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Sensuous and provocative as well as mysterious…. Blume’s interpretation of master painter Sandro Botticelli is at once a florid love story and a chilling political drama.
In Dorah Blume’s capable hands, Renaissance Italy comes to life in all its complexity, historical fact deftly woven into a captivating narrative . . . Botticelli’s Muse is in equal parts a story of artistic inspiration, political intrigue, religious faith, temptation, and yes, romance.
Sarah Cascone, Associate Editor artnet News
Meticulously researched. You’ll be transported to another time and place and meet well-drawn characters. Dorah Blume has given us a masterpiece.
Claire Daniel, Author of Off the Autostrada and a dedicated Italophile
I manifested a cold so that I could crawl into bed for three days and finish the book.
Diane Ducharme Gardner, Yoga for You
The novel is beautifully written, with great insight into the life of an artist, and what inspires artists to choose their subjects.
Historical Novel Society
Copyright © 2017 by Dorah Blume and D. Bluestein
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than in which it is published and without similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. Under no circumstances may any part of this book be photocopied for resale.
Cover design: Jo Walker
Usage: Flora, detail from the Primavera, c. 1478 (tempera on panel), Botticelli, Sandro (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi) (1444/5-1510) / Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy / Bridgeman Art Library
ISBN 978-0-9981316-0-3 (print)
ISBN: 978-0-9981316-1-0 (e-book)
Publisher’s Cataloging-In-Publication Data (Prepared by The Donohue Group, Inc.)
Names: Blume, Dorah. | Bluestein, D. (Deborah), illustrator.
Title: Botticelli's muse / Dorah Blume ; illustrated by D. Bluestein.
Description: Boston, Massachusetts : Juiceboxartists Press,  | Series: [Arno] ; 
Identifiers: ISBN 978-0-9981316-0-3 | ISBN 978-0-9981316-1-0 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Botticelli, Sandro, 1444 or 1445-1510--Fiction. | Painters--Italy--Fiction. | Women weavers--Italy--Fiction. | Man-woman relationships--Fiction. | LCGFT: Historical fiction.
Classification: LCC PS3602.L86 B68 2017 (print) | LCC PS3602.L86 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6--dc23
Once Upon a Time . . .
About This Book
About the Author
Italy in 1477
Cast of Characters
Florence on a Summer Night in 1477
1. Somewhere in the Tuscan Hills, July 21, 1477
2. A Monastery in Tuscany, August 21, 1477
3. Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary
4. Oslavia’s Brother Sandro in the Medici Palace Courtyard
5. Sandro’s Farewell to Smeralda and Mariano
6. Sandro’s Last Night in Florence
7. Filippino and Sandro in the Country
8. Sandro and Filippino Arrive at Villa di Castello
9. Savonarola in Ferrara
10. Sandro Visits the Medici Palace
11. Dreaming at Villa di Castello
12. Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, September 1, 1477
13. Savonarola Heads to Bologna
14. Playing with Dolls at the Villa di Castello
15. While Piero Waits, Sandro’s Imagination Ignites
16. Medici Palace
17. Botticelli Begins
18. Conversion of the Prelates
19. Floriana Returns to Oslavia
20. Sandro Meets Graziella
21. A Cart for Bandini
22. Botticelli’s Impatience
23. Polishing Domestic Virtues, September 1477
24. Floriana’s Journal
25. Poppi and Piero Prepare for Bandini’s Arrival, November 7, 1477
26. My Brother the Painter
27. Involuntary Speech Afflicts the Best of Us
28. The Philosophy Lesson
29. The Red Ribbons
30. Sulfur, Sandro, and Lorenzo’s Interruption
31. Oslavia Confronts Bandini
32. Savonarola Wanders
33. Daylight Shows True Colors
34. Floriana’s Dread
35. Savonarola on the Prowl
36. Piero and Sandro Exchange Needs
37. The Too-Quick Savonarola
38. Claudia and Giuliano at Medici Palace
39. Gerome and Oslavia Reach the Villa di Castello
40. Oslavia Keeps Her Word
41. Christmas Preparations at the Medici Palace
42. The Medici Christmas
43. Graziella’s Attachment to Floriana Changes
44. A New Doll and a Miracle for the New Year
45. Savonarola Meets Lorenzo
46. Gerome Leaves Florence and His Acolytes
47. The Sisters Scheme to Reconnect with Floriana
48. Lorenzo’s First Journal Entry
49. Graziella and Floriana Talk
50. Sandro and Poppi
51. Spring at Villa di Castello Begins with an Unexpected Guest
52. Puzzles of the Heart
53. Savonarola on the Road Again
54. Graziella Brings Floriana Her Gifts
55. Oslavia Encounters Gerome
56. The Conversion
57. Renata Sells Herself and Her Sisters to Sandro
58. Graziella Helps Floriana Ready for the Birth
59. Lorenzo’s Journal
60. Giuliano Comforts Claudia
61. Piero Brings Sandro to Manfredo’s, April 24 and 25, 1478
62. The Medici Palace, April 25, 1478
63. At the Convent and Monastery, April 25, 1478
64. Sandro the Prankster Meets His Match, April 26, 1478, outside of Florence
65. Chaos in the Streets of Florence, April 26, Day
66. As Darkness Descends across Tuscany, April 26, 1478
67. Lorenzo’s Tears and Piero’s Fears, April 26, Night
68. An Eerie Light Enters the Darkness of Night on April 26
69. At Villa di Castello, April 27, 1478, Morning
70. Savonarola & Piattini Return to Oslavia’s, April 27, 1478, Afternoon
71. Sandro’s Return to the Medici
72. The Girls Wait and Wait
73. Sandro Begins the Bargello Commission
74. Fear and Faith Collide
75. Botticelli’s Nightmare
76. Botticelli’s Surprise
VII. Author’s Statement
Journey to Publication
Staying in Touch . . .
