is accepted into the society, but finds herself powerfully attracted to Lorenzo. Eventually she reveals her true identity to Lorenzo, and they become lovers. Meanwhile, she delights in her son’s inventions and works of art. But trouble arrives when the friar Savonarola comes to power in Florence and preaches against luxuries and non-Christian art. Caterina is forced to destroy her alchemical instruments in Savonarola’s famous “bonfire of the vanities”. She, Lorenzo, and Leonardo construct an elaborate plot to bring Savonarola down. Signora da Vinci plays fast and loose with historical facts and contains anachronisms (tomatoes in Europe before 1492, for example), but, if you read it as a work of fantasy, it makes for exciting reading.
Signora da Vinci is available at the Hatcher Graduate Library.