Dear Ms. Robey,
I think a breath of fateful stardust has been whispering in my ear about the Jane Rotrosen Agency and I’m listening. I seem to have a connection with many of your authors. In 2019 I attended ThrillerFest and had the pleasure of chatting with Mark Sullivan over breakfast when he, by chance, sat down next to me. I almost fangirled. I love Beneath a Scarlet Sky. I just bought the Last Green Valley and can't wait to read it. I met another of my favorite authors, Robert Dugoni, at ThrillerFest as well. I recently attended a Zoom presentation he participated in, where he sang the praises of your agency. Ironically, I also know Kaira Rouda rather well—we belonged to the same gym in Malibu before she moved to Newport Beach, and we've reviewed each other's early books. I could go on and on about the stellar books that line my bookshelves by authors represented by the Jane Rotrosen Agency. I would love to join that group of stars in the Rotrosen constellation.
I’m delighted to present you with my new dual timeline historical novel, Mona Lisa’s Daughter.
Two women living in the breathtaking city of Florence are separated by centuries but share a profound connection—a book of intimate letters and drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci.
In 1503 Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy textile merchant meets Leonardo Da Vinci in a crowded market in Florence and begins a friendship that goes beyond muse and artist—it gives birth to the greatest work of art the world has ever known and the greatest secret of all time.
In World War Two, Valentina Amati, a young nun, is entrusted with a priceless collection of intimate letters and sketches by Leonardo to Lisa. Valentina’s duty is a dangerous one—Hitler’s “Final Solution” has begun its march on Italy and threatens to storm the solitude and sanctity of the convent. But Valentina has a secret of her own, that if revealed, could destroy all that she holds dear.
Mona Lisa’s Daughter:
Word Length: 99,000 words.
The Night Portrait by Laura Morelli, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey, Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen
Fans of book club fiction, historical fiction, women's historical fiction, biographical fiction, historical fiction about famous artists, World War Two fiction that encompasses both mystery and suspense.
Belle Ami Author Bio:
Belle Ami writes breathtaking international thrillers, compelling historical fiction, and captivating romantic suspense. Her innovative storylines weave together world issues, fast-paced action, and unforgettable characters. Belle’s love of history and art began when she was young and flourished in college where she majored in Art History. A former Kathryn McBride scholar of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Belle, is a recipient of the RONE, RAVEN, Readers’ Favorite Award, and the Book Excellence Award. Belle’s passions include hiking, boxing, skiing, cooking, travel, and of course, writing. She lives in Southern California with her husband Joe, her daughter Natasha, and her son Ben, along with a horse named Cindy Crawford, a senior-citizen Chihuahua named Giorgio Armani (who still has plenty of spark in his bark), a sassy-gal Chihuahua named Pebbles, and a loveable goofball pit bull rescue named Coco. Belle loves to hear from readers. Visit her website at belleamiauthor.com where you sign up for her newsletter and connect with her on social media.
Books by Belle Ami:
The Last Daughter is a poignant and heart-wrenching World War II historical fiction novel. Based on a remarkable true story, The Last Daughter follows the life of Dina Frydman, one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. The story begins at the dawn of World War II when Dina was only 10 years old and follows the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland. The novel encompasses the Nazi’s six-year reign of terror on the Jews of Europe, and the horrors of the death camps, where more than six million Jews were slaughtered. Dina was 16 years old when the war ended, she lost her entire family except for two cousins. Dina is now 92 years old and lives in Southern California. She is also Belle Ami’s mother.
Out of Time: A riveting time-travel art thriller series called The Girl Who Knew da Vinci: Angela and Alex find themselves searching for a mysterious painting by Leonardo da Vinci, a painting that no one knows exists. The Girl Who Loved Caravaggio: Angela and Alex are hired by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to find Caravaggio’s Nativity, stolen by the Mafia, one of the greatest heists in history. The Girl Who Adored Rembrandt: Angela and Alex search for a stolen Rembrandt that turns out to be a fake, and in the process, they find the real painting and discover a centuries’ old secret about the great Dutch painter. Belle is planning the fourth novel in this continuing series based on the Austrian symbolist painter, Gustav Klimt.
The Blue Coat Saga: A three-part serial, time-travel, suspense thriller with romantic elements set in the present day and in World War II. Includes: The Rendezvous in Paris, The Lost Legacy of Time, and The Secret Book of Names.
Tip of the Spear Series: A continuing, contemporary, international espionage, suspense-thriller series with romantic elements. Includes: Escape, Vengeance, Ransom, and Exposed.
Belle is also working on a three-book, time-travel romance series for Dragonblade Publishing, one of the top-selling boutique historical romance publishers in North America founded by bestselling author Kathryn Le Veque. The first book in Belle’s Lost in Time series will be out in May of 2022.
Mona Lisa’s Daughter
In 1503, Leonardo da Vinci accepted a commission from Francesco del Giocondo to paint his wife, Lisa.
Da Vinci never received a penny from Giocondo, nor did he ever relinquish the Mona Lisa to him.
The Mona Lisa was with da Vinci until the day he died. Why? He was not known to enjoy painting portraits. He painted them purely for money. In fact, he turned down a lucrative commission to paint Marchioness Isabella d’Este whose agent pursued him relentlessly for just such a purpose. He was also known for having a myriad of interests in more scientific pursuits such as engineering, architecture, ballistics, and mechanics, to name a few...
One of my favorite paintings is the Mona Lisa and, yes, there are millions around the world who feel the same as I do. Lucky for me, I am a writer and can explore through my books, the questions and mysteries that haunt me…
There have been countless books written about Maestro Leonardo da Vinci. I read several fine books while conducting background research for Mona Lisa’s Daughter, including Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, The Lost Battles by Jonathan Jones, and Leonardo’s Notebooks Edited by H. Anna Suh. But no matter how many books and articles I sifted through, it became clear there are aspects of da Vinci’s life that remain unknown. And questions that remain unanswered. Nothing in my research helped me to find the answers to my questions…
In Mona Lisa’s Daughter, I have addressed these unknowns and crafted my own interpretation, albeit fictionalized, but nevertheless framed within the facts of da Vinci’s life. My interpretation of the known facts enabled me to sketch in the chiaroscuro of his personality and the emotional being of the singular life of the most famous polymath and genius in history.
