I received this book for free from Publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!! This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Da Vinci's Tiger by L.M. Elliott
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on November 10th, 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
Young, beautiful, and witty, Ginevra de’ Benci longs to take part in the artistic ferment of Renaissance Florence. But as the daughter of a wealthy family in a society dictated by men, she is trapped in an arranged marriage, expected to limit her creativity to domestic duties. Her poetry reveals her deepest feelings, and she aches to share her work, to meet painters and sculptors mentored by the famed Lorenzo de Medici, and to find love.
When the charismatic Venetian ambassador, Bernardo Bembo, arrives in Florence, he introduces Ginevra to a dazzling circle of patrons, artists, and philosophers—a world of thought and conversation she has yearned for. She is instantly attracted to the handsome newcomer, who admires her mind as well as her beauty. Yet Ginevra remains conflicted about his attentions. Choosing her as his Platonic muse, Bembo commissions a portrait by a young Leonardo da Vinci. Posing for the brilliant painter inspires an intimate connection between them—one Ginevra can only begin to understand. In a rich and enthralling world of exquisite art, elaborate feasts, and exhilarating jousts, she faces many temptations to discover her voice, artistic companionship, and a love that defies categorization. In the end, she and Leonardo are caught up in a dangerous and deadly battle between powerful families.
I love art, historical fiction, and Renaissance Italy – so how could I possibly resist Da Vinci’s Tiger? With a premise that evoked loving memories of Sharon Biggs Waller’s A Mad, Wicked Folly – arguably my favorite historical fiction title to date – this book shot up to the top of my to read list. And I am very, very pleased with it.
Right away, what struck me upon reading Da Vinci’s Tiger is how well-written and well-researched it is. This makes all the difference in historical fiction to me. You could tell from the first page that Elliott really knew what she was writing about. By reading the author’s note at the end, you’ll get a sense of how accurate her version of history is. That’s a wonderful thing to behold. I was sucked into the setting and the lives of the characters instantly. Just after reading the prologue, I messaged friends saying this was bound to be GOOD.
Elliott weaves her own version of history around the lives of Ginevra de’ Benci, Leonardo Da Vinci, Bernardo Bembo, and Lorenzo de’ Medici. They live the lives of the Florentine elite, where the clothes must be fancy, the parties must reek of excess, and there’s a societal philosophical movement that’s food for the soul. Ginevra has been stuck married to an older merchant, but she catches the eye of the Venetian ambassador, Bernardo Bembo, who wants her to become his Platonic muse.
The Florentine people hold to strict ideals and are definitely more pious than most – a Platonic muse (or “friend”) is not a sexual arrangement. The most wealthy and powerful men find muses that inspire honor, morals, and virtue and believe that by spending time in their presence (with their beauty and grace) they themselves will be blessed in their lives and upon their deaths. I didn’t really know about this concept beforehand, but I loved how complex and intriguing the cultural tradition was. There’s obviously a lot to say about the double standards between the sexes and the repression females face in their behavior – and Ginevra comments on all of them in her narrations, so don’t fear. But being a Platonic muse also gives her more access to the high society folk – to see how policies and decisions are made. It’s more interesting than running a household, for sure.
Given that the story takes place in high society, expect enough events to fully draw you into the mystique of the time period. There are balls, jousting tournaments, horse races, philosophical poetry discussions, and finally… art commissions. Yes, the title doesn’t mention Da Vinci for nothing – the master himself plays a prominent role in the story as a young artist, just starting out, who manages to be commissioned by Bernardo to paint Ginevra’s portrait. Through their sessions together, he encourages her intelligence and independence, and she inspires him to take risks in his art, leading to some of the revolutionary techniques he is so well known for. Those scenes were magical and inspiring, and their friendship was beautiful.
I guess what kept me from really being fully in love with this book is that there’s not really a romance to root for. Ginevra is obviously in a loveless marriage, and although Bernardo is very much interested in her to become his Platonic muse, she never really seems to feel anything for him either. She’s flattered by his interest, and she sees that their arrangement provides her with benefits that she otherwise wouldn’t have as a married woman. But there’s no real love there, and Bernado creeped me out more than once. (In my head I kind of pictured a skeezy old dude throwing himself at a 17 year old, so, yeah, no.) The most interesting person that vaguely attracted my shipping sensibilities would be Leonardo himself, but that ship never actually sets sail.
So yeah, no romantic flutterings to set my heart on fire, but at the same time I don’t feel like I can really fault the book for that. It did remain historically accurate, and as a feminist tale within the restrictions of Renaissance Florence, I feel like the story was definitely strong. I just think I was so focused on getting some romance here or there that I got distracted from the feminist storyline – or that that part of the book wasn’t emphasized enough. Certainly, the ending could have done a bit more to show Ginevra’s breaking free of the societal restrictions and expectations. View Spoiler »And life within the convent mostly remained a mystery. « Hide Spoiler That, I feel, was a missed opportunity.