The Daughter of Siena

The Daughter of Siena

by Marina Fiorato

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Overview

Amid the intrigue and danger of 18th-century Italy, a young woman becomes embroiled in romance and treachery with a rider in the Palio, the breathtaking horse race set in Siena....

It's 1729, and the Palio, a white-knuckle horse race, is soon to be held in the heart of the peerless Tuscan city of Siena. But the beauty and pageantry masks the deadly rivalry that exists among the city's districts. Each ward, represented by an animal symbol, puts forth a rider to claim the winner's banner, but the contest turns citizens into tribes and men into beasts—and beautiful, headstrong, young Pia Tolomei is in love with a rider of an opposing ward, an outsider who threatens the shaky balance of intrigue and influence that rules the land.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312609580
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/10/2011
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 542,322
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Marina Fiorato is half-Venetian and a history graduate of Oxford University and the University of Venice, where she specialized in the study of Shakespeare's plays as an historical source. She has worked as an illustrator, an actress, and a film reviewer, and designed tour visuals for rock bands including U2 and the Rolling Stones. Her historical fiction includes The Botticelli Secret and her debut novel, The Glassblower of Murano, which was an international bestseller. She was married on the Grand Canal in Venice, and now lives in London with her family.

Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE

The Donkey

Two gentlemen of Siena stared down at a stinking corpse that had been flung over the wall at the Camollia gate.

‘Is it a horse?’ asked the younger, for the body was so decomposed it was hard to tell.

‘No, it’s a donkey,’ answered his elder.

‘Hmm.’ The youth was thoughtful. ‘Whatever can it mean?’

 

‘Well,’ said the other, who was pleased to be asked, and whose air of the greybeard who knew it all did not endear him to his friends, ‘in 1230 the Florentines who besieged Siena used to throw the corpses of donkeys over the city walls. They hoped the carcasses would bring pestilence and plague.’

The youth pulled his neckerchief swiftly over his noseand mouth. ‘Jesu. D’you think this one is diseased? It stinks enough.’

 

Dio. It’s not the olden days. Someone’s ass died and they dumped it. No more, no less.’

His companion craned upwards and stroked the beard that he one day wished to have. ‘I don’t know. Look; there’s some blood and skin on the top of the gate. This fellow was thrown over. Should we tell someone?’

‘Like who?’

‘Well, I don’t know. . . the duchess? The council, then? Or the Watch?’

The older man turned towards his young companion.

He had never known the lad to question with him and felt justified in hardening his tone just a little.

‘The Watch?’ he scoffed. ‘On the eve of the Palio? D’you not think they might have better things to worry about than a dead donkey?’

The boy hung his head. He supposed he was right. It was the Palio tomorrow and the whole city was a ferment of excitement, a ferment that sometimes bubbled over into violence. Nevertheless, he walked backwards for a little until he could no longer see the grisly heap. Intensely superstitious, like all Sienese, he could not help thinking that the donkey was an ill omen for the city. Uneasy little thoughts gathered round his head like the flies that rose from the corpse.

Chapter 1

The Owlet

For her nineteenth birthday, Pia Tolomei, the most beautiful woman in Siena, was given a necklace and a husband.

Her name-day was spent sitting quietly in her chamber, a day like any other – the same, the same, the same. But then Pia’s maid told her that her father wished to see her and she knew exactly what was coming. She’d been awaiting this moment since she was eleven.

She laid down her hoop of embroidery with a shaking hand and went down to the piano nobile at once. Her knees shook too as they carried her slight and upright form down the stair, but she had courage. She knew it was time to face what she had dreaded for years, for as long as she had been old enough to understand the expediencies of the marriage market.

For eight years Pia had expected, daily, to be parcelled up and handed in marriage to some young sprig of Sienese nobility. But fate had kept her free until now. Pia knew that her father would not marry her beyond her ward, the contrada of the Civetta, the Owlet. And here she had been fortunate, for the male heirs of the good Civetta families were few. A boy that she was betrothed to in the cradle had died of the water fever. Another had gone to the wars and married abroad. The only other heir she could think of had just turned fifteen. She had a notion her father had been waiting for this lad to reach his majority. She went downstairs now, fully expecting that she was about to be shackled to a child.

In the great chamber her father Salvatore Tolomei stood in a shaft of golden light streaming in through the windows. He had always had an instinct for the theatrical. He waited until she approached him and laid her cool kiss upon his cheek, before he pulled a glittering gold chain from his sleeve with a magician’s flourish. He laid it in her palm where it curled like a little serpent and she saw that there was a roundel, or pendant, hanging from it.

‘Look close,’ Salvatore said.

Pia obeyed, humouring him, masking the impatience she felt rising within her. She saw a woman’s head depicted on a gold disc, decapitated and floating.

‘It is Queen Cleopatra herself,’ whispered Salvatore with awe, ‘on one of her own Egyptian coins. It is more than a thousand years old.’

His ample form seemed to swell even further with pride. Pia sighed inwardly. She had grown up being told, almost daily, that the ancestors of the Tolomei were Egyptian royalty, the

Ptolemy. Salvatore Tolomei – and all the Civetta capitani before him – never stopped telling people of the famous Queen Cleopatra from whom he was directly descended.

Pia felt the great weight of her heritage pressing down on her and looked at the long-dead queen almost with pity. That her long, illustrious royal line should distil itself down into Pia, the Owlet, daughter and heir to the house of the Owls! Pia was queen of nothing but the Civetta contrada, sovereign of a quiet

ward in the north of Siena, regent of a collection of ancient courtyards and empress of a company of shoemakers.

‘And on the other side?’

Pia turned the coin over and saw a little owl in gold relief.

‘Our own emblem, and hers; the emblem of Minerva, of Aphrodite, of Civetta.’

She looked up at her father, waiting for the meat of the matter. She knew he never gave without expectation of return.

‘It is a gift for your name-day, but also a dowry,’ said he. ‘I have spoken with Faustino Caprimulgo of the Eagle contrada. His son, Vicenzo, will take you in marriage.’

Pia closed her hand tight around the coin until it bit. She felt a white-hot flame of anger thrill through her. She had not, of course, expected to choose her own husband, but she had hoped in her alliance with the Chigi boy that she could school him a little, to become the most that she could wish for in a husband; to treat her with kindness and leave her alone. How could her father do this? She had always, always done as Salvatore asked, and now her reward was to be a marriage to a man she not only knew to be reviled, but a man from another contrada. It was unheard of.

