Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Women Artists & the 1966 Florence Flood

In the wake of the tragic 1966 flood of Florence, then-curator of Florentine museums Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti put out a call for Italian and international artists to donate art to replace the masterpieces that had been lost in the flood. As part of this campaign, the City of Florence accepted hundreds of notable works by artists from all over the world.

The devastation of the 1966 flood in Florence

The devastation of the 1966 flood in Florence

Thirty-two were by female artists including those whose donations have now been recently restored: Antonietta Raphael Mafai, Amalia Ciardi Duprè, Carla Accardi and Titina Maselli. This restoration project, sponsored by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA) in collaboration with the Musei Civici Fiorentini, was led by Dr. Antonella Nesi, curator of Florence’s 20th century Civic Collections, and undertaken by Florentine restorer Rossella Lari.

Restorer Rosella Lari at work on a painting by Tintina Masselli

Restorer Rossella Lari at work on a painting by Titina Masselli

After decades in storage, these and other works collected at Ragghianti’s behest have found a home at the newly-opened Museo Novecento in Florence. The 20th century art in Florence finally got scholarly and popular attention in 2014, first with the opening of the new museum dedicated to this period, and then at the end of September with a temporary exhibition at the Galleria di Arte Moderna at Palazzo Pitti called ‘Spotlight on the XX Century’ (Luci sul ‘900).

AWA has also agreed to restore a total of 28 paintings and sculptures to be exhibited at the Museo Novecento in 2016 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the flood.

Restored statue by Antonietta Raphael Mafai

Restored statue by Antonietta Raphael Mafai

As part of a project to safeguard and promote a hidden part of Florence’s heritage, the Advancing Women Artists Foundation has also published a new book about the female artists whose art forms part of the Florentine Civic Collections. The book by Linda Falcone and Jane Fortune, When the World Answered: Florence, Women Artists and the 1966 Flood, published in October 2014 by The Florentine Press, provides additional and timely insight into this period.

Co-author Jane Fortune presents the new book

Co-author Jane Fortune presents the new book

With this book, the team continues Jane Fortune’s quest to bring to light Florence’s “hidden” female artists. Her book Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, which became the basis of an Emmy-award winning PBS documentary, sought out examples from the Renaissance through the Early Modern period.

Cover of When the World AnsweredWith When the World Answered, they wondered if 20th century Florence continued to be a powerhouse for female talent and what prompted the “Flood Ladies” to donate their art to Florence.

Linda Falcone, coauthor of When The World Answered

Linda Falcone, co-author of When The World Answered

In four years of research and writing, interviewing surviving “Flood Ladies” and their families, Falcone and Fortune discovered women whose contributions to Futurism, Magic Realism and Abstractionism in Italy are worthy of in-depth study. This book tells the stories of 23 of these women artists because “their stories must be salvaged along with their art if we are one day to understand the true significance of their contributions.”

Restoring the donated painting by Tintina Masselli

Restoring the donated painting by Titina Masselli


On October 21, the Museo Novecento will be hosting a premiere event for the living artists and their family members, with the book’s authors, top museum executives and Vice Mayor Cristina Giachi.

The public event is scheduled for Wednesday October 22, 2014, at 6:30pm when the authors will present their book at the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (via Orsanmichele 4, Firenze), a venue that has supported women artists since Artemisia Gentileschi became its first female member in 1616. After the talk, attendees will be invited to visit the headquarters of this prestigious institution. The event is free and open to the public with registration at the following link: floodladies-talk.eventbrite.it

To enhance the connection between the flood, women artists and the City of Florence, The Florentine, licensed guide Alexandra Lawrence and the Advancing Women Artists Foundation will be offering a series of guided walks. On Saturday October 25 at 10am, the group will meet at Santa Croce and walk towards Le Murate, visiting and talking about some of the important spaces and artworks affected by the flood of 1966.

Saturday November 8 at 10am there will be a visit to the Museo Novecento focusing particularly on the newly restored works by female artists.

Both walks cost 33 euro including guide and book, plus museum entrance fees. To reserve, please contact Alexandra Lawrence at a.lawrence@theflorentine.net.

For more information, contact: The Florentine Press, Alexandra Korey, Editor, editor@theflorentinepress.com, Tel: +39 055 2306616

Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA),Linda Falcone, Director, linda@advancingwomenartists.org.


Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – A New Book on the Life of Mona Lisa by Dianne Hales

Over 500 years after her birth we are still talking about her. A genius immortalized her. A French king paid a fortune for her portrait. An emperor coveted her. Every year more than 9 million visitors trek through the Louvre to view her likeness. Yet while everyone recognizes her smile, hardly anyone knows her story or the story of women like her.

Dianne Hales will launch her new book on August 5, 2014

Dianne Hales will launch her new book on August 5, 2014

Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, by Dianne Hales is a blend of biography, history, and memoir. It is a book of discovery: about the world’s most recognized face, most revered artist, and most praised and parodied painting; about the woman and the men behind the portrait; and about the author Hales, who undertook a journey of discovery, about herself, her beloved Florence, and a mystery that intrigues her.


Mona Lis at the Louvre (Photo by Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

Mona Lisa at the Louvre (Photo by Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

Lisa Gherardini (1479-1542) was a quintessential woman of her times, caught in a whirl of political upheavals, family dramas, and public scandals. Her life spanned the most tumultuous chapters in the history of Florence—and of the greatest artistic outpouring the world has ever seen. Her story creates an extraordinary tapestry of Renaissance Florence, with larger-than-legend figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli.

Who was Mona Lisa, this ordinary woman who rose to such extraordinary fame? Why did the most renowned painter of her time choose her as his model? What became of her? And why does her smile enchant us still?

Author Dianne Hales

Author Dianne Hales

Dianne Hales agreed to answer a few questions about her book and its subject:

When and how did you come to choose Mona Lisa as the subject for your new book project – Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered?

Years ago while in Florence doing research for La Bella Lingua, I was having dinner at the home of an art historian who casually mentioned that the mother of La Gioconda had grown up in the very same building on Via Ghibellina. I hadn’t known until then that Leonardo’s model was a Florentine woman—Mona (Madame) Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. I was immediately intrigued by what her life might have been like.

At the time the local papers were reporting discoveries of documents related to Lisa and the Gherardini family. I realized that the archival sleuth, Giuseppe Pallanti, had the same name as a friend of my husband’s. It turned out that they aren’t related, but he arranged a meeting.