Inside us, stories whisper. From the past, the present, and the future. I dedicate this book to those who’ve left me behind with their sentences unfinished, and to those still with us whose words seek a home. To all late bloomers who dare to take down dictation from the voices within, I say, “Coraggio!”
and a very real time it was, there was a land in which Jews and Christians lived in relative friendship. The friars would preach their Lenten sermons and mobs would go into a frenzy. But tempers would cool swiftly and the Jews would repair their broken windows and venture out to meet their Christian friends, and they would carouse in the streets. It was a brief time: the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. It was a small land: from Rome to Milan and from Genoa to Venice, a land of rolling hills and rich valleys and a Mediterranean sky. . . . In the golden years of Florence, when the Medicis ruled and Botticelli, Donatello, Ghirlandaio, and Leonardo da Vinci were transforming the bare walls of churches and palaces into beauty that forever astonishes, Jews moved with familiar ease through the streets and were part of the everyday scene of that magnificent city. . . ."
In 1477, Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli never thought his life was going to be easy after being fired by his prestigious patron and friend Lorenzo de’ Medici. The artistic freedom he is granted by an annoying new patron half his age, only increases the artist’s paralysis and depression. Sandro’s creative well runs dry until the day he sees Floriana, a Jewish weaver imprisoned in his sister’s convent. But obstacles threaten to keep his unlikely muse out of reach. So begins a tale of one of the art world’s most beloved paintings, La Primavera, as Sandro, a confirmed bachelor, and Floriana, a headstrong artist in her own right, enter into the most turbulent of relationships.
Botticelli’s Muse is the first of a trilogy that begins in 1477 and culminates with the execution of Girolamo Savonarola in 1498. Book one spans 1477 to 1478, the time it took Botticelli to paint his masterpiece La Primavera, which is currently housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
An Italophile since the age of nineteen when she studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy, Dorah Blume has published short fiction and nonfiction in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. Considering herself a late bloomer, she expanded her artistic reach from the visual to the written word in her forties with an MFA in creative writing from Emerson, and has navigated between the two ever since. As a certified Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) facilitator, Dorah has led writing workshops for adults in Greater Boston as well as Tuscany and will soon offer online writing workshops. She divides her time between Boston and Los Angeles, with frequent trips to Italy. If she could possess one superpower, it would be to be able to understand and speak every language on the planet.
For more information . . .
Time and place
Florence, Italy, and around Tuscany, Ferrara, and Imola in 1477 and 1478.
Sandro Botticelli, Medici court artist
Floriana, Sandro’s muse for his painting La Primavera
Gerome (Girolamo) Savonarola, Dominican cleric
Piero de’ Medici, Sandro’s new, fifteen-year-old patron, an orphan; his full name is Piero di Lorenzo di Piero di Cosimo di Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici
Oslavia, Sandro’s sister, a nun
Renata, Margarita, Donata, Piero’s younger sisters
Poppi, Piero’s former nanny and current housekeeper
Lorenzo de’ Medici, Sandro’s former patron and distant cousin to Piero
Giuliano de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s younger brother
Claudia, Giuliano’s beloved, pregnant by him out of wedlock
Lucrezia Tornabuoni de’ Medici, mother of Lorenzo and Giuliano
Bandini, Oslavia’s superior
Smeralda and Mariano, Sandro’s parents
Marsilio Ficino (clergy, tutor to Piero’s sisters, and philosopher and member of the Platonic Academy and translator of the works of Plato and Aristotle)
Luigi, a ten-year-old country boy who assists Sandro and lives at the caretaker’s cottage on the monastery grounds
Clarice, Lorenzo’s wife
Manfredo and Graziella, the moneylender and his unmarried daughter
Piattini and Dono, acolytes and traveling companions of Gerome Savonarola
Bernardino, Franciscan Jew-catcher and converter
Petrarchio, Bandini’s assistant
Stella, tarot card reader and midwife
Filippino, Botticelli’s assistant and son of artist Filippo Lippi
Above the Arno, pink and lavender skies grow dark
while bat wings flutter high enough so Fear sleeps.
The young woman heard the cry of locusts pulsating in the scorched air. As she floated on her back, her nipples pierced the pond’s surface. The sun baked her face. Long strands of hair laced about her head, and a thin chain of gold glittered around her neck. A flock of birds hidden deep in the cypress pines sang to her, and she hummed to them against the chorus of the mating cicadas.
She had walked off through the woods while the others rested. Soon, she knew, they would be searching for her. She quickly rose from the pond and stretched her arms to the sky. As she waded to the shore, her eyes swallowed a sea of yellow—sunflowers cresting over the hill to the water’s edge where she had dropped her clothes. She stepped onto the bank. She shook her hair out; then, at the instant she knelt to reach for her dress, a weight fell on her back, the sting of rough cloth against her skin, and the grip of a hand covering her mouth.
No face-to-face contact allowed. No touching. No speaking permitted. Only a knock signaled her daily bread. Once the afternoon prayer bells sounded, the prisoner would listen for the scrape of a basket against the stone walls leading to her tower cell. As soon as the descending footsteps faded, she would slide the tiny door panel open to pull a basket woven of thorny branches inside.
On the first day of her imprisonment, she pierced her lips biting into the bread where thorns lay hidden beneath the crust. She soon learned to tear small pieces from the loaf to remove any thorns before rolling the bread into small pellets she placed in a circle at the bedside table. These she ate slowly to contain her hunger until the next ration appeared.
After several days of confinement, her ankles swelled. The sour scent of her unwashed body sickened her. As the weeks continued, she moved trancelike through a daily drill she had devised to keep her fear and hunger at bay.
She performed the ritual always with the first bread pellet, which she placed under her tongue. She imagined herself no longer in the tower, but lying on the ground under a canopy of thickly woven, thorn-covered branches—the same branches from which her food basket had been made. Thin shafts of light penetrated the vaulted ceiling. Unlike the harsh, dangerous branches of the basket, these imaginary branches held the blessed presence of rosebuds. As she lay beneath this image of flowers among the thorns, she allowed the small pellet to swell with her saliva, then slide down her throat. With the first swallow, she would watch in her mind’s eye as the buds burst into full bloom, obliterating the thorns and releasing a sweet perfume.
With the second bread pellet, she would conjure a happy memory to calm herself.
Today, she recalled the path leading to her village outside Ferrara. The cool evening breeze sounded like the roll of the ocean as it rustled through the trees. The moon, an icy sliver, hung in the purple night sky. She imagined herself as a child, weaving together flower stems as she traveled by wagon with her family. Her father had shown her how to double the braid to make it as strong as rope.