She knew Vicenzo by repute to be almost as villainous and cruel as his father, the notorious Faustino Caprimulgo. The Caprimulgo family, captains of the Eagle contrada, was one of the oldest in Siena, but the nobility of the antique family was not reflected in its behaviour. Their crimes were many – they

were a flock of felons, a murder of Eagles. Pia was too well bred to seek out gossip but the stories had still reached her ears: the murders, the beatings, Vicenzo’s numerous violations of Sienese women. Last year a girl had hanged herself from her family’s ham-hook. She was barely out of school. ‘With child,’

Pia’s maid had said. ‘Another Eagle’s hatchling.’ Apparently Salvatore could overlook such behaviour in the light of an advantageous match.

‘Father,’ she said, ‘I cannot. You know what they say of him – what happened to the Benedetto girl. And he is an Eagle. Since when did an Eagle and an Owlet couple?’

In her mind she saw these two birds mating to create a dreadful hybrid, a chimera, a griff on. Wrong, all wrong. Salvatore’s face went still with anger and at the same instant she heard the scrape of a boot behind her.

He was here.

Pia turned slowly, a horrible chill creeping over her flesh, as Vicenzo Caprimulgo walked forth from the shadows.

A strange trick of light caught his nose and eyes first. A beak and two beads – like the stuffed birds in her father’s hunting lodge. His thin mouth was curved in a slight smile.

‘I am sorry, truly, that the match does not please you.’ His voice was calm and measured, with only a whisper of threat. ‘Your father and I have a very particular reason for this alliance between our two contrade. But I am sure I can. . .persuade you to think better of me, when you know me better.’

Pia opened her mouth to say that she had no wish to know him better, but she was too well bred to be insolent, and too afraid to speak her mind.

‘It’s something you can do at your leisure, for your father has agreed that we will marry on the morrow, after the Palio, which I intend to win.’

He came close and she could feel his breath on her cheek. She had never been this close to a man save her father.

‘And I assure you, mistress, that there are certain arenas in which I can please you much better than a fifteen-year-old boy.’

The malice in his eyes was unmistakable. There was something else there too: a naked desire, which turned her bones to water. She shoved straight past him and back up the stairs to her chamber, her father’s apologies raining in her ears. He was not apologizing to her, but to Vicenzo.

Alone in her chamber, Pia paced the floor, fists clenched, blood pounding in her head. Below she could hear the final preparations being made for the celebratory feast she had believed was for her own name-day. How could her life be overturned in this way?

Several times during the evening Salvatore sent servants to knock at her door. She ignored them: the celebrations would go on whether she was there or not. Despairing and frightened, she sat huddled in a chair as dusk fell, hungry and shivering, although it was not cold.

Eventually her father came himself and she could not refuse his bidding. She was to take a turn about the courtyard with Vicenzo, he said, to admire the sunset. The servants were all inside. It would be a chance for her to get to know her husband.

Pia did as she was commanded and walked Vicenzo to his horse as the sinking sun gilded the ancient stones. Still frozen by shock, she made no attempt to converse with him, and by the time they had crossed the courtyard his sallies and courtesies had turned to scorn and provocation. Numbly, she observed how the shadows of twilight closed around her. She took him,unspeaking, to the loggia where his horse was tied and waited silently for him to mount. Suddenly he lunged at her, spinning her behind the darkest pillar. His hungry lips mouthed at her neck and his greedy hands snatched at her breasts.

‘Come,’ he whispered viciously, ‘the contracts are inked, you are nearly mine, so nearly.’

She fought him then, desperately crying out, although there was no one to hear, striking him about the face and chest. Her struggles only seemed to madden him more, and when he grabbed her by the hair and threw her through the half-door of the stable she thought she was lost. She smelled the warm straw

and tasted the tang of blood where she’d bitten her cheek. But Vicenzo seemed to check himself.

‘Stay pure, then, for one more night,’ he spat, as he stood over her, ‘for tomorrow I’ll take you anyway.’ He turned in the doorway. ‘And never strike me again.’

Then he kicked her, repeatedly, not about her peerless face, but on her body, so the bruises would be hidden under her clothes.

When at last he was gone the shock hit her and she retched, great dry heaves, into the straw. In the warm dark she could hear the Civetta horses, snorting and shifting, curious.

She straightened up, aching, and walked directly out of the courtyard straight to the Civetta church across the piazza. She laid her hands on the heavy doors that she had passed through for years, for her christening, confi rmation and shrift. Tonight she did not tenderly lift the latch but hurled the oak doors open so they slammed back against the pilasters, sending angry echoes through the belly of the old church. She ran to the Lady Chapel and there her legs gave way, her knees cracking on the cold stone. She prayed and prayed, the pendant pressed hard between her palms. Not once did she look up at the images of the Christ or Mary; she was calling on far more ancient deities for help. She thought it more likely that the antique totem between her hands could help her. She prayed for something to happen, some calamity to release her from this match. When she opened her hands there was the imprint of Cleopatra on one palm and the owlet on the other.

The Palio.

A year of planning, ten men, ten horses, three circuits of the piazza, and all of it over in one single moment.

No outsider could conceive of–let alone understand–what the Palio meant to the Sienese. That they ate it, breathed it, slept it. That they prayed to their saints for victory every day, the year round. That all their loyalties, their colours and their contrade proceeded from the Palio, as the web radiates from the spider. The concentric circles of their customs and society originated from this piazza and this day, and this smallest circle of all – the racetrack. Scattered with the dust of tufa stone hewn from the Tuscan hills, run by Sieneseborn men on Sienese- bred horses, right under the ancient palaces and towers of the old city. The Palio was the centre; the Palio was Siena. To know this was to know all.

On the second day of July 1723, Siena was punishingly hot. But, despite the heat, the numbers assembled to catch a glimpse of the Palio di Provenzano seemed greater than ever. On other days the beauteous shellshaped Piazza del Campo lay as serene and empty as a Saint Jacques scallop, but today it was crammed with a thousand Sienese, drumming their drums and waving their flags. Every other place in the city was empty: every street, every courtyard, every dwelling, church and alehouse. The courtrooms were deserted, the apothecaries closed. The bankers had put away their tables and the

tailors had pulled down their blinds. At the hospitalchurch of Santa Maria Maddalena the sisters instructed the orderlies to carry their patients in litters to the piazza. Even the starlings gathered to watch the Palio in the hot blue circle of sky high over the track. They wheeled around the tower-tops, to gather in smoky clouds and break apart again, dissipating like ink in water, all the time screeching with excitement.

