Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Meet My Main Character
Battista della Paglia

I'm thrilled to have been tagged by the lovely Kate Quinn in another blog hop, this one ingeniously titled “Meet My Main Character.” As my current work-in-progress is a bit on the hush-hush, I’ve decided to highlight the main character in my latest release, The King’s Agent, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. It was also the first book of mine to feature a male protagonist. For me, it was love at first sight.

What is the name of your main character? Is he/she a fiction or a historic character?
His name is Battista della Paglia, a factual character whom I found while conducting research for my third book (To Serve a King). That book featured Francois I who was obsessed with acquiring the best art of the age. Battista was his agent, ‘the king’s agent,’ in Italy, ‘acquiring’ Raphael’s, Botticelli’s, da Vinci’s and, of course, Michelangelo’s by any means necessary.

When and where is the story set?
The story is set in 1527, just before the great sack of Rome, as the forces of France, the Vatican, and the Emperor Charles maneuver for control of the peninsula. Battista's home base is Florence, but because the story is, at it’s core, an art quest, the reader is taken on a trip throughout the middle and northern portions of Italy. (These pictures are the actual places that exist that I used in the book.)

What should we know about your main character?
Battista was a true-to-life Indiana Jones of the early 16th century, smart, witty, and fearless. Yet his letters and his poetry reveal that under his rogue exterior, he feels emotions deeply. He was a dear friend of the aging Michelangelo, with whom he had a life-long father-son type of relationship.
My physical incarnation of
Battista della Paglia
(yes, it's Johnny)

What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?
When we first meet Battista, he is charged by Francois I to find a piece of art—a sculpture—which Francois believes will give him great strength in battle, an artifact that may possess other-worldly powers. But in his quest, Battista encounters Aurelia, a fictional noblewoman with secrets of her own, secrets which may or may not aid Battista in his quest. This enigmatic woman comes to affect Battista greatly and his loyalties become torn while his quest grows ever more dangerous.

What is the personal goal of the character?
Though on the surface Battista appears to be no more than a common thief, his motivation shows the true honor of the man. The agreement made between Battista and Francois I was done with the acknowledged condition that should Battista’s magnificent Florence, a homeland he worships, were to come under attack, Francois would help defend her militarily. But with Aurelia, her secrets, and her growing hold upon Battista’s heart thrown into the equation, what he truly needs to do becomes very muddled.

(Note: there are two other questions in this hop that pertain to a work that is not yet published; as mine has been, those questions have been omitted.)

And now to the amiable authors who have agreed to participate, I tag:

     Pay them a visit and watch for their posts in a week!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Although a current cable show depicts this great character in an amusing manner, the depiction is, in fact, so far from the truth, it makes one wonder why they even named him Leonardo da Vinci. But on this day, the anniversary of the legendary man's birth, what better day to pay homage to the true genius, the real...Leonardo da Vinci.

There are but a handful of people that have walked this Earth who's legacy is ever lasting. Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, born today, April 15 in 1452, is just such a person, a child of humble origins, who would become not only a true polymath but the ultimate definition of a Renaissance man, a personage of great study and admiration, and a never-ending wellspring of inspiration.

The love child of a respected notary, Piero da Vinci, and a very young peasant woman named Caterina, Leonardo lived, for the first five years of his life, with his mother in the small hamlet of Anchino in the home pictured here, less than three kilometers from Vinci. When his mother remarried, his upbringing was carried out by his father and his stepmothers (Piero da Vinci had four wives altogether who gave him 15 children, the last born when Piero was in his sixties; Leonardo was his first born, before Piero ever married). Some biographies do intimate that Leonardo may have carried ill-feelings toward his mother, instilled no doubt if true, by what would seem as abandonment by a five year old.

Two curious myths are associated with Leonardo's childhood; their truth and their influence on Leonardo are worthy of wonder. The first took place when in the care of his mother; it is claimed that a bird or a kite (citations seem unable to agree on which) landed on the child Leonardo while in his crib. This event is intriguing when taken in conjunction with the young man's obsession with birds and flight. When a citizen of Florence, he would purchase exotic birds from the market place, take them into the surrounding hills, and release them, sketching them in flight. The concept of flight, and subsequent sketches of 'flying machines' would inhabit his journals for the whole of his life.

