Monday, April 28, 2008

An interview with Linda Proud, part 1

I'm pleased to be presenting this interview with Linda Proud, author of a trilogy of historical novels set in Renaissance Florence. I'd first read her novel A Tabernacle for the Sun (1st edition Allison & Busby, 1997) ten years ago after spotting the HNR review, which called it "historical fiction at its best." Pallas & the Centaur (Godstow Press, 2003) and The Rebirth of Venus (2008) complete what she terms the Botticelli Trilogy. No other novels I've read about the Renaissance put all the pieces together so well, showing readers the leading personalities of this incredibly creative period in European history as well as delving deeply into the philosophical changes behind it.

The interview is based primarily on the final novel in the trilogy, released in February 2008 by Godstow Press, the publishing company founded by Linda and her husband, David Smith. All three can be read independently, but to absorb the period and storyline more fully, readers may prefer to begin at the beginning, with Tabernacle.

The Rebirth of Venus picks up the story of Tommaso de' Maffei, the protagonist of the first two books, as he approaches middle age. It is now 1505, and Tommaso, a tutor at a London boys' school, finds his heart has grown empty. Disconnected from the principles of philosophy he absorbed in his youth, as a disciple of Florence's famed Platonic Academy, he is unable to interest his students in their lessons. John Colet – Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, an early proponent of English humanism, and Tommaso's mentor – decides to send him back to Italy to revitalize his spirit. As Tommaso makes the journey back home, he continues writing an account of his earlier life for his traveling companion and friend, Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, which he first began in A Tabernacle for the Sun.

Tommaso's account of the 1480s and 90s, which alternates with his pensive story of self-discovery years later, places readers into the very heart of the Florentine Renaissance. As Tommaso interacts with and learns from many Renaissance-era notables – philosophers Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Angelo Poliziano, painter Sandro Botticelli, religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola, and of course Lorenzo de' Medici himself – readers will not only absorb but experience what it was like to be an active participant in this exciting, transformative age. The Botticelli Trilogy is an impressive achievement; the novels are refreshingly different from other historical fiction, in terms of the language used, the depth of the philosophical issues discussed (and they are presented as fresh and enlightening, rather than stuffy and dry), and the time period described. I highly recommend them all.

The novels can be obtained directly from the Godstow Press website or from standard sources such as Amazon UK. Linda also blogs about historical fiction and publishing topics at I hope you enjoy reading this interview; Part 2 will be posted on Wednesday.


Given that you've spent over thirty years studying and writing about Renaissance Florence, what about the period first caught your attention? Why does it continue to fascinate you?

In my early 20s I suffered from agoraphobia, brought on by a series of catastrophes – loss of love, of home, of job – and I became extremely withdrawn. I found solace in looking at Pre-Raphaelite paintings and rather fell in love with Edward Burne Jones. Then one day I asked myself what ‘pre-Raphael’ meant, and this led me to Botticelli. After having read several art historical books on him, I wanted to know more about his life, about where he lived and when. Discovering he lived in the same city at the same time as Leonardo da Vinci, I wondered what they might have said to each other. Novels tend to begin with such questions.

However, what really captivated me was something – someone – else. Reading a book about Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence in Botticelli’s time, I came across a couple of lines on the character of the poet, Angelo Poliziano, and knew that they were defamatory. I was so certain of it that I wrote Wrong! in the margin. And then I sat and stared at what I had written, for I had never heard of this man before, so how did I know that I wasn’t reading the truth? It was a sense of simpatico. It seemed to me that he was probably a Cancerian and had been misunderstood. I’m a Cancerian myself and, at that time, felt thoroughly misunderstood. So my first piece of real research involved finding the birth date of Poliziano, and I had to go to a more specialist library for that. Sure enough, he was born in July. That was the first moment of frisson, of knowing things I had no right or reason to know.