Everyone had their role on this day of days, from the greatest degree to the least. At the very top, on the balcony of the great Palazzo Pubblico, with its crenellations of terracotta teeth and tall clock tower, stood the governess of the city. Duchess Violante Beatrix de’ Medici, fifty and plain with it, presided over the race with great dignity and grace, as she had done for ten years now since the death of her husband.

Below her the capitani, the captains of the contrade, were in final clandestine counsel with their deputies. These were the greybeards, the chiefs of their families; silver heads bent close as they discussed their final pacts and partiti. Their faces, weathered and lined, had seen it all, and they knew the city and her ways.

The fantini, the jockeys, dressed in silks of colour so bright that they stung the eye, were being given their nerbi whips, vicious lengths of stretched oxhide, which they would shortly use not only on their horses but on each other. These young men, the flower of Sienese youth, were alive with tension, their black eyes glittering, their muscles taut. Fights, both verbal and physical, broke out in little volcanic pockets along their lines. To a man they had abstained from the pleasures of their wives and lovers for weeks now, to prepare in body and mind for the race.

Ill-disguised betting syndicates signalled across the crowd in their secret ciphers, street sellers brought skins of wine or dried meats to those who had been in this square since sunrise, canny fan sellers sold paper fans in the contrada colours to their members. The Palio band repeated obsessively the solemn notes of the Palio anthem, a task they would not leave off now until tomorrow’s dawn, each musician sure of his harmony and his counterpoint.

Even tiny children flew the bright flags of their contrada, trying to emulate their older brothers, those

princes of swagger the alfieri, who, in the main parade, tossed their larger flags so high and so skilfully. The little orphan boy and water-carrier known as Zebra – so-called because he wore the black-and-white colours of the city, not of any contrada, showing allegiance to no one and everyone – trotted busily back and forth, bringing wooden goblets for the thirsty in exchange for coin, sure-footed of

mission and purpose.

The horses too, mere dumb beasts, circled in readiness. Their bridles were bright with streamers, their manes woven with ribbons, their saddles hung with pennants. They were led in rein but knew that they would soon be loosed to race, and must win for the colours that they bore.

Pia of the Tolomei felt lowlier than all of these. As a betrothed woman she was not afforded the respect that she had known when she was a marriage prize – a renowned beauty to be bargained for and bartered over by the well-to-do families of the Civetta. She was now merely a spectator, required to cheer for her betrothed and nothing more. But Pia of the Tolomei had no intention of fulfilling that role. Yes, she was going to watch her betrothed ride in the Palio, but she would not be cheering

for him. Pia of the Tolomei would be praying that during the course of it he would be killed.

For tonight she was to be wed to Vicenzo Caprimulgo in the basilica. For the last time she was wearing the red and black of the Civetta contrada. Her bruises were hidden under a girdle in the same Owlet colours around her handspan waist and her lustrous black hair was piled high under her hat. She was seated, as she had been for the last nineteen summers and thirty-eight Palios, on the elevated benches of the Owlet contrada next to her father. Mindful of this position, this upbringing and her aching ribs, Pia was trying not to cry, for by the next Palio, the Palio dell’Assunta in August, Pia would be sitting across

the square, as Vicenzo’s wife, wearing the black-and-gold plumage of the Eagles. She would graduate up the order of birds of prey to the very top.

All about her she could feel the mounting excitement, almost palpable, like a current of air or a haze of heat, but she felt completely outside of it. Pia had been born in Siena and had scarcely been outside the city. Tuscany had a coast but she had never seen the sea. Yet despite her hermetic existence in her contrada, her nineteen years bound by the city walls, today for the fi rst time she felt that she did not belong. By reason of her betrothal shewas no longer an Owlet but was not yet an Eagle; she was

an odd, vestigial, avian genus. An aberration.

In Siena every citizen was a product of their contrada. Their identity began with their ward and ended where the Dragon contrada became the She-Wolf, or the Unicorn became the Tower. Pia was familiar with the colours of each ward or contrada from the red-and-blue of the Panther to the yellow-and-green of the Caterpillar. And twice a year these divisions of geography and hue assumed an even greater significance.

In a few short hours the bitterness of loss would settle like a pall over the losing contrada and delirious joy would infect every soul in the winning ward. Vicenzo, she knew, would give anything to win today. In the horse draw, which took place some days before the race, he had drawn Berio, a big, handsome bay whispered to be the fastest horse in Tuscany, the horse that every contrada prayed to draw. As Vicenzo was reputed to be the fastest rider in the city, his chances were very good. And if he did

win, thought Pia, how would his triumph manifest itself in their marriage chamber? Only this race, lasting three score and ten heartbeats, could prolong the life of her

maidenhead. She shuddered.

Pia sat forward in an attempt to engage herself in the spectacle below. She watched as the horses and riders circled the track, following the Civetta colours out ofhabit, when her eye was caught by a lone horseman. He was walking his mount slowly, and with complete control, through the Bocca del Casato gate, the arch of the architrave framing him like a painted angel.

The horseman was a stranger to Pia. He was also the most beautiful living human she had ever seen. He had the olive skin of the region, a full mouth set in a stern and concentrated line but with the promise of softness. He had dark curling hair caught in the pigtail fashion of the day with a ribbon of the Torre colours of the Tower contrada. His eyes were dark and his features those of antique statuary – sculpted marble perfection. His form was well proportioned and muscular, his legs long and his hands gentle on the horse. But there was more too: he seemed noble. If nobility were to do with the new science of

physiognomy rather than birth, reflected Pia, then he should be sitting on the palace balcony above her head, not the homely duchess.

Pia had escaped into books for the whole of her childhood and despite Vicenzo’s violence yesterday she still believed in courtly love – perhaps now even more so. But she did not immediately cast the stranger in the role of all the Tristans, Lancelots and Rolands of whom she had read. She was too much of a realist to imagine that anyone high-born loved where they married.

She did, however, allow herself to wonder, just for a moment, how it would feel if she was betrothed to that unknown horseman and not Vicenzo. Better yet, if only he could ride for her as her champion, that courtly ideal of centuries ago, with none of the very real and physical threats that marriage promised. She would not have to touch him, nor even meet him. Touch, she now knew, was dangerous. To yearn at a blessed distance: that would be the thing. What would it be like, she wondered idly, to sit in her loge, watching that horseman ride for her, with perhaps some token of her favour hanging about his neck or twisted in his horse’s mane?