When we met—on the roof terrace of the Palazzo Magnani Feroni overlooking Lisa’s childhood neighborhood in the Oltrarno—Pallanti brought a tourist map. With a pencil he marked an “X” for Via Sguazza, where she was born, and another “X” for Via della Stufa, where she lived with her husband and their children.

A map of Mona Lisa's Florence

A map of Mona Lisa’s Florence

The very next day I made my way to Via Sguazza, a dank alley that still stinks five centuries after its residents complained about its stench. I was struck by the contrast between the fetid, graffiti-smeared street where Lisa Gherardini was born and the sublime symbol of Western civilization that her portrait has become. The journalist in me sensed a story just waiting to be told. Pretty soon I was off and running.

Describe a bit about the archival research you did. Did you have help? What was the biggest “ah ha” moment and what was the greatest frustration you encountered?

I started at the Florence State Archive, which houses a staggering forty-six miles of manuscripts. With the help of historian Lisa Kaborycha, an American professor who lives in Florence, I tracked down a history of the Gherardini written by a family member in 1586.

I had never done archival research before, and I found it surprisingly exhilarating—deciphering the ornate script, turning the yellowed pages, inhaling their musty scent. I felt that I was traveling through time and encountering flesh-and-blood—Gherardini knights, robber barons, warriors, rebels—all so proud and pugnacious that they coined the word Gherardiname to describe their fierce “Gherardini-ness.”

My biggest ah-ha moment came at my computer in California, when I tracked down a record of Lisa’s baptism in the cathedral digital archives. Seeing the hand-scripted words—Lisa & Camilla & Gherardini—in the ledger made her real to me.

Notice of Lisa Gherardini's baptism

Notice of Lisa Gherardini’s baptism

The greatest frustration was not finding any words of her own. Leonardo’s Lisa truly is a face without a voice. Fortunately, I found that a relative of hers—Margherita Datini, wife of the famed merchant of Prato—had left behind the largest cache of letters of any woman of her day. This feisty, intelligent, no-nonsense woman, who taught herself to read and write in her twenties, embodied the Gherardini spirit that Lisa may have shared.

Describe the choices you made to tell the story of a woman for whom there is very little “paper trail” and an artist who everybody was talking and writing about.

Thanks to Giuseppe Pallanti’s research, I had a framework for Lisa’s life, including the dates when her children were born and a record of her death. But as I read more about Leonardo and about Florentine history, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information. How could I keep Lisa’s story from being lost?

An American art historian gave me some wonderful advice: Inhabit Lisa’s neighborhoods. That’s what I did. I walked the streets where Lisa had lived. I genuflected in the churches where she had worshiped. I explored the locations of the convents where she had placed her daughters.

Ross King, author of Leonardo and the Last Supper, describes my book as “cultural history that reads like a detective novel.” I hadn’t envisioned it quite that way, but I wanted take readers with me on my quest so they could share the step by step revelations of what turned into a true journey of discovery.

a98643_monalisa 2How many interviews did you conduct while researching the numerous subjects covered by the book (Leonardo da Vinci, life of Renaissance women, art, politics and commerce in 15th century Florence, and the journey of the painting from Florence to Paris, and much more)?

Well over a hundred.  I certainly drew on all the skills I had honed in decades as a journalist. Basically I followed the facts wherever they led—to experts in art, history, economics, women’s studies, fashion, food, religion, even antique silk-making.   Each of them offered a different perspective. My challenge was to weave the threads together into a tapestry that would bring Mona Lisa and her Florence to life.

One of my friends says she knew she was ready for her oral doctoral exam when she could turn any conversation on any topic to the Italian Renaissance. That’s how I feel about Mona Lisa and Leonardo. Baseball? Did you know that palle (balls) were the symbol of the Medici—and that one of Leonardo’s patrons was Giuliano de’ Medici, who was a political ally of Mona Lisa’s husband?

How much of the project was devoted to research and how much to writing?

They overlapped over a span of more than three years. The feet-on-the-ground research, which I did during extended visits to Florence and Tuscany, kept leading me in new directions. I’d come home and dive back into the library or computer archives.

I didn’t write this book as much as rewrite it—some 80,000 words over and over again. It was the most challenging project I’ve ever undertaken: organizing reams of material, finding the right tone, balancing anecdote and explanation, searching for the most telling details—and then polishing, polishing, polishing. I kept thinking of Leonardo applying tens of thousands of brush strokes to create his portrait of Mona Lisa.  He inspired me!

What did you learn about the daily life of women in the late 15th century?

A great deal of research on women has been done in just the last three or four decades–and many of the findings are rather depressing. One historian called Renaissance Florence “among the more unlucky places in Western Europe to be born female.” This was particularly true for poor women, who were typically malnourished and illiterate, bred early, toiled endlessly and died young. Even women of the merchant class, like Mona Lisa, remained second-class citizens who passed from the control of their fathers to their husbands.

The style of gown that Mona Lisa wore

The style of gown that Mona Lisa wore

This is one reason that I was fascinated to learn that Lisa exercised two of the few prerogatives available to Renaissance women: she decided how to dispose of the property and valuables she inherited from her husband and she chose to be buried, not with him, but in a community of sisters at the convent where her daughter lived.

Italian scholars gave me a more positive perspective than American feminist historians. As one Italiana put it, Renaissance women were not liberated in the way we use the term, but they were strong and central to the most important social institution in Italy: the family. And some, like Lisa Gherardini, inspired great masterpieces of Western art, which may be the most lasting of legacies.

Why do you think Leonardo da Vinci accepted the commission to paint a “housewife” and then carried the portrait around for years?

I believe that something about Lisa herself captivated Leonardo —“something inherent in his vision,” as the art critic Sir Kenneth Clark observed. How else, he asked, could one explain the fact that “while he was refusing commissions from Popes, Kings, and Princesses he spent his utmost skill … painting the second wife of an obscure Florentine citizen?”

Perhaps with his discerning eye, Leonardo saw more than a fetching young mother caught up in the delights and distractions of small children, with a blustering husband and a big quarrelsome blended family. Perhaps what intrigued him as an artist was a flicker of her indomitable Gherardini-ness.

