Wednesday, December 19, 2012

An interview with Alana White, author of The Sign of the Weeping Virgin

Today I'm pleased to bring you an interview with my friend Alana White, whose debut historical mystery The Sign of the Weeping Virgin (Five Star, Dec. 2012) has been meeting with critical acclaim.  Publishers Weekly noted her "sure-handed storytelling and scrupulous research into the period," while Kirkus, in a starred review, wrote that "One hopes that White's clever tale, meticulously researched and pleasingly written, is the first in a series that will bring Florence and its many famous denizens to life."

Set in the dazzling cultural mecca of Florence, Italy, in the late 15th century, it introduces an intriguing protagonist, Guid'Antonio Vespucci, who is charged with solving two mysterious happenings in his city: the kidnapping of a young woman, and the reasons why a painting of the Virgin Mary in his family church has been seen shedding real tears.  It's a troubled time for Guid'Antonio's beloved Florence, with its predominant statesman, Lorenzo de' Medici, at war with Pope Sixtus and its citizens blaming Lorenzo for their excommunication.

Alana will be touring with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours in February, so follow along with the participating blogs to learn more.  I hope you'll enjoy this interview. 

Guid’Antonio Vespucci played a major role in the political life of Renaissance Florence, but he isn’t as well-known as his explorer nephew, Amerigo, or Florence’s unelected but de facto leader, Lorenzo de’Medici. What convinced you to make him your main character?

Several things. Most importantly, I knew I wanted to write a character-driven story. While Guid'Antonio was an outstanding personality in Renaissance Florence, both as a lawyer and government leader and as Lorenzo de' Medici's ally and friend, he has remained a step back in the shadows, a pace behind the famous painters, philosophers, and poets of late fifteenth-century Florence. Thus, I felt I had space to create a story with him at its heart, filling in the unknown places, and giving him a private life, while drawing upon the facts surrounding his documented power and prestige. I felt I had the freedom to create a good, but haunted, inner man, one whose driving passion is to protect his family and Florence from their enemies at all costs.

I was equally drawn to the fact he was a lawyer. He is not an amateur or armchair detective. He is given court cases and represents clients, but he also investigates matters of a private nature. In Weeping Virgin, accompanied by Amerigo, Guid'Antonio walks down dark alleys where other men won't go.

Guid'Antonio Vespucci, detail from
Ghirlandaio's Calling of the Apostles
It appealed to me, too, that the "real" Guid'Antonio was a complex and good man; people respected and feared him (he was a powerful opponent of Savonarola, for example, and did everything in his power to rid Florence of that fiery preacher). Thanks to a bit of magic that happened when I discovered Ghirlandaio's image of Guid'Antonio painted on the Sistine Chapel wall, he is completely real to me. There he stands: silver-haired, wearing his flowing, crimson cloak. He is so handsome! And he is about forty-four, just the right age for my proper, but passionate, protagonist.

Your passion for the Italian Renaissance, in Florence especially, comes through loud and clear. What draws you to this setting?

Years ago, when I first read of the attempt in 1476 to assassinate Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici in Florence Cathedral during Easter Sunday Mass, I was intrigued. I read all the books I could find on the event. The more I read about the Medici family and their circle of friends, the more my fascination with them grew.

Here were the lives of the rich and famous: Leonardo da Vinci, Toscanelli, and Sandro Botticelli, with Sandro's paintings of breathtakingly beautiful young women and men. They all knew one another, loved and lost one another. Fought one another. They are all forever linked, and many of them are portrayed in the artwork of the day, making them real to us, almost six centuries later. That is what first drew me to this setting: the people, and here I remain, among them and their amazing individual stories.

While reading, I got an excellent sense of the layout of 15th-century Florence – the churches, City Hall, the Vespucci Palace and tradesmen’s workshops on Borg’Ognissanti, the Prato Gate, and even nearby villages. I got the feeling you must have meandered down the city’s streets numerous times yourself. What are your favorite places to visit there?

Ah, there's a lovely question! Guid'Antonio and Amerigo's family church, Ognissanti (All Saints) crowns the top of my list. I feel close to them there; the church is quiet, with relatively few tourists. As in Weeping Virgin, Botticelli's Saint Augustine is on the south wall, opposite Ghirlandaio's Saint Jerome—when these two frescoes are not traveling to art museums around the world. On the same street, Borg'Ognissanti, are the former Vespucci hospital (still a hospital today) and palace (which is not open).

Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence
I also like the Medici Chapel in Palazzo Medici Riccardi, where Benozzo Gozzoli's frescoes light the walls. A key scene unfolds there between Guid'Antonio and Lorenzo de' Medici's mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, who was in her day a well-known poet. In the Tuscan town of Impruneta, the painting of the Virgin Mary that plays a vital role in the book remains on display. I had a lovely "chat" with the priest there one day, in passionate, if broken, English and Italian! Impruneta is outside Florence; to go there and see the Virgin Mary of S. Maria Impruneta requires transportation—and she (the painting!) is not always on display. I don't want to omit the town of Vinci, Leonardo's birthplace. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world. As Amerigo says to Guid'Antonio: "No wonder Leonardo could paint!"