When the unknown horseman dismounted with the other jockeys to pay the traditional tribute to the duchess, he stood next to Vicenzo. In an apt allegory for his contrada the horseman of the Torre towered over his rival from the Eagle ward. Vicenzo did not, Pia refl ected, compare well. The fantini, the jockeys, lined up below Duchess Violante’s balcony, each one eyeing her with matching insolence, in a pantomime of resistance to the Medici overlords that had been enacted for ten years now, ever since the duchess had come to the city.

All save one.

The unknown horseman alone of the pack slid his tricorne from his head and fi xed his eyes to the ground with something akin to respect for the duchess’s sex, if not for her rank. Pia’s heart warmed a little, but chilled again when she turned her eyes on her betrothed. Vicenzo was peering up at the duchess with marked insolence. He had not removed his tricorne. How she hated him, Pia thought. This tiny thing, that he could not remove his hat for a lady – this elementary lack of good breeding –invited her contempt almost more than the outrages he had visited on her last night.

Next to Vicenzo stood his father. Faustino Caprimulgo, captain of the Eagle contrada, was tall and wiry, dark and swarthy of feature but with the whitest hair curled in a close cap to his head. His high cheekbones, cavernous cheeks and long, hooked nose made him resemble nothing so much as the eagle of his banner. Faustino always stood drawn up to his full height, an eagle in his eyrie, with the confidence that came from being the head of the oldest family in Siena. Despite the pomp and posturing of the Medici, all of Siena knew that in reality it was the Caprimulgi who ruled the city. They had ruled it in the days of the Nine – the ruling council of the old republic – and ruled it in all but name still. The son stood

shoulder to shoulder with his father, fixing the duchess with the same hawklike stare, a merlin beside a falcon, a smaller, meaner version of the sire.

Pia watched as the war chariot of the Palio drew up alongside the palace, drawn by four milk-white oxen carrying the Palio itself – a vast black-and-white banner in the colours of the city, emblazoned with the figures of the Virgin and the pope. Attendants folded and handed the flag to last year’s victor, Ghiberti Conto, captain of the Snail contrada, who knocked three times and was admitted to the palace doors. Moments later he appeared on the balcony next to the duchess and gave up the banner to her. The duchess took it with a nod – custodian for a few short moments before she would give it to this

year’s victor. Pia, without feeling the slightest disloyalty, reached for the coin of the Owlet where it hung around her neck and prayed that the winner would be the unknown horseman and not Vicenzo.

Pia sat forward and searched for the horseman in the Tower colours among the other jockeys below at the canapi starting ropes, all detachment gone. She saw the fantini whisper to each other from the sides of their mouths, last-minute threats or promises, as their bright silks whispered too. At this moment pacts were being made or broken as vast amounts of money changed hands. The other horses were circling and bumping shoulders; one reared and threw its rider – the green-and-white Oca colours of the Goose contrada, she noted, not he.

She realized that the stranger must have been drawn as the di rincorsa rider in the outside position at the ropes, and so it proved. He rode to the cord later than the others, but seemed to have no interest in the benefi ts of his good fortune. Usually the di rincorsa position was used to an unscrupulous jockey’s advantage, to jostle rival contrade into a bad position at the start. But Pia saw him, seated absolutely still on his horse’s bare back, speaking to no one, his eyes seeing far into the distance, making no

attempt to jostle or harry. His stallion also stood unmoving amid the mêlée, the pair resembling in their stillness the bronzes of the mounted Cosimo the Great that she had seen on her one and only trip to Florence. Pia willed him to beat Vicenzo with a violence that surprised her, her eyes boring into his broad back, staring so hard at the blue-and-burgundy silks that they blurred.

There was the customary confusion at the start of the race. As the horses circled and reared, the mossiere or starter judge called false start after false start. Then finally, in a moment of almost unbearable tension, the horses lined up and stilled as if bade by an invisible command. The yells and screams of the crowd abated for one eerie, silent second, and the unaccustomed tongue of the

great bell Sunto sounded in the Torre del Mangia above Pia’s head. Silent from one Palio to the next, the bell’s song bawled out above the city, to tell that the hour had come. All heads turned and all gazes swivelled up – for it was said that the bandierino weathervane on the Mangia Tower would turn in that last breath of wind to the quarter of the city that was to be favoured with victory. The bronze arrow quivered toward the duomo in the Eagle contrada, and the cheers from that ward almost drowned

the last chimes of the bell. Pia swallowed, sickened at the omen. But the time for reflection was up. At the stroke of seven, Sunto stopped ringing and the little mortaretto firecracker cannon sounded at the starting rope; ten horses leaped forth from the entrone, and they were off .

It was impossible for anyone who had not been here, thought Pia, to know that blood-curdling roar of the crowd, to feel the thunder of the hooves shiver your very ribs, to smell the sweat and the straw in your nose and taste the tufa dust in your mouth. The horses went by in a whirlwind, their flanks gleaming and polished with sweat, their mouths flecked with foam, past the palazzo, thundering up the curve to the Bocca del Casato. She could see the Tower colours – her champion was ahead, nudging shoulder to shoulder with Vicenzo.

By the second lap Vicenzo had pulled clear by three, four horses and was past the deadly San Martino corner–a treacherous slope truncated by the sharp stone buttress of a sturdy palazzo – but there Vicenzo’s horse was barged by the horse of the Panther party, while the Panther jockey’s whip dealt Vicenzo a stinging swipe across the face. Taking advantage of this, the unknown horseman swept into the lead, while the heir to the Eagles was flung back in his saddle as his horse faltered and checked. Then, as if time had slowed, Vicenzo cartwheeled over the reins, crashed into the San Martino

corner and fell in a heap. At the collective gasp of the crowd, the unknown horseman glanced back over his shoulder and, without a moment’s pause, threw his legs over his horse’s neck and vaulted off , landing on the dust and straw.

Pia leaned forward, her heart in her throat. For a horrible instant she thought that she had made this happen. She had wished that Vicenzo would be killed, but had not imagined it would look like this. From where she was sitting it looked as if Vicenzo had turned blackamoor on one whole side of his body – yet the dust of the track was white. Her own thudding pulses told her in an instant that this colour was blood. To the music of the screaming throng, the unknown horseman dodged the oncoming

hooves and ran to help, picking up the crumpled man.

 

Vicenzo’s head was at an angle that was never meant by nature, and his rescuer, doused in spraying blood, was desperately fumbling for the fractured artery. Locating the source of that dreadful fount of blood, he planted his hands firmly on Vicenzo’s spurting throat. Both men were covered in gore and the dust of the track darkened beneath them like their shared shadow. As Pia looked on desperately she saw Vicenzo’s bay horse Berio pass the little black-and-white bandierino flag that marked the

finish line – prancing with glee at his victory, as if he knew that a horse could win the Palio scosso –without a rider.