“Together,” he had said, “we’ll climb to the moon and watch the gathering storm clouds. We’ll find the lost sheep grazing on the hillside, and discover, at last, where the wolf sleeps.”
His fingers were round and thick at the knuckles, like the carrots he grew on their land. She saw them as extensions of his loving embrace as she fell into a peaceful sleep. Dusk descended over the land to mark the end of her thirtieth day of confinement.
Later that night she awoke to the sound of labored breathing as footsteps ascended the stairs. No one had ever come to her cell at this hour. She braced herself in the dark against the straw mattress. Her cheeks burned with an intense heat. A jangle of keys outside her door filled her chest with a dread deeper than her cavernous hunger.
A secret tunnel joined Oslavia’s convent—Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary—to the monastery where the young woman had been held prisoner for thirty days. The ultimate authority over both houses of God, Father Bandini, had ordered Oslavia to judge if the sinner in his tower had a soul that could be saved.
At midnight of the prisoner’s thirtieth day, Oslavia pulled herself off her bed and fell to her knees in a prayer for strength in her encounter with the harlot. She rehearsed her steps to the girl’s door: Light a candle, descend into the cantina, walk to the other side through the damp catacomblike corridors, announce myself by a bell. Too large and too weak to climb the tower stairs, Father Bandini will have assigned the elderly hunchback Petrarchio to lead me to the tower cell. After that she could imagine nothing, only feel a sense of dread.
As Oslavia and Petrarchio climbed to the top of the tower, their candles flickered against the stone walls. He stopped every few steps to catch his breath. She kept her distance. The odor from the cracked garlic bulbs he wore around his neck to ward off evil spirits permeated the narrow stairwell.
Oslavia coughed. Soon, another terrible odor overwhelmed the garlic as they reached the final landing. Perhaps the prisoner has already died and is decomposing.
Petrarchio pulled out a heavy chain, removed a key and handed it to Oslavia, turned to descend, but stopped.
“Hood yourself!” he said in a gravelly voice to the creature behind the door.
Once Petrarchio was out of sight, Oslavia tried the lock until it turned. Before she pulled open the door, she said, “Tell me you are covered and I will enter.”
“Covered,” a faint voice answered.
As Oslavia entered the cell, the stench of human waste assaulted her. She used the candlelight to approach the young woman’s cot, willing herself not to think about what might be lying underfoot in the dark. Beneath the hood of shame, the girl’s body shivered in the stifling heat of the tower.
“You were allowed to come here among men?” the young girl whimpered.
“As abbess of the sister convent, I have been ordered to judge if you are a sinner who can be saved or a devil who must be burned.”
“I have done nothing. I have been sinned against.”
“The young men of the cloth say you offered your body to them, to lure them from God.”
“While the others rested, I offered myself to a pond to cleanse myself and one of them pounced on me and defiled me.”
“I could not see his face nor hear his real voice. Only a cruel whisper like the hiss of a snake.”
“He told me to say nothing. It was between me and him and. But I do not share your God!”
“Harlot you are for sure!”
“I have my own God.”
“Enough!” Oslavia said. The girl’s chest, which had been rising and falling, froze in mid-breath.
“Remove the hood,” Oslavia ordered.
When the girl lifted the cloth from her head, Oslavia saw welts on the young woman’s face. One look at her, even in this dim light, told her this was no harlot. A tiny Star of David hung from a fine gold chain around the girl’s neck reflected the candlelight.
“Tell me what you remember,” Oslavia prompted in a gentler tone.
“I remember the taste of earth in my mouth. The crunch of it between my teeth. The smell of it inside my nostrils as he pressed my head to the ground. A musty odor like some crushed herb on his hand and all around him. The scratching of his robes against my naked back. I remember the locusts screaming in the hot air. I remember the stillness of floating on the pond, free and safe and private because no one was watching. I was dressing when he pushed me. The rough cloth. I remember seeing a corner of his robe: Dominican white.” She stopped to shiver in the heat of the cell.
By the candlelight Oslavia waited. “What else do you remember? What was his face like?”
The girl said nothing, only sighed deeply.
“He lifted my hips—always keeping my head in the dirt. I could hardly breathe. The burning as he pushed his snake inside me again and again and again.”
“I didn’t see his face. He kept my head down. I don’t remember when the sound of the locusts stopped but it did. I saw the hair on his arm. Black. I don’t remember when the sunflowers started to hate me. And the cypress trees became daggers. I can’t remember how long I’ve been here.”
“This is the thirtieth day.”
“There were so many of your monks bringing us to Florence. It could have been any of them. I don’t remember how I got back to the group, only his voice hissing Zitto! so I wouldn’t make a sound.” The girl’s shoulders slumped and she collapsed back into her filthy bed, then continued after a few moments. “Then. The hood. I no longer knew if it was day or night. Why have I not been allowed to go to the Florence woolen mills with the others?”
Oslavia did not answer but instead removed the soiled bed linens, and placed the top layer of her habit on the straw mattress for the girl to sleep more comfortably.
The young girl sobbed. “I was so frightened you were that snake returning.”
Oslavia wanted to comfort the young woman in an embrace. Instead, she turned her head away to avoid the odor and to hide her own sudden anger.
“I can’t bring you any aid until tomorrow. But I will return with a plan. I will find a plan. Trust me.”
“I pray to Almighty God I can trust you, Sister. What can I call you?”
“Mother Oslavia. And you, child?”
“Call me Floriana, the name my father gave me when I was nine years old and had learned to weave flowers together.”
“Be strong, my Floriana. Until tomorrow night.”
As Oslavia made her way back through the tunnel, the weak flicker of the candle illuminating her way became a symbolic spark to smolder and set her angry heart aflame. Here in her midst was a Jew, not a harlot, and surely not someone begging or even willing to consider the conversion Oslavia knew would be thrust upon her. As she stared at the candle’s flame, a boldness overtook her. Who among the men of the cloth she had known over the years would do such a thing? Many. Too many.
Wide rose bushes had been allowed to grow wild as a barrier between the two houses of God. This impenetrable bracken of thorns was intended to prevent any of the novitiates from crossing the border to satisfy carnal appetites. Oslavia had watched others succumb to the impulses of the flesh.
