"Sensuous and provocative as well as mysterious, Blume’s interpretation of master painter Sandro Botticelli is at once a florid love story and a chilling political drama.”—Publisher’s Weekly.
Botticelli’s Muse is an historical novel about a love quadrangle: Botticelli’s troubled life as he is forced to choose among his three loves: art, romance, and prestige.
In 1477, Botticelli is suddenly fired by his prestigious patron and friend Lorenzo de’ Medici. In the villa of his irritating new patron, the artist’s creative well runs dry—until the day he sees Floriana, a Jewish weaver imprisoned in his sister’s convent. But events threaten to keep his unlikely muse out of reach. So begins a tale of one of the art world’s most beloved paintings, La Primavera, as Sandro, a confirmed bachelor, and Floriana, a headstrong artist in her own right, enter into a turbulent relationship.
Book One: BOTTICELLI'S MUSE
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About the Author
A visual artist from the age of five, Ms. Bluestein has been a painter, print maker, cabinet maker, and graphic artist for decades. Most recently turning to book illustration, she employs a combination of abstract "zentangles" with realistic subject matter. The line drawings sprinkled throughout Botticelli's Muse are meant to give the reader a window into the plants, animals, and characters in the novel, while echoing a tradition of the illuminated manuscript.
Read an Excerpt
SOMEWHERE IN THE TUSCAN HILLS, JULY 21, 1477
The young woman heard the cry of locusts pulsating in the scorched air. As she floated on her back, her nipples pierced the pond's surface. The sun baked her face. Long strands of hair laced about her head, and a thin chain of gold glittered around her neck. A flock of birds hidden deep in the cypress pines sang to her, and she hummed to them against the chorus of the mating cicadas.
She had walked off through the woods while the others rested. Soon, she knew, they would be searching for her. She quickly rose from the pond and stretched her arms to the sky. As she waded to the shore, her eyes swallowed a sea of yellow — sunflowers cresting over the hill to the water's edge where she had dropped her clothes. She stepped onto the bank. She shook her hair out; then, at the instant she knelt to reach for her dress, a weight fell on her back, the sting of rough cloth against her skin, and the grip of a hand covering her mouth.
A MONASTERY IN TUSCANY, AUGUST 21, 1477
No face-to-face contact allowed. No touching. No speaking permitted. Only a knock signaled her daily bread. Once the afternoon prayer bells sounded, the prisoner would listen for the scrape of a basket against the stone walls leading to her tower cell. As soon as the descending footsteps faded, she would slide the tiny door panel open to pull a basket woven of thorny branches inside.
On the first day of her imprisonment, she pierced her lips biting into the bread where thorns lay hidden beneath the crust. She soon learned to tear small pieces from the loaf to remove any thorns before rolling the bread into small pellets she placed in a circle at the bedside table. These she ate slowly to contain her hunger until the next ration appeared.
After several days of confinement, her ankles swelled. The sour scent of her unwashed body sickened her. As the weeks continued, she moved trancelike through a daily drill she had devised to keep her fear and hunger at bay.
She performed the ritual always with the first bread pellet, which she placed under her tongue. She imagined herself no longer in the tower, but lying on the ground under a canopy of thickly woven, thorn-covered branches — the same branches from which her food basket had been made. Thin shafts of light penetrated the vaulted ceiling. Unlike the harsh, dangerous branches of the basket, these imaginary branches held the blessed presence of rosebuds. As she lay beneath this image of flowers among the thorns, she allowed the small pellet to swell with her saliva, then slide down her throat. With the first swallow, she would watch in her mind's eye as the buds burst into full bloom, obliterating the thorns and releasing a sweetperfume.
With the second bread pellet, she would conjure a happy memory to calm herself.
Today, she recalled the path leading to her village outside Ferrara. The cool evening breeze sounded like the roll of the ocean as it rustled through the trees. The moon, an icy sliver, hung in the purple night sky. She imagined herself as a child, weaving together flower stems as she traveled by wagon with her family. Her father had shown her how to double the braid to make it as strongas rope.
"Together," he had said, "we'll climb to the moon and watch the gathering storm clouds. We'll find the lost sheep grazing on the hillside, and discover, at last, where the wolf sleeps."