The questions that haunted me are many, but the primary one is the focus of Mona Lisa’s Daughter: What was the true nature of the relationship between Leonardo da Vinci and Lisa del Giocondo? What was the profound connection between painting and painter, artist and muse, man and woman?
And more importantly, what is it about this painting that has inspired and mystified the world for nearly 500 years?
The answer, I believe, is love.
What if the most famous painting the world has ever known was not the epitome of a magnificent career, but the beginning of a profound love story that would transcend time and become a beacon of light in the darkest period humanity has ever seen?
Mona Lisa’s Daughter is the love story between Leonardo da Vinci and Lisa del Giocondo.
In 1503 Leonardo da Vinci returned to Florence after spending seventeen years in Milan. Shortly after his arrival in Florence he met Lisa del Giocondo and began a portrait of her that is now considered the greatest portrait of all time, and certainly the most well-known. The Mona Lisa consumed da Vinci’s days until his death in 1519 in France. But is the painting the culmination of a remarkable artistic career or the beginning of a remarkable relationship that would span decades and leave an indelible imprint on the world?
After the passing of her husband, Lisa entered the convent of Sant’ Orsola in Florence where she lived with her daughter Marietta, a nun, whose consecrated name was Suor Ludovica. On her deathbed, Lisa exacted a promise from her daughter to protect a precious treasure and make certain that it remained hidden forever.
That treasure was comprised of decades of correspondence—letters from Leonardo da Vinci as well as remarkable drawings that Leonardo sketched of his beloved Lisa. The correspondence was hidden in a hollowed-out bookcase in the convent’s library. The priceless cache of Leonardo da Vinci’s letters and drawings to Mona Lisa came to be known quite simply as “the book.”
For the next four hundred years, the sacred duty to protect the book was passed down from one carefully chosen nun to the next. Only the nuns who protect the treasure have ever seen or read the correspondence. Only the nuns sworn to protect the treasure know the secrets held within.
In 1926, a sixteen-year-old girl named Valentina Amato arrives at the convent of Santa Maria del Carmine. A victim of rape at the hands of the son of a powerful fascist, Valentina gives birth to a baby girl whom she gives up for adoption to a Jewish couple in Rome. Seeking refuge from her tormentor, Valentina takes her vows as a nun at age seventeen. At the age of thirty, she is entrusted with the duty of protecting the book.
Three years later, on October 16, 1943, the German occupation of Rome takes a deadly turn for the Jews. In the darkness before dawn, thousands of Italian Jews are rounded up for deportation. Seventeen-year-old Meira Chiarelli huddles in a secret closet in her family’s home. Her parents, Benjamin and Gabriela, are arrested and dragged away by the Nazis. Meira’s boyfriend, Marcello Orvieto, is also taken in the roundup and deported.
In the aftermath of this brutal assault, Meira is left shattered and alone. Clutched in her hand is a note, with her father’s detailed instructions to seek out the priest Father D’Angelo, a dear friend of Meira’s father.
Father D’Angelo finds a haven for Meira at the convent of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. The convent has become a refuge, with more than eighty Jewish women and children hiding behind its walls. The good father believes Meira will be safe there.
Valentina, now known as Sister Gianna, is drawn to the young girl, who has lost her ability to speak. Father D’Angelo tells Sister Gianna that the poor child has no doubt been overwhelmed by trauma and shock, but hopefully, she will recover within the safety of the convent.
Valentina senses a profound connection between her and Meira and believes a miracle has occurred. God has returned her daughter to her.
She prays that everyone within the sanctity of the convent will remain safe and God-willing, live to see the end of the war. But an evil from Valentina’s past comes back to haunt her and brings an unforeseeable danger to everyone she holds dear.
Luca Conti’s obsession with Valentina has never waned and his search for her brings him to Santa Maria del Carmine. He has become a powerful man in Mussolini’s Fascist MVSN. Luca is determined to force Valentina to cast aside her vows and marry him. He embarks on a quest of terror and torment that not only threatens Valentina but Meira and the hidden Jews as well.
Valentina is no longer a frightened sixteen-year-old girl. She is a woman who has spent a lifetime in the light of God and in the service of humanity. But she is also a mother with a profound love beating in her heart. A love that demands she will do everything to protect her daughter. In her moment of truth, she makes a choice that will either lead to salvation or destroy everything she holds dear.
Mona Lisa’s Daughter is a compelling historical novel weaving two stories from two of the most transformative eras in history. Rich in historical detail and rooted in emotional truth, Mona Lisa’s Daughter blends the light and color of Leonardo da Vinci’s Florence with the darkness and despair of the war-ravaged cities of Rome and Florence. Bringing to life, a compelling love story between the greatest artist the world has ever known and the woman who inspired him, Mona Lisa’s Daughter explores the resounding power of beauty and light during the darkest period the world has ever known.
Prologue and First Two Chapters
“Wisdom is the daughter of experience.”
“Truth was the only daughter of Time.”
~ Leonardo Da Vinci
June 20, 1886
Santa Maria del Carmine
Suor Maria Vittoria’s clogs thumped out an uneven rhythm on the stone floor. The hallway of the convent was empty. Her right foot dragged slightly, an old injury from getting kicked by a mule. The teapot and cup rattled on the tray as she tried with difficulty to keep them balanced. When she reached Suor Ursula Botti’s door, she set the tray on the floor and knocked softly.
Suor Maria Vittoria opened the door and carefully picked up the tray. She nudged the door closed with her rear end. “Come ti senti?”
“How should an old woman on her deathbed feel?” Suor Ursula grunted. “The only thing worse than dying is a coffin full of regrets.” She frowned, making her wrinkled face resemble an apple left out in the sun. “And leaving so much unfinished.”
Suor Maria Vittoria had no answer to that. After all, what possible regrets could a nun have when she lived most of her life within the sacred walls of a nunnery? Besides, it was a little late now to rewrite the page. “May I help you with something, Sister?”
Suor Ursula cackled like a witch from a fairytale about to eat a pair of lost children. The old nun’s laughter released a most unseemly smell from the other end of her body. Out of politeness, Suor Maria Vittoria refrained from covering her nose. Instead, she opened the small window and prayed for a breeze.
Suor Ursula patted the bed next to her. “Per favore, pour me a cup of tea and sit down, mimma.”