And the harlot from Ferrara?” Father Bandini asked Oslavia early the next morning.
She had come through the tunnel into one of the two tiny rooms flanking the pulpit in the nave of the church. From where she knelt in front of Bandini, she could look out into the larger sacred space. Thin shards of light sliced through the church windows and formed distorted patterns along the floor. She took the distortion as a sign for how she was going to stretch the truth to serve some higher good. The word of God was not going to be found in obedience to the most revered Father Bandini, but in obedience to the flame growing inside her. She had prayed for guidance and the courage to follow it, not for the courage to conform or submit.
“Have you examined her? And what are your findings?” Bandini asked.
“The case is typical, Monsignor,” Oslavia reported. “No dowry. Parents deceased; relatives have sent her to be part of the weaving pool to keep her out of the beggar’s life. And she claims she is no harlot.”
“No, Your Excellency.”
“Yes,” Oslavia lied.
“And you. Is there room for her in your group?”
“One of the young priests who delivered her here said she was not only a harlot, but she was a Jew. Is this so, Sister Oslavia?”
“Which cleric told you this about her?”
“One of the group that brought her here with the hood of shame,” Bandini said. “He suggested she be silenced, punished, converted, and renewed.”
“Sores on her mouth and feet. She was delirious, lying in her own waste. Which one said this? His name?”
“Unimportant! Take her to your side and clean her up,” Bandini said. “I give you ninety days to heal her wounds both inside and out. If she has not converted by then we may need to make an example of her. Bernardino will be coming by to collect unrepentant souls. He will be happy to use her for his ends. And it will make us look good to help him. A peace offering between our two orders. The Pope will approve.”
“Let me take over her tutelage from now on.” Oslavia bowed her head.
“I will be watching you.” It was a phrase he repeated often and to all over whom he exerted control. She had learned to expect it as peculiar to his speech and never answered, but today she responded. “Monsignor. As you well should.”
As for the question of conversion of Jews, she had heard how Franciscan Bernardino called them swine and perpetuated the story they caused the Black Plague, performed ritual murder, and drank sacrificial blood. But what Bandini’s monastery had already done to this poor unfortunate was a crime. Oslavia would use her outrage to correct it.
With great difficulty, Bandini lifted his huge body from the chair. A cloud of incense engulfed Oslavia as he moved away from her. The heat of the morning had already seared through his cloak with perspiration stains darkening his robes. His swollen face, his lumbering movements, his heavy wheezing had always frightened her. But on this day, she had only disdain for his predictable lack of compassion for his future convert. Housing a Jew under his auspices was a new matter, one Bandini could work to his advantage. But Oslavia was conjuring a plan to undermine that advantage. It was a plan unknown to her, but her trust in its revelation was strong and unshakable.
The gurgle of water from the dolphin fountain brought no relief from the sweltering summer day. Only the marble table offered a cool surface to three men who sat there under the portico’s shade. With crumbs from their midday meal scattered at their feet, Oslavia’s brother, artist Sandro Botticelli, sketched the profile of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s younger cousin Piero. Lorenzo looked on, sipped his wine, and tossed crumbs to feed the twittering sparrows.
Even though the recently orphaned Piero was one of Sandro’s least favorite members of this distinguished family, the boy’s foppish and clumsy ways made him one of Sandro’s most entertaining subjects. To keep the chubby fifteen-year-old boy’s head from its chronic involuntary twitching, Sandro had instructed Piero to lean his elbow against the table and support his head with his hand underneath his chin. Despite the intense heat, Piero, who was prone to overdressing, wore armor trim on his shoulders, elbows, and knees, a flowing cape, red leggings, and a red hat with three long yellow feathers.
Inside his secret sketchbooks, Sandro had often transformed the teenager’s head in its silly feathered hats into the head of a bird wearing the full regalia of Medici dress—an enormous plumed hen waddling and pecking above two spindly, spur-covered ankles. Sandro captioned each of his sketches with Piero’s pretentious official name: Piero di Lorenzo di Piero di Cosimo di Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici.
Piero’s eyes drooped. Three times his chin slipped off his hand, and he let out one fart after another. The boy needs his nap! Sandro laughed to himself.
“Move your hand away from your face, Piero!” Sandro said. “I want to get the line of your nose.” As Sandro watched Piero struggle to keep his head still, he silently compared him to Lorenzo—the far more elegant of the two cousins—who wore no cap, and whose straight, dark hair hung to the edge of his jutting jaw, framing his face. Piero had often been the subject of Lorenzo’s jokes and jabs too. Lorenzo was twenty-eight; Sandro, thirty-three.
Piero wrinkled his forehead, ran the palm of his hand across it as he wiped away the perspiration. “I’m getting a cramp in my shoulder. Please hurry!” Breaking the pose, he turned to Lorenzo. “So, Cousin, for the third time today, I’m asking you—”
“Asking me what?” Lorenzo said, sipping his wine and throwing scraps of bread to the birds. Lorenzo knew full well what Piero was talking about—selling one of his country villas to Piero—but Lorenzo enjoyed the tease on one hand yet, on the other, had hoped to keep the news of the transaction from Sandro because it would mean a major change to the artist’s life.
“You and your friend here, Sandro, and your Villa di Castello?”
“What’s my part?” Sandro stopped sketching.
“I’m buying Villa di Castello from Lorenzo to bring it back to life. After all, before long, I’ll be marrying and will need a home of my own. And you, Sandro, are part of the deal. You’re going to be working with me instead of Lorenzo.”
“Don’t rush into the prison of marriage,” Lorenzo said, avoiding Sandro’s eyes.
“I have no intention of imprisoning myself in any way—unless you think surrounding myself with Beauty is an undesirable confinement,” Piero said, looking at Sandro’s sketch of him. “My nose! Too long like a trumpet flower. Lorenzo’s side of the family has noses like that.” Not waiting for the artist’s response, he put his arm around Sandro’s shoulder. “Without your genius, I can’t make Villa di Castello beautiful.”
Sandro pulled away, repulsed by Piero’s condescending touch and the unexpected news thrust upon him.
“And you’re sure you can finance this villa?” Lorenzo said. “You don’t get a spicciolo of your inheritance until your eighteenth birthday.”
