Next week Dan Brown releases his latest book, Inferno. The story of this much-anticipated novel is being kept very much under wraps, but the word is that the book will be set in and around Florence, and that Robert Langdon will be unravelling a Dante-esque secret.
Florence is a city of secrets, and for many years now I’ve been obsessed with one in particular. I have always wanted to know what lay behind Botticelli’s famous painting La Primavera. The debate has baffled scholars for centuries – who are the nine mysterious figures of the scene, and what does the painting actually mean? This was a question that interested me so much I wrote a book about it; The Botticelli Secret.
My novel places at its heart one the newer interpretations of the painting. Professor Enrico Guidoni of the University of Rome posited the notion that the figures represent Renaissance cities and the panel hides a political message. In my novel Luciana Vetra, a notorious Florentine whore, goes on the run around Renaissance Italy, pursued by murderous assassins, in a race against time to decode the painting. Her partner in crime is Brother Guido, a young sprig of Pisan nobility from the Franciscan monastery of Santa Croce. Together they uncover what is, in fact, The Botticelli Secret.
I’m in Florence with my husband Sacha – who has gamely agreed to be my Brother Guido for this trip – on a mission to replicate the journey of my characters. Luciana and Guido first meet on the Ponte Vecchio and we lean on the balustrade in the morning sun, debating where to begin.
The obvious thought is with Botticelli’s house, and we plunge into the dark streets well off the tourist track. We trawl up and down the Via Porcellina where the great man’s house was said to stand, but the actual location is anybody’s guess; the house, if it still stands, is unmarked.
Vaguely disappointed, we take the next logical step, and head for the Piazza della Signoria to start with the painting itself.
The smart money visits the Uffizi at the crack of dawn. We are not the smart money. It’s mid morning and there are queues round the block. We wait, complaining of the Easter tourists, conveniently forgetting we are of their number, but when we eventually reach the cool interior and stand in front of the of the painting it’s all worth while. This is where Botticelli lives, not in the dingy backstreets. In England everything is in aspic, with blue plaques and visitor’s centres. It’s something we do rather well. But I’m beginning to understand why Italians don’t celebrate a house. The man lives in his work.
The painting is glorious, bigger than you’d think, the outlines pin-sharp, the colours jewel bright, you’d think it was painted yesterday, whereas history tells us it was painted in 1482 as a wedding gift from Lorenzo the Magnificent for his ward, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici. Luciana was the model for the most alluring of all the figures – Flora (Florence) She’s covered in the flowers – FLORA which give us the clue to her city’s identity. A secret smile curves her lips and she gives nothing away, but above her head Cupid’s arrow provides a clue, pointing very definitely to the flame-haired maiden in the centre of the three graces. It’s a clue to the next city,Florence’s beautiful neighbour Pisa, and the arrow leads us to our next Florentine destination, the home of a certain Pisan monk.
It’s a short walk to the church of Santa Croce, which stands sentinel over a broad and sun-baked piazza. The serene frontage hides a violent history. Just inside the wrought-iron gates, across a manicured square of lawn, strands a squat, round chapel. This is the chapel of the Pazzi family, the deadly rivals to the Medici, who murdered Giuliano de Medici ‘Becket-style’ in the Duomo. The story goes that they hacked at the unfortunate Giuliano’s head so savagely that his skull split like a melon.
The Florence of the Medici and the Pazzi was a violent place, and I wanted to reflect this in my novel. So in the centre of the peaceful cloister is the site of another violent episode – this time a fictional one. It’s the well where, in The Botticelli Secret, Brother Guido finds librarian Brother Remigio, whose head falls from his shoulders down the shaft.
And just across the grass is Brother Guido’s sanctuary, the cell where he practices his religious contemplation before Luciana turns his world upside down.
Every heroine needs a hero, and here we have found the home of Luciana’s soulmate, Brother Guido della Torre. And here is a reminder in stone of why I placed him here; there is a roundel above the architrave, and if you look closely it shows, quite clearly, a leaning tower.
So now we have an author, a heroine and a hero. But what is The Botticelli Secret?
Well, I won’t give it away here. But the answer lies, in part, in these peaceful cloisters. On their return to Florence after they flee for their lives, Luciana and Guido find themselves back in these very cloisters, and seek out the company of aged herbalist Nicodemus of Padua, a brother of the order of Santa Croce. It is the herbalist who, in many ways, unlocks the secret of the painting. For appropriately – as this is the story of Flora, in Florence – the secret lies in the flowers; those jewel-like flowers studding the grass, painted painstakingly by Sandro Botticelli. Five centuries later, they are still blooming in the Uffizi gallery.