Ginevra is the wife of a kind but distant wool merchant twice her age. Her marriage was arranged by her uncle and Lorenzo de’ Medici, and despite her convent education and spirited wit, she’s used to having little say in her life. However, when Venetian ambassador Bernardo Bembo decides to make her his Platonic lover and commissions her portrait, it pushes her to consider delicate matters of the heart, especially when Bembo seems to want more than idolizing her from afar. Her sympathetic mentor, Abbess Scolastica, gives her wise advice on how she can retain her virtue and make her own voice heard.
Ginevra’s movements around the city create a richly detailed tour of Florentine history and culture, from an exciting joust at the Piazza di Santa Croce to the peace of the Le Murate convent – famous for its sisters’ gold-thread embroidery – to a fancy dinner party at the Palazzo Medici, where the strange new table fork is introduced. Elliott also brings readers into the studio with Leonardo, imagining the artistic decisions behind Ginevra’s portrait. Her research is thorough and enthusiastic, so much so that Ginevra’s story sometimes fades into the background, but anyone fascinated by the setting won’t mind. Speaking to the theme of women’s agency in restrictive times, this is a beautiful and thoughtful read for teenagers on up.
Da Vinci's Tiger by L. M. Elliott was published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, in late 2015 ($17.99, hardcover, 304pp). I had been pre-approved for this title on Edelweiss and had some free time over the Christmas holidays, so I started reading it and got into the story quickly. This review also appeared in February's Historical Novels Review.
Although you'll find this novel categorized as Young Adult, it can be read and enjoyed as an adult title just as easily. Are there other YA historical novels you can think of that feature heroines who are already married as the book opens? That aspect was new for me, and I appreciated the author's adherence to historical accuracy in that respect, and others.
Read more about Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Ginevra (above), the only painting of his on display in the Americas, at the National Gallery of Art website.
* The one line of poetry by Ginevra de' Benci that's come down to us is: "I beg your pardon, I am a mountain tiger."