His fingers were round and thick at the knuckles, like the carrots he grew on their land. She saw them as extensions of his loving embrace as she fell into a peaceful sleep. Dusk descended over the land to mark the end of her thirtieth day of confinement.
Later that night she awoke to the sound of labored breathing as footsteps ascended the stairs. No one had ever come to her cell at this hour. She braced herself in the dark against the straw mattress. Her cheeks burned with an intense heat. A jangle of keys outside her door filled her chest with a dread deeper than her cavernoushunger.
OUR LADY OF THE MOST HOLY ROSARY
A secret tunnel joined Oslavia's convent — Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary — to the monastery where the young woman had been held prisoner for thirty days. The ultimate authority over both houses of God, Father Bandini, had ordered Oslavia to judge if the sinner in his tower had a soul that could be saved.
At midnight of the prisoner's thirtieth day, Oslavia pulled herself off her bed and fell to her knees in a prayer for strength in her encounter with the harlot. She rehearsed her steps to the girl's door: Light a candle, descend into the cantina, walk to the other side through the damp catacomblike corridors, announce myself by a bell. Too large and too weak to climb the tower stairs, Father Bandini will have assigned the elderly hunchback Petrarchio to lead me to the tower cell. After that she could imagine nothing, only feel a sense of dread.
As Oslavia and Petrarchio climbed to the top of the tower, their candles flickered against the stone walls. He stopped every few steps to catch his breath. She kept her distance. The odor from the cracked garlic bulbs he wore around his neck to ward off evil spirits permeated the narrow stairwell.
Oslavia coughed. Soon, another terrible odor overwhelmed the garlic as they reached the final landing. Perhaps the prisoner has already died and is decomposing.
Petrarchio pulled out a heavy chain, removed a key and handed it to Oslavia, turned to descend, but stopped.
"Hood yourself!" he said in a gravelly voice to the creature behind the door.
Once Petrarchio was out of sight, Oslavia tried the lock until it turned. Before she pulled open the door, she said, "Tell me you are covered and I will enter."
"Covered," a faint voice answered.
As Oslavia entered the cell, the stench of human waste assaulted her. She used the candlelight to approach the young woman's cot, willing herself not to think about what might be lying underfoot in the dark. Beneath the hood of shame, the girl's body shivered in the stifling heat of the tower.
"You were allowed to come here among men?" the young girlwhimpered.
"As abbess of the sister convent, I have been ordered to judge if you are a sinner who can be saved or a devil who must be burned."
"I have done nothing. I have been sinned against."
"The young men of the cloth say you offered your body to them, to lure them from God."
"While the others rested, I offered myself to a pond to cleanse myself and one of them pounced on me and defiled me."
"I could not see his face nor hear his real voice. Only a cruel whisper like the hiss of a snake."
"He told me to say nothing. It was between me and him and. But I do not share your God!"
"Harlot you are for sure!"
"I have my own God."
"Enough!" Oslavia said. The girl's chest, which had been rising and falling, froze in mid-breath.
"Remove the hood," Oslavia ordered.
When the girl lifted the cloth from her head, Oslavia saw welts on the young woman's face. One look at her, even in this dim light, told her this was no harlot. A tiny Star of David hung from a fine gold chain around the girl's neck reflected the candlelight.
"Tell me what you remember," Oslavia prompted in agentler tone.
"I remember the taste of earth in my mouth. The crunch of it between my teeth. The smell of it inside my nostrils as he pressed my head to the ground. A musty odor like some crushed herb on his hand and all around him. The scratching of his robes against my naked back. I remember the locusts screaming in the hot air. I remember the stillness of floating on the pond, free and safe and private because no one was watching. I was dressing when he pushed me. The rough cloth. I remember seeing a corner of his robe: Dominican white." She stopped to shiver in the heat ofthe cell.
By the candlelight Oslavia waited. "What else do you remember? What was his face like?"
The girl said nothing, only sighed deeply.
"He lifted my hips — always keeping my head in the dirt. I could hardly breathe. The burning as he pushed his snake inside me again and again and again."