Mona_LisaLeonardo left Florence before completing Lisa’s portrait, and it traveled with him to his final home in France. Most of the art historians I interviewed believe that the aging artist spent years refining the painting with delicate brushwork and almost transparent glazes.   It may be that during its long metamorphosis, Mona Lisa took on deeper meaning for Leonardo—as a demonstration of all that he had learned about portraiture and all that he understood about human nature. Would Mona Lisa recognize herself in the Louvre portrait?  We will never know.

Why does Lisa Gherardini’s story matter? Is a model’s identity relevant in consideration of a work of art?

Mona Lisa ultimately remains what it is: a masterpiece by an unparalleled genius. Yet learning about Leonardo’s model adds new dimensions to appreciation of the portrait.   Once I saw only a silent figure with a wistful smile. Now I behold a daughter of Florence, a Renaissance woman, a merchant’s wife, a loving mother, a devout Christiana noble spirit.  I relate to her, not just as a lovely object, but as a real person.

Beyond adding new perspective on the painting, Lisa’s story opens a window onto life in Florence during the most astounding artistic outpouring in history. Hers was the city that thrills us still, bursting into fullest bloom and redefining the possibilities of man—and of woman.

Do you have events scheduled in the U.S. and Italy where you will be discussing Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered? How can we find out about upcoming events?

Yes, I have a busy schedule ahead, with readings and talks in northern California, Chicago, Philadelphia and the New York City area. You can find the details on the events page of my website.

I will be in Florence from September 25 to October 10 and will announce the details on my website. In addition to readings and presentations, I am developing personalized tours of Mona Lisa’s Florence and some programs for writers and storytellers. If any of your readers might be interested, drop me a line at dianne@becomingitalian.com

Dianne and Julia Hales

Dianne and Julia Hales

Have you selected the subject for your next book?

I am currently finishing a very different project: a college textbook on Personal Stress Management with my daughter Julia, a psychology doctoral candidate. However, I so enjoy “living “ in Italy—if only in my head—that I hope to return to an Italian topic soon.

Get Your Copy of Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered

mona-lisa-225Order the book from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.it, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and at a bookstore near you (including The Paperback Exchange in Florence, Italy). You can also go to Tuscan Traveler’s Amazon Bookstore (same price as online) to find this and other Italian-interest books.


Italian Life Rules – What’s the Deal With Change?

Heard in any gelateria: “Are you sure you don’t have a one euro coin?”

In Italy, you never know when you are really going to need small bills and coins, so you hoard them. It’s part of becoming Italian.

“What’s the deal with change in Italy?” ask my touring clients after a day or two in the country. At the gelateria, the newsstand, the post office, museum, and not last nor least, the coffee bar, the customer is quizzed about the possibility of spiccioli (coins), so that no resto (change) is necessary. The person at the cash register is willing to wait until you go through all of your pockets and the bottom of your purse in search of 20 centesimi (cents) or a one euro coin.


Coinage seems to be a rare commodity in almost any shop, eatery, or even the government-run entities in Italy. You may be denied the opportunity to buy a newspaper or   a bottle of water if you pull out a 50 euro bill. Even a five euro bill will be met with a frown if you are purchasing an 80 centesimi espresso.

Mi dispiace, non ho spiccioli” (“I’m sorry I don’t have any coins.”) has become one of my favorite phrases in Italian. After 15 years, I sometimes say it just to spite Italian cashiers, even if I have a pocket full of change.

Italian vending machines frequently don’t give change, despite the fact that there is a coin return slot. Be prepared for a loss if you really need that Coke or candy bar.

Handmade Italian Coin Purse

Handmade Italian Coin Purse

The problem seems to stem from the Italians’ dislike of dealing with their banks. Understandable. No one, absolutely no one, wants to deal with the bureaucratic hassles and time suck of the Italian bank, least of all the small business person. A visit to the bank only invites the headache of poor service and a paper trail, two things sought to be avoided by most Italians. But this still doesn’t answer why there is such a hassle regarding change when you are buying stamps or tickets from money mills like the post office or the Uffizi Gallery.

Italian Euro Coins

Italian Euro Coins

In the 1970s, Italy literally ran out of coins. Banks issued what were called “mini-assegni” or “mini-checks” that took the place of change. These mini-checks looked like monopoly money to replace the small denomination coins that were in short supply.  It was not until 1978 that the Italian government produced coins in large enough quantities to meet consumer demand.

Even the priest of two tiny churches in the center of Florence goes to the Jewish-owned grocery store in the neighborhood with his sacks of donation coins to get the amount converted into large denomination bills. It’s a win-win — there is no paper trail for the priest and the store gets a replenished supply of small coins. And neither has to enter the encapsulated security door of the local bank.

Allora:  Don’t ask why, just carry change.

Italian Life Rules – Kissing the Italian Cheek

Seen in Venice: Two Americans trying to shake hands and kiss cheeks at the same time.


Who would have thought an innocent gesture of goodwill could cause so much confusion among friends, family and associates? When to kiss, how many kisses, left cheek, right cheek, both cheeks, lips or not? Visitors to Italy often have cheek kissing anxiety.

Have you ever greeted an Italian by going for a cheek kiss only to have them extend an arm for a hearty handshake and a cheery, “Buongiorno” or “Piacere?” Regions and cultures often dictate kissing rules, but the bottom line to the kissing dilemma is this: When in doubt, don’t!

Bush and Berlusconi - too close for comfort

Bush and Berlusconi – too close for comfort

Some things to consider before offering a cheek include how well you know the person, whether it is a business or social occasion, and your own motive behind the gesture. Keep in mind that much of this depends on the personality of the kisser. Most Italians are warm and demonstrative. They particularly enjoy bestowing their kisses on close friends and family, but for new acquaintances (potential future friends), in business settings, and with strangers, a handshake is the greeting of choice.

Don’t kiss someone you have never met before. Be a consistent kisser. If you greet someone with a kiss, don’t forget to do the same to say, “Arrivederci.” Offering your hand for a handshake after a hello kiss sends a confusing message.

Clinton and Hague - too much pucker

Clinton and Hague – too much pucker

If you have a sufficiently close cheek-to-cheek relationship, then start on the right and graze the cheek of the other person with your own, refrain from making the “Moi, Moi” or any other sound into the other person’s ear. Then switch to the left cheek and repeat. Not to make this difficult, but you may find that in some parts of Italy they start left cheek first and then right. When in doubt, pause and follow the lead of your Italian friend.