Suor Maria Vittoria did as she was asked and helped Suor Ursula raise the teacup to her lips.
“Ah, peppermint tea, so fragrant.” The old woman smacked her lips and grinned, displaying a set of yellowed teeth. “I have been putting this off for some time, but I’m afraid I cannot delay any longer.”
“Delay what, Sister?”
“Initiating you into the sisterhood.”
Suor Maria Vittoria feared the old nun’s senses had taken flight. “But I am a nun. I was consecrated five years ago.”
Suor Ursula sighed and pursed her lips as if she’d been forced to taste a wedge of lemon. “I have not lost my wits, girl, just my strength. If I could choose anyone else, I would do so.”
Suor Maria Vittoria chose to ignore Suor Ursula’s insult. After all, she was old and frail and would not be long for this world. Age and frailty called for patience and kindness from the young. “I’m sorry if I have not lived up to your expectations, Sister.”
“No, no, you misunderstand. You are too good, too kind, and too trusting, and I fear the task before you requires a more devious and cunning nature.”
“And what task is that, may I ask?”
“Another sip of tea first, per piacere.”
Suor Maria Vittoria lifted the cup once more to Suor Ursula’s mouth, then placed the cup aside and clasped her hands on her lap.
“Much better." Suor Ursula sighed and laid her hand over Suor Maria Vittoria’s, her protruding blue veins twining up her forearms like vines up a tree trunk.
“God has a sense of humor, I think."
“What do you mean, Suor Ursula?”
“God has given us strength and stamina and beauty when we are too young to appreciate it and wisdom when we are too old to put it to good use.”
“I am certain you have many more days of sunshine—”
“Hush, little sparrow, I do not. But you do. As I have told you, I came to Santa Maria del Carmine from Sant’ Orsola when that horse’s ass Napoleon went on a spree, deconsecrating convents. But that is neither here nor there.
“I brought with me a book containing private correspondence and sketches that belonged to a patroness of the convent four hundred years ago. That blessed lady’s dying wish was for the preservation of this book and its safekeeping from prying eyes forever. The patroness’s daughter, Suor Ludovica, made a sacred promise to God that generations of nuns have upheld, including me. And now, so will you.”
“But why? Is this book of such great value?”
“Would it not be wise to have it preserved in a great library or museum? Think of all the good that could be accomplished.”
Suor Ursula shook her head. “No, you must never, ever, make known the existence of the book. Not to anyone. It would cause a catastrophe that would shock the entire world. Besides, a vow to God cannot be broken. It is not up to you or me or anyone else to decide the fate of this treasure. We are merely its caretakers.”
Suor Maria Vittoria thought for a moment on this. “You are sure there is no other way?”
“There is an old saying, ‘Vecchi peccati hanno le ombre lunghe.’”
“Old sins have long shadows?”
“Si, precisamente. Our job is to keep this treasure trove safe and out of the grasping hands of greedy fortune hunters. I assure you it is a worthy duty.” She smiled, transforming her face into a map of fissures and crevices. “Before I tell you where to find this treasure, you must swear before God to uphold the promise and protect it with your life.”
“Should I not see this treasure before I make such an oath?”
“No. Ogni promessa ha un debito. Every promise owes a debt. Once made, it cannot be broken. Capisce?”
Suor Ursula’s question was accompanied by a rumbling toot and the wafting smell of rotten eggs. Suor Maria Vittoria shot up, backed herself up to the open window, and inhaled a breath of fresh air.
The old nun erupted in laughter. “Mi dispiace. If it were not my own, I would probably faint.” She waved her hand in front of her face to dispel the pungent aroma. The moment of laughter passed, and her eyes narrowed, a steely glint reflected in her filmy gray eyes. “Your promise, sorellina.”
Suor Maria Vittoria returned to the bedside. “I promise.” She could not imagine what could be so valuable it required her swearing an oath to God, but she respected Suor Ursula a great deal and complied. Although the old nun had become a tad impatient and demanding over the last few years, she was a kind and generous soul and had asked little from others. Whatever this promise, it was not given lightly by Suor Ursula all those years ago.
“Bene, molto bene. Come close, and I will whisper to you where I hid the treasure. Bring it to me, and I will tell you a story.”
May 12, 1503
The first time I saw her, time stood still. If only I could fly, I would have followed her home.
A sparrow landed on the stone sill of Leonardo da Vinci’s quarters at the monastery Santissima Annunziata where he lived as a guest of the monks. The bird chirped out a cheery greeting.
“Ciao, mio piccolo amico.” Round and stout with gray and chestnut plumage, the sprightly bird fluffed his wings, revealing a black patch on his throat and chest. He sang out as if he were a royal herald announcing the arrival of a king.
“Have you come to tease me, piccolino? You who have the gift of flight now come to taunt this earthbound man.” Leonardo shook his head as he watched the small-winged creature flap his wings and take to the sky.
“Tormentatore.” He chuckled at the cocky little bird, and yet a wave of sadness washed over him. I fear the only flying I will ever achieve will be upon my death when my soul rises to heaven.
It was the one thing in his life he could not reconcile.
All the drawings, all the calculations, all his attempts—failures. His designs for l’uccello, a craft that could fly—what a success it could be! A truly marvelous achievement for humanity with so much potential for good. One day someone will accomplish this remarkable feat. Alas, I cannot create it, nor will it soar in my lifetime.
Sighing, Leonardo picked up his silver pencil and returned to his drawing. He had devoted hours of solitude to a series of maps that would divert the Arno River, creating a waterway passage between Florence and the Mediterranean Sea. Never one to leave any detail undone and to further his goal of convincing Florence’s gonfaloniere to engage him for such a purpose, Leonardo invented a machine for dredging a canal with the plan of turning the swamp marsh of Val di Chiana into a reservoir. He sat back, his gaze returning to the window, missing his airborne friend. A gentle knock interrupted his reverie. “Entrare.”
Salai poked his dark, curly-haired head into the room. His hazel eyes flashed. The beautiful boy who entered Leonardo’s household when he was but ten was now a fetching young man. In fact, Leonardo used the twenty-four-year-old as the model for his Vitruvian man drawing—well, not quite. In his search for a figure with universal appeal, he combined Salai’s form with his own into one sketch. The result represented his vision of the perfect man.