"I didn't see his face. He kept my head down. I don't remember when the sound of the locusts stopped but it did. I saw the hair on his arm. Black. I don't remember when the sunflowers started to hate me. And the cypress trees became daggers. I can't remember how long I've been here."
"This is the thirtieth day."
"There were so many of your monks bringing us to Florence. It could have been any of them. I don't remember how I got back to the group, only his voice hissing Zitto! so I wouldn't make a sound." The girl's shoulders slumped and she collapsed back into her filthy bed, then continued after a few moments. "Then. The hood. I no longer knew if it was day or night. Why have I not been allowed to go to the Florence woolen mills with the others?"
Oslavia did not answer but instead removed the soiled bed linens, and placed the top layer of her habit on the straw mattress for the girl to sleep more comfortably.
The young girl sobbed. "I was so frightened you were that snakereturning."
Oslavia wanted to comfort the young woman in an embrace. Instead, she turned her head away to avoid the odor and to hide her own sudden anger.
"I can't bring you any aid until tomorrow. But I will return with a plan. I will find a plan. Trust me."
"I pray to Almighty God I can trust you, Sister. What can Icall you?"
"Mother Oslavia. And you, child?"
"Call me Floriana, the name my father gave me when I was nine years old and had learned to weave flowers together."
"Be strong, my Floriana. Until tomorrow night."
As Oslavia made her way back through the tunnel, the weak flicker of the candle illuminating her way became a symbolic spark to smolder and set her angry heart aflame. Here in her midst was a Jew, not a harlot, and surely not someone begging or even willing to consider the conversion Oslavia knew would be thrust upon her. As she stared at the candle's flame, a boldness overtook her. Who among the men of the cloth she had known over the years would do such a thing? Many. Too many.
Wide rose bushes had been allowed to grow wild as a barrier between the two houses of God. This impenetrable bracken of thorns was intended to prevent any of the novitiates from crossing the border to satisfy carnal appetites. Oslavia had watched others succumb to the impulses of the flesh.
And the harlot from Ferrara?" Father Bandini asked Oslavia early the next morning.
She had come through the tunnel into one of the two tiny rooms flanking the pulpit in the nave of the church. From where she knelt in front of Bandini, she could look out into the larger sacred space. Thin shards of light sliced through the church windows and formed distorted patterns along the floor. She took the distortion as a sign for how she was going to stretch the truth to serve some higher good. The word of God was not going to be found in obedience to the most revered Father Bandini, but in obedience to the flame growing inside her. She had prayed for guidance and the courage to follow it, not for the courage to conform or submit.
"Have you examined her? And what are your findings?" Bandiniasked.
"The case is typical, Monsignor," Oslavia reported. "No dowry. Parents deceased; relatives have sent her to be part of the weaving pool to keep her out of the beggar's life. And she claims she is noharlot."
"No, Your Excellency."
"Yes," Oslavia lied.
"And you. Is there room for her in your group?"
"One of the young priests who delivered her here said she was not only a harlot, but she was a Jew. Is this so, Sister Oslavia?"
"Which cleric told you this about her?"
"One of the group that brought her here with the hood of shame," Bandini said. "He suggested she be silenced, punished, converted, and renewed."
"Sores on her mouth and feet. She was delirious, lying in her own waste. Which one said this? His name?"
"Unimportant! Take her to your side and clean her up," Bandini said. "I give you ninety days to heal her wounds both inside and out. If she has not converted by then we may need to make an example of her. Bernardino will be coming by to collect unrepentant souls. He will be happy to use her for his ends. And it will make us look good to help him. A peace offering between our two orders. The Pope willapprove."
"Let me take over her tutelage from now on." Oslavia bowedher head.
"I will be watching you." It was a phrase he repeated often and to all over whom he exerted control. She had learned to expect it as peculiar to his speech and never answered, but today she responded. "Monsignor. As you well should."
As for the question of conversion of Jews, she had heard how Franciscan Bernardino called them swine and perpetuated the story they caused the Black Plague, performed ritual murder, and drank sacrificial blood. But what Bandini's monastery had already done to this poor unfortunate was a crime. Oslavia would use her outrage tocorrect it.