Stop at a kiss to each check. Unlike in France or Russia, a third pass is extremely rare in Italy. Don’t actually kiss the cheek unless it is a very, very close friend or family member. If your kiss includes a hug, make it brief, a few short taps on the back are appropriate, avoid pounding the back of the other person.

Usually the cheek kissing routine is between women and women and men and women, but there are regions in Italy, mostly in the south, where men greet one another with kisses on either cheek. Some suggest that Italian women who wanted their men to sympathize with their suffering when brushing up against scruffy, unshaven beards started this. The safest route for a man visiting Italy is to offer a handshake to greet other men. After that follow the lead of those Italian metrosexual friends. As a general rule, women have the universal power to dictate proximity. The woman has to take charge to avoid any awkwardness.

Obama and Bruni -well done (K.TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

Obama and Bruni – well done  (K.TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

Ironically, the number one situation most fraught with danger is when a foreigner meets a fellow expat. If the person is a friend, or a friend of a friend, do you stay with the custom of Italy or fall back on the etiquette of the homeland? It’s probably safest to stay with the handshake until your relationship rises to the level of closeness that calls for kisses.

Allora:  When in doubt, stick with your own cultural norm. There is no need to become Italian in all ways when visiting the country.

Italian Life Rules – The Mystery of Ciao

Who would have thought using a ubiquitous Italian word in Italy could get you into so much trouble. The word is “ciao” and if you use it at the wrong time with the wrong person you will leave a lasting negative impression.

Ciao http://livelikeanitalian.com/category/speak-like-an-italian/Ciao is described as the Italian version of “aloha,” meaning both “hello” and “goodbye,” so how can that be bad? As with many things in Italy, it all comes down to history.

Ciao comes from Venetian dialect, where the phrase s-ciào vostro meant, “I am your slave.” Often, s-ciào vostro was shortened to simply s-ciào and then to ciào. In Latin, the word is sclavus and in standard Italian schiavo, which is where the Venetian s-ciào is derived.

In the 17th century, servants when encountering their employer used the term: “I am your slave.” This transformed into “I am your servant,” used by a person of inferior social status to one of greater importance and finally, to “I’m at your service” when addressing a stranger of one’s own age or older. It was never used as a casual greeting before the 20th century.

670px-Say-Hello-in-Italian-Step-1 http://www.wikihow.com/Say-Hello-in-Italian

In modern Italy, ciao is mainly used in informal settings, i.e., among family members, relatives, and friends.  In other words, with those one would address with the familiar tu (second person singular) as opposed to Lei (courtesy form). With family and friends, ciao is the norm even as a morning or evening salutation, in lieu of buongiorno or buonasera. When used in other contexts, ciao may be interpreted as slightly flirtatious, or a request for friendship or closeness. Or it may seem to the recipient as an ill-bred form of address.

Some say that Ernest Hemingway introduced the word ciao to the American lexicon in 1929 in his book A Farewell To Arms with its Italian setting. Others say it traveled outside of Italy with waves of immigrants after WWI and WWII. Now, it is used throughout the globe as a salutation a greeting, both in writing and speech.

In Italy, however, it is still a very informal greeting. To use it with a stranger or an elder is an easy and unknowing way to offend. It is much better to get into practice before you arrive with the proper mode of greeting an Italian and then the salutation to be used when parting company. This is also important when saying goodbye when you are talking on the telephone with a stranger. Never say, “Ciao.”

http://www.wikihow.com/Say-Hello-in-Italian 670px-Say-Hello-in-Italian-Step-3

When you are introduced or encounter a stranger, use the words buongiorno (good day) or buonasera (good evening), depending on the time of day (buongiorno before 1pm and buonasera after 1pm). These will become you favorite words because they will never offend and they can be used as both greetings or parting words. If you want to up your game a bit then piacere (my pleasure) is a good formal greeting (but never used for parting ways).

Finally, if you would like to split the difference, salve is a great greeting for a stranger or a friend, of your age or younger. Salve comes from the Latin verb salvere (literally, to be well, to be in good health). It can be very friendly, e.g. Salve! Come va? (literally, Hi! How’s it going?), but on its own it’s also a polite form of greeting without being too formal. It is commonly used as a form of salutation, (in fact the word salutation itself comes from the same root: salute). So, for example, when you are out walking in the countryside and you meet somebody you don’t know salve is a very good alternative to buongiorno. Like ciao, salve can be used at any time of the day, but salve cannot be used when parting.

http://www.wikihow.com/Say-Hello-in-Italian 670px-Say-Hello-in-Italian-Step-2

When parting company, the safest word to use is arrivederci. Like salve it can be used with strangers. The formal version is arrivederla, which is wise to use with older strangers, priests, nuns, and people in authority. You may wish to start out with arrivederla and wait until the person you’re talking with tells you that it is too formal. (Permission to move to a more informal form of address always flows downhill from the person in the more elevated social position or older than you.) Arrivederci and arrivederla only mean goodbye – not hello – so you can’t use them to start a conversation, only to end one.

Americans have become famous for their “Have a nice day!” parting exclamation. Italians use “buona giornata” ([have a] good day) less frequently, but it is gaining popularity and can be used with most everyone except the most formal of folks. It is always used as a parting. Buona serata ([have a] good evening) is similar, but used usually when parting with someone who is going off to do something fun, for example, an evening at the theater, disco, or cinema.


Does this mean you can never say “ciao?” No, you will hear ciao being said all over Italy. But if you pay close attention, you’ll see that it’s almost always used between people who know one another or are in the same peer group. Among strangers, or when addressing an elder or someone in a more senior position, most Italians typically choose salve or some other more formal greeting.

This is changing. Younger generations are using ciao more and more as the word of choice for both hello and goodbye. But until the X or Y generations get into positions to set the etiquette rules, it is safer to stick to the more formal or at least neutral forms of address.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – 5 Questions for Joanna Penn

Joanna Penn is one of Tuscan Traveler’s favorite authors, both as a blogger on all aspects of writing and publishing, and as J.F. Penn, the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the ARKANE thriller series and the London Mysteries, starting with Desecration. Joanna runs TheCreativePenn.com, one of the Top 10 Blogs for writers and was voted as one of The Guardian UK Top 100 creative professionals 2013.