“Imagine you, Lorenzo! Your end of the family doesn’t know everything about our money,” Piero said. “A cash transaction. It’s already waiting for you in a special account with no connection to your bank. Let’s settle on a price today. Give me Sandro to bring it back from the dead. Not that I meant to imply—with all your traveling—it’s gone a bit down, and I do love the country, the country where you no longer go, and my parents’ tasteless shack—God rest their souls—is hardly proper for me and my three sisters. What do you say, Cuginone?”
“I’d say you’re the big cousin—Cuginone—not I,” Lorenzo said. Turning to Sandro, “Could you work for such a young master?”
Sandro closed his sketchbook, stood, and walked over to a nearby rose bush. He could feel Piero’s envious eyes on him, scanning every inch of his body, his straight nose, the deep cleft of his chin, his dark blonde hair, deep-set light eyes. He even imagined Piero’s jealousy of the artist’s unconfined toes cradled in open leather sandals instead of the high boots Piero wore no matter the season.
Sandro plucked a dead rose from the bush. He pulled the brown petals away one by one and turned to Lorenzo. “God and Beauty are my masters. As long as Piero allows me to follow them I will work for him. But what about the other projects you wanted me to do?”
“With all the traveling ahead of me to keep this city safe, I’ll postpone them.”
Sandro sat next to Lorenzo to pour each of them another glass of wine. He could smell the strong perfume on his friend’s body. As it mixed with the sweat of the day, it had taken on a sour edge, but Sandro was used to this and found it comforting, especially when Lorenzo put his arm around Sandro’s shoulder.
“And besides, Sandro, the coffers are low. Our banks have lost the Pope’s account over the Imola mess, and I’m barely getting my name cleared over the alum mines debacle in Volterra. Selling Castello to Piero will give me some cash.”
“A daily trip from here would be impossible,” Sandro said.
“Exactly!” Piero released a slight burp as his head jerked. “You’ll stay with me!”
“Here I’m so close to my mother.” Sandro refused to look at Piero and spoke only to Lorenzo. “You know she’s not well.”
“We’ll send food to her daily and give you your own horse so you can visit her when you want,” Lorenzo said.
“I have the perfect stallion in mind for you,” Piero added. “Dario’s fast and gentle.”
“In addition to my stipend, I will need my assistant, Filippino, for several days, maybe even a few weeks, to help me build a studio there. And again from time to time as the work progresses.”
“All’s accounted for,” Lorenzo said. He removed his arm from Sandro’s shoulder. “You’ll find the country comfortable and quiet. You can roam wherever you like.”
“It is close to my older sister Oslavia’s convent,” Sandro said, trying to remember the last time he’d seen her, unable to recall her face, and not liking the sound of the word “roam.” What am I, a house pet who can roam and piss wherever he chooses but still is on a leash?
“Keeping Castello in our extended family appeals to me, Piero,” Lorenzo added.
“So?” Piero turned a glowing face toward Sandro.
Sandro stood to gather his sketching materials into a pouch, flung the strap over his head as he secured the bag to his waist. “I’d like to sleep on it.”
“Men die in their sleep,” Lorenzo said. “I’m off to Naples tomorrow for ten days. Make up your mind.”
“It sounds as though you’ve already decided for me, Lorenzo.”
“Go to your mother’s. See what she and your father need. Piero and I will work out the financial details without taking any more of your time. Plan to leave for Villa di Castello in two days’ time.”
“And what, young master Piero, would you like me to paint?” Sandro looked at the “hen” with shoulder epaulets and feathered hat.
“Whatever you want to paint.” Piero beamed, raising his arms out to the side in a wide, open posture suggesting the whole world. “You’ll be the one to decide. I’ll be at your service. We’ll bring beautiful girls to pose for you. If you like—”
“I don’t like!” Sandro’s glare had stopped Piero mid-sentence. “I choose my own models.”
“Come here a moment, Sandro,” Lorenzo said.
Lorenzo placed Piero’s right hand into Sandro’s right hand. “Shake hands, gentlemen, while I make a toast.”
“Cheer up, Sandro,” Piero said. He squeezed his pudgy fingers around Sandro’s hand. “You’ll be master of your art with me, I promise you! Whatever you want to do.”
“Here’s to the continuation of the highest ideals of Beauty for the city of Florence—and for the Medici family.” Lorenzo raised his glass.
As he gulped his wine, a sudden pinch of pain, almost a cramp in the center of Sandro’s chest, exploded. The intensity of the pinch was like the first loud rip when tightly woven cloth is being torn in two.
Without a word of greeting, Sandro tossed cuttings from the Medici garden to his parents as they sat in their humble courtyard.
“What’s wrong?” his mother, Smeralda, said, but Sandro had already escaped toward the stairs of their small apartment.
“Castello,” Sandro said, then fled up the stairs.
“A castor plant! Palma di Cristo!” His father, Mariano, leapt to grab the new plants. “We’ll be able to make our own oil!”
When Mariano turned to show his wife the precious plant, Smeralda said, “Something’s wrong.”
Mariano ignored her. When he turned back to dig a hole in the earth, she reached over her lap, picked up a stone, and threw it at her husband’s back.
They both looked toward the sound of Sandro upstairs slamming drawers and doors.
“This place is a Medici cemetery!” Sandro shouted. He threw silk tassels and a dust-encrusted candelabra out the window right onto the courtyard. “We’re choking in their hand-me-downs and you don’t even know it.”
“Don’t break anything!” Smeralda said, but it was too late. Thick velvet drapes flew from the window and a vase shattered on the ground.
“Those were valuable!” Smeralda squirmed in her chair to stand, but the pain in her feet forced her to sit back.
“They’re worthless if they keep out all the light. The vase was already chipped and water leaked out of it!” Sandro said. He peered at his parents from the window. “And what do you need with those banners, and this lance? Are you going to duel in a pageant, Father?”
“Throw it out,” Mariano said. “Throw it all out. It’s your mother who hoards. She’s afraid someone might see she’s spurned a Medici gift.”
“Spurn it!” said Sandro. “They’ve spurned me today. Cast me out like those moth-eaten drapes. “Get rid of him! Get rid of them!”
“Calm down, Son,” Mariano said.
Sandro dragged a canvas bag down the steps, sank to the ground at his parents’ feet.