For the second time that day the crowd was eerily silent. By now a knot of people in the Eagle colours had gathered around the fallen rider – Faustino’s white head among them – joined soon by judges and marshals, an apothecary, a physician. At last the unknown horseman stood and shook his head.

Pia rose to her feet and willed herself to join that dreadful party. She stepped past her new relatives heading down to the track. Feeling, numbly, that it was somehow her duty to be with her dead betrothed, she made her way through the crowd. She was bumped and jostled and once thrown to the ground. Her brain felt slow and stupid, her limbs as heavy as if moving through dunes of sand.

She had spent nineteen years in a hothouse, a rare orchid untouched by human hand. She had been nurtured and raised and cherished as a marriage prize, and now the glass of the hothouse had been broken by her betrothal and she was exposed to the violence of the elements. As of today she lived in a physical world, a world of brutality. A world where yesterday her intended could push her down and violate her, a world where today strangers shoved her to the ground. At that moment she did not know which offence against her person was worse.

A fellow in the crowd – her father’s ostler – recognized her and the red sea parted. She straightened and called upon her dignity, feeling a fraud as the people moved aside for her, knowing her for the fallen man’s betrothed, anticipating and respecting a distress that she did not feel. She saw her father Salvatore on the fringe of people skirting the body. He did not reach out to her, but was deep in conference with Vicenzo’s brother, a pale and strange creature – Nello, was it? As if in a dream she walked past them, right to the centre of the knot of folk, and saw her

first corpse.

Pia gazed down on Vicenzo’s body. She saw the broken flesh at the throat, the bone piercing through,

the blood black on the dust and the foam- flecked mouth, open a little to the flies. Only yesterday that mouth had spoken in her ear with the whisper of threat, with a promise. Then, last night, he’d made good on that threat, fulfilled the promise. That mouth had fastened itself on hers, that mouth had breathed wine-stale breath into the hair at the back of her neck, as he had tried to force himself into her. Breathed and breathed until his hot gasps distilled into sour spittle and ran into her hair. Could it be true, wonderfully, terribly true, that it would never breathe again? It seemed impossible. Her forehead grew

cold and her stomach lurched. Feeling as though she would faint she reached out to a solid shape for support.

It was the horse Berio. Victor and murderer. The fastest in Tuscany, the horse who’d made Vicenzo punch the air with joy when he’d drawn him in the lots. She buried her hands in Berio’s black mane and lowered her clammy forehead on to the velvet bay of his neck. The horse stood under her hand, bemused, unsure; as if puzzled that no one was garlanding him with flowers, thrusting sweetmeats

in his mouth. He looked curiously forlorn, shaking his head repeatedly as if bothered by a fly, looking down at Vicenzo’s still body. Pia’s eyes began to flood.

‘Don’t worry, don’t worry. It wasn’t your fault, it was mine,’ she whispered. ‘I willed it.’

As if comforted, the great bay stood still at her shoulder, whickering and nibbling the lobe of her ear. Pia, weighed down by her guilt, felt the great coil of her hair escaping in a cascade of hairpins as the horse nuzzled her; her black hair and his black mane mingled, tangled, became one. Her smart black-and-red hat slithered from her head to be trodden by Berio’s great feet.

Through Berio’s black mane she saw the Eagle Faustino stagger to his feet with his child in his arms. She saw the unknown horseman place a hand for an instant on the captain’s shoulder, and Faustino turn to leave with his awful burden, followed by his contrada. The Eagles filed from the square silent as a wake, forgetting all about the banner that was theirs. Not for them the joyous victor’s Te Deum in the basilica, nor a wedding; but a laying-out, a mourning and a burial. Pia felt Berio being taken from under her hand by a groom – her hair being disentangled from the long black mane by the ostler. It was as if anyone could touch her now.

As the sorry procession left, Pia felt a great burden lifted from her. She breathed out the death and the day; and relief, sweet and clean, rushed into her lungs. Abruptly freed from her contract, she did not know what to do. Her careful upbringing, all those lessons in the etiquette of her class, had not prepared her for this. Then she knew. She could go home. She turned to go back to her family, to the Civetta, to her hearth, but the barrellike form of her father blocked her way. She reached out to Salvatore, feeling, now that she was touchable, that it was the day for a rare embrace.

Instead her father took her by the shoulders, turned her determinedly round and whispered fiercely in her nape, just exactly where Vicenzo had breathed into her. ‘The Eagle still has an heir,’ he hissed. ‘There is a son yet living, so play your hand right.’

He propelled her, with a little push, fi rmly in the direction of the Eagle cortège. Her treacherous sinews gave way then, and her knees buckled, and she was caught by two men of Eagle colours. One, she knew, was Vicenzo’s brother, Nello; the other, a cousin of the same blood. They grasped her by her upper arms and, in a semblance of support, marched her forth, her feet stumbling and her fancy boots dragging and scuffi ng in the dust. She was captive.

Pia struggled. She heard herself saying no, no, no, repeatedly. The crowd, witnessing all, began to seethe and bubble like a cauldron with a muted hubbub of enquiry and answer, but all contrade, for once, were united in respect for the grief they saw before them. The poor dame couldn’t accept that her betrothed was gone. She was swooning and babbling with grief. The Eagles would look after her.

In a desperate appeal Pia twisted her head round toseek the unknown horseman, but he did not mark her. Standing in the blood, as if the dark stain was now a shadow snipped from his heels, he was wiping his hands and face with his own scarf. The gore left the scarlet of his neckerchief unaltered. But everything else was changed.

As Pia was carried under the Bocca del Casato gate, the one through which the horseman had entered the arena, she felt a tug at her sleeve. Hopeful of salvation, she looked down and saw only the little water-carrier Zebra. He held something out to her in his hand, trotting to keep up with her. It was a black velvet pouch with the gold Medici arms stamped upon it, a purse of mourning alms from the duchess.

As her captors snatched the purse without a word of thanks, Pia looked back one last time, far over the heads of the multitude, to the palace balcony. She might have imagined it, but she thought the duchess had raised a hand to her – a gesture of greeting, sympathy, what?–before the shadow of the architrave swallowed her.

High above the piazza, Duchess Violante Beatrix de’ Medici watched as the struggling girl disappeared from view. She rose, at last, to her feet. And the black-and-white Palio banner, unmarked, fell from her hand over the balustrade in a graceful fluttering arc, to rest in the blood and the dust.