Artists had imposed themselves into their work since the beginning of time. Perhaps it was a point of ego or perhaps a desire for the artist to become both subject and creator. Leonardo found pleasure in leaving clues to his personal life in his drawings and paintings, whereas in his notebooks, he withheld any accounting of his innermost thoughts or relationships.
The difficulty of drawing a perfectly proportioned man within a square and a circle had captivated his imagination. The drawing, which he worked on for months, reflected man’s harmony with the divine, the universal, and the natural world. The proportion of a man, according to the Roman architect, Vitruvius, mirrored the same balance aspired to in architecture, art, music, philosophy, mathematics, and science. The macrocosm must reflect the microcosm and vice versa. In his own life, Leonardo strove to attain a balance among all his interests, but he knew that at best, he rarely achieved the harmony he sought. One’s inner-held aspirations posed the greatest difficulty to achieve in practice.
“Shall I go to the mercato, Maestro? We are running low on food.” Salai strolled to him with an impish grin on his face and tugged on Leonardo’s beard. Then as stealthily as a pick-purse, the young man’s hand slipped into Leonardo’s pocket.
Leonardo slapped Salai’s hand and gently cuffed him on the head, smiling at his pupil and beloved young friend. For fourteen years, they had been inseparable. In addition to serving as an excellent assistant, Salai took on the duties that otherwise would cost Leonardo precious time.
“What, and have you pilfer coins from my purse? I will go myself and find us the most perfect eggplant for our meal.”
Salai’s brows came together in a lugubrious frown. “I was hoping for a juicy roast.”
Leonardo blew out a breath. He wished the young man had not said those words. Meat. Always meat. Salai enjoyed a taste for meat that Leonardo had never encountered. Rarely did the young man favor a legume, despite Leonardo’s encouragement. And yet, he found it impossible to deny him much of anything. Salai’s real name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti, but Leonardo aptly nicknamed him Salai, “Little Devil.” The moniker fit him like a pair of new silk tights, as he loved to stir up trouble and reveled in the nasty habit of stealing.
Leonardo could never forget the disaster that occurred two days after Salai joined his household. During his time in Milan, Leonardo took the boy for dinner to the home of the well-known architect Giacomo Andrea da Ferrara. Leonardo hoped to partake of an elegant meal and engage with enlightened minds. But that was not to be. Salai supped for two, broke three cruets, and spilled an entire carafe of wine. His transgression was only the first of many where money and valuables disappeared from the home of a host and various guests. Leonardo’s own coins vanished with regularity regardless of reprimands and warnings. Salai was lucky not to live in the Turkish Empire, where officials punished theft by chopping off the hand of the thief. If he had, Salai would be without hands and probably without feet.
“Salai, you will turn my hair white before its time.” Leonardo shook his head. “As I know you will pout if I don’t give in to you, I will buy your juicy spiedini di carne.”
Leonardo rose and brushed charcoal dust from his linen tunic. He looked around the room, pleased with how well the monastery suited his needs.
Everything lay within reach—a library of more than five thousand books and a location near Santa Maria Nuova where he secretly dissected cadavers in an underground vaulted room beneath the hospital. “Salai, why don’t you stop at the morgue for me and inquire whether any new bodies have arrived? I must further my studies on the muscles of the face.” He withdrew a few coins from his purse and dropped them in Salai’s hand. “This should keep you out of trouble. Oh, and buy some pane rustico. Spend a little more for the one with the purest white flour. I am tired of the dark, grainy bread.”
Salai’s palm remained outstretched, and he grinned, flashing a deep dimple in his cheek.
“Diavolo.” Leonardo tossed a few more coins into the young man’s hand. “You will be the death of me!” He hurried away before Salai could sweet-talk him out of more money.
On his way out, Leonardo passed through the studio where his students and assistants worked on paintings based on his cartoons. He stopped to observe their progress. Picking up a paintbrush, he added a few brushstrokes to Gian Antonio Boltraffio’s copy of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, a painting Leonardo had been working on with the young artist. He expected the apprentice would achieve greatness one day, but one never knew with the fickle arbiters of taste. The life of an artist was never a smooth journey.
The young man from Lombardy came to him 10 years ago brimming with lofty dreams and raw talent but with a tendency for hasty brushwork. Leonardo had taught him the divine art of patience, and Antonio proved the most promising of the maestro’s pupils.
He regarded Antonio’s painting of the Madonna and the baby Jesus holding a
yarnwinder and suggested a few changes. Leonardo’s studio functioned much like the atelier of his master, Verrocchio, where Leonardo cut his teeth as an artist. Under careful tutelage and his own fine brushwork, Leonardo made certain that the canvases and wood panels produced by his students reflected his own artistic vision and high standards.
He ruffled the young man’s dark curls. “Observe the light, Antonio, the way it changes. Blink your eye and look at it again. That which you see was not there at first, and that which was there is no more. Remember saper vedere, knowing how to see. ‘Sad is the disciple who does not progress beyond his master.’” And leaving his student to ponder his suggestion, he stepped out into the sunshine.
Leonardo gazed up at the sky and spotted two birds in flight. He sighed and was reminded once more of his failings. Perhaps I must take my own advice of patience. He chuckled as he set off to the market stalls. On this temperate spring day, he considered the visit of the sparrow an omen that he should take a break from his endeavors and enjoy the natural world.
Florence was a small city, and the marketplace drew people from all walks of life. But Leonardo, while being the most exacting observer of nature, often found his attention flitting from the curve of a woman’s cheek to the bright color of a bolt of silk—as a bird would flit from branch to branch. At other times, the world around him fell away, and he became completely engrossed, obsessing over the smallest detail—the contraction of the pupil in an eye or the change of a muscle under stress.
Arriving at the Mercato Vecchio, he stopped at a stand and picked up a dark purple melanzana. The skin of the voluminous gourd-shaped fruit was as smooth and shiny as a newly minted florin. He held it up to his nose, inhaling its ripe scent. He gave it a gentle squeeze, testing it for firmness. “Squisito, amico. Such vivid color. As beautiful a specimen as I have ever seen,” he announced to the vendor who awaited his declaration.
The vegetable purveyor took a bow. “Perhaps you will paint this perfect eggplant, Maestro.”