There were to be very many more, and just as peculiar. It frightened me at first, but I learned to trust it. For instance, when I decided to write a novel, I thought that I must have a fictional protagonist, one that would not be tied by historical fact but who could move around at my will. The first character I created was called ‘Raphael da Volterra’ but as research deepened, I discovered he had existed. So I created his brother, Tommaso. There’s a possibility that he existed, too, but frankly I don’t want to know.

Most of the research, which took eleven years, was into the life of Poliziano, although he was to become just one character of many and really the novels are about Tommaso, but I hope I have gone some way to redeeming his character. Even five hundred years later, falsehoods put about by his enemies and those who murdered him are still being perpetuated by otherwise sound historians. Lorenzo de’ Medici would not have made a life-long friend of a self-serving pedophile!

Poliziano became my guide and my muse. Just reading the books he had read himself put me in touch with the classics and gave me the education I never received at school or college. Despite all creative writing classes, essentially we teach ourselves how to write, but if you keep good company in your reading, your style develops by osmosis. Poliziano was my best and closest companion.

Most novels about the Italian Renaissance focus on its leading families, artists, and literary notables, but barely touch on the transformative philosophical changes that took place -- the actual looking back to ancient texts for inspiration in art, religion, literature, methods of learning, and so forth. Did you deliberately try to write something different, to tell a story that hadn't previously been told in fiction?

No, there was nothing deliberate about it, it was more personal than that. What appealed to me was that things I was interested in, astrology, natural medicine, magic – things which, in the 70s, were very ‘alternative’ indeed – were real to these characters. In a way, I was following in the footsteps of Mary Renault, whose novels set in ancient Greece had either turned me into a Platonist or brought out a philosophy which until then had been latent. So I was attracted by Marsilio Ficino and the Platonic Academy. Starting the novel just happened to coincide with my going to a school of practical philosophy, and at that point life and imagination began to fuse. As a child in the 50s I had found daily life so incredibly dull that I’d developed a very strong faculty of imagination and a private world closed to others. Now I was coming out into the light like a butterfly from a chrysalis, released by these philosophers and poets of the fifteenth century and the art they inspired. The agoraphobia lifted off not long after the project began.

The characters in your novels clearly belong to their own era, and not to ours. How did you manage to leave behind modern times so completely and inhabit the mindset of a man, a fictional disciple of the Platonic Academy, who lived over five hundred years ago?

It was not a conscious effort. Although my husband would disagree, especially when I’m parking the car, I believe I think like a man. As a child I had always preferred to play with boys rather than girls, was always a cowboy and never a cowgirl, let alone a mother or a nurse, so I wasn’t aware that there was a potential difficulty in crossing genders in writing. I was aware of the difficulty in crossing nationalities but as I began to visit Florence, I discovered that the Tuscans are very akin to the English in character although, of course, more demonstrative in their emotions. And as I say, the mindset of a Platonist was already my own.

To be honest, in my own judgment I thought Tommaso was too emotional and feminine, and that everyone would notice. Instead, something curious happened. I heard from several male readers that the novels made them cry. I wanted to put a banner around Pallas and the Centaur with the legend, ‘The book that makes men cry!’, but my husband dissuaded me.

I had much more trouble with the female characters than the male ones. For some reason in the first drafts the women came out disneyfied. I had an idea about women which every ounce of my own being contradicted. Somehow or other I woke up from this stereotypical and male view of women, looked at myself, studied the women I admired, and started to create some real characters. All historical novels today seem to feature a ‘feisty’ female, but often they are 21st century women in period dress. I had to discover the real strengths in these women of the Renaissance and what I found is that women then, as women now, have a depth of character which is uniquely feminine. Being feminine doesn’t mean looking beautiful and having an empty head: it means having strength and stamina, having wisdom. Being a strong woman is not being a masculine woman, not at all. It is being feminine. We have allowed ourselves to be led astray with regard to gender differences and women fight to slough off an identity which was never true. So there is no point in wanting to be a man – being a woman is great!

