Maria Poliziana existed. She was the youngest sister of the poet, Angelo Poliziano. He mentions her twice in his letters, both times without much show of affection, so my first view of her was as a frumpy, stupid lump of a sister who was pushing him too hard to acquire benefices. This view was fed by a profile of her on the obverse of Poliziano’s portrait medal, where she looks chubby and somewhat obnoxious. The same image occurs on the obverse of the medal of Pico della Mirandola, the leading scholar of the age and Poliziano’s closest friend. Now that’s very little to go on, but sufficiently odd to attract the interest of a novelist. Why on earth would those two literary luminaries want to pair their image with that of the frumpy sister of one of them? In the age where image was symbol, this needed investigating.
I'm not sure when my view of Maria changed. Perhaps it was when I was reconstructing Angelo's early life, trying to imagine what it was like to see your father murdered when you were only nine. Maria at this time was only one. The family were dispersed afterwards, the four children fostered here and there, the mother remarried (quickly, as was the norm). To all intents and purposes, they were orphans. It was entirely possible that Maria did not meet her brother again until she was adult.
I went to Montepulciano to find out all I could about her. Were there any records? Do we know where she was buried? I remember now the city archivist laughing at me. 'Una donna? Ho! Ho! Ho!' Now who was being stupid, to go all that way in search of a woman? Women leave no records. So I had to make her up. Somewhere along the line, she began to make herself heard in my imagination, and I liked what she was saying. A lot.
She enters the story in the second* book of the trilogy, Pallas and the Centaur, and shares the narration with Tommaso de' Maffei. Having given her a voice, I wanted her to use it in first person. This is an intelligent young woman in a man's world, in love with her brother and his friends, staunchly loyal as their world begins to fall apart.
I can't imagine now the trilogy without her. I've always had trouble creating women, because of the dynamic between my own experience and what I think that experience should have been (i.e. the stock stereotype). I've met most of my characters in real life, mostly in fleeting glimpses. I met Maria on a vaporetto in Venice, slimmer than I'd imagined, but just as strong in feature with some pretty marvellous teeth. Una donna? Una bella donna.
* The second book can be read as a stand alone but it will spoil the plot of the first. All three books are currently available together as a special deal direct from Godstow Press. www.godstowpress.co.uk/catalogue.html.
Pallas and the Centaur is the middle volume of the trilogy. The first and last volumes are narrated by Tommaso de’ Maffei but in this middle book he shares the narration with the poet Poliziano’s sister, Maria. They say there are two kinds of novel: quest (Odyssey) and siege (Iliad). Pallas and the Centaur, set in a time of war, is definitely siege, the other two quest.
I TRY SO HARD to love you, Lord God, and I fail. The fault is your own, for being invisible. It would be easier to love smoke – at least I can see it and smell it if not touch it. It would be easier to love an idea or dream, because I can think it. But if you cannot be seen, heard, touched, smelt or tasted, how am I to love you?
This evening the sky over the Val di Chiana was astonishing: milky grey here, blue there, the clouds plum and apricot and strewn about like tattered banners. Over in the east, where that mysterious line of water catches the dying sun, it was orange and glowing. As the sun sank down behind our high, dark city, every tower in the valley before me, every castle, farmstead and hermitage capping one of the little hillocks shone like rich gold. Oh, how I wanted to be out there, where so many bells were tolling compline in the still air. Utter beauty!
I told Suor Agosta what I had seen, about the eagles flying in a heaven as coloured as Joseph’s coat, but she looked down on me with great disapproval from her high chair at her writing desk. ‘These are worldly joys, child! The world is full of misery, however beautiful it seems. The sky is only a shadow of God’s radiance. Our true heaven is beyond the sky and brighter than anything you can imagine. Love God and abhor the world.’
Regretting saying anything – but oh, how can I keep such things to myself forever? – I bent my head over my pharmacy labels.
‘Yes, Suor Agosta?’
‘How is it you saw the valley?’
‘I was feeding the doves as is my duty, Suora.’
‘The dove cot is not so high!’
It is true, but from the ladder to the elevated cot I can clamber up on to the granary roof which slopes over the convent wall in such a shallow line as to be near enough flat; flat enough to stand on. ‘If I stand on tip-toe on the top rung, Suora,’ I lied, ‘I can just see over the granary roof.’ And I hung my head guiltily.
‘It is your duty to feed the doves, not to stand staring out to space, you idle girl! To love God properly you must do your duty.’
It is not that I think you do not exist. Of course you exist and are everywhere. But I doubt that you love me. Just as the sun shines on everyone, saint and sinner alike, so your love, if you have it, is indifferent. Well then, so must mine be. That is only fair, is it not? And until you show yourself to me, even as a dove or in a burning bush, it will remain so.