Leonardo chuckled. “This melanzana will be fried and bathed in olio d’oliva, and then it will satisfy my humble needs.” He patted his stomach. “A glorious end for a glorious creation.”
Paying the merchant, Leonardo tipped his hat and slipped the eggplant into the cloth sack with his other purchases.
Already he felt his tensions ease from the simple act of buying an eggplant. A welcome relief, as most times his thoughts shifted like the moving parts of the machines he designed or the doodles he drew on every free centimeter of his notebook pages. His endless curiosity supplied the replenishing fount from which his ideas took shape. But such boundless inquisitiveness exacted a price. With so many ideas fomenting in his mind at once, he succumbed to the unfortunate habit of starting a multitude of projects and not finishing them.
Although Leonardo was acclaimed as the greatest living artist in Italy, he never received a commission from the Medici, nor had the Medici ever recommended him to the Pope when the Holy Father sought artists to work on Vatican commissions. The omission dismayed Leonardo, but he could not change the past. The Medici created and destroyed me. Now they are ousted from Florence. In the blink of an eye, everything changes.
The old market teemed with Florentines who walked about smelling, touching, and sampling the vast array of fruit, vegetables, olives, dried meats, and cheeses on display. Every few feet, a vendor called out, hawking his wares.
“Pomegranate with pulp as sweet as sugar!”
“Polli for sale!”
“Formaggi fit for a king!”
Their voices raised in a cacophony, each one trying to outdo the other, competing to grab the attention of prospective buyers. Many of the vendors called out to Leonardo by name, having known him since he was a boy. His father, Ser Piero, had brought him to Florence at the age of twelve and apprenticed him to Master Verrocchio’s workshop when he was fourteen. Leonardo’s genius drew recognition early on, surpassing his master, and he reveled in his status as Florence’s favorite son.
After seventeen years in Milan, Leonardo was happy to be back in Florence. He held only gratitude for the fame and notoriety he gained under the auspices of his former patron, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Acclaim had spread throughout the continent for The Last Supper, which Leonardo painted at Santa Maria delle Grazie. When Sforza fled Milan in the wake of the French King Louis XII’s conquest, Leonardo spent a few months winding up his affairs and endearing himself to the conquering French ruler.
He then traveled to Mantua, where his friend the Marchioness Isabella d’Este feted him. Had she not harangued him, imploring him for a portrait, he might have remained longer in Mantua. In truth, although he felt nothing but congeniality toward the wealthy art patroness, he had no desire to paint her.
Ah, but she continued to frustrate him with her constant “suggestions.”
“You will paint me in profile, wearing a crimson gown. And Leonardo, you must find a way to diminish my double chin.”
Her insistence on guiding his brush drained all the inspiration from him and left him dry as a husk of wheat in the sun. He left Mantua promising her a portrait based on a sketch he once made of her. Even now, her agent made every effort to engage him, but Leonardo managed to avoid the annoying man and refused to commit to a portrait or to fulfill his promise.
After Mantua, he made a brief visit to Venice, where he devised a plan to protect that city from a Turkish invasion. With his creativity unleashed, he proposed a military guard that could function underwater, then designed special diving suits to wear when submerged. The wineskin breathing apparatus and masks would enable the guards to see while protecting their eyes. To his dismay, like so many of his inventions, the Venetians did not take the bait.
He went home, hopeful that Florence would offer succor once more so that he could refill his coffers. Thus far, his return garnered a warm welcome, albeit not a lucrative one. His bank account had shrunk like the cock of a duck after mating season.
He stepped cautiously around puddles of blood, carcasses, and baskets of plucked feathers, holding his nose around the foul smells of livestock and excrement. He swatted away the annoying flies that dared to land on his nose and drone in his ears. Though at times repulsive, the marketplace reminded him of his childhood. His mind drifted back to his grandfather’s farm in Vinci. He idolized the country life even if he held no desire to live there. Patrons did not dwell in the countryside except at summer residences. Commerce and opportunity existed only in the cities where men of wealth and importance lived and worked.
Leonardo observed everything—the natural and the manmade world never ceased to amaze him. With all his senses attuned to his surroundings, he heard a distant chorale of angels. The bells from Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral sounded for the Angelus at the noon hour. The sonorous chimes reminded him that God bestowed his blessings on the Republic of Florence and reinforced the belief that devotion to church and state were indivisible. Despite the weakness of Leonardo’s religious conviction, hearing the familiar bells buoyed his confidence that great things were yet to come.
From his waist hung his sketchbook, and the deep recesses of his pockets held the red and black chalks he’d come to favor over the silver stylus for his drawings. He found the silver pencil cumbersome and tedious, the repetitive hatching he employed for modeling too time-consuming. With the chalk, Leonardo produced his drawings in half the time—blending, contouring, and shadowing his subjects—giving them the three-dimensionality he always strove to achieve. He perfected this technique, a blurring of lines known as sfumato—to evaporate like smoke.
Leonardo continuously reminded his students that all painters must reproduce each human body as if it lived. As though one could pluck it from the canvas and hear the heartbeat of a living, breathing being. For that reason, his chalk lay always at the ready when inspiration struck. His preference also meant fine red dust usually coated his fingers. It took a concerted effort not to wipe them against the splendid rose-pink, knee-length tunic he wore. Fastidious in his dress, he remained mindful that clothing set a man apart and put him on an equal footing with men of power. In the scheme of life, fine garments ascribed and encouraged respect and admiration to the wearer even when neither warranted such recognition.
At the lofty age of fifty, Leonardo retained his own vanity and delighted in his exalted status. He wore only the finest cloth of such unusual colors the public recognized him wherever he went. His storage chests lay full of colorful silk hose, richly embroidered velvets, buttery leathers, and thick furs, pleasing both to the eye and to the touch. Unlike his fellow Florentine, the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo appeared quite the dandy. Michelangelo, on the other hand, did not. Whenever he encountered the slovenly sculptor, Leonardo felt the urge to hold his nose and then afterward wash his hands and change into clean clothes.
Michelangelo. The name raised the hair on the back of Leonardo’s neck. But today was not the day to think about his rival, a man who reminded him of an unpolished lump of rock. While he acknowledged the sculptor’s talent, he found the man uncouth. Leonardo felt happiest among the company of men, but Michelangelo went through life as a loner and sought no man’s counsel. There would be no getting close to such a man. A brute fit for the chiseling of stone.