Mysteries and Thrillers of J.F. Penn

Mysteries and Thrillers of J.F. Penn

Your fast-paced ARKANE thrillers weave together historical artifacts, secret societies, psychological and religious references, global locations, a fearless female protagonist and hints of the supernatural. You’ve used Venice and Rome as settings. Your three short stories in A Thousand Fiendish Angels riff on Dante’s Inferno. Do you plan to return to Italy in a future book? How do Italy and/or the Italians inspire your writing?

I do love Italy, and how can one fail to be inspired by the architecture and cultural history of Europe in general! I especially like the use of the ossuaries and the Palermo Capuchin crypt in Prophecy, with the mummified bodies of monks and children. Creepy indeed! I do have an idea for a story set within the walls of the Vatican itself, catnip for a student of Theology like myself, so definitely more to come.

I also have Pentecost and Desecration coming in Italian language in the latter half of 2014, so I hope to expand my readership that way.

Desecration, your latest novel, is not part of the ARKANE series. Are you starting another series? Will you go back to the ARKANE characters in a future book? Is it possible that there will be a tie-in where Jamie and Blake from Desecration visit ARKANE?

You read my mind! In my next fast-paced novella, Day of the Vikings, out in May 2014, Dr Morgan Sierra is researching a Viking staff at the British Museum. When Neo-Viking terrorists take hostages and demand the staff of power, Morgan is aided by Blake Daniel, the reluctant psychic from Desecration, and together, they must work out how to stop Ragnarok, the Viking apocalypse.

The next full-length ARKANE book has a working title of Inquisition, and will delve into Morgan Sierra’s Spanish Jewish heritage. Desecration is the first in The London Mysteries, and the next one, Delirium, will be out in July 2014, opening with the murder of a psychiatrist in Bedlam, the London hospital for the mad.

Joanna Penn writes complex mysteries & international thrillers as J.F. Penn

Joanna Penn writes complex mysteries & international thrillers as J.F. Penn

Your books take the reader to many countries (Israel, Italy, Hungary, Turkey, India). You know the saying some people eat to live and others live to eat. Do you travel to write or write to travel? Do you see a travel memoir in your future?

I think you know me very well, Ann!

I am a travel junkie and the books have been fuelled by my own experiences, but part of the reason I now do this full time is to be able to travel more, and make every trip research for another story. I am heading to Barcelona in June for research into Inquisition, and a visit to the Morbid Anatomy museum in New York in July will definitely give me some story ideas. I also plan to visit Mexico for Day of the Dead sometime, as well as heading back to India for a book around Kali. By combining the two, I can reinvest the book income into more travel, fuelling more books – a happy life!

I do intend to write a travel memoir at some point, as I would like to share the diary side of my trips and especially the spiritual places I have been. That is a way off though!

You are exceedingly generous in providing information to writers, especially those who wish to indie-publish, through your website and your podcasts. You also work as a public speaker on all aspects of indie-publishing and book marketing. You are either exceptionally organized or don’t require a lot of sleep. Does your work as an entrepreneur and your writing on TheCreativePenn.com help to promote your J.F. Penn novels? Do you want to keep up this pace or do you want to settle into a fiction writer’s life at some point in time?

I always wanted to be a self-help writer, and so TheCreativePenn.com and my non-fiction books, as well as my speaking, are ways in which I can help others on the journey of being a writer in this ever-changing market. I also find that I need the public speaking side to balance out my natural tendency to be an introverted hermit in my writing cave! It does me good to get out and have a conversation with real people.

I also started TheCreativePenn.com before I started writing fiction, and it was only the freeing aspect of blogging that enabled me to write stories in the first place. So I could never give it up entirely! That said, I am slowing down the pace of content on that side of things to focus more on the fiction as my readership grows.

Career Change, Book Marketing & Public Speaking: The topics addressed by Joanna Penn

Career Change, Book Marketing & Public Speaking: The topics addressed by Joanna Penn

A last question about your first book, Career Change: Many of the readers of TuscanTraveler.com dream of leaving their jobs, selling their home, buying a plane ticket and moving to Italy to create a new life and perhaps write their version of Under the Tuscan Sun. What are three ideas from your book that may help them fulfill their dream or, at least, assist them in making the correct decision?

The most important thing to think about is what really makes you happy. So for me, I had to reach the point of understanding that freedom of place (a rented 1 bedroom flat and no car) and a lower income made me happier than a higher income and a four-bedroom house and a car. By giving up my secure day job to become a writer, I sacrificed what most people consider to be “success,” for a risky entrepreneurial career with no guarantees. Lots of people thought I was crazy, as the definition of success for most people is a high status job, a big house and a nice car with lots of ‘stuff.’ If you can escape that mentality, you can downsize and suddenly have a lot more choice in your life.

So my 3 ideas are:

a) Decide what REALLY makes you happy

b) Make time to investigate options e.g. get rid of your TV, freeing up several hours a night; go to four days a week at work and focus on testing your ideas out part time

c) Eliminate debt and save a financial buffer – any new move takes a while to get going financially

Joanna Penn’s books are available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, as well as Barnes & Noble, Kobo, ITunes, and Audible. Soon to be available in Italian on Amazon.it.

Italian Life Rules – Burnt to a Crisp by Lo Sciopero

As the tourist season starts in Italy, the savvy visitor knows to keep in mind that one of the Italian national pastimes is to go on strike. Some years see more of lo sciopero than others, but in these difficult economic and political times in Italy it is certain that 2014 is predicted to be a year of delays and inconvenience.

Just last month, I was on my way to France via trains from Florence to Milan and Milan to Lyon. The day of my travels, the Italian national railways went on strike for eight hours. Lucky for me I was traveling to Milan with the fantastic private rail company Italo and then on to France with the French TGV. But this is what the schedule board looked like in Milan. Note especially the cancellation of trains to the international Malpensa airport.

Train Station in Milan, March 2014

Train Station in Milan, March 2014

Lo Sciopero is a strike or temporary work stoppage. A sciopero can be national or regional or local and can affect only one service sector or many. They inconvenience everyone and help no one, but Italians keep exercising their right to strike.

The most common strikes are local, usually lasting from four hours to one day. Strikes often involve the transportation sector. They are almost invariably announced in advance, which at least helps alert travelers to plan around the dates of strikes and arrange alternative modes of transportation. Occasionally, to make things more complicated, they are cancelled or postponed at short notice.

