In her final standalone novel featuring Da Vinci's Disciples, Donna Russo Morin delivers a thrilling story of the secret female artists of Florence, under the tutelage of Leonardo Da Vinci, and their heroic, potentially deadly efforts to save great works of art from the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities.
"Illicit plots, mysterious paintings, and Leonardo da Vinci all have their part to play in this delicious, heart-pounding work." Kate Quinn, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Alice Network
Lorenzo de Medici is dead, and his son Piero has brought war and famine upon the city of Florence. Yet, the glory that is Renaissance artistry grows more magnificent, as does the work of the women known as Da Vinci's Disciples. Now they face their most dangerous challenge, one shrouded in the cloak of a monk.
From the ashes of war, Friar Girolamo Savonarola rises. Some call him a savior and a prophet, a man willing to overthrow tyrannical rulers and corrupt clergy, the Borgia Pope among them. Fra Girolamo is determined to remold Florence from an avaricious, secular culture to a paragon of Christian virtues.
Many call Savonarola a delusional heretic, incapable of anything but self-serving fanaticism. When he sets out to destroy all secular art forms, Da Vinci's Disciples call him an enemy … but not all of them.
"Like a glorious Italian fresco-richly textured and vividly portrayed … Highly recommended for lovers of history, art, and courageous women." Anna Lee Huber, bestselling author of the Lady Darby Mysteries
"Donna Russo Morin renders one of the most tumultuous periods in Florence's history in bright colors and with vivid descriptions. This tale of a group of determined women standing up for what they believe in … will absolutely resonate with modern readers." Alyssa Palombo, author of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Change will come, it is the truth of life,
nor will it always be change for the better;
that too is truth.”
They had been coming for days, always asking for more and more again; all that gave her succor was that there were no questions of other paintings, of those the Disciples re-created. They wanted books and any of her own paintings of a non-secular subject. Viviana now saw why.
There would be no small bonfires to mark tomorrow, Shrove Tuesday, the last day of Carnivale.” There would be only one.
It was if all their hands, all the thousands of boys’ hands, squeezed her throat, so hard was it for her lungs to find air. Viviana watched, even as black spots burst in her eyes, as they built the pyramid of wood, the largest kindling pile she had ever seen, eight-sided and with seven tiers, the base spread so wide, it encompassed almost all of the three hundred feet of stone that made up the Piazza della Signoria. At the peak of the tower, they placed a wooden effigy; with its hairy cloven-hoofed goats’ legs, pointed ears, horns, and a little pointed beard, there could be no doubt that Satan would burn as would the treasures he stood upon. She squinted; the hollow space within was not hollow at all.
“What do they put in there?” Viviana asked to anyone who may know the answer.
“It appears to be gunpowder,” Andreano replied.
Once more and without forethought, the Disciples had found each other even in the crowd that grew as did weeds during a rainy spring.
“That will…will…,” Gianetta knew the words but could not say them.
The small group of older boys finished the creation of the skeleton; now others fed its greed.
They came one after the other after the other, tossing on, around, and under all the treasures, what the little friar had deemed as vanities, the cherished items they had taken from the families of Florence; the Arrabbiati” families. The pile grew ever larger, ever higher as boy after boy accumulated Florence’s more valued treasures, items large and small, that they had been gathering for weeks. Silken clothes and carpets flayed in the air as they were tossed, musical instruments thudded against the hard cobblestones they fell upon. Cosmetics, perfumes, playing cards, and even chess chests were not immune. Viviana could admit their value was meaningless even if enjoyed. But the books…
There were more books than Viviana had ever seen: Boccaccio’s scandalous tales and Petrarch’s famous love poems, even works by the Ancient Greek philosophers, and books by poets ranging from Ovid to Poliziano; she mourned the loss of each one.
“Oh, Dio,” no.” She covered her eyes when the paintings came, when Botticelli himself stepped up to drop a thickly yet brightly painted canvas upon the pile, followed soontoo soonby Lorenzo di Credi. A student of Verrocchio’s as well, his talentand what the women had learned from itlay in portraits, in his ability to capture the soul with splashes of paint.
“I can no longer look.” Viviana turned away, as did other Disciples.
“Who does this?” The male voice carried an odd dialect as it traveled on the whisper-filled breeze.
At its sound, Isabetta’s head spun this way and that.
“What troubles you?” Viviana asked, then with a shake of her head, amended her question. “Is there something else that troubles you?”
“Not troubles, no.” Isabetta’s head swiveled on her long, pale neck. “That voice, its accent, it comes from Venice.” She may have been in Florence for more years than her childhood in Venice, but the sound of words formed as she had learned them had never left her. “There,” she pointed, “that must be him.”
The man’s clothes were as distinctive as his speech; not as intricate as those worn by Florentine men, yet the flow of the fabric and the cut to his body spoke of a different sort of richness.
Together they watched as a Florentine man, Niccolò dell’Antella, approached the confused visitor. They could not hear dell’Antella’s voice, but they followed his outstretched finger to the small figure dominating over all as he stood on the steps of the Palazzo della Signoria. Even with his face hidden in the shadows of his cowl, there was no mistaking him as anyone else, no one could be that short, have such a hooked nose, and command from a friar’s robe.
“Will he speak to me?” the Venetian asked. “I will offer him twenty-two thousand ducats for the lot. I will take it all away. I cannot bear to see it perish.”
“Boh!”” Viviana could not contain her surprise merely in her mind; the amount the man offered could purchase a modest palazzo.
“I would not attempt it, signore,” dell’Antella said softly. But even as he put a hand out to grab the Venetian’s arm, it was shrugged off as the Venetian stomped toward Savonarola.
“He knows not what trap he walks into,” Lena said.
Viviana shook her head. “I would have no care to”
“No! Oh no, it cannot be!” Natasia wailed, held back from her onrush toward the pile by the swift, long arm of her husband.
Together the Disciples all watched as yet another painting fell upon the pile, this one far more familiar than any other. Natasia had rendered the portrait of the newly married couple, their arms entwined, love and lust coming to life in the glowing colors and the delicate touch of her brush. They felt her heartbreak, for it could have been anyone of their works; it was the work of Da Vinci’s Disciples.
“They will light it tomorrow, on Shrove Tuesday.”
No one responded to Fiammetta’s pronouncement; no one needed to know how she came about the information.
“Perhaps you could sneak out in the dead of night and retrieve it, before it is too late.”
Pagolo put his supportive arm around his wife’s back now, moving Natasia away from Fiammetta.
“You would put my wife in greater danger than she already is…because of him,”” he pointed to Savonarola still standing like a god above the fray. “Because he has the support of people such as yourself? People who think they are far and away above the rest of us?”
“No…I…,” Fiammetta’s head dropped; she knuckled her forehead.
“Come along, cara,” Patrizio wrapped his wife’s arm around his and pulled her away. No one stopped them.
Savonarola’s Boys kept coming; the pile of treasures kept growing. In their white cloaks, the never-ending line of them slithered through the city like a tendril of smoke foretelling the flame.
“I have heard there are more of them every day.” Isabetta jutted a chin toward the seemingly eternal line of white robed boys heaping their offerings upon the pile. “It is said that some are as young as five.”
“And as old as I.” Gianetta pointed to one in particular. “I almost became betrothed to him. Almost.” The last word she whispered like a prayer.
Viviana’s tongue grew dry in her mouth; she did not know what reviled her more, the treasures burning or the young minds turning.