The most profound, early influence in the young Leonardo's life was, however, his Uncle Francesco. Sixteen when Leonardo was born, he was a member of Piero's household, a true countryman and lover of animals, a love he passed along to his nephew. Upon Francesco's death in 1506, he made Leonardo his sole heir. Ironically, genius more than likely had very little formal education due to his illegitimacy. His father would have ensured him some 'elementary' education, but Leonardo taught himself Latin, anatomy, and physics; he would practice autodidacticism for the whole of his life.

Leonardo's own journals, those he wrote throughout his adulthood, tell us of the second provocative event. When exploring the hills surrounding his father's country home, he discovered a cave. Though he was terrified by it--that some horrific monster lurked within--he could not restrain himself from exploring it, driven by a ravenous curiosity that would come to define him.

Whatever impression these events made on an highly intelligent youth, his talent as an artist must have made itself readily apparent from an early age. Tax records indicate that in 1466 Leonardo was more than likely living with his father in Florence--a move designed to put Leonardo in the realm of the rebirth and advancements of the artistic community there--in an apartment overlooking the city's main square, the Piazza della Signoria. That same year, when Leonardo was 14 years old, his father apprenticed Leonardo to the studio of Andreano di Cione, most popularly and still known as Verrocchio; his was one of the finest studios in the city, perhaps in all of Italy. Historical records indicate that in all likelihood Ser Piero was an acquaintance of Verrocchio; the hand of fate working with precision of purpose.

Yet Leonardo's artistic promises were, at first, somewhat bleak; in the custom of the era, he came to be apprenticed at a late age, nine or ten being the typical time to begin such work. But it did not take long for the talented and charming young man to make his presence known.

It did not take long, regardless of his late start, for Leonardo's remarkable talent to make itself known. Work produced by the studios of the era, though known by the name of the maestro, were carried out by the employees and apprentices of the workshop. It was in one such work that Leonardo's brilliance shined so brightly, it would, henceforth, be impossible to be denied. In Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ (pictured, 1472-1475, Uffizi Gallery), Leonardo collaborated with his master, painting the angel holding Jesus' robe. It was the most remarked upon, the most praised, segment of the painting. So much so that it is said Verrocchio never painted again. The apprentice had become the master. In 1472, Leonardo qualified as a master in the Guild of St. Luke, the guild of artists.

But it was during these years, that Leonardo suffered the most personal of tribulations. In 1476, two allegations of sodomy were made against Leonardo, that he and two other men, a goldsmith and a male prostitute—such as were often used as artist’s models—had been party 'to wretched affairs and to pleasuring, each to the other, who requested such wickedness of him.' Both charges were dropped, but for the next two years, Leonardo's whereabouts were not precisely known, though most agree he never left Florence. It is a prevalent theory that Lorenzo de' Medici, then the controlling oligarch of Florence and an extreme patron of the artist and profound Humanist, took the young, troubled artist into his home. Leonardo never married; there are no known romantic relationships with women. His most enduring allegiances are with men. In his own words, from within his journals, Leonardo denounced love as an interference in the life of a true artist.

In 1478, Leonardo received the first of his independent commissions; from then on, he was unstoppable. Sometime in the next year or two, he opened his own studio. All told, there are at least fifteen verifiable works by da Vinci, most of them paintings on panels but also including a large mural. There are an additional six disputed paintings and four recently attributed works. Leonardo never signed his work and their ascription is due to hundreds of years of scholastic study and specification. Though most widely known for his Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, my personal favorites include one which is thought to be his earliest complete work, Annunciation (oil and tempera on canvas, 1472-1475, Uffizi) for its use of spatial relation, its composition, and its color.

But by far, the work of Leonardo that most touch spirit is, in fact, an unfinished painting, a print of which hangs in my home, has done so for many years. Head of a Woman also known as La Scapigliata is dated in his mature years, near or during 1500. Now housed in the Galleria Nazionale of Parma, Italy, the first mention of it is within the Gonzaga Collection. In his rendering, I see the hand of a man who could see a person's deepest truths. In this woman's face, I found my own heartache--a companion in female tribulations, some one to share long, lonely nights filled with tears. In her swollen eyes, I saw my own and felt not alone.

