British author Dunant (Mapping the Edge, 2001, etc.) weaves everyone’s favorite art history moments into a vivid tapestry of life on the Arno during the upheaval of the Renaissance.
The postmortem ablutions of Sister Lucrezia reveal surprises. The breast cancer that was thought to have killed her was neither cancerous nor mammary, and her aged monastic corpse was lavishly decorated with a most vivid and decidedly impious serpent. How such things came to be are revealed in a retracing of the late nun’s youth, flowering, and de-flowering following the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Fourth and favorite child of a prosperous silk manufacturer and his highly cultured wife, Alessandra Cecchi is far less conventionally attractive than her sister, but she’s got her mother’s brains and a powerful craving to make art. So, cursed with excessive wit and artistry, this young Florentine is highly vulnerable to the surly attractions of the painter her upwardly mobile father has brought home from the gray reaches of northern Europe to do up the family chapel. The nameless decorator, however, seems impervious to her gawky charms, and the possibility of a relationship is nipped in the bud by the sudden need of a much older family acquaintance to find a wife and get an heir. Alas, on her wedding night Alessandra learns in the most humiliating way how it came to be that her flamboyant brother Tomaso was such good friends with her new husband Cristoforo and how there will be none of the carnal pleasures of the garden-variety marriage. The charming and cultured Cristoforo has formed this unholy alliance to stay out of the clutches of Girolamo Savonarola’s religious storm troopers. To the chagrin of all, the grisly wedding coupling fails to produce a child. Then, as the Dominican Taliban starts to squeeze the life from the Florentine Republic, Alessandra finds her way back to the family chapel and the very needy young genius.
No real surprises in the romance department, but the depiction of Florence as Tehran under the Ayatollah is an eye-opener.