Wednesday, December 19, 2012


As my work continues to feature the creations of Renaissance artists, a distinction and characteristic growing with each and every book, it feels only appropriate to honor the season with some of the greatest masterpieces capturing the moment.

The most powerful philosophical and spiritual movement of the Renaissance was that of the Humanist—a rise in the importance of the individual, a desire for beauty and joy in life, intellectual conquest of physical realities, a renewal of pagan pursuits of happiness, and, most of all, an awakening consciousness of the connection of the individual to the natural world in which they exist. All that said, the art of the time was most thoroughly saturated by religious themes. The affluence of the age, however, allowed for wealthy patrons to insert themselves into these religious artistic compositions.

It would be a dishonor to begin this homage to Renaissance nativity works, were it not to begin with Leonardo da Vinci, thrillingly a main character in the current work in progress series. Da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi) is not only a statement of the evolution of his technique; it is also a prime example of his inability to bring works to their full fruition. This work, oil on wood, da Vinci began in 1481 as a commission for the altarpiece of the Scopeto Monastery of San Donato. The methodology da Vinci used would mark a progression, not only in his own work, but of those of the era, most specifically in the manner in which figures are represented. There is clearly a sense of dynamic movement to the many people surrounding Mary and her son Jesus. Here we find also a method called chiaroscuro where the contrast of light and dark is manipulated to show a figure’s relative position to others and to the very ground upon which they stand or sit. Unfortunately, the painting was never completed; Leonardo abandoned the work two years later when he left for Milan and the regular income offered to him by the Duke of that province. As an aside, much is theorized on da Vinci’s inability to complete projects, many of them quite derogatory. In this author’s humble opinion it was a question of mastery; once he mastered the technique he set out to achieve for any individual work, he lost interest, having made the conquest, what then was left for him to achieve in the work. It was a symptom of his particular brand of genius. It was a blessing…and a curse.

As one of the fathers of the Renaissance, Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi also deserves mention. In this piece, created between 1304 and 1306, is a glimpse into the discovery of three-dimensional painting; a hallmark of the early Renaissance. This particular piece is a portion of a cycle of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The draping of the clothing, the emotion of the faces is so distinctly Giotto, so enrapturing for the onlooker. But one of the most intriguing figures of the composition is the Star of Bethlehem and its movement through the sky, where almost all such other depictions find it stationary. It is a conjecture that Giotto was inspired to render it as such after seeing the 1301 sighting of Haley’s Comet.

Also an artist gracing the pages of the current work in progress is Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, better and more simply known as Sandro Botticelli. Botticelli’s work went through many phases, due in great part to his influences…Lorenzo ‘Il Magnifico’ de’ Medici at the start, the fiery and fanatical Savonarola near the end. In this enormously complex work (London, National Gallery), quite rightly called the Mystic Nativity, it has much of the Savonarola influence—an infusion of symbolism—and little grounding in the event as it might have happened. In it, the artist combines depictions of Christ’s birth along with indications of Christ’s Second Coming as foretold in the Book of Revelation, an event to mark the end of the world as we know it. The joyful combined with the heart wrenching can only be a product of Savonarola’s guilt ridden preaching. And yet it is a work of such mastery and intrigue that it is captivating for whatever influences and warnings it may propound.

In quiet contrast to the tumultuous scene of Botticelli, we next come to the work of Masaccio (Berlin, Staaliche Museum). In this case we find its value not only in the work itself, but in its form. Painted in oil on a wooden salver, this is the personification of a birth tray. Birth trays were common objects in Renaissance, patrician households, given to women either before or during pregnancy and were believed to encourage the healthy delivery of a baby boy. The scenes depicted were often of other births but would frequently include heraldic symbolism of each particular family. To find a birth tray, a household item, created by a master of Masaccio’s stature, gives new meaning not only to what was considered ‘household items’ but to what is considered modern day birth gifts.

While hopeful intentions were to represent the late or “High Renaissance” with a nativity by Michelangelo (yes, he too will be included in the new series, as a young man full of himself and promise as opposed to the life weary man depicted in The King’s Agent), it appears he did not paint one, at least in the formal sense. As he was to conduct himself throughout a great deal of his life, Michelangelo created a painting he called the Holy Family. In this early work, which some say is his first fully self-completed painting (completed 1504 at the age of 29, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), it leaves no doubt to his mastery as a painter. His use of line and his vision of humankind went far beyond the bounds of existing convention. The muscularity of his figures, the authenticity of their expressions breathes true and immortal life into his subjects. Of all such scenes studied in the name of research, this one, beyond all others, shows the humanity of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and, in doing so, lays bare far greater, the sacrifices they were to endure for the sake of humanity and love.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Few give credit to the architects of the Renaissance, but it is truly by their hands that the world took on a rebirth…a rebirth of its cities and towns, of the complete methodology of how building and engineering was approached—the perfect blending of the classical with the technological advances of the age.

Like the other men discussed in this series—his fellow founding fathers of the Renaissance—little is known about the childhood of Filippo Brunelleschi. Like the others, he was born in Florence. (What was in the water there and then, to make such geniuses, create such men; one can only wonder, at such innovative thunder.) Brunellesco di Lippo (a lawyer, though we may forgive him for that for conceiving such a genius) and Guiliana Spini gave birth to their second son in 1377. Eventually the middle child of three sons, his father wished for Filippo to follow him into the law, but Brunelleschi was drawn to artistic endeavors and there he would remain.

At fifteen, the young Filippo began his goldsmith apprenticeship in 1392 in the studio of Benincasa Lotti, as did Donatello. Together they found themselves in the slums of the Santa Croce quarter. His studies included mounting, embossing, and engraving as well as the science of motion, using wheels, gears, cogs, and weights. During those years, Brunelleschi met a man who would have a major influence on his education and thought processes. Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli was both merchant and medical doctor who’s predilections for science and mathematics found expression in the tutelage of the young artist—a sculptor from a young age—in the principles of geometry.

Though he earned the status of master in goldsmith in 1398, Brunelleschi lost a competition for the design of the new bronze doors for the city’s baptistery. Not only did he lose (pictured right, his defeated entry), he lost to a man he considered a lesser technician, Ghiberti. A legend contends Brunelleschi was so affronted, he stormed out of the city’s Palazzo della Signori—where the winner was announced—and abandoned Florence—and sculpture—altogether. With Donatello, Filippo spent the next ten years in Rome, learning of life and art and more.