The Sign of the Weeping Virgin doesn’t begin as a typical historical mystery, since Guid’Antonio is charged with investigating the truth behind a weeping painting and a young woman's abduction rather than solving a murder. It made for a refreshing change. Did you set out to take a nontraditional approach to the genre?

Oh, my, no. After all the research and planning, it just played out that way. As I say, I knew I wanted the story to be character-driven. Really, I just felt my way. Finally, I decided someone had to die! I think I chose the right person. I'm writing the next book in the series now, a prequel. I want to include a glimpse of my victim, very much alive and going about his business. I always enjoy that when it happens in a book. I love thinking, "Aha! I know her/him!"

I enjoyed seeing the ongoing development of the relationship between Guid’Antonio and his wife, Maria del Vigna; they have a deep sensual bond, but their marriage is definitely volatile. How much does history tell us about them, and how much did you have to imagine?

Of all the major-minor characters in the book, Maria is the one I know least about in the real world. I feel fortunate to have her true name, her age, and the names of her parents. This much I discovered in another magical research moment. There is a biography of Guid'Antonio in Spanish, which as a true bibliophile, I own, even though I don't speak that language. In the opening pages, the author mentions Guid'Antonio's first wife, who died in 1469, adding that Guid'Antonio married the sixteen-year-old daughter of Alessandro del Vigna the following year. And there at the bottom of the page in a footnote, the author gives her name: "Maria." What a gem to find buried in those pages. I'm so glad I looked down.

Angelo Poliziano and Giuliano
de' Medici, by Domenico Ghirlandaio
From time to time, you include chapters that depart from Guid’Antonio’s perspective to examine other characters’ viewpoints, and I appreciated getting a broader look at the era this way. Were these scenes part of the novel from the beginning?

No. But eventually I reached the point where I wanted to take people beyond the confines of the walled city of Florence. I like Angelo Poliziano, the poet, and while I did originally include him even more, eventually I omitted those pages to maintain focus on the mystery and Guid'Antonio. Still, I felt the need to "swing out" a bit, and, since Angelo was in something of a self-imposed exile in Mantua and on the outs with Lorenzo at the time, I hoped including Angelo's thoughts about what was happening in his hometown underscored by a bit about his own personal history would expand the narrative, while trying not shoehorn too much material into the tale. I also added that very short piece in Lucrezia Tornabuoni's viewpoint as she mourns her son's death. To me, it helped keep those larger-than-life people real. The truth is—at times I felt sorry for most of them, imagining how they truly must have felt in their particular circumstances.

Let’s talk about one of my favorite aspects – the mouthwatering descriptions of Tuscan food! I especially enjoyed attending the meal Guid’Antonio shared with his kinsmen, from the fried ravioli, herbed meat, and bread in olive oil (yum) to seeing the silver cutlery with Vespucci-themed finials. Was the research for this as much fun as it appeared?

Fried ravioli—who knew? I have a lovely book, The Tuscan Year, by Elizabeth Romer. That is my main resource for seasonal foods and harvests as Guid'Antonio's cook bustles about the fragrant Vespucci Palace kitchen. I adore roast pork stuffed with garlic and rubbed with herbs. And so that was fairly easy to write about! I also rely on Waverly Root's The Food of Italy. Originally in Weeping Virgin, Amerigo was lusting after a Sicilian pastry known as the "Nipples of the Virgin." He must have some of those next time around. (And by the way, they originated in a monastery.)


The Sign of the Weeping Virgin is published this month by Five Star in hardcover ($25.95, 384pp).  Visit Alana White's website at


  1. Mike Coleman9:16 AM

    An informative and entertaining interview! Thank you for posting, Sarah. I am a friend of the author's (met you at the conference in Albany) and am eagerly awaiting my copy of the book from Amazon, but your interview would make me want to read Weeping Virgin anyway. I have read sections of the book as Alana worked on it over the years, and am excited about seeing the finished product in all its Florentine glory.

    1. Hi Mike, yes, I remember meeting you at the Albany conference! I've been hearing Alana speak about Florence and Guid'Antonio for some time but hadn't read her work before. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Pleased you liked the interview!

  2. Great interview - can't wait to read the book!

  3. This sounds wonderful! I'm looking forward to reading the book.

    1. Hope you enjoy it if you get the chance to read it!

    2. I'm sure I will. I have it pre-ordered.

  4. Interesting interview, I especially liked the insight into the food, haha.

  5. Anonymous9:54 AM

    I love how I can tell that this author has a sense of humor! I absolutely love the title of the book, and I truly want to read it myself! I am Roman Catholic myself, so the fact that it is located in Florence and talks about the virgin Mary statue really intrigues me off the bat.