Table of Contents

Contents

Title Page,
PROLOGUE - The Donkey,
1 - The Owlet,
2 - The Tortoise,
3 - The Eagle,
4 - The Wave,
5 - The Panther,
6 - The Forest,
7 - The She-Wolf,
8 - The Goose,
9 - The Unicorn,
10 - The Dragon,
11 - The Giraffe,
12 - The Vale of the Ram,
13 - The Snail,
14 - The Caterpillar,
15 - The Porcupine,
16 - The Tower,
17 - The Shell,
EPILOGUE - The Sixteenth Day of August 1724,
Also by Marina Fiorato,
HISTORICAL NOTE,
AUTHOR'S NOTE,
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS,
THE DAUGHTER OF SIENA,
Copyright Page,

Reading Group Guide

Do You Know?

There used to be twenty-three contrade instead of seventeen. In the sixteenth century, the contrade of the Viper, Strongsword, Cock, Oak-Tree, Lion, and Bear were suppressed for sedition and violence.

The entire Palio race takes only seventy seconds.

Horses can win the Palio without a rider. This is called riding scosso.

Riccardo Bruni was named after Richard Brown, Marina's brother-in-law, who's a keen horseman and racehorse owner.

The Tower contrade connects Riccardo with the character of Brother Guido from The Botticelli Secret, who was from Pisa and named della Torre.

Marina has included the "lucky totem" of a giraffe in all of her novels. In The Daugher of Siena, one of Siena's seventeen contrade is called Giraffa, and the animal is its emblem.

1. Siena is a small city in which local loyalties matter most above all. How easy do you think it would have been to keep secrets? You may wish to discuss your own hometowns—and/or scandals within your communities—as well.

2. Pia is valuable to her father only as a bargaining tool. How does she assert her own independence? In what ways is she a "woman ahead of her time?" What does that definition mean to you?

3. R iccardo, the son of an ostler, behaves with instinctive grace. Discuss nobility in the context of the story. How is it personified?

4. Do you think Riccardo was right to reject his inheritance? Why? And: what would you have done?

5. Pia wears Cleopatra's coin around her neck. What is the significance of this charm? What other important artifacts, symbols, or talismans can be found in the book—and what do they mean to the beholder?

6. Discuss the role of the church in the story. How does it influence each of the characters in terms of belief and behavior?

7. T o what extent has Violante become reconciled to her husband's homosexuality by the end of the book? How would this story play out in a modern setting?

8. What changes Violante from a passive woman to a woman of bravery and determination? Again, take a moment to envision her in the world today. Would she be considered a feminist? Would she consider herself one?

9. How have Gian Gastone's expectations corrupted his character? Also, does this make him a more interesting character, in terms of your reading experience?

10. There is an absence of mothers in the story but many fathers throughout. Do we, as readers, judge the fathers' actions more or less harshly because of this gender imbalance? You may also wish to imagine the roles of some of the missing mothers in this novel. How might their offspring have turned out if they had been on the scene?

11. How does the art and architecture of the city support Violante as a ruler? How is the city of Siena a character in and of itself?

12. Discuss the equine "characters"—the donkey, Berio, Leocorno—in this novel. How does the author bring them to life for the reader? Moreover, how do they reflect the struggles of their human counterparts?