According to the International Dictionary of Architects, Brunelleschi immersed himself in the study of antiquity, paying greatest attention to the triumphs of Roman engineering. The construction of the Pantheon, most particularly the dome, mesmerized him. His goal was not to learn to reproduce Roman architecture, but to enrich the architecture of his own time with the influence of classicism and to perfect his engineering skills.

Brunelleschi returned to Florence a changed man, a man who had been forever altered by his immersion in ancient architecture, a man who had rediscovered the principles of linear perspective using mirrors, a man who had found confidence in his own abilities. Coinciding with his return, Florence launched another competition: their magnificent cathedral required a new dome, a self-supporting dome, a structure no one had successful created to date. While Brunelleschi felt confident he could do it, the rulers of Florence were not so sure and required the former goldsmith to prove his architectural acumen, which he did with great aplomb.

Via a commission from one of the richest organizations in the city, the Silk Guild, Brunelleschi designed the Spedale deglia Innocenti, the Hospital of the Innocents. With his magic, the already beautiful city found itself decorated with a modern take on the ancients’ majesty. Nine columns of the Composite order are bound together by semi-circular arches. Glazed blue terra-cotta roundels with reliefs of babies—suggesting the building’s function—decorate each arches’ spandrel. While touted as a wonder of architecture, Brunelleschi coveted the grandest prize of all.

Filippo’s proposal, of using a double self-supporting shell and rib structure to support the monumental weight of the free standing dome, won him the cathedral competition. It was to become the greatest work of his life, one that would envelope the remainder of it, a life untethered, unglorified by wife or children and yet one revered for centuries. It was to become one of the greatest man-made creations of the world, visited by millions every year. By implementing techniques reminiscent of Archimedes, using counterweights and wheels for lifting, only a single ox was required to raise a load so heavy it would take at least six pair of the animals to accomplish the same task.

Construction on the Duomo of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore…the dome of the church of Saint Mary of the Flowers…began in 1420. By the time of Brunelleschi’s death in 1446, it was, for the most, part complete. The finishing touch, the huge lantern that Filippo designed himself to hang from the center of the dome, was put in place after his death. It is in this church, amidst his grandest creation, that the remains of Filippo Brunelleschi—a man considered the main initiator of stylistic changes in Renaissance architecture—were laid to rest.

It is in this dome, the Duomo de Santa Maria di Fiora, that a one of the most horrendous of human acts of violence took place but a half century after its creation; it is in the midst of this horrific act that my trilogy—my current work in progress—will begin.

All artists of all mediums—literature, architecture, painting, and sculpture—have much to thank these men—these founding fathers of the Renaissance—for. It has been a great pleasure to dedicate these last few posts to their astounding contributions. As one who can trace my lineage back to Florence, most importantly, I thank them for their eternal inspiration.

Monday, December 3, 2012


Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi did not create the most famous sculpture in the world, the DAVID by Michelanglo, but if not for him it would never have been created at all.

Born in Florence ‘around’ 1386, Donatello, as he came to be known by family members in his childhood, was born to Nicolo di Betto Bardi, a member of the Florentine Woolcombers Guild. While, to the modern sensibility such a position might sound plebeian, in truth any Guild membership of the age brought with it a certain amount of esteem, if not financial success (much like a multi-award winning, critically acclaimed author of the present era). Some accounts contend that he was educated in the house of the Martelli family, though further research brings a strong cynicism to the contention, as they were closely aligned with the Medici family and Donatello’s father was a devotee to the Albizzi family, fierce rivals of the Medici.

What is incontrovertible is that Donatello’s first training began in a goldsmith’s shop—very much the custom of the age—but he quickly moved to and worked, for a short time, in the studio of Lorenzo Ghiberti, an artist of multiple mediums including bronze and gold. In the dawning years of the fifteenth century, Ghiberti reigned victorious over Brunelleschi in a competition for the creation of the baptistery gates, but lost his apprentice. Brunelleschi took off for Rome taking with him the teen-aged Donatello, two young men off to the most magnificent city to find adventure. They found much more.

What in modern terminology would be called a case of boys gone wild, or a Renaissance version of The Hangover, these two of such like temperament worked hard and played hard. Many denounced them as treasure seekers for they were often to be found in the ruins infesting Rome and the surrounding area. In their words, they were excavating and studying the soil and the stone to better learn their properties and how to manipulate them. This trip to Rome was a pivotal moment in both lives; Brunelleschi’s to be discussed in a later post, while for Donatello it was an opportunity to entrench himself in the study of the classic style, the forms and the ornamentation that had made them classic and forever lasting. What they absorbed and became would become the backbone that is the spirit of the Renaissance.

Donatello’s return to Florence would coincide with his first paid commission, in the year 1405 when he completed two small statues of nameless prophets for the cathedral. From there his works became uncountable and included all mediums and techniques including sandstone, marble, bronze, and gold in bas reliefs and statues. It is an irony of his life that one of his first great works was of the David in marble and one his last was of the David in bronze. The first showed the promise of the artist to come; the second is considered an enigmatic figure, a young boy clothed only in boots and a pointed hat. The drastic change in composition may be accounted for by the never-married man’s coming to open terms with his own sexuality.

His many compatriots and co-workers acceptable readily his choice of lifestyle, for not only was Donatello an eager collaborator, he was an exuberant and humorous man of a light-hearted manner. If he knew the impact he was making upon the world, not only in his own time, but for all time, he rarely allowed the burden of it to darken his days or thrash his nights. It is hard to say with any great authority whether it is his work or his legacy that has made the greatest impact on art, but he was, in no uncertain terms, one of the founding gathers of the Renaissance. And, as Georgi Vasari said, ‘The world remained so full of Donatello’s works that it may be said with confidence that no artist has ever produced more (by the year of The Lives of Artists publication) than he did.’

Little is recorded about the personal life of Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, but it can be inferred, from the depths of his work and the agreement that the powerful expressivity of his art made him the greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance, that he was an intuitive sort who could see the depths of life and learned how to express them with his craft. Donatello died in Florence of unknown causes in 1466, at the age of eighty-years-old. He is buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo beside Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder, one of his first and most ardent patrons.