Leonardo rounded a corner and came face-to-face with dozens of cages and the persistent squawking, warbling, and cooing of all manner of birds, including quail, partridge, pigeons, and doves. Holding up the percussion section of this impromptu orchestra came the inharmonious honking of geese and quacking of ducks. The air rippled with the flapping wings of caged hawks and falcons, as though the large predators lamented their frustration at being so close to plump prey and yet stymied from their natural state—to hunt.
At that precise moment, through the clouds of flying feathers, he saw her. A young woman standing still as a statue observed a pair of turtledoves cuddling like lovers. Their wings, the color of roasted cinnamon bark, touched and glided against each other. The lifemates cooed and fluttered, fluttered and cooed. And all the while, the young lady watched, enthralled.
She wore the latest fashion from Spain, a forest green gown of silk. Leonardo observed the swelling of her bosom pressing against her bodice and the fecund fullness of her face. A recent mother. With an eye to all things beautiful, he studied her, subconsciously calculating the miracle of muscle, skin, and bone that resulted in such an unusual face. A delicate auburn wave of hair fell across her high forehead. Leonardo followed the course of the curl that meandered like a river through pristine countryside. Her bold, high cheekbones lifted her eyes into an intriguing slant, forming a shadowed surround that, had he not known better, would suggest she’d applied ancient kohl to enhance them. When he settled on her sensuously curved lips, the power to speak deserted him.
Catching his glance, she commented, “I feel such profound sorrow when I see winged creatures so confined. To be deprived of flight, once having tasted it, seems cruelty beyond reason.”
He hadn’t expected her to speak, and even less did he expect her words to match his own sentiments. Struggling to put thoughts into sentences, he answered, “Animals, like us, reflect the perfection of nature. And yet, they survive only at the whim of man. It is an affront to nature to imprison any living creature, man or beast. But I will go even further to suggest that it is a tragedy to kill and eat them. It is for that reason I consume neither meat nor fowl, nor fish of any kind—” He stopped himself from continuing and mused that for a man who had trouble conjuring clever words to say to this young woman, he’d managed to provide a loquacious revelation and a heart-held truth about himself.
Her fine dark brows rose as she turned to him, her eyes pensive and observant. “How strange you should say this, for I, too, have lost my ability to consume animal flesh.” Her lips turned up in a shadow of a smile.
“Unfortunately, my husband and household are not convinced that a diet composed of pasta, beans, vegetables, and fruit will placate their hunger or provide the sustenance they desire.”
Leonardo laughed. “Alas, my household would concur. One cannot force a belief or a way of life on another.”
“I could not agree more. Better to keep one’s counsel if one wishes to preserve a happy home.”
The bird seller interrupted their conversation, his broad girth suggesting that a goodly amount of meat formed a staple of his diet. “Maestro, may I ask patience from you while I see to the lady’s request?” He turned to the woman. “Signora, how can I be of service?”
The conversation between the merchant and the woman provided no interest to Leonardo. Instead, he took the opportunity to better study the olive-skinned beauty. She carried herself as regally as a queen and yet possessed a warmth of spirit he had never beheld. He was drawn to her pleasing manner and how her midnight eyes focused intently on the vendor as she cajoled him into giving her the best price. Her high forehead spoke of intelligence, while the gentle slope of her aquiline nose gave her profile an elegant silhouette. But the teasing mouth, pink as a rosebud, and the softness of her rounded chin captured his interest. Those lips that almost, but not quite, offered a smile.
An overwhelming desire came over him to sketch her—quite surprising since portraiture was his least favored form of artistic expression. He pondered if he should ask her to pose for him. Would she think him impertinent? He dismissed the notion, sensing her to be a woman of spirit as well as refinement. Few women ventured alone about the streets of Florence. Even as sophisticated a city as Florence was, it attracted more than its share of pickpockets and cutthroats. Perhaps she had a servant at hand to keep a close eye on her.
Leonardo had rarely met a woman who reflected his own thoughts so well. Had she been a man, he would have leaped into a lively discussion. Leonardo was used to the blunt and often coarse camaraderie of men—women, on the other hand, required a more delicate dance. The lady’s frankness quite bemused him, her beauty enchanted him, but other qualities drew him, too—the spaces between her words, the way she regarded him as he spoke, the way she listened. Her attentiveness drew him to her, perhaps more than anything else about her.
“If I could, I would set them all free,” she said in a low voice as she watched the vendor disappear to the back of the stall. “Will you purchase any birds today? And what will you do with them since I know you do not eat them?”
Was that a question, a suggestion, or a dare? He wondered at her presumption. “Why do you ask?”
“A feeling I have.” She turned her velvety gaze to him without relinquishing the meaning behind her words.
Leonardo recalled something his friend Machiavelli once said—Men generally judge more by the eye than by the hand, for everyone can see, and few can feel. Everyone sees what you appear to be. Few really know what you are.
Leonardo sensed this woman was unlike most people.
The birdkeeper returned and opened the cage that held the turtle doves, scooping them into a small, slatted box. The signora pulled an intricately embroidered saccoccia from her skirt and removed a florin, handing it to the vendor. He counted out her change, and she thanked him, dropping the coins into the small, draw-stringed pouch and tucking it back into the folds of her gown. She turned to Leonardo once more and inclined her head in a slight nod. “I bid you a good day.” She hesitated as though she might say more but then seemed to change her mind, offering up one more almost-smile instead as she picked up the box with the turtledoves and disappeared down the lane of stalls.
The impression she made might have ended that moment but his gaze continued to follow her. He observed her as she stopped at a quiet spot, where no vendors hawked, no buyers gathered, where no awning cast a shadow, where the warmth of the sun bathed her in its golden glow. She slid open the wooden slat, and with a few whispered words of encouragement, coaxed the turtledoves out. For a moment, they hovered before her, gently fluttering their wings and cooing as though thanking her before soaring into the sky, their wings flapping in tandem. The signora’s lips curved into a wide smile as she watched the doves embrace their newfound freedom. Leonardo knew his expression mirrored hers.