Customer Reviews

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The Daughter of Siena 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 reviews.
lilkim714 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. The thrill of the horse racing and the way it weaves itself throughout the city of Siena is truly captivating. I enjoyed the minor romance in the story and the characters kept me longing for more. This story is one of intrigue, passion, and conspiracy. I am very interested in reading more about this wonderful city and more from the author. The author opened me up to a whole new world of historical fiction that I don't normally read. Fantastic for a rainy day.
dorolerium on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was such a lovely novel, it pulled me in right away and I really had a hard time putting it down. Somehow I missed the fact that it featured the de¿ Medici family, so that was a very pleasant surprise for me as well!The author does such a fabulous job of making you genuinely feel the terror Pia is in, going from a relatively calm existence in her fathers home to a terrifying new life as the wife of the heir to the Eagle contrada. I honestly felt anxious as I was reading any interaction that had to do with that family ¿ such treacherous people, only concerned with their own upward mobility.We soon meet Pia¿s unknown horseman, Riccardo Bruni, who is an amazing character that absolutely captivated me. It doesn¿t hurt that he makes for a fabulous contrast to the evil of the Eagle men, but we get to see how good he is separate from that comparison, making for an all around wonderful leading man that I could fall in love with very easily.In the meantime, we watch events unfold as Violante learns more about a plot to not only end her reign as Governess of Siena, but possibly her life as well. Thus a band of misfit counter-conspirators forms, trying to stay one step ahead of the game and foil the plot before it becomes too late. With danger and secrets looming around each corner, I found myself turning the pages with much anticipation, yearning to see how the story would end and what would become of all these characters.This is definitely one I stayed up past my bedtime to read, both wanting to prolong the story and find out what was going to happen all at the same time. I loved all the main characters, felt like I was living their lives with them, and wishing I really could be there to see it all happen.There were a couple of plot points that I felt I could see coming, but it didn¿t bother me enough to ruin the book for me. I¿m not sure how closely it follows the last members of the de¿ Medici family, so that would be the only part I could see Medici fans potentially disliking. Overall, so much fun and really a great read.
wagner.sarah35 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A tale set in 18th-century Italy, The Daughter of Siena is centered around the city's vital horse race, the Palio, and a plot to overthrow the Medici duchess Violante, who still grieves for her dead infant sons. In her attempt to defend her governship, Violante is joined by horseman Riccardo Bruni, the young bride Pia, and a small boy of the streets called Zebra. The Daughter of Siena is not a gripping read, but it's still interesting and fun and would likely be enjoyed by historical fiction fans.
Misfit on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of those too complicated to try to explain without giving the whole thing away kind of books, so I'm making this short and sweet. Pia Tolomei knows she must marry someone, but her father makes a most surprising and distasteful choice for her. Betrothed #1 takes a deadly fall during Siena's famous Palio horse race and she's then promptly wed to his younger and even more distasteful brother. Pia soon finds herself involved in plots and intrigue swirling around Siena's nine wards (Contrade), Violante de Medici (Siena's ruling governor) and a mysterious and oh-so-handsome penniless horseman Riccardo. This was a quick, easy read, light on the mystery (Riccardo's big secret is a bit too easy to guess), with a dollop of romance thrown in to round things out. The Siena settings were gorgeous and will probably send you off to the net to go researching them all, as will the descriptions of that very famous (and deadly) horse race - The Palio. A good book for the beach or a rainy day when you're in the mood for something on the *lite* side, and that's how I'm rating this one. 3.5/5 stars. Note: Readers who had issues with the potty mouth of the female character in the author's last novel, The Botticelli Secret can rest easy - you won't see any of that here.
Kasthu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Set amidst the danger and excitement of early 18th-century Siena, the plot of this novel centers on an event to which the Sienese look forward to eagerly: the Palio, a traditional horse race that takes place twice, in July and August. Pia of the Tolomei is descended from Cleopatra and the daughter of a wealthy patrician. He marries her to a member of a family from an opposing ward in the city, despite tradition. When her future husband is killed in the Julia Palio, Pia is married to his brother. Over the course of the next month or so, she develops a relationship with a horse rider, and the two of them work (in conjunction with Violante de¿ Medici, who has governed the city for ten years) to fight a plot to take over Siena, led by the Nine¿leaders from each section of Siena.If it sounds clichéd, it definitely is. There¿s nothing really fresh or original about the plot or the characters of this one. All of the good guys are really, really good, and all of the bad guys are really, really bad. There¿s no nuance to any of them, with the exception of Violante, so she¿s really the only character who really leapt off the page for me. Also, I found myself rolling my eyes at the clichéd phrases the author uses to describes her characters. Her two main protagonists are of course very good looking, and Pia has raven-black hair. The reader is also told over and over again that she¿s intelligent, but we never get proof of this. I thought the idea for the novel was interesting; to my knowledge, not many novels I¿ve read focus on the history and culture of Siena, and so I was excited to read a novel that focuses on this beautiful city. But the author¿s descriptions of the place in which her novel is set are so wooden that it really didn¿t come to life for me. Also, the novel could have taken place at any time in history, for all the historical detail we get (we get the occasional mention of wigs and breeches, though). I really wanted to like this novel, but didn¿t, sorry to say.
BookAddictDiary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Following on the heels of the popular (though somewhat waning) Tudor novels of intrigue and romance comes Daughter of Siena by Marina Fiorato, an enchanting new novel of romance and intrigue in 18th century Italy. In the midst of this year's trend toward everything Borgia, it's interesting to see a release that appears to be feeding off the trend while working hard to be something completely new and different on its own. Even with all of my previous notions about this novel and its likely contents, I found that Daughter of Siena was able to stand on its own as something unique and original in a sea of repetition.The plot of Daughter of Siena is closely tied to the Palio, a famous horse race, and tradition, in the Tuscan city of Siena. During the 18th century, however, the city was separated into different wards, each with its own racer, its own agenda and its own loyalties. Young and beautiful Pia knows that she's destined to be married off to an eligible and, most importantly wealthy, bachelor of her parents' choosing. However, admit the intrigue of the Medici family of Tuscany and the wards of Siena, Pia falls in love with an outsider.I suppose I had too many preconceived notions before I began Daughter of Siena. I thought I would get something more along the lines of The Borgias/intrigue and so forth, but even though there are Italian intrigues in this novel, it's more about a forbidden romance than anything else. Told in an enchanting and beautiful voice, Fiorato paints a realistic romance between a headstrong, lively young woman and a fascinating rogue that readers just want to cheer for.Pia, however, is only one part of the novel, as the point of view occasionally shifts to that of Violante Medici, the current Duchess of Tuscany and a member of the notorious Medici family. Giving Violante a voice injected the novel an interesting and unexpected edge that upped the stakes.Told in a well-researched voice that wove great historical detail, Daughter of Siena is a lovely historical romance made for history buffs and romance lovers alike.
BugsyBoog on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This author does some things extremely well, such as describing the drama of the Palio horse race, explaining the familial divisions of Siena in 1723, and creating a fast-paced, action-filled read that is hard to put down. The author matches the sumptuous scenery with equally floral phrasing, giving the reader a narrative that is enjoyable to read and appreciate. At times, it does seem overdone, but the writing sort of fits in with the very dramatic events.I did enjoy this book, even though the characters were one-sided and did not show much depth. Pia was not well-developed; the story could have been even better with more of Pia¿s thoughts and feelings revealed. Pia¿s shocking act at the very end was so surprising, it seemed contrived. Her complete lack of remorse seemed out of character. The deus ex machina ending resolved all of the problems too easily; I did not buy it and would have liked another 100 pages of after-story. But this was still a well-researched and enjoyable read, great for rich descriptions and pretty turns of phrase.
4fish on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Eighteenth-century Siena is brought to vibrant life in this tale of star-crossed lovers, coups and the Palio, the twice-yearly horse race for which Siena is famous. Pia of Tolomei is betrothed against her will to cruel Vicenzo Caprimulgo. Vicenzo falls from his horse during the Palio. A stranger, Riccardo Bruni, forfeits his own chance to win the race by attempting to save him, unsuccessfully. Vicenzo's father, who is scheming to supplant the governess, Duchess Violante de Medici, invites Riccardo to his table, ostensibly to thank him but in reality to trap him into his schemes. The connections between all of these characters evolve through this fast-paced, vibrantly written historical novel. This is the first book I've read by this author, but I will definitely be checking out her backfile.