Monday, November 19, 2012


In The King’s Agent, the quest of the main characters is fueled by an imaginary work of the great Giotto, for no piece of Italian literature set in the Renaissance would be complete without the mention of the man. In 1550, Giorgio Vasari wrote the Lives of Artists; in it he proclaims Giotto di Bondone (known widely and simply as Giotto) as a founder of “the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing exactly from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years.” This dissemination of the natural style, while perhaps not begun by Giotto, was no doubt more thoroughly evolved by him than any previous purveyor of the style, a style that was an organic melding of artistic progress with human need. The natural technique provided the growing intellect of the upper classes with the clarifying interpretations of the prevalent religious themes, while bringing to the common people these same subjects in an immediate and palpable form, exposing to them to an enlightenment heretofore incomprehensible and unreal in earlier art.

And yet of this man who constructed and surmounted a major bridge in the advancement of painted works, little facts are positively known. Offered in question and theory, much of the details of Giotto’s life are subject to disambiguation. That he was born in Florence and died in Florence there can be little question. Prevalent theory holds that he was born in 1266/67 in the village of Colle Vespignano in the Provence of Florence, but a few miles north of the city proper. The legend, for it can be called nothing less, states that the famous artist Cimabue (at the time considered one of but two most widely renowned painters), while on a walking tour through the region, saw some of the child Giotto’s strangely lifelike rock drawings of sheep—which he had done while at work in the fields. So impressed was Cimabue with the youth’s talent, that Cimabue immediately asked Giotto’s father for permission to make the child his apprentice.

The deal was immediately struck, Giotto’s apprenticeship thus began when he was estimated to be about thirteen or fourteen years old. On the tail of his master Cimabue, Giotto traveled the peninsula, learning, soon participating, and quickly outshining his teacher. One lasting and enduring anecdote tells of a day in which Cimabue was absent from the studio. In that time, his precocious apprentice painted such a realistic fly on the face of his master’s painting, Cimabue tried many times to shoo it away.

As Giotto’s path found him in Rome, Rimini, Naples, Bologna, Padua and back to Florence, he made his way merrily, known as a happy man who possessed a great wit and a love of practical jokes. A favored yarn in evidence of his mischievous side relates that when a messenger from the pope arrived at Giotto’s door asking for proof of the painters genius, Giotto drew a perfect red circle—in one stroke—and sent it back in answer to the challenge. And along his joyous journey through life, he created such masterpieces as to inspire the great Dante to write of him and the masters of the High Renaissance to learn from him, such men as Masaccio, Michelangelo and Raphael. Due to the lack of ascription and the frequency of his travels, it is hard to put an exact number on his works, but it can easily be said to be near or over a hundred, consisting mostly of panel paintings and frescoes.

No discussion of Giotto would be complete without mention of the Scrovegni Chapel. Considered his masterwork, the painted interior decoration of the chapel of Enrici degli Scrovegni in Padua was completed—and signed—sometime between 1303 and 1310. Said to have been commissioned by degli Scrovengni to atone for the sins of his father, the theme of the entire work is Salvation with specific emphasis on the Virgin Mary with special dedication to the Annunciation.

Giotto’s greatest artistic gift, that which truly set him apart from other artists of his day (and a characteristic this author hopes in her own way to emulate as the writer of historical fiction) was his ability to capture and render the emotions and the soul of his subject, not just to reiterate their lives, but to bring them to life.

Three years before his passing in 1334, the city of Florence named Giotto Magnus Magister (Great Master) and appointed him the city’s head architect and chief of public works. At the time of his death, he was in the middle of constructing the Campanile, now known as Giotto’s Tower. The project was finished by one of Giotto’s most ardent followers, Andrea Pisano. Giotto was buried in Santa Maria del Fiore, the great Cathedral of Florence, at a spot to the left of the entrance marked by a white marble plaque.

Giotto’s influence on the entire scope of art, not just of that in the Renaissance, can never be devalued, but he left more than just a cataclysmic artistic legacy. Around the age of twenty, Giotto met and married Ricevuta di Lapo del Pela, whom most called “Ciuta.” The number of their offspring varies from six to eight, but it is agreed that at least one of them, Francesco, became a painter as well, though not of his father’s caliber. It is also said that, like their father, none of the children possessed any physical attractiveness. In Vasari’s Lives of Artists, the author proclaims that there was ‘no uglier man in Florence.’ When Dante visited the family he asked the artist how a man who could create such beautiful works of art managed to produce such homely children, to which Giotto replied, “I made them in the dark.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


The research for my book, The King’s Agent, brought me to Florence. My current research and work in progress have me firmly planted there for what is assuredly a trilogy, perhaps a longer series. So much I encounter everyday takes my breath away, so much makes me long to learn more. The Renaissance (a word based on the Italian word Rinascimento, meaning rebirth) began in the fourteenth century and lasted through to the seventeenth. By then it had spread throughout Europe, but it is undeniable that it began in Italy, in Tuscany and Florence specifically. And while men such as da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bramante, and Raphael perfected the movement, these four men—Francesco Petrarch, Giotto di Bondone, Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (known as Donatello), and Filippo Bruneschelli—began it.

As a writer and self-proclaimed philosopher and spiritualist, it seems only apropos that I begin this series of blog posts with another writer and philosopher, Francesco Petrarch.

Although Dante Alighieri’s work defined the Italian language, it is the literary and philosophical work of Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) that brought about and encouraged the intellectual enlightenment of the Renaissance via his Humanist writings. The son of exiled nobles, Petrarch was born in Arezzo to Ser Petracco—a merchant who served the State as a notaries public—and Eletta Canigianic. Petrarch was forced to study the law, as his father had, though his interests—his passion—lay in writing and Latin literature. Such passions were all the more antithetical to the life around him as it was a time and place of vast illiteracy.

