Artist Sandro Botticelli’s painting Primavera is one of the most celebrated artworks of the Italian Renaissance. Breaking with many conventions of the past, it askewed religious imagery in favor of a secular theme of spring awakening. As such it garnered a great deal of criticism from Church authorities when it was painted in the late 15th century. In her novel Botticelli’s Muse, author Dorah Blume writes a fictionalized account of the making of one of the most iconic paintings of the Western art and the people who inspired it.
Set in 1477-78, the novel starts with a scene of the rape of a young Jewish weaver Floriana by a Dominican monk in the Tuscan countryside. As a fallen woman, she is taken to a convent outside of Florence where she is expected to repent and to convert to Christianity. However, Abbess Oslavia rescues Floriana from the clutches of the religious authorities and spirits her away to an estate where her brother Sandro is working as a hired artist.
Sandro Botticelli is already a painter of some renown, but an artist’s life is always economically precarious, so he accepts a commission from a wealthy patron Piero, a distant cousin to the powerful Medici family that rules Florence. Sandro has managed to secure favorable terms under which he can paint whatever he wants, but he is still stumped for inspiration. That is until the ethereal and vulnerable Floriana arrives at Villa Castello.
Over the next year, the personal and the political drama marking the main characters’ lives unfolds. It is a time of unrest in Florence, where the Pazzi family plots to wrest control from the Medicis. The preacher Girolamo Savonarola arrives on the scene, keen on purging the city of its sinful behavior (which, in his mind, includes artistic excesses) and return it to the more Christ-like image. And as Sandro and Floriana’s love grows, so does the fruit of the rape in her belly.
In the background, the painting progresses as the novel’s protagonists one by one find their way into it: first Floriana as the goddess of Spring herself, then Sandro’s sister Oslavia as Venus, and eventually Piero’s younger sisters as the three Graces. The result is an image that is dynamic and full of life, joyous yet imbued with violent elements in the form of Zephyrus possessing Chloris.
While this imagining of the origins of the painting may be fictionalized, the author skillfully renders the world of Renaissance Italy in vivid detail. We are witnesses not just to the political and religious upheavals, but also to the creative spirit of humanism that marked the era, and nowhere was it more powerful than in the city of Florence.
Botticelli’s Muse will appeal to lovers of history, art, and all things Italian, and I look forward to the next book in the series.
If you enjoy historical fiction, check out The Greenest Branch, my novel based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is FREE to read on Kindle Unlimited, and available in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces.