Reviewed by Gail M. Murray
Author Lisa Rochon has set her debut novel during five epic years in Renaissance Florence (1500-1509). It opens with the return of two great artists and native sons: Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo di Buonarroti. Leonardo has been appointed to paint The Battle of Anghiari as well as an altarpiece for Santissima Annunziata while twenty-seven-year-old Michelangelo has been commissioned by the monied Wool Guild to sculpt the biblical hero David from a huge piece of Carrara marble.
Leonardo, tall, noble and nearing fifty with white hair and a silver-white beard, is troubled by the loss of his youth, reputation and status in Florence, while Michelangelo is gaining a reputation as a result of La Pieta in Rome. Raphael exclaims “Your sculpture of the young mother holding her dead son on her knees. My God, love and forgiveness are alive in that work.” (p124)
The two great artists are connected through the fictional protagonist, Beatrice, a thirteen-year-old peasant girl, an aspiring artist, given to charcoal drawings of birds on city buildings. A victim of the simmering feud between Florence and Pisa, abandoned by her traumatized mother after her father is murdered by marauding Pisans; Beatrice makes the long journey barefoot from her hill town Settignano to sell olive oil in the dirt lanes behind the Duomo to the city’s artists.
Beatrice accompanies her neighbour and healer, Agnello, to attend the ailing Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, whose portrait her silk merchant husband has arranged for da Vinci to paint. We know this will become his most celebrated work, the Mona Lisa. Through Beatrice, the reader is given insight into these celebrated artists, their goals, rivalry, thought processes and insecurities. I was taken with the tender rendering of scenes between da Vinci and Lisa as he strives to know this complex, gracious woman grieving the loss of her baby daughter, observing her layered emotions, the wild spirit lurking deep within. “She was not pretty….still there was something about this Lisa Gherardini. Something about the lilt in her chin, the pride in her shoulders. She personified greatness that did not end with the city but began with the earth.” (p199) He hopes to create something to outlast himself; little knowing this enigmatic portrait will be his immortality.
Previously a non-fiction writer of Up North: Where Canada’s Architecture Meets The Land and a Globe and Mail architecture critic and columnist from 2000-2013, Rochon’s leap to historical fiction is a triumph. Meticulously researched, Rochon’s captivating novel is rich in detail; we sense what it is to live in 16th-century Florence. We feel we know her well-developed characters. She has created a vivid portrait of time and place, revealing a human side to these master artists. This is an engrossing novel for lovers of art, history and all things Renaissance.
Tuscan Daughter is published by HarperAvenue.