Africa, Petrarch’s first major work written in spurts over the years of 1337 and 1340, not only cemented his reputation as a model for lyrical poetry but elevated him to the stature of celebrity and awarded him the first crown of a poet laureate of Rome since antiquity. Ironically this work is considered by experts to be influenced by Dante’s Divine Comedy which in turn greatly influenced my book, The King’s Agent. Even in the very first paragraph of the work, a Latin epic recounting the life of the notable Roman General Scipio Africanus, Petrarch’s artistry of language is in magnificent evidence:

"Recount even to me, Muse, the man–famous for his valor and dreadful in war–to whom noble Africa, subdued by Italian arms, first gave her eternal name. Sisters who are my sweet care, if I sing to you of wonders, I pray that it be granted to me to drink again at the fountain of Helicon. Indeed, now Fortune has restored to me the meadows and springs of friendly country, the stillness of uninhabited fields, streams and hills, and the pleasures of sunny forests. You, restore to your bard your songs and inspiration."

Though some may question her true existence, there is strong evidence that the love of Petrarch’s life was one Laura de Noves, a married woman to whom he wrote the Canzoniere, perfecting the sonnet in the doing, a work encompassing 366 poems.

"It was on that day when the sun's ray was darkened in pity for its Maker, that I was captured, and did not defend myself, because your lovely eyes had bound me, Lady."

Having taken vows, finishing his Minor Orders, Petrarch had entered the service of Cardinal Colona. And yet it is believed he fathered two children by a woman or women unknown, Giovanni born in 1337 and Francesca in 1343, both of whom he later legitimized.

For decades, Petrarch traveled, not only to all the major cities of the States of Italy, but to Paris, Flanders, Prague and more. Petrarch traveled and wrote, composing a multitude of poetry and books. So many call him not only the Father of the Renaissance, but the Father of Humanism for he was the first to combine the abstract entities of classical culture with Christian philosophy. Petrarch vehemently argued that God had bequeathed man with enormous intellectual and creative potential, a gift to be used to its fullest. This ‘humanist’ philosophy ignited an intellectual eruption…the study of human thought and action.

During the course of his life, Petrarch lost almost everyone he loved to the plague: father, mother, son, grandson, numerous friends, and even the mysterious Laura. On July 19 of 1374, Petrarch was found dead by his daughter, slumped over his desk, quill in hand, at work on yet another masterpiece. Though buried at his parish church, his remains were later moved by his son-in-law to a sarcophagus built in Arqua. His influence begins with Boccaccio, through countless others, to Shakespeare, and, in the lyricism of his style, to this very humble author.

"I had got this far, and was thinking of what to say next, and as my habit is, I was pricking the paper idly with my pen. And I thought how, between one dip of the pen and the next, time goes on…"

Monday, October 22, 2012


Rome is not alone in its infestation of ghosts and goblins. My own Florence (yes, I call it my own, though I have never been—but the origin of my family name lies there as does the setting of The King’s Agent as well as the trilogy that is my current work in progress—I have taken ownership of this place in the depths of my heart). In this, the third in my series of haunted Italian tales, it is to Firenze we go.

Countless sources claim the Pensione (hotel) Burchianti as the most haunted location in the city of flowers, some have gone so far as to call it the Castle of Spirits. Built during the Renaissance by the Salimbeni family, reports of the ghost of a child skipping through the halls in the dead of the night are as frequent as those that claim a ghostly maid cleans rooms and an elderly woman rocks an empty chair.

But perhaps the strongest sensations of unearthly presences are in the Fresco room (pictured). Here, it is said, the unwitting wanderer is overcome by the feeling of being watched. Here one feels icy cold breath upon their face. Here an indentation suddenly appears on the bed, as if someone has just sat. And here, employees as well as guests have reported seeing a pinkish, translucent male pacing about impatiently, as if he has longs to vacate the walls which have held him for hundreds of years.

The Forte di Belvedere, known more simply as the Belvedere, was built by the Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici in the late 16th century, a testament to and a bastion of protection for the city control by the powerful family. In the Oltrarno district—across the Arno River from the majority of the city—the fortress served as a garrison for over a hundred years.

But it was not until the industrial revolution that such atrocities occurred at the sight as to send the ground into the darkness of the unhallowed. Here witches met their fiery fate, children were murdered, and suspected traitors were tortured. Such disquiet spirits have left their indelible imprint on the area: twisting through the labyrinth streets in the darkest hours of the night footsteps echo on empty cobble stones, voices bounce off the stone walls of empty alleyways, and children invisible to the eye sing and laugh, mirth to drive one to madness. Moving shadows, wraith-like apparitions wander along the length of the long walls of the fortress, only to skitter away with the break of day.

The work of Dante Alighieri plays a critical role in The King’s Agent. Studying the work of this creative genius, the depth of his creative soul is laid bare, a restless soul said to still be haunting the Abbey of Florence. Built very early in the fourteenth century, the Abbey is decorated by the art of none other than Giotto, also a major player in The King’s Agent. The writer’s lingering spirit is said to be forever searching for his Beatrice, the unrequited love of his life. Perhaps it is the lot of the true romantic to search for love through all of eternity.

There is a handful of things I truly long for in this life; to go to Florence—ghosts and all—is one of the most profound.

Friday, October 12, 2012


It is a story all too familiar; it is a story that feeds our sense of justice and horrifies us at the same time.

Francesco Cenci was a Renaissance nobleman; however, his bloodline did nothing to ensure his moral and ethical behavior (does it ever). Not only did Francesco abuse his wife (there were two), his torturous, indecent behavior he vexed upon his offspring as well, especially the young and beautiful Beatrice. His licentious lifestyle, combined with a vicious disposition, brought him to the attention of papal justice on more than one occasion, but as the dictates of the times held sway (giving lenience to the higher socially ranked), he was never truly punished as he ought to have been, spending no more than a night or two in prison. But justice found its way.

In 1598, in the Cenci household (a mansion in the Regola district of Rome), there lived four other people under the duress of the master, his daughter Beatrice, her brother Giacomo, Francesco’s second wife Lucrezia, and Lucrezia’s son Bernardo. It was, to use a modern term, a dynamically dysfunctional household. Though multiple opinions differ, Francesco was either on the verge of committing incestuous rape upon his daughter Beatrice or already had (there are theories that he had, that she reported him, and he had beaten her dreadfully for it, before abusing her once more), when those of the household united and prescribed the justice upon Francesco that the pope failed to do.