“After all these years, can you believe it? Now I’m going to have the fifteen-year-old Piero for a patron. The puttana!”
“I told you the day would come,” Smeralda told Mariano.
“What day are you talking about?” Sandro said.
“When you are told to move on, to move out.”
“Don’t make the boy feel worse,” Mariano said.
“Who said I feel bad? I couldn’t breathe upstairs with all those old, dusty, and broken discards. And you, Mother, for someone who has so much bitterness toward my adoptive mother, Lucrezia, you save every scrap she’s given you.”
“I pray for her and her family daily,” Smeralda said.
“You hate her. Admit it!” Sandro said.
“She’s not devout,” Smeralda said. “She entertains foreigners as though they’re the same blood. Living in that house all these years has robbed you of the joys of a simple life and the comfort of a simple faith. You won’t worship God if you only worship what you and those intellectuals call ‘Beauty.’”
“And you don’t worship these flowers?” Mariano said to his wife.
“And every scrap of cloth the Medicis have given us?” Sandro added.
“You’re a servant of God like your sister,” Mariano said. “She prays with words. You do it with paint.”
“Mother’s right. I’m not a servant of God. I’m a servant of Beauty. If they are the same, I serve both. If they are different, I prefer Beauty. The days of painting only Bible stories are over.”
“But the truth is,” Smeralda said, “you’re a servant of the Medici. They ship you from place to place like cattle.”
“Don’t exaggerate, Mother.” Sandro moved closer to her, lifted her feet into his hands. He removed rags, scraps of more Medici cloth, from around her swollen ankles. He put out his palm as she dug deep into her apron to remove a small vial of oil and placed it in his hand.
“At last they gave us a palma di Cristo plant,” she said. “And now you won’t be around to put the castor oil on me.”
“I took it without asking.”
Smeralda had concocted a poor person’s substitute salve—a mixture of gardenia-scented olive oil. She used it over the years on all the members of her family except herself. Sandro dripped a few drops of it on the fine white cracks that covered her heels in the pattern of a reptile’s hide.
“Press harder, dear, especially around the ankles. I always walk better after you’ve—are we ever going to see you?”
“What about all those years of schooling they offered me and the fun I had with Lorenzo?” Sandro asked her.
“They were paying you to be his companion, to entertain him.” The wounded expression on her son’s face made her regret her words.
“I had genuine love and affection from them, especially from Lucrezia,” Sandro continued.
“You had her gratitude. They used you to train Lorenzo’s eyes, to give him the sensibility of an artist. What you were born with.”
“Leave the boy alone,” Mariano said. “This is what serving the first family of Florence costs.”
“This boy is no longer a boy. He’s a thirty-three-year-old man.” She handed the strips of cloth to Sandro to cover her feet again. “Get yourself a wife before it’s too late or this bloated Piero boy will send you off to Rome next.”
“You know what I think of marriage,” Sandro said. “A few nights ago I dreamed I was married, and it made me so wretched that to avoid falling asleep and having the dream again, I got out of bed. All night I rushed about the streets of Florence as if I were mad! At least you can wish me good luck, Mother.”
“I told you Sandro’s not the soil you plant a vineyard in,” Mariano said.
Smeralda ignored her husband, and she continued lecturing her son. “You know how the Pope sees that whole family. His hands are in the Pazzis’ pockets now. You could be hired away by the Pope and never come back.”
“And you, Father?”
“I wish you and your sister passion in your hearts whatever you do.”
“How do you know what’s in Oslavia’s heart?” Smeralda challenged Mariano. “You haven’t seen her in five years.”
“Because it was you who insisted we send her away!” Mariano glared at his wife. “I know my children’s hearts from their first cry. That never changes.”
“And I know what my children need from the first moment they suckled at my breast!”
“Basta!” groaned Sandro. “You’re making it worse! I’ll judge Oslavia’s heart when I see her.”
Mariano moved closer to Sandro. “Don’t ever forget—your humble beginnings will buy you a place in heaven far greater than any throne of a rich man on earth. You might as easily have been the court barber or a gold-leaf maker like your brother Antonio, rest his soul. Though you have lived with the Medici, you’ll always be a tanner’s son.”
“I might have been better off, Father. Enough talk. Make some tea from the mint plants, Mother, and don’t worry about me. Maybe I’ll have a home of my own some day to grow the cuttings from your garden.”
He stood to brush the dirt off his clothing. “I’m leaving for Villa di Castello tomorrow. Whether you like it or not. Whether I like it or not.”
Once back inside the Medici Palace on this final evening there, Sandro was haunted by his mother’s words, “…from place to place like cattle.” Climbing the stairs to his room, he stopped midway and slipped into the tiny palace chapel. Kneeling at the altar, in the dim light of the windowless room, he closed his eyes. After a few moments, he rose to his feet, and as he had done numerous times, he studied the Gozzoli fresco covering all four walls of the chapel. The scene was a procession of the Three Kings on their way to Bethlehem—the biblical theme Lorenzo’s grandfather Cosimo had commissioned to portray the Medici household. Discovered by Cosimo during that period, Sandro had been transferred at the age of fifteen from Fra Filippo Lippi’s studio to live and work inside the Medici Palace.
Sandro’s eyes passed from John Palaeologus, the Emperor of the East, in robes, turbaned crown, and with a melancholy face, to the Patriarch of Constantinople and the bearded Greek scholars from Constantinople. In the procession were Piero de’ Medici; Lorenzo’s brother, Giuliano, and the elder Cosimo with his personal emblem of three peacock feathers. Though Sandro had been treated as a son by Lorenzo’s father, Piero the Elder, Sandro’s face was conspicuously absent. Even the household dogs made it, but not I.
Lorenzo, who was ten at the time of the portrait, was the most dramatic of the three kings—wearing a jeweled crown and clad in exquisite royal splendor, pale skin, dark blonde hair. Like many artists of the day, Gozzoli had taken license to paint Lorenzo symbolically. With the laurel bush in the background—the word from which Lorenzo’s name evolved—and the pattern of five balls—the Medici emblem decorating the horse’s saddle—this was surely a depiction of Lorenzo. And yet, this angelic being who personified innocence looked more like Sandro as a young boy. On their rare visits to the Medici Palace to see their son, Sandro’s mother and father had always argued over whether Lorenzo’s face in Gozzoli’s painting was Sandro’s. In spite of the figure’s skin tone and hair color being the same as their son’s, and not Lorenzo’s, Sandro had denied it. Today, under the yoke of his dismissal and his mother’s words, Sandro allowed himself to not only recognize his likeness there, but to claim it.
