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In order to watch over and protect her extraordinary son, Leonardo da Vinci, his mother, Caterina, follows him from the tiny village of his birth to Florence. In order to gain admittance into his world-as apprentice to the city's most successful artist-she has had to a.s.sume the ident.i.ty of a man, "Cato the Apothecary." This disguise proves so successful that Cato/Caterina is invited by her new friend Lorenzo-heir to the city's ruling family, the Medici-to dinner at their grand palazzo.
Enjoy this excerpt from SIGNORA DA VINCI SIGNORA DA VINCI and learn about Leonardo and Caterina da Vinci's world at www.robinmaxwell.com (the Signora da Vinci page).
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"This way," Lorenzo said. "We're dining under the loggia."
At the south wall of the garden we were confronted by three sweeping stone arches separated by ancient marble columns in the Greek style. A moment later we'd pa.s.sed through the arches to see a high-vaulted chamber and an immense dining table, perhaps the largest single piece of furniture I had ever in my life seen.
It would have easily seated forty, but places were set only at one end-I counted eight. Though the silver filigreed candelabra and saltcellar would have paid for a whole new section of Vinci to be built, the place settings surprised me with their simplicity-terra-cotta plates and goblets, no finer than would be found on my father's table.
The other diners were flowing in through all three arch-ways now. There was a young woman who, I surmised, must be Lorenzo's wife, Clarice Orsini. My gossiping customer had been right-the newest member of the Medici clan had a palpable air of sn.o.bbery about her. She was tall, though not as tall as me, with a pale moon face on a long thin neck and a headful of tightly curled hair, more red than blond. She was not unpretty, but the aloof tilt of her chin, and her lips, which seemed perpetually pursed, made me sorry for Lorenzo the instant I set eyes on her.
Giuliano and Lucrezia de' Medici clutched either arm of Piero. First Giuliano seated his mother; then together with Lorenzo the boys helped their father to his chair at the head of the table. The ruler of Florence grimaced as his knees bent to sit.
Giuliano and Lucrezia took places on Piero's right and left, Lorenzo and his wife next to Giuliano, and I across from Lorenzo at their mother's side. Sandro Botticelli sat next to me. Next to Clarice was an empty place setting. No one spoke of it.
"This is my new friend, Cato Cattalivoni," Lorenzo announced, sounding very pleased. He introduced me in turn to his mother, father, brother, and wife.
"Will you make a blessing on our table, Lucrezia?" Piero asked his wife in a voice rough with suffering.
We all closed our eyes as she prayed.
She spoke in a lovely, melodious tone, and suddenly I felt a pang of longing, almost to the point of physical pain, for my own gentle mother, whom I had never known.
The blessing was over and the servers were bringing in wooden platters of steaming loin of veal with sour orange relish, and ravioli in a fragrant saffron broth. The chicken with fennel was equally delightful, and an herb and mushroom omelet was redolent with mint and parsley and marjoram. This would certainly be a feast, but it was, I realized, one of the simplest food, none that Magdalena had not served my father and me a hundred times.
Suddenly I heard my name spoken. Lorenzo was addressing his parents. "Do you remember that fabulous mechanical sun and constellation that Verrocchio and his apprentices erected for our third wedding feast?" His mother nodded. "Cato's nephew, Leonardo da Vinci, designed it. Cato has just opened a wonderful apothecary on Via Riccardi."
"Really it is my master's shop," I demurred. "He'll be joining me presently."
"You are modest, Cato. You yourself refurbished the place and made it a thing of beauty."
"Whosever shop it is, we are delighted to have you at our table, Cato," Lucrezia said, leveling me with a warm and welcoming smile. I could see that her two front teeth crossed a touch at the bottom, but it only increased her charm.
"Oh, I so loved the sun and stars!" Clarice cried, sounding more like a little girl than a woman. "We had three feasts," she told me across the table, "one more splendid than the last. My in-laws built a great ballroom out into the Via Larga, just for the occasion. We had fifty dishes at each feast," and added pointedly, "Served on the best best gold plate!" gold plate!"
"Clarice thinks us very strange for eating simple fare on stoneware when we dine as a family," Lorenzo told me, trying to suppress his amus.e.m.e.nt. "In fact, the first time her mother came for a visit, she was insulted by it."
"Well, it is strange, husband. And it was positively embarra.s.sing when, instead of sitting with our guests at the wedding feast, you stood up and waited waited on them." on them."
"That is nothing for you to be embarra.s.sed about, Clarice," Lucrezia said. "Lorenzo has a fine sense about what is right and proper in any given situation. He has since he was very young. Do you suppose his father would have sent him at the age of sixteen to visit the new pope if he had-"
"I was seventeen, Mama."