November 15, 1926
Valentina Amato saw only blackness. She shivered, huddling deeper into the folds of the damp blanket. She couldn’t tell whether the frigid temperature or her fear of the unknown caused her to tremble. Rain pummeled the tarp under which she sheltered, and she worried the heavy winds would carry it away. She prayed for the old farmer who drove the cart and for the old donkey who pulled it. She tried not to think of their destination or the reason she was forced to leave her home in Fiesole. In her short life of only sixteen years, she could not imagine why she deserved this fate.
“Hai portato vergogna alla famiglia! Dio mio, che maledizione!”
“You brought shame on our family! Dear God, what a curse!”
She recalled her mother’s shouts, the words repeated over and over again as she tore at her hair and rocked back and forth in her chair. Her mother, Giulia, never held anything back when it came to her outbursts.
Valentina often wondered if her mother believed she stood on a grand stage with an audience watching her performance.
For Valentina’s crime, Giulia declared banishment was the only recourse—both the girl and the unborn bastard child. On her knees, Valentina sobbed and begged her mother to let her stay. She promised to hide in her room until the baby was born. No one would know. She would not tell a soul. But Giulia would not be dissuaded and blamed her for the tragedy that had fallen upon their heads.
Valentina knew that sometimes, a mother or father bears animus toward their own offspring. Although still a child herself, she understood that the parent developed the unexplainable prejudice for no apparent cause. It took but a small twist of fate to reveal the truth—the hatred festering beneath a thin veneer of parental duty and obligation.
Valentina’s mother carried that hatred, kept it simmering for years. And Valentina’s pregnancy gave her the catalyst that caused the kettle to boil over. The more Valentina pleaded and wept, the angrier Giulia became until the words between them contained only a flood of rebukes and vituperations that neither mother nor child would ever forget.
Hateful words, once spoken, can never be forgiven.
Six months earlier, Valentina’s twin brother, Rudolfo, came home from work to find Valentina sobbing and their mother screaming while their two younger brothers, Paolo and Sebastian, cowered beneath the kitchen table. After separating Valentina and Giulia, Rudolfo managed to broker a fragile truce. Valentina received a reprieve and was allowed to remain in the house, at least until a suitable situation was found.
Now, six months later, the powder keg exploded once more when Valentina refused to tell her mother the name of the baby’s father. Her mother flew into a rage that spewed like molten lava from the cone of a volcano. Paolo and Sebastian again sought refuge beneath the table as though they could escape their mother’s vitriol.
Granted, they all knew how their mother felt about her only daughter. Giulia lavished what tenderness she possessed on her sons. Her cold, distant behavior heralded her lack of feeling for Valentina as if no warmth remained for the child who was most like herself.
Valentina’s father, Enrico Amato, on the other hand, made up for her mother’s lack of love. He adored Valentina and showered her with affection. It was true that he loved all his children equally, but perhaps, seeing how cold Giulia was toward Valentina, he spent extra time with her. When he returned each evening from the tobacco shop, he read to Valentina, teaching her about history, literature, and politics. He was a self-taught man with a penetrating mind who instilled a love of learning in her.
Giulia would often goad Enrico, usually when he read to Valentina at night. As she sat with her sewing, mending socks for her sons, she said cruel things, hurtful things to him. How he lacked ambition and drive. Instead of putting in a decent day of work, he sat outside with his cronies smoking and discussing politics. She would complain that he stayed late at the shop long after the customers were gone to read his silly books and newspapers.
Valentina wondered at the reasons for those verbal lashings. Her father would never reply to the insults hurled at him. He would simply continue to read to Valentina as though they were the only people in the room.
The saddest day of Valentina’s life was the day her father did not come home from the tobacco shop. She and her brothers were in bed, and Giulia, in one of her temper tantrums, drank a full bottle of wine and fell asleep on the sofa. In the morning, seeing their papa had not returned, Valentina and Rudolfo went to the shop to search for him. Her beloved father lay sprawled face down on the floor, dead. Unable to say goodbye, to hold his hand one more time, Valentina experienced a punishment beyond cruelty. For months after that, Valentina kept seeing her father lying on the cold stone floor, all alone in the dark, with no one to hear his cries for help.
That he died alone broke her heart. That she lost the one parent who loved her broke her soul.
Valentina’s silence about the father of her child unleashed her mother’s temper once more. Giulia slapped her repeatedly and called her a puttana. Sheer luck brought Rudolfo home from the tobacco shop early that night. He took Giulia by the shoulders and set her on the chair by the hearth. Then he reheated the same water he boiled that morning, filled two cups, and squeezed a wedge of lemon into each cup with a teaspoon of sugar. He handed Giulia one cup and Valentina the other. They sipped in silence as he told them he’d arranged for Valentina to go to the nunnery at Santa Maria del Carmine. He hoped to take Valentina himself on the coming Saturday, but after tonight’s confrontation, Valentina should leave immediately.
If anyone asked, they would say Valentina went to stay with Zia Annunziata, their father’s great aunt who lived in Siena. Zia Nunzia was ill and needed someone to look after her.
After the baby’s birth, the sisters at the convent would find a suitable family to adopt the child. And Valentina could return home.
Valentina loosened her grip on the cart as it no longer jostled from ruts in the bumpy country road. The smoother ride over paved stones must mean they were within the walls of Florence proper.
Oh, how she wished she could fly back in time. One of her happiest memories was of visiting Florence with Papa. Her father took her and Rudolfo to Florence on separate trips. With little interest in history and art, her brother opted to watch a soccer game and dine at a trattoria. Valentina’s jaunt encompassed activities more in keeping with her love of history and art.
She gasped in awe as she beheld the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore’s dome. It seemed to float above the city in a vision of splendor. She wept as she remembered the pride in her father’s eyes as he took her to see the replica of Michelangelo’s David outside the Palazzo Vecchio and to the Uffizi Gallery to see the Medici collection.
“Valentina, we Italians brought reason and humanism to the world. The Renaissance was a time of brilliant creativity. Imagine the greatest artists, writers, philosophers, and musicians, all converging here in Florence, those who were born here and those who came here from far-off lands. They all shared one reason to be here. To take part in the Rinascimento, the rebirth of culture and classicism, and the birth of the philosophical concept of humanism.”
On that glorious day full of sunshine and beauty, they walked until Valentina’s feet ached. When they finally stopped to eat at the Mercato Vecchio, her father confessed to her his unrealized dream of becoming a doctor. The Great War had changed all that. With the loss of his left hand came the end of his dreams.