Although I’m not a feminist in the accepted sense, I do find it infuriating that no records were kept of these women – the documentary evidence of their lives is shockingly thin. I went all the way to Montepulciano to find out what I could about Maria Poliziana, only to discover that there is nothing to be found. Not so much as a record of birth or death. I’ve no idea where she was buried or when. That’s amazing, that history recorded only half the population. But to think that means that men considered women to be of no account would be a mistake. One only has to read what the men said about them.

As to the difference in time, obviously one has to discover through research what they had then which we don’t have now, and vice versa, and strike out all references to, say, tomatoes, or any metaphor with a modern basis (‘he was galvanized into action’). Among the good companions a writer should keep are literary folk a generation or so older. They have a great sense of language, of what is modern and what isn’t. One had me check the date of every word – every word – against The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (which is the big one, but not the biggest). She allowed me to use anything up to Shakespeare’s date, but nothing after it. That was a terrific exercise in revision and what sense of authenticity I’ve achieved has been due to that.

One of the joys of writing historical fiction is that you have the opportunity to use an ennobled, heightened form of the language which is denied to us today. Language has changed so much, not just in the last five hundred but in the last fifty years. It’s so thin and denuded these days. I couldn’t bear to write a book set in modern times for that reason. Whenever you read books that have both contemporary and historical sections, the contemporary parts seem to lack all vigor. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas charts this decline of language brilliantly, from the gorgeous cadences of the 19th century to the guttural gobbledegook of the future.

How did you decide to frame your novels around three different paintings by Botticelli? Was this the idea from the beginning?

From the beginning I knew that the plot of A Tabernacle for the Sun would be mirrored by his Primavera but as a character, Botticelli was to be a minor one. There’s really not much known about Botticelli’s life and I didn’t want to go making it up. The title of that first book came from a psalm which I just happened upon. I loved the poetry of it, and the multiple implications of its meaning (both the man, the cathedral, the city, the world – each is a tabernacle for the divine light, like Russian dolls). That I didn’t call the book ‘Primavera’ rather shows that, at the time, Botticelli was a subtle inspiration rather than a guiding spirit. I don’t remember how the second one came to be called ‘Pallas and the Centaur’ but I think it happened when I was in the Uffizi and gazing at the painting, which was so obviously set in the period of the novel, the early 1480s. For a long while that novel had had the title ‘The Altar of the Moon’. Each book has worn and discarded several titles until the final one, which becomes the final one only because it’s not replaced by any other! But when it became ‘Pallas and the Centaur’, and the cover was obvious, it was then that I began calling the whole work The Botticelli Trilogy.

One of the original titles for the third was ‘The Birth of Venus’ but, dammit, Sarah Dunant got there first. And I was grateful because my story wasn’t really about the birth of Venus – Tommaso had already been in love once before. So Rebirth, which is the English for Renaissance, became the obvious choice, the Rebirth of Venus.

Each novel has taken roughly ten years to write. It was back in the late 90s, when I was doing the first draft of Venus, that a musician-philosopher I’d been in contact with by email asked me if I knew that all three paintings had once hung together at the Villa Castello. This was one of those numinous, otherworldly moments where I wondered if I were really the author or just a character in the story of some higher power. Because, no, I had not known that. Having been told it, I forgot about it. It only re-emerged in consciousness as I was struggling to find an ending to Venus. And as I followed where it led, I found it was offering more than that: it was tying up the whole trilogy, not something I had thought of having to do.

Another numinous moment was when I discovered that the tabernacle psalm was Ficino’s favorite and he used it as an incantatory Orphic hymn.

You mention that you make every effort to stay true to the historical facts. Can you describe examples when you discovered a fact that had the potential to change your storyline? What did you do?

I can’t remember any specific examples, but it did happen, because I do remember screaming and tearing at my hair. But each time I found that if I stayed with history, no matter what pain it caused in rewriting, the story became deeper and richer and threads started up which became vital later. I really learnt to trust this. But there were just as many occasions when I found that ‘research’ was more a process of ‘verification’. Some of my ‘facts’, I have to say, remain to be verified, but since history does not contradict them at the moment, I let them remain.