"Sixteen when you went to Milan as a proxy at the wedding of the Duke of Sforza's son," she insisted. "And on the way investigated our banks in Bologna, Venice, and Ferrara. And you are quite right, my darling." She smiled at Lorenzo. "You were were seventeen when your papa sent you to Rome to wrest a concession from the pope for our family to work the alum mines in papal territories." seventeen when your papa sent you to Rome to wrest a concession from the pope for our family to work the alum mines in papal territories."
"Your brothers advised me all the way," he said to his mother. He seemed embarra.s.sed at the praise being heaped on him in front of me. But Lucrezia was not finished.
"Well, my brothers were not present when you visited that appalling creature in Naples." Lucrezia addressed me directly now. "Don Ferrante, the ruler there, is renowned for his extreme cruelty and violence. He is positively determined to rule the whole of Italy. My husband sent Lorenzo to discover the man's intentions."
"And I never did," Lorenzo demurred.
"But you fascinated the man. Charmed him. And came to an understanding with him that has held Tuscany in good stead with Naples ever since."
"Please, Mama," Lorenzo begged her.
"I know how to silence her," Giuliano said with a wicked grin.
"No, son," she pleaded, appearing to know what was coming. She began to flush pink.
"Our mother," he began, "is the most accomplished woman of the century."
"A noted poetess," Lorenzo went on, pleased that the conversation had veered away from himself. "She has written in terza rima terza rima a life of Saint John the Baptist, and a brilliant verse on her favorite biblical heroine, Judith." a life of Saint John the Baptist, and a brilliant verse on her favorite biblical heroine, Judith."
"That big-boned woman in the garden about to decapitate Holofernes," Sandro told me.
Lucrezia, sincere in her modesty, sat with downcast eyes, knowing she could not quiet the boys and their litany of her accomplishments.
"She is a friend and patron of artists and scholars," Giuliano boasted.
"And a businesswoman of some merit." This was Piero who had chimed in. "Do not forget the sulfur springs at Morba that she purchased from the Republic and turned into a successful health resort."
"Enough! All of you! I shall never brag about any of you ever again," she announced with comic solemnity. There were murmurings of mock approval all around the table. "Though it is is a mother's right," she added, as if to have the final word. a mother's right," she added, as if to have the final word.
I smiled inwardly, agreeing with her entirely. It was indeed a mother's right to brag about her children. To glow with the pride of their accomplishments. But here at this table I was witnessing a remarkable happenstance-children that were reveling in their mother's achievements.
I suddenly noticed that despite Piero's enjoyment of this family banter, the patriarch's eyes were closed. Giuliano, too, had observed this.
"Papa!" the younger son cried. Piero's eyes sprang open. "Why were you sitting there with your eyes closed?"
He smiled sadly at the boy. "To get them used to it," he said.
There were cries all around of "No, Papa!" "Don't say such a thing!"
Lucrezia grabbed his sore-knuckled fist and bit her lip. She looked at me imploringly.
"Have you anything for pain, Cato? All of my husband's physicians have thrown up their hands with it."
I looked around, momentarily unsure about talking of so intimate a subject at this table, but I could feel all around me the raw love and concern of family for family, and no less affection in Sandro Botticelli's eyes than in Lorenzo's or Giuliano's. Manners be d.a.m.ned, Manners be d.a.m.ned, I thought. I leaned toward Piero. I thought. I leaned toward Piero.
"Is there a repression of urine?" I asked, and he nodded yes. "Frequent fevers?"
"Almost every day," Lucrezia answered for him.
I was silent for a time, recalling a decoction my father had once made for Signor Lezi's condition, one that closely resembled the Medici patriarch's. It had not cured the gout, but considerably lessened the man's fever and suffering.
"If your sons"-I smiled at all the young men, Sandro included-"will come to my shop tomorrow, I will send them home with something that I promise will help you."
Lucrezia bit her lip and blinked back tears of grat.i.tude.
"Thank you, Cato," Lorenzo said. "We all thank you." He grinned. "First thing in the morning we'll be descending on your apothecary like a pack of hungry dogs."
Now everyone was smiling. Even Piero looked hopeful.
"Forgive my tardiness," I heard from one of the garden arch-ways. We all looked up to see a sweet-faced man of perhaps thirty-five, hurrying to take his place across the table from me, next to Clarice.
Lorenzo nodded at me. "Let me introduce you to our beloved tutor and longtime family friend, Marsilio Ficino."
I was startled, to say the least. Ficino was a legendary scholar, one of the greatest writers and translators in the world. "Silio," Lorenzo went on, "meet our new friend, Cato the Apothecary."