There are many rail strikes in Italy. They generally take place at the weekend, from Saturday evening until Sunday evening. The law guarantees a minimum service, so some trains should still run. There are also frequent strikes of urban transport. These scioperi are generally announced in advance, and many city transport authorities will try to negotiate continuation of service during the rush hour to help commuters.

A large proportion of Italy’s air travel strikes have involved Alitalia, the perpetually troubled Italian national airline. Sometimes there are more wide-ranging strikes by ground staff or by air traffic controllers, and unfortunately there’s not much travelers can do about this, other than be patient. These strikes usually last several hours; sometimes they simply delay flights, at other times they can lead to cancellations.

Other strikes in Italy – by schoolteachers, students, taxi drivers, garbage collectors, tobacco sellers, even bloggers (2009 to protest a restrictive bill in Parliament) add to the ever-growing variety of Scioperi Italiani. Strikes may even occur in sympathy with strikers from other countries.

When there is a National Strike even the firefighters protest

When there is a National Strike even the firefighters protest

Work stoppages by state employees may affect museum openings. Strikes at individual museums will almost always be timed to back up against the weekly closed day.

Strikes in any industry happen almost every year in the week leading up to and after the national August 15 holiday.

Helpfully, the Commissione di Garanzia Sciopero tracks all of the national, regional, and local strikes and lists them on detailed online spreadsheets.

The granddaddy of all strikes is the national strike (lo sciopero nazionale), all transportation may be stopped or experience a slow-down, garbage won’t be collected, museums will be closed, and many stores, including supermarkets will be shut. National strikes are fairly rare, but it’s a day most Italians know it is hopeless to try to get anything done, better to stay home and catch up on sleep, read a good book or try out that new recipe for slow-cooking peposo di cinghiale.

Tuscan Traveler Tales – 5 Questions for Dianne Hales

 Your day job was as a science and health journalist (I believe, An Invitation to Health is in its 16th Edition), but sometime in the last ten years your writing focus changed to Italy and its language, resulting in the bestselling book La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language. What happened?

Years ago I came to Switzerland to give a talk on sleep (I’d written a book on the subject) and, on an impulse, decided to take a train to Italy. The only Italian I knew was, “Mi dispiace. Non parlo l’italiano.” I was enchanted by everything I saw, but I really wanted to communicate with the Italians who were chattering all around me. So I decided to learn their language.

At the time I had a young child and a busy career, but I began studying Italian any way I could—with books, CDs, audiotapes, classes, tutors. My husband and I began coming to Italy every year on vacation, and we met more and more Italians. I liked them so much that I kept working harder to become fluent so we could become friends—and in many cases, we did.

La Bella Lingua, a memoir and a meditation on language

La Bella Lingua, a memoir and a meditation on language

Along the way, I fell in love with the language. Whenever people ask me why I have such a passion for Italian, I think of Gabriella Ganugi, a chef who heads a prestigious culinary academy in Florence. When she told me that she had originally studied law, I asked how she had acquired her passion for food.

Signora,” she said. “We do not choose our passions; they choose us.” That’s certainly been my experience. The more Italian I learned, the more I wanted to know about its history—which has everything a writer could want in a subject: drama, passion, comedy, beautiful women, gallant heroes, jealousy, rivalry, unscrupulous scoundrels—not to mention glorious music and fabulous food!

One of my favorite “hidden” places in Florence is L’Accademia della Crusca. What did your research at the Accademia entail and what was your overall impression of the environment of the Medici villa and gardens?

One of the most colorful chapters in Italian’s history revolves around a high-spirited group of Renaissance men in Florence, who dedicated themselves to “separating the wheat from the chaff” of the Italian language. They called their group  “L’Accademia della Crusca,” the Academy of the Bran, and went over the top with names and mottos based on the making and baking of bread. They had chairs fashioned from grain barrels and commissioned symbolic paintings on the wooden paddles used to remove loaves from an oven. They adored eating and drinking together at lavish banquets with all sorts of odes and entertainments based on the language.

A pale (shovel) of L'Accademia della Crusca

A pale (shovel) of  Accademia della Crusca

La Crusca’s original location is now, fittingly enough perhaps, an Irish pub in the heart of Florence, but the Academy’s headquarters are in a Medici villa, where—I’ve been told—Botticelli’s Primavera once hung. I approached it like an awestruck pilgrim. I felt as if I were indeed treading on hallowed ground.

I marveled at the great Sala delle Pale, where the baking shovels—Galileo’s among them—hang like shields on the walls. I also got to touch, very gingerly, a first edition of Il Vocabolario, the first true dictionary in the Western world. The elegant library, a veritable cathedral of Italian literature, filled me with reverence for the language that the “Crusconi” fashioned as painstakingly as any work of art.

The tranquil gardens—well worth a visit—strike me as the perfect complement to La Crusca’s mission. Its founders wanted to select the “most beautiful flowers” in the Italian language—and now we have actual flowers and their verbal equivalents in the same place.

Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarità Italiana

Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana

What have been the three most exciting things to happen in your life as a direct result of the publication of La Bella Lingua?

The most incredible was becoming an Italian knight.  In recognition of La Bella Lingua’s contributions to the Italian language, President Napolitano named me a Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana (Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity), awarded to foreigners who promote Italian culture. There was a lovely ceremony at the Consulate in San Francisco, where I received some very impressive medals in three sizes—for business, dressy, and formal occasions!

I also have had the opportunity to present La Bella Lingua in Florence, the cradle of the language. I did one reading in the exquisite hall in the Palazzo Tornabuoni where the very first opera was performed and another in the medieval cloister that now houses the Società Dante Alighieri. I felt that I was truly standing in the shadow of Italy’s greatest poets and artists and, more remarkably, speaking a language they would understand if they suddenly came back to life.

Dianne Hales receives Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarità Italiana

Dianne Hales receives Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana

The most touching experience has come from readers around the world who follow my blog [www.becomingitalianwordbyword.typepad.com] or join my La Bella Lingua group on Facebook. Some say that my book kindled great pride in their Italian heritage or inspired them to study Italian or travel to Italy. It amazes and delights me that our shared love of Italian has created a real bond that unites us regardless of where we live or what our native tongues are.