Considered by many as the father of the High Renaissance style, one of Leonardo's most profound influences on painting was his introduction of the technique called sfumato, though he and his contemporaries did not give it this name. That was done by Micheal J. Gleb in his book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. The technique, one of four which defined the evolution of painting conceived in the Renaissance, used no distinct outlines to the subjects, they are blurred and blended together with the background by full brush strokes, giving the subjects a 'smoky' appearance. The literal translation of fumo in Italian is 'gone up in smoke.' Sfumato has since come to mean 'without lines or borders.' The proper use of the technique produces atmospheric perspective in paintings, an aspect previously not utilized, a facet and style of painting that would forever change the art, that took painting from the flat and lifeless renderings of the Middle Ages into the bursting with life Realism of the what we now call the Renaissance. Perhaps one of the best examples of Leonardo's use of sfumato is in The Virgin on the Rocks (oil on wood, Louvre, disputed dates between 1483 and 1490). Here visible is the mysterious and dreamlike mood the technique accomplishes: figures blend softly into the background, faces emerge from a muted environment, splashes of color become all the more vibrant.

In 1482 Leonardo abandoned Florence for Milan, whether from a lack of favor and commissions from the controlling Medici or for the want of different pastures. There he spent seventeen years--enormously productive years in the fields of both art and science--leaving only as the Duke Lodovico Sforza fell from power in 1499. But during those years, the Duke urged Leonardo onward, bringing out the best of the man, setting him to painting, sculpting, designing elaborate court festivals, weapons, buildings, and machinery. Leonardo's mind brought forth studies on geometry, mechanics, municipal construction such as canals, architecture from churches to fortresses, and yes, to flying machines. His workshop in Milan was a vortex of discovery and production as well as one of the most sort after homes for apprentices. It was here, in Milan, where The Last Supper was born and resides.

Leonardo left many an unfinished artwork, an uncompleted invention, abandoned and was thought, for a time, incapable of finishing what he began through some deficit of ability. But a study of him as a man finds instead one so full of ideas and conceptions, once the puzzle of one project was solved, if only in his head, the astounding intellect needed the stimulation of the next.

After the fall of Sforza, da Vinci traveled for many years, worked for a many and wide array of sponsors, including the despicable Cesare Borgia. His acquaintances included Niccolo Machiavelli and his travels took him as far as Constantinople. It was during these years that Leonardo's father passed and that Leonardo created the most enigmatic, most widely known painting in history, La Giaconda, or, as the world knows her, Mona Lisa.

For three years, from 1513 to 1516, Leonardo worked in Rome, ironically for Pope Clement VII, the son of the slain Giuliano de' Medici. It was in Rome that Leonardo took his anatomical studies to the extreme, doing so, as Michelangelo did in Florence, by dissecting cadavers. But the Pope looked unkindly on such a practice and forbade Leonardo to continue. The ever-reaching artist was ripe for the plucking by a powerful man obsessed with the best artists the world had to offer.

King Francois I (1494-1547, king of France from 1515 till his death) is, inarguable, the man we may look back to in gratitude for the museum now known as the Louvre, the once home of many a French king. So manic was Francois to have Leonardo, he granted da Vinci the station of Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the king. Francois' patronage provided Leonardo with a stipend and a manor house in Amboise, close to the Royal Chateau.

Leonardo brought Mona Lisa with him.

The relationship these two men shared was one of profound empathetic intellectual and cultural curiosity, a love of what could be and the ability to see the beauty in all that was. Even after suffering a paralysis in his right hand (possibly from a stroke), Leonardo continued to sketch and draw and teach, living well under Francois' care.

Leonardo da Vinci died on May 2, 1519 in his home in Clos Luce. Legend holds that King Francois was by his side, cradling Leonardo's head in his arms as the artist passed.

"There had never been a man born who  knew as much as Leonardo da Vinci," said Benevenuto Cellini, twenty years after da Vinci's passing.