There are two descriptions of the vigilante-style castigation that the four other Cenci inflicted upon Francesco; both are equally as vicious, both—perhaps—equally warranted:

One theory holds that they first attempted to drug him and when that failed they bludgeoned him to death with a hammer and tossed his body over a balcony in an attempt to make it appear like an accident.

The second (and a personal favorite) is that they drugged him, stabbed him with a lengthy nail through the eye and throat, and then hid the body.

Whatever their method, they were found out and all four were arrested. Unlike the pretense of justice inflicted upon Francesco while he was alive, a tribunal found all four guilty and sentenced them to death. But, as was the case in that era, the community knew all about Francesco’s disgusting behavior, and something akin to a small riot arose in response to the finding. Fearing other such upheaval’s—other familial imposed acts of justice—Pope Clement VIII commuted the sentence to September 11, 1599.

It was on the Sant’Angelo Bridge where the scaffold was built in those days; it was across this bridge that Beatrice was carted on the day of her death. Her step-mother, having fainted along the way, was beheaded in her unconscious state. Her brother Giacomo was beaten with a mallet, knocked unconscious, and so too went to his death unknowingly. The young boy, Bernardo, though tortured was released (losing any property that may have been his by right as the only surviving family member, and disappeared into the oblivion of unknown humanity).

It was only Beatrice—Beatrice that suffered the most at the hands of her father—that was fully aware when her head was put upon the block, when it was severed with the fierce slash of a sword.

It is Beatrice who, it is said, walks the bridge before the Castel Sant’Angelo on the night of September 10/11, a ghostly decapitated specter, carrying her head in the crook of her arm.

Beatrice Cenci has inspired works of art, plays, essays, films, and books from the moment of her death to as recently as 2011.

Injustice is a ghost in itself.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


It is one of the oldest cities in all of civilization; it is a mystical, magical land, the scene of some of the most craven acts of humanity as well as the birth place of some of its greatest creations. It was the home of emperors, popes, warriors, and saints as well as artists. Is it any wonder then, that it is also purported to be one of the most haunted places in the world?


It should come with little surprise to learn that the Coliseum, the site where humans killed humans for the entertainment of other humans, is the home to the majority of paranormal activity reported in Rome. Perhaps one of the most recent, most abrupt, and most witnessed occurrences happened when a woman, having taken an evening tour of the ancient stadium, was trying to leave, only to have her hair yanked on and her body pulled back into the Coliseum. It took two members of her party to ‘dislodge’ whatever held her and rescue her from its clutches.

Other visitors have reported feelings of being pushed and touched, visions of apparitions seated—as if watching the Gladiators below—and walking up and down the steps. By far the profusion of reports concern sounds within the ancient ruins, that of humans crying, weeping and moaning, the clashing of swords, the shrieks of animals, and even the sound of cheering crowds.

The heartbeat of the ancient city of Rome, the Forum—a rectangular plaza surrounded by the city’s most important buildings, now the world’s most visited ruins—was considered the greatest meeting place in all of civilization. Now it’s considered one of the most haunted. Tales of its unearthly inhabitants date back to the 4th century when then pope Sylvester I was forced to exorcise the devil in the shape of a dragon. Current tales speak of spectral images, hard to see, however, for they only come out night and can only be seen in the scanty dark recesses of the areas around the Forum. But there, among the arches and columns, shadowy figures hover just inches about the earth, speaking and gesturing to unseen tormentors. Most say the figures look like ancient soldiers, no doubt those who lost their lives in defense of the city, of one emperor or another.

At least forty catacombs dot the landscape of Rome and the surrounding area, and ghostly occurrences have been reported in at least half of them. And it’s no wonder. These subterranean burial chambers are believed to have been the Christians’ answer to honoring their persecuted dead with a decent burial. Because of the dynamic composition of Rome’s soil…softening when exposed to air and then hardening once recovered—there are catacombs with kilometers of tunnels and up to four layers/levels.

When the catacombs were originally used and created in the second century, the bodies were clothed, wrapped in linen and placed in sarcophagi. But in a two-fold effort—to save space and to further show reverence—secondary burials were not unheard of and found great popularity. In the ossuaries of the Roman catacombs, the dead were dug up and their skeletons used to create archways of bones and shrines of skulls. When the catacombs were rediscovered (most archeologists pinpoint this at some time in the 16th century), the practice was seen as disrespectful and the bones were once more moved and once more buried. Now many believe this last upheaval has called forth the angry spirits to whom the skeletons belonged.

Many visitors complain of claustrophobia and severe feelings of panic that might easily be explained by the small, tight confines of the catacombs themselves. Not so easily dismissed are the specters reported floating in the corridors or the chilling sound of disembodied voices sluicing through the tunnels, groaning from the depths of the niches.

As the vagaries of life leave their eternal imprint upon our souls, so do our souls imprint the world in which we inhabit. Haunted places are no more than the evidence that we have been and we have been here.

Monday, September 17, 2012

YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER? Make no excuses; take no prisoners

Since becoming a published author, the tables have turned, and I’m often asked for advice from unpublished authors. My first tendency is to answer them as I would when one of my sons comes to me, weighed down by the challenges in their life…I want to encourage and motivate, I want to tell them anything is possible if you work hard enough and believe in yourself. All of which is true, but it’s not the whole story.

Writing (or for that matter anything in the arts) is unlike most other professions; it’s the thing we do (at least at the start) while we’re doing something else. Some of modern day’s best sellers were doing something else while they wrote those first books…Stephen King and Dan Brown were teachers, John Grisham was a lawyer, and Mary Higgins Clark was a widow with five children who worked in radio.

And therein lies the rub. It becomes so easy to make excuses for not writing…my day job wore me out, the kids needed too much of my time, the house was a mess, the laundry, my parents, the lawn…on and on and on the list can go. And for most of us, there are often real hardships that crop up through the course of life; few are ever spared.

So my kids have gotten a bit older (22 and 19) and I now tell them what I’m about to tell you…get over it and work.

(I laugh a little as I write this. As the author of historical fiction, my ‘voice’ tends to be very formal and yet here I am spouting sage advice with the cutting edge of a hunting knife. But it is a chance for me to be nakedly honest, and I’m shedding my clothes with grateful abandon.)

If writing is the thing you need to do; if the longing to do it eats away at you like the lust for that one lover who haunts your dreams day and night, then get over whatever may lie in the path between you, and do the work.