At Easter my long probation shall come to an end and I shall take my vows as a novice; then, next year, when I am sixteen, I shall become a Bride of Christ. A vain and shallow wife of an invisible God, a God who, like a sultan, locks away so many wives for his own pleasure, whatever that might be! To my mind a life spent amongst women is no life at all. I may as well be dead. Who would want to end up like Madre Generale, bewhiskered, toothless and full of hatred of anything young?
Dear Lord God, you have enough wives. Wherever you are, free me from this place and this destiny, this prison for unwanted daughters.
A new postulant arrived while we were feasting in the refectory, eating pigeon, hare and cheese, as well as the usual bread and minestra. Some of the nuns were eating much more than was good for them, as if to store up for the whole of Lent, and it is sure to be a night of much noise and disturbance in the dormitory as they come and go to the latrines, knocking against beds in the dark, farting and groaning. The new girl, a very dark, skinny little thing, is called Lauretta. Like me she is an orphan though two years younger, but she has spent those years on the Outside – and she has been married, wife to a mortal man! – and therefore seems older than me by far. I was sent to show her to our dormitory. Leaving my supper to the thieving fingers of my neighbours, I was glad to have the opportunity to talk to the frightened girl alone.
‘Where do you come from?’ I asked her as soon as we reached the silent cloisters.
‘So do I! What is it like? I was only five when I was sent here.’
‘I do not know. I presume my parents died. Someone must have paid for me. What is Cagnano like?’
‘But it is only twenty paces away!’
‘And beyond our walls. Tell me quick, before anyone comes, for here we must have God’s words on our lips all the time.’
‘Cagnano is horrible.’
This told me nothing that I might see, touch or imagine. ‘In what way? What does it look like?’
She shrugged. ‘Like anywhere else, only it is steep and in the shadow of the city much of the day. There are two cities, you know.’
‘Here! One above the other. Cagnano is in the lower part and catches all the slops and waste of the upper city. It’s just behind the lower wall and stinks like a drain.’
I was shocked. I came from a good home, I am certain of it.
‘What is your family name?’ Lauretta asked.
‘Oh!’ She stepped back as if I were poisonous.
As we neared the dormitory, I could hear someone following us – the Madre Generale herself to judge by the clipping tread she has, like a bird of prey hopping round a carcass.
‘Your family name?’ I whispered urgently.
Lauretta was staring at me with frightened eyes.
‘Yours?’ I insisted.
‘Del Mazza,’ she whispered. She flinched as she said it, as if expecting me to strike her, but I was only raising my arm to the latch of the dormitory door. Before we could enter, old beaky was upon us.
‘Lauretta del Mazza, daughter of that murderous family of villains, come here.’
Lauretta went to meet her in the shadows of the cloister, lit only by the wax torches held by myself and the Madre Generale.
‘On your knees, girl. Renounce the past and all will be well. Your only father now is God.’
‘Thanks be to God!’ Lauretta sank to her knees as if with great relief.
Here, then, is another of them, someone to whom being in a convent is a liberation and a source of joy. Once again, as ever, my hope for a friend, someone I can talk to, who will understand and share my soul’s longings, is dashed.
Linda Proud is an English author best known for her novels set in Renaissance Italy. She was a freelance picture researcher before teaching creative writing to US students studying in Oxford, UK, which she did for twenty years, working mainly for Sarah Lawrence College. Her first novel, A Tabernacle for the Sun, won a bursary from Southern Arts and a month's residence at the writers' retreat of Hawthornden Castle. It was published by Allison and Busby in 1997. It was followed by Pallas and the Centaur and The Rebirth of Venus. ‘The Botticelli Trilogy’ has drawn praise from authors and academics as well as the general reader, and is considered as best of its kind by many reviewers, including Lonely Planet Guide to Florence and Tuscany: 'The historical detail in all three is exemplary, and each is a cracking good read.' Her fourth novel was the prequel, A Gift for the Magus**, which won two awards in 2014.
In 2003 she and her husband, David Smith, founded Godstow Press and began publishing her novels themselves. They live in Oxford.
Currently she is working on a novel set in Iron Age Britain.
**A Gift for the Magus
According to Leon Battista Alberti in his book On Painting, 'to be a good painter you must be a good man.' Fra Filippo Lippi is notorious for his contempt of his vows: he was never obedient and nerve chaste. The nun who modelled for his pictures of the Virgin Mary became the mother of his children. Yet this apparently 'bad' man painted divine pictures; moreover, he was the favourite painter of that very astute patron, Cosimo de' Medici. Was Alberti wrong, or was Lippi a better man than generally believed? What is the nature of goodness?