There was one thing where I ignored history and stayed with the story, and that was the dating of the Primavera. My novel hinged on it being painted in 1478 and not in the 1480s as thought by art historians. It’s always said that you should give your story its head so, in respect of that, I did. One art historian, however, was so impressed by my reasoning that she went off and did some research, enough to convince herself that I was right, that the painting had been done for Giuliano de’ Medici and not for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who acquired it in the 1480s. It seems now that the idea is meeting general acceptance – I often see it dated ‘1478’ – although to my mind it has yet to be proved.

You present all of your historical characters as multifaceted individuals, rather than promoting a particular angle -- and this is true even for controversial figures such as Savonarola. Today's readers remember him mainly for the Bonfire of the Vanities, but your novel made it possible to understand why Florentines of the time found his reforms so appealing. While writing, did you have to consciously break away from any preconceived notions you had about him, or about any of your characters?

Yes, all the time. I learnt early on that if you have good guys and bad guys what you have is two-dimensional characters. Being my first novel, when A Tabernacle for the Sun kept being rejected, I presumed it was because it was rubbish, but the Arts Council thought otherwise and gave me a grant to spend some concentrated time writing yet another draft. I went back to Volterra, twenty years after my first visit, to find ‘missing factor X’ – that something which was eluding me which would make my book irresistible to publishers. It was in Volterra that I suddenly realized that Tommaso’s brother, Antonio – who was instrumental in the Pazzi Conspiracy and therefore my villain – had had a good side. It was a powerful realization. Everyone wants to be happy; everyone acts for what he/she considers to be the best. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are labels which historians slap on. We are all of us both, it’s just a question of degree. The book was accepted within a week of finishing the last draft, by a publisher who had stayed up all night in his office reading it.

Savonarola was exceptionally difficult. My own views about him are more negative than I’ve expressed in the novel, but I was conscious that, for many, he is a candidate for beatification. I wrote the book as a warning to those many friends who, all good souls, would be seduced by such a figure were he to rise again. But, as St Matthew said, you can only tell him by his fruits, which is to say, you can’t tell by looking at him. Another of my good companions was George Eliot, and her view of Savonarola in Romola was very positive. So I allowed myself to see him through her eyes, for the sake of balance. (But if her Tito had been one of my characters, by golly, I would have redeemed him.)

Another character just as difficult was Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice, who I had every reason to deplore. A pallid, pious doormat who set out to destroy Poliziano, and started those ugly rumors which still persist. It took me years to find the Clarice I could love, pity and admire, and the moment I understood her was one of those epiphanies that burns the retina of the memory.

Out of all the historical characters that appear in The Rebirth of Venus, were there any whose personalities you enjoyed re-creating the most?

Well, I think it has to be Botticelli! Having relegated him to a minor character in the first two books, it seemed only fair and just that he play a larger role in the third, and there was more historical information to go on, but it was contradictory. He is usually portrayed as a convert to Savonarola who gave up painting pagan mythologies and turned to Christian works, but according to the records he played host to the young thugs who were seeking Savonarola’s downfall. I love these contradictions: you have to chew and chew until they make sense.

I made myself familiar with Dante, as he was Botticelli’s passion, and I entered that passion and shared it with him. Out of it came this somewhat inscrutable character who becomes withdrawn as life around him grows difficult and finds solace in his art (which, now I think about it, was my own condition when this all began). My favorite passage in the book is when he has become so neglectful of his person, so dirty and stinky, that Tommaso pushes him in the Arno, only to discover that Botticelli can’t swim. I like to do that passage at readings, although my husband says it gives a false impression about Botticelli, which is true enough. It was only a phase. The Botticelli that appears at the end, the truly grumpy old man who’s putting on the act of being mad to amuse himself at the expense of others, and who goes to Castello to see his three paintings hanging together, was never deliberately planned or thought up: he just emerged. That’s what I love most about writing, when what appears on the page is as new to you as to anyone.

Watch for Part 2 of this interview on Wednesday!


  1. Thanks so much for the wonderful interview. I'll have to go find these books ASAP!

  2. Thanks, Julianne, glad you liked it!