While writing my first published novel, The Courtier’s Secret, my father was dying from cancer and I had just been diagnosed with Lyme disease after a two and a half year battle with undiagnosed pain and fatigue. I wrote my second, The Secret of the Glass, while my twenty year marriage was falling apart and my condition had become a chronic auto-immune disease. I’ve completed and published two more books (the latest, The King's Agent, earning a starred review in Publishers Weekly) during one of the nastiest divorces imaginable, a three year battle that still continues while I work on my fifth book.

But it was in those first few months of the divorce debacle that I actually wondered if I could write anymore. Though I have been writing since grade school, the harshness made me hollow, perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a writer. Unlike a nine-to-five job, a writer needs their heart and soul to put word on paper, and I feared mine were lost. I had become prisoner to my own sadness and self-doubt. But I was under contract and had no time to wallow in my own dark self-pity.

So I kept going. Yes, there is a bit of my angst on many of the pages (in the current work in progress, perhaps more than ever) but it works. And most of all, I kicked the excuses to the curb, and released myself as prisoner.

If writing flows in your veins like your life’s blood, then let the laundry pile up, let the lawn grow, let the house fester with dust, and write. If like so many, life has thrown down gauntlets of hardship, then put them in your work, allow whatever emotion you may be suffering to add depth to your characters and their own pain and hardships. Set yourself a firm schedule of when you’re going to write—even if it’s only Friday night from 8:00 to 9:00. Give yourself that gift; silence the excuses, release the prisoner, and write.

Monday, August 27, 2012


Much is made these days about finding the right mate—online giving a new outlet for the search—and the difficulties and angst for finding the ‘one true love.’ But the question of marriage and love, love in marriage, and what defines a marriage has been one of years—centuries—uncounted. Were we better off when the decision of one’s mate was made for us or is the notion of ‘one true love,’ ‘soul mate,’ and ‘happily ever after’ as shoved down our throats in everything from books and movies to deodorant commercials the better aspiration?

Up to and during the Middle Ages, many cultures recognized more than one form of a socially acceptable and binding union. Heading into the Renaissance it was primarily a legal transaction concerned mostly with property. In fact, though urged, a priestly involvement in the marriage ceremony was not necessary in Catholic unions until 1563. The Italians, highly passionate and deeply religious, not only included church involvement earlier, their ceremonies during the Renaissance reached flamboyant proportion.

In most cases, whatever the social status, a matchmaker or marriage broker was often involved. For the nobility and upper strata of society in Florence, that often meant the inclusion of one man, Lorenzo de’ Medici, who took the control of the city to expand to the arrangement of most strategic marriages to further his own agenda and that of his most loyal families. In other cases, marriages were arranged between families where tensions existed, done so in an effort to help diffuse the contention. There was very little—in truth almost no—input on the part of the bride-to-be in the choosing of her groom. The wishes of the groom and his family took precedence, then the bride’s family. The bride was merely to feel blessed by their guidance.

But once the participants were settled upon, the real extravaganza began.

An Italian Renaissance wedding ceremony took part in four stages and could be spread out over not only days, but weeks and months, and in some cases years, depending on the financial and social standing of the families. The stages included the impalmamento, the sponsalia, the matrimonium, and the nozze.

The impalmamento, the ‘joining of hands’ would only take place after the third party broker, the sensale, had completed negotiations between the interested parties. It was at this ceremony that the parents of each participant would meet for the first time (unless of course previous acquaintance already existed, very likely in the small circles of Italian society). No other work of art more accurately symbolizes this stage of the Italian marriage the Jan van Eyck’s enormously famous Arnolfini Wedding (National Gallery, London). With this gesture, the parents would seal the alliance, ferme il parentado. As the Renaissance progressed, the addition of written contracts was added to this stage of the marriage ceremony.

Once the joining of hands was completed, the prospective spouses were permitted to speak to each other through the casement windows (think Romeo at Juliet’s balcony). It was the job of the soon-to-be bride to engage the young man’s interest from the confines of the home. There typically occurred the exchanging of small mementos: a scarf or flowers from the girl, a simple piece of jewelry from the boy. If casement courtship continued, a declaration of marriage was cemented (painting Sir Frank Dicksee, Southampton City Gallery).

The sponsalia or stipulation sponsalitia comprised the very legal part of the coupling. Only the male members of the two families were present for this segment of the ceremony as well as non-family member witnesses. These witnesses, also known as guarantors or arbiters were chosen to ensure that each family fulfilled promises of the marital contract. In addition, specific values, dates, terms of payments were established. Such values were predicated on large part of the ‘movement’ of the families, i.e. if the bride were moving upward on the social/noble ladder, the dowry would have to reflect the prestige of the groom’s family. A document confirming all such amounts and promises was drafted and notarized.

It was typical for this portion of the ceremony to take the longest time as negotiations could become complex and many occasions were set aside to allow for the bride and groom to spend more time in each other’s company to get to know each other better. After such meetings, it was the function of the bride’s father to get her ‘consent’ (quotes used to denote the irony of the situation…it was rare indeed that a women could naysay the wishes of her father, her family, and the broker).

The most recognizable stage of the ceremony was the matrimonium, or the ring day. Here, a ceremony resembling modern custom would take place, whether civil or religious, depending on what year during the Renaissance it occurred, took place. Vows were exchanged though there is very little recorded as to the wording of those vows, the banns (the legal proclamation) of the arrangement were read one more time before all involved, and the question was asked of the groom:

“Do you wish to have this woman as your wife, and to love her, honor her, keep her and protect her, in health and in sickness, as a husband should his wife, to keep from all other women except her, as long as your lives shall last?”

The same question was asked of the bride with, of course, the inclusion of her delightful pledge to ‘obey and serve.’

Asked and answered in the affirmative, the notary would take the bride’s right hand (the left becoming the ‘wedding ring finger’ during the Reformation) and offer it to the groom or, when in the presence of a priest, the religious officiator would bless the ring before passing it on to the groom. Only in some cases was there a mutual exchange of rings. In either case, a pledge would accompany the placing of the ring, words that ring familiar even today: “I take thee…”

At this point gifts were exchanged between the families and the couple was considered legally married though the public festival and consummation had yet to take place.