"I fear I must go back to bed," Piero said suddenly. "The pain has simply overtaken me." His hands were flat on the table and he attempted to push himself to standing.
"Wait, Papa!" Botticelli cried, standing in his place. "Please, I have something to show you."
Piero's face softened, and a pleasant expectation crinkled his mouth. He relaxed back in his chair.
Sandro stood. "Don't anyone move," he said, and dashed from the table, "except you, Giuliano. Come help me!" The younger brother followed Botticelli, and they moved toward a closed door that appeared to lead into the palazzo from the loggia.
A moment later, to the sound of crunching on the marble floor, they returned, rolling on a wheeled contraption a huge, paint-smeared sheet covering a rectangle that looked to be six feet high and twelve feet across.
Facing us all, the artist beamed. Then he carefully removed the cloth and stood aside. Every jaw in the room loosened and fell. Then there was silence as a dozen eyes drank in the splendor.
"I call it Birth of Venus Birth of Venus," Botticelli said.
The first sight of it was simply startling. It was blatantly pagan and openly erotic, and an unquestionable statement of its maker's genius.
A woman, magnificent in her nakedness, was stepping lightly from a half sh.e.l.l at the edge of a placid sea onto a fecund sh.o.r.e. Her features were delicate and proportioned as if by the hand of the Creator.The color of her skin was pale, tinged with roses, but so fine in texture that one could almost see through her body. Venus's hair was glorious-red gold and so thick and long and flowing it draped the whole length of her torso, where, holding it with one hand, she modestly covered her pudenda.
So deeply drawn was I to her image that it was only by virtue of a hank of that lovely hair blown sideways from her head that I became aware of other figures in the painting. On the left in the air, amid a storm of flowers, hovered two winged wind G.o.ds-one male, one female-entwined in each other's arms, and with puffed cheeks they were creating the breeze around the G.o.ddess of Love.
To the right of Venus was another figure, a woman-perhaps Spring-who in her pretty floral dress held aloft a posy-embroidered cloak with which she seemed to be urging the newborn G.o.ddess to cover her nakedness.
But my eyes could not long stray from Venus herself. She was slender, and the one breast not covered by her right hand was small, but her belly and thighs were prettily plump and rounded. Only her left arm seemed oddly shaped-too long, and almost disconnected from her shoulder. But nothing diminished the overall beauty of face and form, and her expression of unutterable sweetness.
I think Botticelli had not expected from the viewers this profundity of emotion, this stunned hush.
"Do you see what I have done?" he said to us, breaking the silence. "How the image holds a reflection of Idea? How I have used the greens for Jupiter, the blues for Venus, gold for the sun? Is she not a perfect talisman to draw down the power of the planet Venus, the very life force of Heaven, and store that echo . . . that taste . . . that substance of the divine Idea of Love, for our use?" His hand was clutching his own heart, and his eyes were limpid with tender emotion.
But we were all quite speechless.
"My darling boy," Lucrezia finally said, "you have done far more than paint a magical talisman. This is a masterpiece for all time."
"I would venture that she is the most beautiful woman ever painted," Lorenzo offered, "ever in the history of the world."
"What incantations are needed to bring her to life?" Giuliano asked in a hushed whisper. "I want to make love to her. Instantly."
Everyone laughed at that, and the spell seemed all but broken . . . except that I caught, out the corner of my eye, Lorenzo staring at me. He was, I think, unaware I had seen him.
"Come here, Sandro," Piero said to the young man that he and his own father had raised from a boy. His voice was stern and serious. Botticelli went to the patriarch's side and knelt at his feet, laying his head on one swollen knee. The older man's gaze fell on Ficino.
"This is your influence, Marsilio. I see it. I hear it. All your lessons of spirits and occult forces, magi controlling the influences of the stars . . ." Everyone was still. Afraid to breathe. Piero looked up at Botticelli's panel.
"This painting . . ." His voice choked with emotion. ". . . it makes me want to live another day."
A sob escaped Lucrezia's throat, and she clutched her husband's arm. There was a general outcry of relief and celebration. Sandro began kissing Piero's hands in grat.i.tude. The rest of us stood from our chairs and edged closer to the painting to study its perfection.
Clarice was clucking with quiet indignation to her mother-in-law over the total nakedness of Venus on her clamsh.e.l.l. I overheard Ficino and the Medici sons' conversation.
"I've always told you," the boys' tutor said, "that images can be used as medicine."
"Perhaps as strong as an apothecary's," Lorenzo suggested.
"Indeed," their teacher murmured appreciatively. "Indeed."