With great difficulty, Bandini lifted his huge body from the chair. A cloud of incense engulfed Oslavia as he moved away from her. The heat of the morning had already seared through his cloak with perspiration stains darkening his robes. His swollen face, his lumbering movements, his heavy wheezing had always frightened her. But on this day, she had only disdain for his predictable lack of compassion for his future convert. Housing a Jew under his auspices was a new matter, one Bandini could work to his advantage. But Oslavia was conjuring a plan to undermine that advantage. It was a plan unknown to her, but her trust in its revelation was strong andunshakable.
OSLAVIA'S BROTHER SANDRO IN THE MEDICI PALACE COURTYARD
The gurgle of water from the dolphin fountain brought no relief from the sweltering summer day. Only the marble table offered a cool surface to three men who sat there under the portico's shade. With crumbs from their midday meal scattered at their feet, Oslavia's brother, artist Sandro Botticelli, sketched the profile of Lorenzo de' Medici's younger cousin Piero. Lorenzo looked on, sipped his wine, and tossed crumbs to feed the twittering sparrows.
Even though the recently orphaned Piero was one of Sandro's least favorite members of this distinguished family, the boy's foppish and clumsy ways made him one of Sandro's most entertaining subjects. To keep the chubby fifteen-year-old boy's head from its chronic involuntary twitching, Sandro had instructed Piero to lean his elbow against the table and support his head with his hand underneath his chin. Despite the intense heat, Piero, who was prone to overdressing, wore armor trim on his shoulders, elbows, and knees, a flowing cape, red leggings, and a red hat with three long yellow feathers.
Inside his secret sketchbooks, Sandro had often transformed the teenager's head in its silly feathered hats into the head of a bird wearing the full regalia of Medici dress — an enormous plumed hen waddling and pecking above two spindly, spur-covered ankles. Sandro captioned each of his sketches with Piero's pretentious official name: Piero di Lorenzo di Piero di Cosimo di Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici.
Piero's eyes drooped. Three times his chin slipped off his hand, and he let out one fart after another. The boy needs his nap! Sandro laughed to himself.
"Move your hand away from your face, Piero!" Sandro said. "I want to get the line of your nose." As Sandro watched Piero struggle to keep his head still, he silently compared him to Lorenzo — the far more elegant of the two cousins — who wore no cap, and whose straight, dark hair hung to the edge of his jutting jaw, framing his face. Piero had often been the subject of Lorenzo's jokes and jabs too. Lorenzo was twenty-eight; Sandro, thirty-three.
Piero wrinkled his forehead, ran the palm of his hand across it as he wiped away the perspiration. "I'm getting a cramp in my shoulder. Please hurry!" Breaking the pose, he turned to Lorenzo. "So, Cousin, for the third time today, I'm asking you —"
"Asking me what?" Lorenzo said, sipping his wine and throwing scraps of bread to the birds. Lorenzo knew full well what Piero was talking about — selling one of his country villas to Piero — but Lorenzo enjoyed the tease on one hand yet, on the other, had hoped to keep the news of the transaction from Sandro because it would mean a major change to theartist's life.
"You and your friend here, Sandro, and your Villa di Castello?"
"What's my part?" Sandro stopped sketching.
"I'm buying Villa di Castello from Lorenzo to bring it back to life. After all, before long, I'll be marrying and will need a home of my own. And you, Sandro, are part of the deal. You're going to be working with me instead of Lorenzo."
"Don't rush into the prison of marriage," Lorenzo said, avoiding Sandro's eyes.
"I have no intention of imprisoning myself in any way — unless you think surrounding myself with Beauty is an undesirable confinement," Piero said, looking at Sandro's sketch of him. "My nose! Too long like a trumpet flower. Lorenzo's side of the family has noses like that." Not waiting for the artist's response, he put his arm around Sandro's shoulder. "Without your genius, I can't make Villa di Castello beautiful."
Excerpted from "Botticelli's Muse"
Copyright © 2017 Dorah Blume and D. Bluestein.
Excerpted by permission of Juiceboxartists Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Map of Italy
Cast of Characters
Staying in Touch
About the Author