Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Interview with Robin Maxwell, Author of Signora da Vinci

This interview first appeared on my blog, So Many Precious Books, So Little Time. We thought you may enjoy it here on Historical Tapestry.

I am so excited to welcome Robin Maxwell, author of Signora da Vinci to So Many Precious Books, So Little Time! When I first heard about this book, I went begging for a review copy. It did not disappoint! (See my review).

Now for the interview:

Teddy: What inspired you to write about Leonardo da Vinci's mother?

R.M.: Actually, my first thought was to write a book about Leonardo, because he was -- and remains today -- much more than just an astonishing artist. He had the most original mind of any man of any century. He was an inventor, scientist, philosopher, atheist, believer in Nature as God, vegetarian (when such a thing was a heretical act!), a homosexual, a believer in freedom of the human spirit, and that learning did not come from books but from personal, first-hand experience. However, the publishing business today -- especially in the historical fiction genre -- is quite fixated on stories told from a woman's point of view. So I was forced to revise my thinking.

In retrospect, SIGNORA DA VINCI might not have been quite as appealing a book as it was with Caterina, because with her as the protagonist, she was able to observe Florence's all-male "inner circle", secretly, through female eyes, as well as have a love relationship with a man. If I'd only had Leonardo to work with, I would have been writing primarily about homosexual relationships and truthfully, though I have several close friends who are gay, I'm not familiar (from an "insiders" point of view) with that kind of sexuality.

Teddy: How long did it take you to do research for this book? Please tell us about your research process for the book.

R.M.: Since this was, after having written six novels of Tudor England and Ireland, my first in Renaissance Italy, I was starting from scratch -- locations, characters, world view, philosophies, politics, arts and sciences -- absolutely everything was new to me. I'd never been to Florence or Milan, had never set foot in Italy at all, yet I knew I had to really evoke a sense of this most extraordinary moment in time, as it was in Florence, with this particular group of people, where the Renaissance began. The Renaissance was the most significant turning point in history up to that time, and I had to do it justice.
So I stared buying and acquiring research books -- mostly online through Amazon, Powell's, and Alibris -- and scouring the internet, and I began immersing myself in the period. I read a dozen books on Leonardo alone. Not only his body of work in painting, architecture and sculpture, but his NOTEBOOKS, a prodigious treasury of technologic inventions, science, biology, anatomy and optics, as well as his philosophies which -- it would be an understatement to say -- were radical...downright heretical.

I was lucky enough to find some great books on Florence, one that had a street map of the city in 1500 with all the important landmarks, churches, palazzos, public buidlings and bridges, and I referred to that constantly, making sure my characters were getting around from place to place on the correct streets.

I read several wonderful biographies of Lorenzo "The Magnificent" de' Medici, and one autobiography with all his famous sonnets and explanation of their meanings. I also saw every visual image we have of him -- paintings, busts and even his death mask. During the course of researching and writing this book, I totally fell in love with Lorenzo, so it was easy to write my protagonist -- Caterina da Vinci -- falling in love with him, too.

With regard to the Turin Shroud hoax, which is an important part of the plot, I used two books by the non-fiction authors, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, and depended upon their research and experiments very heavily.

In terms of length of time and depth of effort doing research for a novel: SIGNORA DA VINCI takes its place alongside THE QUEEN'S BASTARD and THE WILD IRISH, though in SIGNORA DA VINCI I was still sitting there with research books in my lap as I was writing the very last page of the epilogue. When I was finished I had a bit of a mental meltdown where I couldn't put two thoughts together, was forgetting simple words, and literally walking around in circles. I can finally say (after nearly a year) that my head is back to normal.

Teddy: At what point in your writing the book did you decide that Caterina would become Cato?