maureen61 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of the ancient race of horses that occurs in Siena and continues to this day. Rather predictable in its narrative and not my favorite book.
nanajlove on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This beautiful tale of intrigue, betrayal and star-crossed lovers is well-written and thoroughly enjoyable. The author has woven a tale full of feeling and nuance that takes the reader to the dusty streets of Sienna in the 1700's where we see the heroine, Pia, used as a bargaining chip as the city leaders plot to depose the Medici ruler of their city. The strength of Pia's character is commendable as she endures horror and brutality in the home of her new father-in-law. Her insight and intelligence allows her to see the necessity of acting in the best interest of the city and her residents rather than fleeing with her newly discovered champion, Riccardo. Pia and Riccardo, along with Violante de Medici find strength in their honor and together uncover the plot, conspirators, and are able to recover the city. This novel is well written with amazing characters, a truly delightful historical adventure.Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author through the Book Browse Early Reviewer program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255 [...] : "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
Morganna1afey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 1723, Pia of the Tolomei was to be given a husband on the night before the Palio, a famous horse race that is of great import to the city of Siena. Her betrothed, an evil man, loses his life in the race. An unknown horseman, Riccardo Bruni, tries to save him but fails. Pia is ridden with guilt because she had prayed for her betrothed¿s death, and also relief, until she discovers she is still a pawn in the game of matrimony- she is to wed her dead husband¿s brother, Nello, who is equally evil.There are two levels to this plot; the conflict between Nello¿s family, of the Eagle Contrada, and the behind the scenes plotting against the Governess of Siena, Violante de¿ Medici, who is considered an outsider and is unwelcome by the city folk who have governed themselves for centuries. There are warring factions within the city that create chaos and even murder, which was quite disturbing. One finds oneself hoping that Violante can remain and change the laws to dampen the conflicts between the contradas.This book drew me in and held my focus. The characters are well crafted and endear the reader to their plight. The plot is knit together very well. I found myself on the edge of my seat, rooting for Pia and Riccardo, and hoping she would rescued from her fate and be able to find happiness with him. The author, Marina Fiorato, did a wonderful job of pulling this complicated plot together. It is rich in detail. I enjoyed learning about the Palio and the different contradas, and I appreciated the knowledge of horsemanship that I did not know. The author was able to explain these details without bogging down the plot. I really enjoyed this book.
RockStarNinja on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found the horse racing aspect to be intriguing, but I feel like there was something missing. I couldn't quite place what was missing but there was something I found to be off with the book for me. I think there were some plot twists that really did not need to be included and instead more time could have taken into writing about other areas, like the plot of the Nine or even some of the motivations of Pia's father. He was one character who was mentioned often, but only had 2 scenes in the whole book. All that aside, I liked the book a lot, and while I don't think I would ever have bought the book and never read it if I hadn't won it, but I would probably get something else by the author.
slanger89 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book for the most part. It was fast-paced and interesting the whole way through and I also felt like I was learning more about a time and place in history I wasn't familiar with. There is suspense, history, and romance all woven toghether. At times it seems like everything bad that can happen within the book does, however keep reading and you won't regret it.
joririchardson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a disappointing, terribly written book. Earlier in the year, I read Fiorato's "The Glassblower of Murano," which, though weakly written, was enjoyable due to its lovely setting of Venice. I was hoping that her second book would do the same for Siena, a city that I don't know nearly so much about. Unfortunately, all that this book did was make me wish fervently that I had requested another Early Reviewer's book for that month. The story starts off by describing the heroine, Pia, as "the most beautiful girl in Siena," a statement that always annoys me. And not only that - she is descended from Cleopatra, too. Pia, a member of the nobility, is betrothed to a distasteful boy whom she hates, but falls in love with a lower-class horseman named Riccardo.It was all just ever so predictable and cliche. Not a single event in this book transpired that even mildly surprised me.Pia was a cardboard character that I never got the slightest picture of in my head, and every other supporting character was either exaggeratedly good or exaggeratedly bad. The two main characters of Pia and Riccardo are so perfect, they should have halos. The villains or distasteful persons of the story are overdone. For example, Pia's first fiancee tries to rape her within seconds of meeting her, and the author then informs us that he is famous for getting girls pregnant and then abandoning them, forcing them to commit suicide. Just as bad, Pia's second fiancee practically tortures her and seems to enjoy ridiculing her both in public and in private. He didn't seem to have any objective or point to doing this - he was just that evil!Nearly every character has an animal nickname. Owlet, Eagle, Panther, Zebra... People were frequently referred to by their animal names. It annoyed me because I saw no purpose behind it, and also I found it a bit hard to believe that members of the Siena nobility would go around calling each other "Fox" or "Rabbit."There was also something about a secret society, which was even more ridiculous. I couldn't resist skimming over these parts because they were so dull and unbelievable. All in all, I am sorry that I gave Fiorato a second chance. Her first book was average, but this one was awful. Not recommended.
lollypop917 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The year is 1723 in Siena, a city that revolves around the summer Palio horse races, and Pia Tolomei is about to be intwined in a plot which threatens the balance between good and evil in her great city. Pia, a descendent of the great Cleopatra and just as beautiful, is promised in marriage to a villianous and cruel man and will be wed at the end of the great Palio. The outcome of this fated race will change her life and introduce her to the most beautiful man she has ever seen, who encompasses everything her fated betrothed is not. This story was a quick read and full of action, intrigue and romance. Overall I felt this book was good, but not great. Some of the back stories are presented with holes that seem a little to easy to fill in and made this book a bit too predictable for me. This book has everything in it that should have made it great, but didn't leave a memorable impression.
Crittercrazyjen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 1723 Siena, right before the July Palio horse race is to be run, Pia of the Tolomei is told by her father that she is to marry a man she abhors who happens to be a member of the Eagle Contrada. Pia is shocked by her father's choice, not only because of her husband-to-be's despicable character, but also because she is of the Owlet Contrada and it is against tradition for the citizens of Siena to marry outside their own contrada. While racing in the Palio, Pia's betrothed is killed, and Pia falls for the mysterious rider named Riccardo Bruni who jumps off his own horse to try to save him. However, Pia finds herself almost instantly wed to the younger brother of her deceased betrothed. Nello, the younger brother, is no less despicable than his older brother, and Pia's marriage to him is a miserable one. All the while, a behind-the-scenes plot against Violante de Medici, the Governess of Siena, is unfolding. Pia, Riccardo, and Violante must somehow find a way to foil the plot. Meanwhile, the romance between Riccardo and Pia blooms, and an all out rivalry between Nello and Riccardo forms. The plot of this novel is complex, and I do not wish explain it much further lest I give it all away. The details of the Palio are intensely intriguing, and I very much enjoyed reading those scenes. However, I felt the overall plot of this book was too "cookie-cutter romantic chick lit" to rise very far above mediocrity. As other reviewers have noted, Pia is constantly exalted by the author as "the most beautiful woman in Siena", and the reader does not get the chance to learn about many of Pia's other attributes. The way the author portrays her, I feel that Pia is an extremely weak, one-dimensional main character. She is hardly the strong heroine type. I also feel that all the characters are too black-and-white. They are either evil or saintly. Nobody is pure evil, and nobody is without fault. When an author portrays characters in this way, it makes the characters less believable and interesting. It is the dichotomy of good and bad residing within every person which makes the human character so fascinating. I neither hated nor loved this book. It was just a light, frivolous read in my opinion.
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SweetHarmoney More than 1 year ago
Marina Fiorato has done a great job on this historical fiction. I couldn't put it down!!!
MistySkye4333 More than 1 year ago
If you're a historical fiction reader you will enjoy Matina Fiorato. Her characters are real and their situations transend time. Also enjoyed The Boticelli Secret by the same author.
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