My favorite chapter was the one on Italian’s parolacce (bad language).  What makes it different from any other language’s swear words?  Did you add any to your vocabulary?

In Italy I’ve always heard parolacce (naughty words) swirling around, but I didn’t realize what a rich history they had. I interviewed a scholar of torpiloquio (which, I learned, is the formal term for foul language), who told me that Italians curse differently: Unlike French, German or English speakers, they express powerful emotions like anger, disgust, surprise, and horror with sexual obscenities rather  than scatalogical ones. There are literally hundreds of suggestive words, euphemisms and vulgarities for everything related to sex.

In my research, I also came across a Dizionario storico del lessico erotico italiano (Historic Dictionary of the Erotic Italian Lexicon), which lists 3,500 parolacce—a truly impressive number. A friend describes them as verbal spices that add zest to everyday Italian.

But even though Italians swear with gusto and creativity, I don’t advise foreigners to try the same. I never swear in Italy, at least not deliberately. However, I have mispronounced words in ways that sound vulgar—but I’m in good company. Pope Francesco did the same while speaking at the Vatican. I think we should both stick with “Mamma mia!”

What’s your next writing project?

When I was in Florence researching La Bella Lingua, I read newspaper reports about the discovery of archival documents from the family of Lisa Gherardini, the real woman in La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa).  Through a family friend, I met the researcher, Giuseppe Pallanti, who gave me a map of the city and marked with X’s the places where Lisa had lived.

When I went to the street where she was born—the rather sad and smelly Via Sguazza—I was struck by the fact that, while everyone knows Mona Lisa’s face (at least as Leonardo portrayed it), no one knows her story.

Dianne Hales signingcopies of La Bella Lingua

Dianne Hales signing copies of La Bella Lingua

I began thinking like a journalist and asking the questions of my trade—who, what, where, when, how and why. I rented apartments in Lisa’s neighborhoods in Florence. I came across a 500-year-old history of her family in the state archives. I walked her streets, visited her churches, found the chapel where she should have been buried—and the abandoned convent where she actually was interred. As I immersed myself in every aspect of daily life in Renaissance Florence, Leonardo’s Lisa began to come alive in my imagination.

The culmination of my quest, MONA LISA: A Life Discovered, will be published this August by Simon and Schuster. I’m very excited about the chance to introduce the real Mona Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo—a fiorentina, a daughter of the Renaissance, a teenage bride, a merchant’s wife, a mother of six and, in her husband’s words, a “noble spirit”—to the world. I plan to come to Florence in the fall to celebrate the city’s most famous daughter in her hometown. I’m hoping to meet you and some of the followers of Tuscan Traveler then. A presto!

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Brainstorming at the Spa in Matera for Writers

Time to get out of Florence (or wherever you might be) and go to Matera in the south of Italy near the heel of the boot. Tuscan Traveler has written about Matera, its bread, and the Women’s Fiction Festival, one of the best conferences for writers worldwide.

Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from suzyguese.com)

Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from suzyguese.com)

One of the geniuses behind the WFF is Elizabeth Jennings. About five years ago she came up with another great idea: Brainstorming at the Spa. This is an intensive weekend for writers that focusses on their individual writing projects. We asked Elizabeth a few questions about what she had in mind when she came up with the inspiration. (Details about joining the group from April 4 to 7, 2014, can be found below.)

The idea for Brainstorming at the Spa in Matera, Italy, came from the highly successful Women’s Fiction Festival held in Matera every September. Please describe the background of Brainstorming at the Spa and how the process works.

In the United States, it is not unusual for writers to hole up in a retreat and brainstorm their current books. Writing is a lonely business and a professional writer, under deadline and working hard, often needs help. The nicer the retreat, the better the work that comes out. There is just something about meeting with your tribe (fellow writers) and talking through your book, in a nice place, that helps you progress. Particularly if there is excellent food and wine to hand.

The process: you might have a couple of books to brainstorm, the current one and future ones or you might have just one book to brainstorm. We all operate on the basis that you are writing professionally, whether published or not. Everyone is very serious about their projects.

The bulk of the work is in the morning from around nine thirty to lunch and a couple of hours after lunch. We divide up the time over the four days so everyone has an equal slot. You describe your book, taking care to establish the genre and the emotional overtones you wish the book to have so that the other Brainstormers understand what you are trying to achieve. You give what elements you have at the moment. Some people bring a fully thought-out synopsis and brainstorm specific plot points. Some people bring a general outline and we work on fleshing it out together.

The writers write across a full range of genres and it is an international group (though we work exclusively in English) and the suggestions and plot points and insights forthcoming are extraordinarily helpful.

The Underground Spa at the Locanda San Martino

The Underground Spa at the Locanda San Martino

We work hard and then in the late afternoon we go to the spa and relax. Where we meet, the Locanda di San Martino has an underground spa guaranteed to relax you after a full day’s work.

We are guided through the brainstorming process by talented agent Christine Witthohn, who has Plot and Story at her fingertips. This year she will be joined by another well known agent, Marlene Stringer. Christine and Marlene also know the book marketplace inside out and their advice is priceless.

Fellow writers help you flesh out and plot your book and our agent coaches help us think in terms of marketability and promotion.

The four days are incredibly helpful. You know how you calculate things in dog years? One year equals seven? Well the Brainstorming at the Spa program operates on Brainstorming time. One day equals several months of agonizing over your book in isolation.

Have any published books had their genesis at Brainstorming at the Spa?

Lisa Marie Rice brainstormed a trilogy published by Avon: HEART OF DANGER, I DREAM OF DANGER and the upcoming BREAKING DANGER. Shannon McKenna brainstormed FATAL STRIKE and IN FOR THE KILL, published by Kensington. Kim Golden solved her plot problems for SNOWBOUND, which she indie-published in November 2013, and MAYBE BABY, which is under consideration with Kensington. S.G. Redling did some world building for DAMOCLES, out now from 47North.  Ann Reavis puzzled out the details of ITALIAN FOOD RULES, MURDER AT MOUNTAIN VISTA and SHADOW OF THE TOWER. Elizabeth Edmondson brainstormed VOYAGE OF INNOCENCE and a forthcoming mystery/thriller set in the 1950s. Elizabeth Aston plotted VALENTINE’S DAY published by Amazon StoryFront. Rosemary Laurey brainstormed a dragon series for Samhain publishing. Nancy Barone brainstormed THE HUSBAND DIET, published by Bookouture. Beate Boeker worked out the details of her TEMPTATION IN FLORENCE mystery trilogy and a stand alone novel MISCHIEF IN ITALY. Claude Nougat added nuance to FOREVER YOUNG. Beatrix Kramlovsky put the final polish on her MEMOIRS OF A VAGABOND.