What brought Leonardo the title of Renaissance man was his contributions to science, math, and architecture. He was a painter, sculptor, inventor, draftsman, musician, anatomist, inventor, and more, so very much more in terms of an example of the limitless possibilities of the human capability. As one of the great naturalists that ever lived, as a man who contributed to the betterment of all areas of life--especially in the realm of art--he is still revered and admired today, five hundred and sixty one years after his birth, deservedly so.

To this humble, striving artist, his inspiration--that from the smallest of seeds there may grow profound magnificence--will never be forgot, will forever be held in gratitude. I feel truly blessed to have him as a prominent character in my upcoming trilogy.

Happy Birthday, dear, dear unforgettable Leonardo!

(reposted from April 15, 2013)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

To the Medici, Comes the Pivotal Cosimo

The journey into the lives of the Medici's has arrived at its most auspicious moment. Where previously but
handfuls and handfuls of people in the family could be unaccounted for, indeed unnamed, the growth of the family has come to a man for whom the information is endless. We come to Cosimo the Elder.

If Giovanni di Bicci de Medici can be accorded the true financial genesis of this astounding family, then it is Cosimo di Giovanni de Medici who forged it into the political powerhouse it would be, that it would remain, for the most part, for generations. It is Cosimo who set Florence on the path to becoming the jewel of Europe. But such a path was fraught with danger and intrigue as well as glory and rebirth.

Cosimo was born on September 27, 1389. Thanks to the enormity of wealth acquired by his father, as well as Giovanni's open and intellectually curious mind, Cosimo, and his younger brother, Lorenzo the Elder, enjoyed the very best education the late 14th/early 15th century could provide, an education entrenched firmly in the Classical Movement. Developed in the Middle Ages by Marinus Cappella, it was systematized during the Renaissance era by one Petrus Ramus. It was an education configured by the 'trivium:' the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; leading to the 'quadrivium:' consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. In the areas of logic, philosophy, and rhetoric, the curriculum was based, almost in totality, upon the teachings of Aristotle, Proclus, and Plato.It comes as no surprise, then, that Cosimo became a Humanist, one of the first in this era, one of the first to embrace this old/new way of thinking.

Humanism, in essence, values human beings, individually and collectively, over doctrine or faith. It could be argued that the resurgence of Humanism came from out of the Dark Ages themselves, where religious and clerical authority reigned supreme, preying on the fears of the uneducated wrought by the cultural and economic deterioration of the time period. But as civilization began to evolve once more, such fear-induced imposed authority lost its leverage, given way--giving light--to the reemergence of the Humanist movement.

"Early Italian humanism, which in many respects continued the grammatical and rhetorical traditions of the Middle Ages, not merely provided the old Trivium with a new and more ambitious name (Studia humanitatis), but also increased its actual scope, content and significance in the curriculum of the school and university and in its own extensive literary production." (Paul Oskar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought II: Papers on Humanism and the Arts, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965, p. 178).

The Renaissance Humanist movement began in Italy, in the childhood homeland of Cosimo de Medici. It would come to define his actions, his very way of thinking, for good and for bad, throughout his life.

Cosimo's influence and accomplishments came easily and quickly. At the age of 26, he accompanied the Antipope John XXIII at the Council of Constance (the ecumenical council that ended the Three Popes Controversy--The Western Schism--by deposing one, accepting the resignation of another, and electing Pope Martin V). In the same year, Cosimo was named as a Priore of the Republic. He would never serve as Gonfaloniere (governor) as his father had; in fact, a Medici would not do so until well into the 16th century. But it did not mean Cosimo would not rule.

Upon the death of his father in 1429, Cosimo took over the reins of the family, a family already deeply mired in the a political schism taking place in Florence, one that had started almost a decade previous. The city was divided into two factions, one headed by Niccolo da Uzzano and one by Giovanni di Bicci de Medici himself. At the heart of the matter was the question: in whose hands did the true concerns of the city lay? It was, on the surface, a a split between the upper and middle classes, a push-pull that would last for nearly fourteen years. Like his father, Cosimo, though considered the wealthiest man in all of Europe, was firmly on the side of the lower classes, adopting the policy of his family by supporting the poor and lesser guilds over the tyranny of the wealthy families that ruled the city. But like most political controversies, more lay beneath what was clearly visible, and one issue often became an opportunity for more drastic maneuverings.