She saw a different Florence on that splendid day, as opposed to this wretched cold and rainy night. She wiped tears from her eyes and said a prayer for her dear departed father. If he were alive today, her life would be so different.
The cart came to a stop, and Valentina’s heart fluttered in her chest. Tommaso pulled back the tarp to help her descend. In an instant, she was soaked from the rain.
“Madre di Dio, what a terrible night. Come girl, make haste. I must find a place to stable the donkey and a shelter for myself tonight.”
He held her by the arm, escorting her to the massive double doors of the convent. He pressed a button, and the sound of a bell echoed on the other side of the thick, heavy wood. Valentina’s legs shook, and she pulled the blanket tight around her with one hand and clutched her small suitcase with the other. Finally, the door groaned open, and a nun stood under an umbrella.
“Don’t just stand there, girl, come in, come in. We’ve been expecting you.” A flash of lightning lit the sky, and for a moment, Valentina could see the pale face of the sister, her eyes etched with disdain, reminiscent of her mother, Giulia. She was judged guilty without a trial. She dropped her eyes submissively.
Tommaso nodded, lifting his hat respectfully. “Where might my donkey and I find some rest?” he asked, shouting above the thrashing rain.
“The caretaker’s cottage is behind the church. Giuseppe will put you and your donkey up for the night.”
The nun shut the heavy door, sliding the bolt in place. She hurried through the cloister with her black habit billowing in her wake. Valentina scampered behind, trying to keep up. She caught a shadowy glimpse of frescoes on the walls while the sweet smell of grass and the pungent scent of freshly tilled earth revealed the presence of a nearby garden. The nun broke the silence by introducing herself as Suor Emilia. “Get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow you will learn your duties here.”
“Yes. Everyone here works, and so will you.” Suor Emilia glanced back at her. “Of course, we will take into consideration your condition.” She shook her head, her gaze dropping to the barely visible bump of pregnancy. “Why you girls don’t realize that your silly fancies will lead to ruin is beyond me.”
Valentina said nothing. She may be ruined, but not by her own silly fancies. She would not give this black crow the satisfaction of a reply.
The morning sunshine streamed through the sheer lace curtains on the window. Valentina sat up and rubbed her eyes. She blinked several times, confusion muddling her thoughts. Spying her small, unopened suitcase on the chair in the corner of the room brought her mind back into focus. Last night exhaustion took over and she stumbled into bed. Valentina gazed about the cramped room, her home for the next few months. A small table with a washbasin and pitcher sat against the wall. Above the headboard of the bed hung a wooden crucifix.
A gentle knock sounded on the door. “Come in,” she called, lifting the blanket to cover herself. She hoped it wasn’t Suor Emilia from last night. The door opened, and a young nun stepped into the room. Dressed in a freshly starched habit, pristine white scapular and veil, she gave Valentina a warm smile.
Hope swelled in Valentina’s chest. Unable to contain her joy at seeing a friendly face about her own age, her enthusiasm burst from her. “Good morning!”
The nun set the tray on the bed. “E buongiorno a lei! My name is Suor Teresa, and I will be helping you settle in here at the convent.”
After greeting her guest, Valentina added, “Please, can you stay a few minutes? I have so many questions.”
Suor Teresa sat on the edge of the bed, fingering the large crucifix that hung from her neck. “Once you’re used to things here, you can join us in the dining room for breakfast at six. But if you’d like, you can join us for Vigil and Lauds prayers before that at five.” She took Valentina’s hand and squeezed it. “You are always welcome. We want you to feel as if this is your home.”
“Thank you, and I will do whatever is required. Are you a nun, Teresa?”
Teresa’s thick brows arched over her dark brown eyes, and a glow lit her features.
“Yes, I took my first vows three months ago.”
“I can see by your face that you are very happy here.”
“It’s a freedom and a blessing I never expected to feel.”
Valentina found that an odd declaration. She considered the life of a nun anything other than free. “Last night when I arrived, Suor Emilia mentioned I would have duties, but she did not tell me what they might be.” Valentina scooped up a spoonful of bread soaked in warm milk. The baby growing inside of her was as hungry as she was.
Suor Teresa bounced on the bed, bubbling with energy. “Can you read, Valentina?” There was no judgment contained in Suor Teresa’s question. She was as guileless as a child. “If not, you can work in the garden, if you like.”
The thought of working outside was tempting. Valentina imagined the gardens to be quite pleasant, but the question of literacy pricked her curiosity. “Yes, my father encouraged my education and made sure I could read and write.” The thought of her father made her sorrow rise, reminding her of all she had lost. She swallowed the lump in her throat. “I am quite proficient and well versed in history, literature, and art, and my father told me my penmanship is quite pleasing.”
“Wonderful. Then you might consider working in the library with Suor Maria Vittoria, who oversees our books. Our library is quite noteworthy—many of the books came from Sant’ Orsola, a convent founded in the fourteenth century. Sadly, Napoleon deconsecrated the convent in the 1800s. Suor Maria Vittoria is getting on in years and could use the help.”
The library sounded like the perfect place to spend the rest of her pregnancy. “I’d like that very much. Is Suor Maria Vittoria kind? I only ask because Suor Emilia—” Valentina struggled to put into words her first impression of Suor Emilia without appearing too harsh or insulting.
“Oh, don’t mind Suor Emilia. She’s a curmudgeon, but harmless. Suor Maria Vittoria, on the other hand, is a saint. You will love her.”
Valentina smiled and rubbed her abdomen.
Suor Teresa’s gaze followed her movements. “Do you know what you will do with the baby after it’s born?”
Valentina shook her head. “Not yet. But I hope God will provide an answer.”
“I’m sure He will.” Suor Teresa stood. “Take your time with your breakfast. The pitcher holds fresh water for you to wash with. I’ll return for you in about half an hour to escort you to the library, and I will introduce you to Suor Maria Vittoria. I’m sure you will be very happy working with her.”
Impulsively, Valentina reached for Suor Teresa’s hand. “Thank you for being so kind to me,” she whispered. “I was feeling quite lost and alone—your warm welcome has made me feel less so. I hope we can become good friends.”
Thank you for your consideration, I hope to hear from you soon.
Tema Merback (writing as Belle Ami)
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