.:I always write a detailed outline of my novels to start (this is how I sell my books -- based on proposals) so as soon as I came up with my storyline, it became clear that if I wanted Caterina to follow her beloved son, Leonardo, into Florence to watch over him, and if I wanted to illuminate the secret world of the city -- what I call "The Shadow Renaissance," (see more about that in a page on my website http://robinmaxwell.com, BONUS PASSPORT TO THE 15th CENTURY called "What is the Shadow Renaissance?"), from the inside, from her perspective, she could not be a woman. Women were kept cloistered in their fathers' houses till they were married (or went to a convent) and then cloistered in their husband's houses till they died. They were only allowed to go out to confession or gather with their women friends for special occasions like marriages and the birth of children. And since I learned that there were women who cross-dressed all throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance (and found some wonderful research books on the subject), I had no choice but to turn Caterina into "Cato."

Teddy: Was there really a time in history with Leonardo da Vinci and Lorenzo de’Medici. Please tell us about that time.

R.M.: There's actually a controversy about that. Some historians say that because Lorenzo de' Medici did not send Leonardo with other painters like Botticelli (on loan) to Rome to decorate the Vatican, and because he DID send the 30 year-old already famous painter to live and work in Milan in the court of Ludovico Sforza, that Lorenzo did not think highly of Leonardo. That is because Leo was not a highly educated man (as Lorenzo was), but something of a "country bumpkin," Lorenzo felt Leo was "below him" socially. I think that's hogwash.

Other historians say Lorenzo was Leonardo's patron and "godfather," and while only one suggests that da Vinci may have lived for a while at the Palazzo Medici (like Michelangelo and Botticelli certainly did for several years as "adopted sons") I don't think Lorenzo went that far with Leonardo. He did appreciate his genius, from a very young age (Leo was an apprentice with the Medici court Artist, Verrocchio), and there's reason to believe that if Lorenzo knew of Leo's heretical leanings (which he had to have known about, as Leo was very open about them) then sending him to his friend Ludovico in Milan, to a much less religiously repressive place than Florence under Savonarola, was a protective measure. In any event, the latter was the choice I made that fit my story and the interaction between Leonardo, his mother and the Medici family.

Teddy: What are you working on now?

R.M.: My next novel, O, JULIET, is the first retelling of the the world's greatest love story in the form of a historical novel. I set it in Florence (and only a few parts in Verona) in 1444. Lorenzo de' Medici's mother, Lucrezia (at age 18, just before she marries into the Medici family), is Juliet's best girlfriend, and while the story is told primarily in Juliet's voice, Romeo gets to tell his side of it as well. It'll be published in the beginning of 2010.

Teddy: What is one of your favourite books/authors?

R.M.: I have too many much-loved authors and books to list, but my new two favorites in historical fiction are C.W. Gortner (THE LAST QUEEN) and Michelle Moran (NEFERTITI and THE HERETIC QUEEN).

I would like to thanks Robin Maxwell for taking time out of her busy schedule for this interview!


  1. The book sounds very interesting - Ive never come across such an unusual topic, even in a historical context!

  2. I had no idea that vegetarianism was heresy back then! I can't even imagine what it would have been to live back then and be cloistered all of the time.

  3. Daniel it is fresh and highly recommended.

    Alyce, I didn't either. I guess my husband and I would have been burned at the stake for being vegan!

  4. Wow, thank you so much for such a great interview! I am currently reading Signora DaVinci and I am absolutely in love with it! I'll definitely be adding Maxwell to my list of favorite authors, and I love hearing how her mind worked around the book. Thanks!

  5. Infiniteshelf, I am so glad that you are enjoying the book and that you enjoyed the interview. She sure went up one my favorites list too!

  6. Hello!
    My name is Lizzy, I just fund your blog and I love it. Very good interview with robin. She is so nice. I gave you an award over on my site come and check me out.

  7. Wonderful interview. I think I heard about this book before here at your blog, it sounds very good.

  8. Lizzy, I'm glad you like the interview and thanks so much for the award.

    Naida, Thanks. I bet you would enjoy this book.