One murder ignites the powderkeg that threatens to consume the Medici’s Florence. Amidst the chaos, five women and one legendary artist weave together a plot that could bring peace, or get them all killed. Seeking to wrest power from the Medici family in 15th Century Florence, members of the Pazzi family drew their blades in a church and slew Giuliano. But Lorenzo de Medici survives, and seeks revenge on everyone involved, plunging the city into a murderous chaos that takes dozens of lives. Bodies are dragged through the streets, and no one is safe. Five women steal away to a church to ply their craft in secret. Viviana, Fiammetta, Isabetta, Natasia, and Mattea are painters, not allowed to be public with their skill, but freed from the restrictions in their lives by their art. When a sixth member of their group, Lapaccia, goes missing, and is rumored to have stolen a much sought after painting as she vanished, the women must venture out into the dangerous streets to find their friend and see her safe. They will have help from one of the most renowned painters of their era the peaceful and kind Leonardo Da Vinci. It is under his tutelage that they will flourish as artists, and with his access that they will infiltrate some of the highest, most secretive places in Florence, unraveling one conspiracy as they build another in its place. Historical fiction at its finest, Donna Russo Morin begins a series of Da Vinci’s disciples with a novel both vibrant and absorbing, perfect for the readers of Sarah Dunant.
I was so excited to hear that Donna Russo Morin was embarking on a new mystery series featuring female artists and Leonardo da Vinci in Renaissance Italy. While I have liked some of her books better than others, she is always a must-read author for me, and I was not disappointed in this exciting first installment of Da Vinci's Disciples, in which a society of female artists, six in number, of different ages and backgrounds, meet in secret to practice their craft during a time when a woman belonged in only two places: the home or the church.
The story starts off with a horrific, edge-of-your seat depiction of the assassination of Giuliano de' Medici, the Golden Boy, beloved younger brother of Lorenzo de' Medici--Il Magnifico, with two of the women, Viviana and Fiammetta, right in the thick of it. This murder, committed before thousands of people--in a church, no less--sets off a period of vengeance and unrest that has the entire city of Florence holding its breath, fearful of what the future holds. With food scarce, roving bands of hoodlums prowling the streets, and soldiers systematically dragging accused conspirators from their homes for swift and gruesome public executions, Florence is a city on the edge. But for these women, forgoing the release of their passions via their art is not an option, and it's not something they can do at home, so each bravely ventures out to their secret studio. But one fails to arrive.
Soon the whole city knows that a mysterious portrait that had recently been put on public display, now believed to depict the men behind the assassination, has gone missing, and one of their beloved sisters with it. What on earth could have possessed timid widow and devoted mother Lapaccia to insert herself into a bloodbath of political vengeance? The other women are determined to find out, and with the help of their new ally, Leonardo da Vinci, they set about recreating the missing painting from their sketches to uncover its secrets while using their society connections to keep abreast of any news that might help them bring their friend home safe. But will they be prepared for what is revealed? With Il Magnifico's witch hunt closing in, all of their lives are in danger as they race to solve the mystery before it's too late.
Once again, Donna Russo Morin's ability to bring the past to life is in top form. The historical description is lush and evocative, and she does not shy away from depicting the horrors of a city seized by madness, nearly all of it taken straight from the historical record. And at times the prose is almost lyrical. In this story, Viviana, Isabetta, and Mattea take on more featured roles, and through their eyes we see Florence and her people, the redemptive power of art, and the bittersweetness of star-crossed love. While Leonardo is a point-of-view character, I was pleased to see that he never dominated the story. This is very much the women's tale, with Leonardo as a source of support and encouragement. My only complaints are that I found the point of view to be a little jumpy, and I am a reader that prefers tight, deep points of view, and I found the narrative a little too heavy on the technical descriptions of art. I tended to skim over those bits. And I confess to being a little shocked at some actions and sentiments of the two women whose husbands have made their lives difficult, but there was little time to examine the moral implications as the story ripped right along from one exciting twist to another.
While the central mystery was resolved in this book, personal threads are still in play for all of the women, to be played out in future books, and I am very much looking forward to reading them. Portrait of a Conspiracy is a gripping, gritty, sensual tale of love, art, revenge, and the bonds of sisterhood. A great start to a new series, sure to please fans of historical mystery, Italian fiction, and art history.
My Rating: 4 Stars out of 5
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Portrait of a Conspiracy
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