By 1433, Uzzano was dead and Rinaldo degli Albizzi had taken over the ruling of the opposing faction. The Albizzi's mistrust and jealousy of the Medici--their rise to power, wealth, and influence--was a painful sting to the long established Albizzi. Rinaldo took the opportunity of the schism to convince Bernardo Guadagni, the current Gonfalonier of Justice, to arrest Cosimo. For a time, Cosimo was held prisoner in the Torre d'Arnolfo, the tower portion of the Palazzo di Signoria, the government palace. Due to Cosimo's stature, his cell was nicknamed 'the little hotel.'

Though its inconclusive how long Cosimo remained a captive, he was able to turn imprisonment into banishment. But it was not necessarily by choice of those who held him. As legend has it, Cosimo was not released but rather escaped by bribing the cell guard with 300 florins and the Captain with 700, much to his amusement. He is reported to have stated that they were two of the stupidest men in history as he was the wealthiest man in Italy and would have eagerly paid tens of thousands of florins to obtain his release. Cosimo made his way to Venice (a horrific place for banishment, indeed), but
by October of 1434, with a new government, one much more favorable to Cosimo, he was returned. Then his true glory began.

The uncrowned king, the benevolent despot (such a contradiction in terms), though Cosimo never again held a political office, he did, in actuality, rule the city. As C. Hibbert quoted in his The Rise and Fall of the House of de Medici (1974, William Morrow), "Political questions are settled in Cosimo's house. The man he chooses holds office...he it is who decides peace and war...he is king in all but name."

As Cosimo's power grew, so did the depth of his pockets. Taking full control of the Medici Bank, with the help of brother Lorenzo, and all its branches throughout Europe, he eventually took over the management of the papacy's finances as well. His riches were not only in gold florins but in the form of bank and promissory notes payable to his bank in all the pivotal European financial markets. In 1462, his personal wealth blossomed yet further, obtaining from Pius II the Tolfa alum mines monopoly (alum at the time being imperative to Florence's major industry, that of textiles).

Palazzo de Medici
His power and influence fully established, Cosimo set about to make changes that would bring Florence to its greatness. He changed the income tax structure, altering it from a fixed rate to a graduated one, placing the heavier burden on the very wealthy (himself included; hmmm, sounds vaguely familiar). Poor citizens and middle class alike came to adore him all the more, especially when the funds were put to use in public projects that brought a better quality of life to ALL of its inhabitants. Cosimo used his own enormous wealth on neoclassical architecture (Michelozzo built the Medici palace as well as the Dominican convent of San Marco). He retained the already famed Filippo Brunelleschi to restore the dilapidated San Lorenzo Church. In Careggi and Fiesole, he built magnificent villas in the contemporary style and paid for the erection of cloisters in the latter village. But his munificence was not limited to construction alone...he founded the vast Medici Library--sharing it with the intellectuals of the age-- and brought plumbing to his great city. He served his dedication to Humanism by establishing an academy for Greek study, The Platonic Academy, an institution also dedicated to translating the works of Plato.

Herod's Baquet by Donatello
But by far, Cosimo's greatest contributions, those with long lasting echoes resounding to this day, was his dedication to art and the support--both financial  and social--to those who created it. Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Luca della Robbia, Donatello, Alberti, Fra Angelico, and Ucello...all early Renaissance masters...all artists supported by Cosimo. His love of art would be handed down to his sons and their sons, allowing for the emergence of some of the greatest artists the world has ever known.

For all his wealth, for all the lavishness he plied upon others--citizens of Florence as well as personal guests--Cosimo lived simply and quietly. He dressed modestly, worked long and hard, and never ate or drank to excess. His was considered witty and mild mannered, quiet yet exceedingly brilliant.

Upon his death on the first of August, 1464, a grateful and loving city decreed that his tomb be inscribed with the endearing title they had given him, Father of the Fatherland, Pater Patriae.