Italian Renaissance wedding feasts were some of the most elaborate ever celebrated, especially those of the rich and powerful (painting The Wedding Feast, Tintoretto). No matter the opulence of the fare, great feasts and entertainments took place. Eleanor of Aragon’s multi-day feast in Ferrara in 1473 included a parade of allegorical floats, dances, jousts, and a fifty-six course meal. When Lucrezia d’Este married Giovanni Bentivigolio in Bologna in 1487 the revelries included flaming wheels of fireworks as well as sugar sculptures of castles and ships.

While there were no particular requirements for the food served in wedding feasts, the presence of the wedding cake was first recorded in the medieval era and almonds were the most frequent ingredient.

The final and most public stage of the Italian Renaissance marriage, the nozze, was the public procession of the bride to the groom’s household. The procession meant not only to publicize the marriage but to lead to its consummation. It provided an opportunity to make the entire community—almost a singular entity in these bygone days—to become part of the ceremony and the joining of the families. Wedding processions were often compared to ancient triumphal parades. The bride, escorted to her husband’s home by her family, was beautiful attired and crowned for the torch lit procession. And, if she was of the noble class, she most likely rode upon a white horse.

One can only wonder after so much time, so much negotiations, and so much excitation, what the ‘performance pressure’ of a nuptial evening must have been like. Perhaps isn't such a distasteful alternative after all.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The King's Agent by Donna Russo Morin

The King's Agent

by Donna Russo Morin

Giveaway ends September 24, 2012.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Thursday, August 9, 2012


“It was an ascension that felled me, I assure you.”

So said Michelangelo in The King’s Agent, a paraphrasing of the artist’s own words taken from his letters and his verse. The Sistine Chapel was, perhaps, Michelangelo greatest creation and yet he himself would deny it, not only because he was, in his heart and soul, a sculptor first and foremost, but because of the trauma he suffered in the completion of the work on the chapel, trauma both physical and mental.

In March of 1505, Michelangelo was called to Rome by Pope Julius II. Their first meeting came just after Michelangelo’s completion of the monumental work, The Madonna of Bruges (1501-1504, pictured from my own moment standing before it). These two dynamic men shared many characteristics. Both could-rightly and justly—be accused of, to use a modern phraseology, too much multi-tasking. Both men were such innovators they were relentless in their ideas and projects, much to the detriment of each idea, for the men often scattered their attention among the ideas as opposed to focusing on one at a time. “The first years of their friendship were a feverish delirium of plans.” (The Extraordinary Life of Michelangelo, Romain Rolland).

When Pope Julius II (pictured, National Gallery, UK), renown for his patronage of the arts and his ambitions building projects, called Michelangelo to the Vatican he initially commissioned the artist to sculpt statues for Julius’ own tomb, preparing a magnificent monument for himself before the possibility of his demise. It was a project which thrilled Michelangelo, incensed him so much he went into the mountains of Tuscany to personally select the marble for the work.

But the pope became impatient with the slow work that is inherently sculpture and his mind moved on to something else, something that some theorists say was implanted in his mind with the specific purpose of taking Michelangelo away from the medium at which he so excelled. Pope Julius was advised that to assure his immortality, he should revitalize the deteriorating St. Peter’s Basilica. Without thought for the artist’s own sensibilities, the pope pulled Michelangelo from work on the tomb .

Michelangelo himself wrote, “all the difficulties which arose with the pope and myself were the work of Bramante and of Raphael. It was their jealousy which kept him from having his tomb made while he was still alive. They tried to ruin me. Raphael had good reason for doing this, since all that he learnt of art he learnt from me.”

So heartbroken was Michelangelo, so devastated was he, that he fled Rome in the middle of the night on horseback, fled to his homeland of Florence. It took months of beseeching letters and messages before Michelangelo would return to the good graces of the Holy See; there was much capitulation, an apology, and another project begun—a bronze casting for which Michelangelo had no expertise--before he would take up the monumental task laid before him. A painting commission he would accept despite his best efforts to convince the pope that Raphael was the man for the job, to no avail. But even then, he truly had no concept, nor did the pope, of what was to come, both in terms of work and results.

Work on the Sistine Chapel began on May 10, 1508. The original design called for the representation of the 12 figures of the apostles to be created in the lunettes (a crescent shaped opening in a vaulted ceiling) and to fill the rest of the space with decoration. Bramante, the basilica’s architect, raised scaffolding and hired several fresco painters. But Michelangelo could only work alone. He replaced Bramante’s scaffolding—such as would cause holes in the ceiling—with one of his own design, and sent the painters away. For the next four years, he remained shut up with but a handful of workmen, such Giovanni Michi from Florence, and enlarged the scope of the project to including painting the walls down to the old frescoes.

As many have said, to analyze the work is to kill it, but perhaps none have said it as lyrically as Romain: “We must face the vision squarely and lose ourselves in the abyss of that spirit. It is terrifying and, if regarded calmly, incomprehensible—it must be hated or adored. It stifles and excites; there is no nature, no landscape, no atmosphere, no tenderness, almost nothing human; the symbolism of a primitive and the science of a decadent; an architecture of naked convulsed bodies; a barren, savage and devouring thought, like a south wind over a sandy desert. There is no corner of shade, no spring to slake the thirst; it is a whirling spout of fire, the vertigo of a delirious emotion, with no goal except the God in which it loses itself. The whole calls on God, fears Him and proclaims Him.”

Through the long days, months, years, Michelangelo barely ate, he lost all thought save for the ceiling, sacrificed his very essence to the work. As is the way of all artists, he questioned the very value of the work, suffered the war of art perhaps far more than anyone has ever done before or since. He battled those who would see him fail, illness, and his own self-doubt, one so consuming, he almost fled again. And, as myth portrays it, Pope Julius became impatient with the artist and the time the masterpiece was taking to be completed. The pope would ask him when he would finish and Michelangelo would answer, “when I can.”

That day finally came in October of 1512. Michelangelo would not paint again until 1529.

Friday, July 20, 2012


Noon on the 25th of March 421.

