February 22, 2009

Signora da Vinci by Robin Maxwell

Signora da Vinci is the riveting tale of Caterina, the unmarried mother of Leonardo da Vinci, and her determination to be a part of her son’s amazing life. This is Robin Maxwell’s first foray into Italian Renaissance history, her previous writing in Tudor historical fiction, with such novels as The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn and Mademoiselle Boleyn. I quickly became immersed in the story of Caterina, daughter of Ernesto of Vinci. Ernesto is Vinci’s apothecary but secretly also an alchemist and heretic, training the precocious Caterina in all the arts he knows. As Caterina approaches womanhood she feels stifled by her insular life and one day while gathering herbs she meets Piero, the son of the most prominent family in Vinci. They meet secretly over months and Piero, desiring to marry her, asks his father for permission. His father is irate and sends him to Florence, leaving Caterina behind, pregnant and desolate. From here unravels a gripping tale of a mother’s devotion to her genius son and her need to be close to him no matter the sacrifice. Leonardo’s intelligence is apparent as a young child, and Caterina pleads with Piero to arrange for an apprentice for him in Florence. When Leonardo leaves, Caterina spirit is broken, knowing she must be close to her son or she will die Ernesto suggests an astounding plan that will allow Caterina to be a part of Leonardo’s life. Caterina is one of the most fully developed and best-written characters I have read about in fiction. Robin Maxwell has given Caterina an amazing mind, fortitude, capacity for love, ingenuity, daring, loyalty and openness. As Caterina evolves the story evolves, branching down different paths that question religion, love, faith, identity, and knowledge. We are exposed to new ideas in every chapter…Signora da Vinci is not only the story of Caterina and Leonardo but a select treatise on Florence and the art, philosophy and tensions between the church and scholars of the time. A minor detail, but it would have been helpful for dates at each chapter header. I was always wondering the ages of the characters at points in the novel. Signora da Vinci is a refreshing and unique perspective in historical fiction that is amazingly successful. Highly recommended. I would also suggest The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant for more great historical fiction of Florence and the Italian Renaissance. My Rating: 4.5


  1. Woo Hoo! I'm so glad you enjoyed the novel as much as I did! You wrote a fabulous review and thanks for the links!

  2. Thank you for the great review. I am looking forward to reading this one quite a bit. I enjoyed reading The Birth of Venus a few years ago, and was so glad you mentioned it.

  3. Amy it was a great book...thanks again for the contest.

    SdV had elements similar to BofV but is definitely an original story with a unique POV. Enjoy!