All those years he considered himself a part of the Medici family, especially when he and Lorenzo lived as brothers roaming through the palace and the city, joking and laughing. Lorenzo idolized his elder adopted brother, but now with the casual tilt of a wine glass, he had relegated Sandro to Villa di Castello. Younger artists would take his place in Florence. Even the devoted Gozzoli, who for months on end had painted the walls by candlelight into the early hours of the morning, had been sent away after Cosimo’s death.
Sandro turned to the altar once again. Still, he told himself as he knelt, and this time crossing himself fervently, he had been blessed. He had received the privilege of culture and learning while under the Medici roof, gifts he would not have known living under the roof of his father, Mariano, a humble tanner. Noble blood or not, he decided he would forever claim those gifts as his own. After all, he had earned those gifts: worked for them, painted for them, decorated insipid banners and posters and table settings for them.
But on the climb to his room, Sandro’s head burst at the idea of serving the flatulent Piero—a patron half his age. “Give me Sandro,” Piero had said. And Lorenzo had released him as Sandro’s mother had said, as though he were a head of cattle.
As Sandro lay on his bed, he lifted his mattress and withdrew a tiny secret sketchbook. He turned to the profile drawing of Piero from the day before. He drew Piero again, only with donkey ears, a trumpet flower nose, and a paintbrush tied to his tail. Sandro drew himself whipping the donkey. He fell asleep with a prayer on his lips: “Help me, dear God, to get through this.”
And God answered his request an hour later, waking him with a burst of energy to pack. Soon trunks and sacks covered the floor of his room. Sitting on the edge of the bed, another wave of exhaustion slipped over him. “Alone. Uncared for. A barque in the waters of my life going nowhere,” he wrote in his sketchbook before putting it away. He had walked through a day of obligatory smiles and farewells until his façade had withered. Sleep was too passive an escape, at least for his final night in the city, so he pushed himself off the edge of his bed to his feet. He checked under the bed for forgotten items, retrieved the tiny sketchbook again, slipped it into his waist pouch, and crept down a back staircase out into the street.
He walked toward the Piazza della Signoria, barely noticing the pink clouds over the Arno. He focused instead on the bats flitting in and out through the last rays of sunset. Chatter filled his head. Questions. Voices yea or nay. Several people who knew him offered an evening greeting, but Sandro heard nothing until a voice, half man and half beast, shook him out of his fog.
As he drew closer to a small crowd, he saw that the voice stuttered out of the mouth of an emaciated monk dressed in Dominican robes, soiled and shredded. When the few bystanders walked away, Sandro remained.
“Re-re-re-repent and sa-sa-sa-save your soul,” the monk whispered, causing Sandro to shiver. Although he expected to smell the scents of filth, the young man’s body instead exuded a warm, spicy, bitter odor, with smoky and musky undertones—a mixture of incense and the medicinal salves Sandro had smelled on the hands of the palace physicians.
Someone from the inner circle of Lorenzo’s Platonic Academy as well as his fellow members of Florence’s artists’ brotherhood, the Company of Saint Luke, had warned its members to avoid Dominicans because of their extreme views. Something in the piercing eyes of this frail, wiry man, barely over twenty, with his hawk-like nose, and strange speech, held Sandro to the spot.
“Let me buy you a drink to soothe your tired throat,” Sandro said.
“I’ve sworn to stay here until twenty bells. God could send me someone at the last moment whose soul I might rescue from this debauched city.”
“All is vanity here. Madonnas who look like whores painted by artists like you who wear the crest of Saint Luke sewn to your clothing. You have lost your purpose. You paint whatever comes into your heads as though your mission to glorify Christ were a thing of the past. Those talents were given to you by God in order to tell His stories to those who cannot read.”
“I’ll pay. We’ll talk more about your ideas on art. Perhaps I’ll share them with my Saint Luke members at the next meeting if your argument is worthy.”
“I should like to show you what you already know to be true. But I won’t join you for meat or drink, only, perhaps, a sprig of parsley and some soup.”
“Meat will put some flesh on those bones. Your voice will grow more convincing,” Sandro said.
On his way to the tavern, Sandro turned around to observe the monk from a distance. With a few strokes of the pencil in his sketchbook, he created the hooded face with a penis nose and pubic beard. On the facing page he wrote the words, “Repent. Repent. Repent,” as though they were flowing out of the mouth of the penis nose, its tip with tiny delicate lips. With a laugh he tucked the sketchbook back into his pouch and stepped into the tavern.
Old Faranese hobbled over to give Sandro the usual smothering hug. Born with a clubfoot, Faranese dragged it behind him as he walked, sweeping whatever debris was in his path. Still, “Sweeper,” as he was called by most, managed to marry, have a family, and make a life for himself in this tavern in the heart of Florence.
At the moment the bells rang twenty times, Sandro swallowed the first of the roasted sparrows on crusts of bread and Faranese brought him an empty plate with a note on it.
Dear Signor Botticelli, Excuse me for addressing you directly by your name even though we have only met on the street. Thank you for your offer to feed me tonight, but I have had the good fortune to find a bench inside the Signoria on which to sleep. The bell ringer comes from my home city of Ferrara and insisted on hosting me, but the door will be locked at 9:30.
Food and especially drink are two things I avoid as a matter of faith. The flesh carries more sin than we can slough off in one lifetime. Being a man of the cloth I must prepare myself to receive the word of God at any moment. I leave Florence in the morning. Perhaps on another trip to your fair but ailing city I will sit and talk with you again. May Christ govern us who master nothing, Girolamo (Gerome) Savonarola
Poor monkey. Sandro pulled out his sketchbook. To the penis-faced prelate he added a monkey’s tail.
Faranese appeared with steaming sweetbreads smothered in cooked mushrooms and a side of two peacock tongues with a dipping sauce.
“Do you know anything about the monk who sent the note?” Sandro asked.
