Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Signora da Vinci

I have been on a Robin Maxwell streak and after reading Mademoiselle Boleyn, I was curious to read more about Leonardo da Vinci's life.  This book is set in the mid 1400's and focuses on the life of his mother, Caterina.  She was raised by her father Ernesto, her mother having died soon after childbirth.  An aunt also helped cook for them, Magdalena.  Her father owned and ran an apothecary shop, selling medicinal herbs and such to the city of Vinci.  At age eight, the number of Infinity, Ernesto began teaching Caterina even more feverishly.  He began with the story of his apprenticeship to the Florentine historian and scholar, Poggio Bracciolini, who was employed by Cosimo de Medici.   After the destruction of the great library in Alexandria in Egypt, many scrolls were scattered around the world.  The Christian church fathers hid them, because they were deemed heretical.  Heretical means a notion that cannot be found in the Holy Scripture.  It was very dangerous in those times to be a heretic.  And that is what Ernesto was.  He introduced Caterina, his beloved daughter, to his world of knowledge and heretical books.  He also introduced Caterina to his alchemical laboratory and furnace. 

Caterina tended the apothecary garden, watching the seeds grow and gathering needed supplies in the woods.  She read Plato, Euripides, Homer, Xenophon, Ovid, Virgil, Livius and Cato.  In appearances, Caterina and her father were devout Christians.  They attended Mass, made communion, and swore allegiance to the pope and Rome.  Ernesto took care of the friars at no charge- he said "it was better to be a living hypocrite than a dead truth teller." (page 17).  In private, Ernesto called Caterina Cato, and they worshipped the natural world, the Elements and Cosmos.  In time Caterina hit puberty and didn't deal with it very well.  She began wandering more for longer periods of time, and that is how she met Piero, son of Antonio.  With her hormones raging they decided they wanted to marry each other.  Piero promised to ask his father's permission, and they made love that night.  Caterina didn't hear from Piero the next day, and decided to find him.  She ran into his brother Francesco, who told her it had gone badly.  Caterina finds herself pregnant from the one night, but still Piero's wealthy family won't let them marry.  After giving birth to a son, Piero and his father came to take him the next day.  Piero had already married in that time, and the family wanted their only grandchild raised with them.

Caterina talks the family into letting her be his wet nurse, and she lives in the barn with him for two years.  Only Francesco is kind to her- the rest of the family, including Piero and his barren wife, ignore her.  Once it was time to wean him, Caterina was once again forced out.  She moved back home with her father and picked up work again.  She lived without her son for several years.  Francesco would help her meet her son Leonardo in secret, and he still remembered her.  Soon the family was too busy with the death of their grandfather, and Caterina brought Leonardo to live with them during the day.  Ernesto and Caterina began teaching Leonardo what they already knew.  They discovered during this time he had a gift for art and drawing, particularly parts of flowers and insects.  It was very detailed work.  Piero had moved to Florence, making his way up in the Notaries Guild, still had no children.  Caterina wrote him and asked him to help find a patron for Leonardo to continue his art.  He agreed, and so Leonardo leaves her again.  The town was not kind to Caterina, after she had a bastard child.  Soon she fell into misery again, missing her son.  With her father she devises a great plan.  She will dress herself as a man, with a horn to urinate in public.  She will go open up an abandoned home her father had owned with Poggio, and open an apothecary shop.  This way she will be safe as a man, and will be able to see Leonardo.

Caterina sets off on her adventure, now Cato The Apothecary and uncle to Leonardo.  It takes her a few months to clean and set up her shop, and then she/he sets off to see Leonardo.  Maestro Verrochio's bottega is where she found Leonardo working.  He is quick to join in with her conspiracy and treats her as his uncle.  Only in the privacy of her bedroom do they embrace and he can call her Mama.  Leonardo is very talented and hansome and his work takes him far, but after a sodomy trial he becomes somewhat reclusive.  He dissects the human body and draws all the intricate parts, is more concerned with being a philosopher than a Christian.  He refused to hear mass, to eat animal meat, and he loved both men and women.  Cato/Caterina frequently fears for him and his heretical beliefs and drawings. 

Cato settles into life in Florence, and is soon friends with Lorenzo de' Medici and his family.  They become patrons of her/his apothecary shop.  With Cato's wealth of knowledge, he is welcomed into the Platonic Academy.  Soon, mayhem erupts the peace of Florence as a priest, Fra Savonarola  "The Prophet of Doom", spreads evil in the city of Florence and frightens the people.  Lorenzo's brother Giovanni  is murdered and Lorenzo soon after dies from gout, plunging the city into chaos.  With the help of her son Leonardo, now in Milan with his friend Zoroastre, her father who has come back, Bianca Sforza the future Holy Roman Empress, and Pope Alexander, they work to bring down the evil Savonarola to honor Lorenzo and his great work.  He was known as Lorenzo the Magnificent.  Cato had fallen in love with Lorenzo and eventually had shared that she/he was actually Caterina, a female.  They had fallen in love but never shared that in public.

They are successful in bringing Savonarola to justice, and it seems Caterina ends her days as a woman in Milan.  I'm not sure if she ever returned to Florence once Lorenzo had died and The Great Work was done.  It isn't known what age Caterina had Leonardo, but that he was taken from her at a day old.  His father Piero never acknowledged or praised him, moving on with his career and own family.  With such an educated grandfather and mother, I don't find it hard to believe his genius came from them and not his father.  It was historically documented that several women dressed as men to be safer and have more rights and opportunities.  It was highly dangerous for Caterina to attempt such a disguise but a mother's love can do amazing things.  I am sure Leonardo was a highly complicated person, as many during that time experimented with their sexuality, alchemy and the occult.  When Savonarola came to power, it threatened The Platonic Academy during this period of Italian Renaissance.  Books had to be destroyed or hidden very well to avoid death.  Lorenzo had been a patron  of the Academy and that's why it is believable he was good friends and lovers with Caterina/Cato.  This book had so much to cover I don't even know if I grazed the surface.  I learned about Leonardo by learning about his mother and the time period and place he lived in.  He worked beside other amazing artists like Botticelli. 

This book was very sexual so I had to skip a bunch, I don't feel it is necessary to make a book good.  I recommend if you have a strong stomach and are passionate about history and learning about new time periods and people.  It was a creative way to tell a story about Leonardo da Vinci's mother who isn't well documented, about love, religion, knowledge and art.

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