Many believe it is on that date, at that exact time, that the Venetian Islands were born. In truth, the little islets of sand and coachgrass had been forming for hundreds of years. The two hundred square miles of salt water, most only waist deep, that criss-crossed with deeper channels became studded with shoals formed by silt that the Brenta, Sile and other, far greater rivers like the Po and the Adige brought down from the Alps. It was an ecological event of the most natural kind.

The first settlers to this strange conglomerate of land came out of fear. Privileged, cultured people either from Illyria or of Antolian stock were living prosperous lives in a sparkling row of cities belonging to the Roman Empire, cities like Concordia, Aquilia, Padua and Altino. Living well…until the Barbarians came. When the Goths under Alaric swept down in 402, these people fled to the strange lumps of ground that sat waiting for them in the sea. There they found sanctuary, but more, they found life in a magical wonderland so to their liking, they never left.

It is in the days of March 421, as consuls from Padua established a permanent trading post on Rialto (one of the largest islets), that historians consider the birth of Venice. It was an event celebrated by the raising of a church dedicated to Saint James, a legend that lies at the root of the claim of the church of S. Giacomo di Rialto as the oldest in Venice.

When, just a few years later, Attila the Hun attacked Aquilia for three months and devastated the city, more refugees flocked to the islands, and the communities grew and began to prosper. The ingenious population built some of the most glorious palazzos and buildings known to man, built upon pilings, large wooden posts driven into the ooze that was the land, so close together they formed a supporting platform, a foundation of sorts, with their sawn-off tops.

Through countless wars with other countries, other Italian states and even the Vatican, Venice has survived and thrived as one of the world’s most beautiful places, a bounty of artistic and cultural magnificence.

It wasn’t until deep into the research for my second book, The Secret of the Glass, that I learned that Venice was dying, sinking into the very waters in which it had been held dear for so long. For the last thousand years the islets have been sinking at an average rate of seven centimeters per year. With the addition of global warming, some recent statements have reported a drop of up to twenty-four centimeters in the last century alone. In March of this year, a report from NBC News reported that not only is Venice sinking, but it appears to be tilting as well. According to measurements taking over the last ten years, the islands are moving eastward a millimeter or two per year. And while a series of dams are nearly completion, built to address the sinking problem, this new research calls into question whether or not these efforts will be enough.

What has drawn me back to Venice, back to the glorious land that captured my mind and my heart a few years ago, was a recent article in The Guardian, which, in essence, sites yet another threat to this magnificent place, one as insidious and dangerous as the Goths themselves…greed.

Despite the efforts of UNESCO (United Nation Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) cruise ships continue to force themselves up the canals of Venice. According to the Guardian article, the head of the local council, Giorgio Orsoni, worries about "the damage to the city's foundations from ships passing through the Giudeccia canal, only 10 metres deep. The water they displace acts as a pump for the seabed, shaking even the San Marco basilica".

As stated so well by Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO assistant director general for culture, “"Above all we must think in terms of heritage. The city is an icon.”

For more information on saving Venice, please visit UNESCO ( and Save Venice (

Pictures in order of appearance: The Piazza San Marco with the Campanile and the Doge’s Palace; San Marco Basilica, The Rialto Bridge

Saturday, July 14, 2012


He was already an impotent figurehead of all the injustices wrought by those who came before him, yet in May of 1789, Louis XVI sat before the Estates-General to hear their grievances against the monarchy. At the time, France was divided into three ranks…The First estate represented the Catholic Church, the king and his court comprised The Second Estate and the Third Estate—the largest of them all—represented the people, most specifically the poor. Simply stated, the revolution was incited by the hundreds of years of oppression of the Third Estate by the Second, by the lack of representation, by the inability to better one’s station, and at the end, fueled most ferociously by the economic crisis that hurtled even more of the population into poverty.

Could Louis and the Second Estate have avoided the inevitable? Possibly. He did, during the Estates-General meeting, to institute taxes upon the Second Estate, an act never before attempted. His efforts failed epically; his nobility turned their back on him. Louis XVI was, at heart, a weak leader, an insipid person, who had neither the courage nor the inclination to fight the nobility or undo what had been done by the many Louis’ that had come before him. Though inevitably, it was this laissez-faire attitude which sealed his fate. Before he could lose all power, Louis canceled the assembly. He could not have instigated more acrimony with one act had he intended to do so.

The power behind the Revolution, men by the name of Robespierre (pictured), Mirabeau and Sieyes, gathered in an assembly of their own, a makeshift meeting inside an indoor tennis court in the city of Versailles. There, on June 20,1789, the Tennis Court Oath, was taken by 576 of the 577 members of the Third Estate proclaiming "not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established". Powerful in language and its meaningful implication unto itself, it was the first time in the country’s history that the French people stood in political opposition to Louis XVI. It was THE turning point, but July would prove to be the hottest month of all.

On the 12 of July, the king dismissed Jacques Necker, the very popular Minister of Finances. On the 13th, a scurrilous rumor spread through the streets of Paris that Louis planned to attack the newly proclaimed parliamentarians.

The Bastille, once a fortress, for centuries a dark, imposing structure that symbolized in its guise as a prison, for all that was injustice in France. It was at the base of this fortress that on the morning of July 14 a group of craftsmen and merchants stool 28,000 rifles, but there was no powder to be found. The guards—no more than 30 in all, comprised of veterans and Swiss grenadiers—were unimpressed. Their leader, one Marquis de Launay, hoping to hold off the revolutionaries until the expected rescue team could arrive, invited representatives of the gathering in to the Bastille. Negotiations ended as members of the mob charged the prison. The meager group of guards fired, killing hundreds. Yet how very disappointed the Marquis must have been when the rescue team arrived…only to stand with the revolutionaries. With their numbers, their power, and their canons, it was but a matter of hours before they asserted victory over the guards.

By 4 in the afternoon the Marquis surrendered, but it was not an act that would save him. Though only seven prisoners were freed—those constituting the entirety of the prison population at the time—all the guards were killed and the Marquis himself were beheaded. The Bastille itself died later that night when more than 800 hundred men destroyed it.

When, years later, King Louis XVI’s diary was found by historians, his only notation for the day read, ‘nothing,’ in reference to his success at the day’s hunt.

“Is this a revolt?” Louis asked the Duc de Liancourt when the noble informed the king of the day’s events at the Bastille.

“No, Majesty,” the Duc replied. “It is a revolution.”