“A strange incompetent.”
“Bologna’s bishop sent him here to save our city. Stutters like a frightened child. Talks to himself, and has been laughed off every street corner. Apparently he’s part of a group who brought several weavers into town, most of them young girls. Perhaps being so close to the female sex has rattled his mind. Whatever it is, he’s been recalled to Bologna.”
“How do you know all this?”
“The other monks who traveled with him came in here, but he was too good to set foot in a common tavern. Wants to keep his flesh pure.”
“He has the hand of a rich, well-educated man, not the scrawl of a country priest,” said Sandro. “I’ve seen this script from the pens of intellectuals at Lorenzo’s who speak many languages and come from wealth.”
“They say he was to be a doctor like his father and his father’s father, but fainted at the sight of blood. All the other siblings are in business and finance but this one found his way to the cloth after the woman he wanted spurned him when he was a mere seventeen. After that he renounced the world of flesh.”
“And how do you know all this? Surely his fellow clerics didn’t share such knowledge with you.”
“Oh, paths cross through this tavern. You hear a little, you learn a little. I put it all together. He was the one who sought Niomi, daughter of Titus, the Greek Jew. Titus always came in here to boast about the many suitors who presented themselves to his voluptuous daughter. She finally chose a man of her own faith, another doctor, who keeps her swathed in silks. More and more yards of it are needed as her girth expands after each child.”
As the wine helped Sandro dull his melancholy, Savonarola’s repulsive, yet hypnotic voice buzzed in the back of his mind, the prelude to the sting of a tiny mosquito, whose poison, at first unnoticed, might soon infect the whole man.
While his wine helped Sandro slip into a mental fog, Savonarola made his way to a tiny side door in the Palazzo Vecchio. He studied the sculpted head on the tip of the doorknocker—the image of a forlorn soul he feared resembled his own contorted face.
Before he could knock it against the door, an old man in rags, and with charcoal streaks across his hands and face, opened the door a crack. He crossed himself and bowed to let in the young friar.
“Your gracious Eminence,” he said. “I have prepared a bed for you. An inch of straw as you requested and the roughest woolen blanket I could find.”
“Excellent, Maurizio,” Savonarola answered, “I am ready to meet the Almighty Father in my dreams.”
“But your dinner? I have prepared fried greens Ferrara-style.”
“That would cause me homesickness. Pain of the heart, even if it brings pleasure to my belly. A simple cup of the water in which you cooked the greens will suffice.”
“But I have already tossed it out into the alley.”
“I’ll eat something midday tomorrow—after I have prayed for wisdom and communion with God’s word.”
“Does your family know you walk around in filthy rags, sleep on rocks, and sip only the water in which vegetables have been boiled?”
“I have only one Father, Maurizio. And He is happy when I do His work. What other father could compete with Him?”
“As you say, Girolamino. As you say.”
“Please, Maurizio. I am not a child. I’m Savonarola.”
“As you say, sir, as you say.”
“And please, no sir. I am your humble servant as much as you are offering to be mine.”
“As you say. As you say.” Maurizio backed away from Gerome.
“One more request, Maurizio,” Gerome said. The old man turned to listen but Savonarola said nothing. He knelt on the floor and pulled out of his sack a whip with small pieces of sharp metal beads woven into its strands of rope. This he laid on the cobblestones beside him. He slipped off his robe, revealing raw wounds and scratches on his back, before he curled himself into a ball, tucking his head to his knees with his back rounded like a rabbit.
Maurizio said nothing but did not move.
“If you truly want to serve me, you will do it,” Savonarola said. “I’m too exhausted tonight to do it myself. You’ll be helping me get closer to Him. I beg you.”
Maurizio picked up and unwound the whip. “But I have no experience of these things.”
“Have you never whipped an ass?”
“Use all the strength you have.”
“I… cannot. I am not God.”
“You serve Him if you do it. Now!”
Awkwardly, Maurizio spread his feet apart, and with both hands around the neck of the whip, he flung it into the air and brought it down with all his might. The whip’s end snapped against Savonarola’s flesh.
“Again! Five times. Again.”
Maurizio summoned his strength to crack the whip against the young monk’s bony back. A drop of blood splattered onto his own face. The shock of it caused him to release the whip and scamper away into the dark night.
Gerome reached into his sack, removed a small leather purse from which he squeezed a salve of myrrh extract, the same smoky odor that had filled Sandro’s nostrils earlier that evening. He spread the burning ointment onto his open wounds, and crawled across the floor onto his makeshift bed to find the most uncomfortable position. Every breath, every action, no matter how seemingly insignificant, was an opportunity for bodily renunciation, and with it came a pleasure of its own. Tonight it was his right shoulder blade that pressed into the cobblestone floor of the Signoria’s atrium. Above him he noticed the shadowy flitting of bats.
Sleep was his biggest adventure because it was in his dreams that God often appeared to him, renewing his spirit and offering the next step in his path toward salvation. Visions had appeared to him since he was a young boy. They had ceased during the period of his infatuation with Niomi, but he had crawled out of that dark well with his virginity intact before he took his vows. He had entered the order clean. Unsoiled.
As he ground his shoulder blade into the floor and relished the stinging sensation from the open wounds, that personal member between his legs rose against his will and desire for purity. The moment his prayers would quiet and his breathing go deep within his belly, the beast would rise again, hard, erect, and wagging like some family pet wanting to be taken out for a walk. Not unlike a divining rod for water, this personal member never ceased to badger him, pulling him up and out into a darkness vaster than God’s heavens. It was surely the call of the Devil.
His life now was about the resistance to that call. Twenty-four-hour vigilance to fight off the demon growing from within his own body, pulling him away from his Father’s work. But anyone under such attack by the devil could surely be capable of its extreme opposite and become the object of God’s love, he told himself. Saint Augustine’s words confirmed that a God so mighty would surely fill him with the grace to defeat the demon.
He bent the stiff member, squeezing it between his thighs, and prayed again for the moment of temptation to pass. Several shadows scurried across the floor. The sight of those rodents of the night put a stab of fear into Gerome’s belly, shrinking his rebellious member and allowing him to collapse into sleep as the words on his lips continued, “He has saved me from my filthy self. Jesus be praised.”