Brainstormers at Work in Matera (photo by Claude Nougat)

Brainstormers at Work in Matera (photo by Claude Nougat)

Why is the process so productive?

They say that productivity is the speed with which you eliminate wrong answers. The Brainstorming process just speeds up the creative process. Writers do not write in a straight line. We create our books in circles, looping around again and again, trying to make the book fit the images in our heads. The Brainstorming process helps this enormously. Articulating your problems and challenges with other writers, who get it, in a way that others cannot, helps you develop your book. A little like the old fashioned form of film development where the photograph slowly becomes clear.

Let us not forget that the pleasure principle is also at play here. Matera offers world-class food and wine. We work hard and well, we eat and drink well and we relax well in the spa. We meet in a beautiful venue. All these elements stimulate the senses and foment our creativity.

Is Brainstorming at the Spa only for creating ideas for an author’s future books? Are there sessions devoted to other subjects?

The Brainstorming at the Spa program is for professional writers and writers who are serious about their craft. So besides discussing our specific projects we also discuss markets, promotion, how to stay healthy while writing eight hours a day, how to brand ourselves, how to plan a career. All that good stuff.

Why is Matera the perfect place for Brainstorming at the Spa?

Matera is an extraordinarily beautiful city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is, per Italian statistics (ISTAT) the safest city in Italy. The Sassi district, where we meet, is an ancient city carved out of the face of the rock. A stone garden. It is quiet, with no traffic, the only noise the kestrels gathering at dusk. It is an enchanted city, out of time.. The  perfect place to dream your way to a new book.

Come to Brainstorming at the Spa 2014

If you would like to join the group this year, the date s are set for April 4 to 7, at Locanda di San Martino in Matera, Italy. Information and an enrollment form can be found here. If you have any question, please leave a comment on this post or contact me at tuscantrav (at) gmail.com.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – The Tigress of Forlì by Elizabeth Lev

How do you create the perfect Renaissance superhero? Art historian, Elizabeth Lev, narrates the story in her fascinating book, The Tigress of Forlì. The story starts with a baby girl, Caterina Sforza, the illegitimate child of dissolute, but noble Milanese father and a drop-dead gorgeous mother. She is tutored in the classics, learns how to ride a horse and hunt, and masters the management skills of a great household. Then her father arranges for an engagement at age ten (consummated with the fiancée, aged 30) and marriage at age thirteen (blessed by the Pope). She gives birth of her first child at fifteen.

The Tigress of Forli

As her greedy self-serving husband’s health deteriorated, Caterina keeps providing heirs (six), but also takes over the governance of their dominions (Imola and Forlì). The cowardly husband is assassinated and all seems to be lost, but our pregnant superhero escapes her captors, takes up arms and captures the castle. All this happens before she turns thirty.

Then there is a steamy affair with a stable boy, a murder, and a bloody revenge. Machiavelli turns to negotiate peace, she marries a Medici, gives birth to the father of a future Tuscan Grand Duke, is widowed again, and finally loses her castle to Cesare Borgia. This, of course, is not the end of the story. She’s only 36 when Borgia drags her off to prison in Rome. (Spoiler alert: She lives to play with her grandchildren in Florence.)

Elizabeth Lev doesn’t fictionalize Caterina Riario Sforza de’Medici’s life. She doesn’t need to because this is a true case of truth being more amazing than fiction. No, Elizabeth only had to spend years in the archives of Bologna, Florence and Rome, gathering the facts from the dusty pages of history and the spinning them out in a breathtaking narrative of the tale of a true superhero.

Elizabeth Lev, author of The Tigress of Forli

Elizabeth Lev, author of The Tigress of Forlì

Elizabeth, whose formidable resume takes pages to recount, agreed to answer a few questions about her life and The Tigress of Forlì.

I was transported reading your book The Tigress of Forlì, not only to the 15th century Italian city-states, but also to the Italy of today with its convoluted politics, family dynasties and love of gossip. Am I wrong, or has nothing changed in 500 years?

This is what makes history so fun. Human beings, the human condition, means that every age experiences desire for power, pleasure and possessions; but how it plays out against different backdrops and settings has an infinite variety. But amid the schemers and the scandalmongers, a few exceptional people stand out for forging their way in a complicated world and leaving a distinct mark. Caterina Sforza makes a wonderful guide to this era, as her unique viewpoint, enhanced by very human susceptibilities, shows us the Renaissance like we’ve never seen it.

What path did you take from life in the United States to ultimately living in Rome?

I always wanted to live in Europe, even as a kid. Whether it was Ian Fleming’s Bond novels or the Greek myths or the romances of Jane Austen, it seemed to me that all the cool stuff was always happening in stately drawing rooms or under marble porticos or driving along through picturesque European villages. It didn’t take long for me to discover the pictures that made the world even more brilliant: a Dutch still life or Florentine fresco. From the University of Chicago, I was thrilled to be able to study art history abroad for a year at the University of Bologna, and when I finished my degree, I came back to Bologna as a graduate student. My thesis director suggested I write on a Roman subject, and the rest is history.

It seems to me that you were working on a thesis when you were writing The Tigress of Forlì. First, how did you find the time and second, what was the subject of your thesis?

I first ran into Caterina when writing my thesis on the National Church of the Bolognese in Rome (Santi Giovanni e Petronio dei Bolognesi) while tucked away in Imola, where this glamorous countess had lived far away from the city lights for many years. I sympathized with her story—city girl transplanted to the country life—but didn’t actually start the book on her until many years later. At the time I was writing The Tigress of Forlì, I was the single mother of three kids, two teens and a toddler, with two teaching jobs, a regular news column and a full-time schedule of tours. Fortunately, getting up early is easier when aided by fine espresso and the hours spent with Caterina were like spending time with a dear friend.

Why did you decide to write about Caterina Riaro Sforza de’ Medici?

What a woman! What a story! Although victimized, she never made herself a victim, and always got up after any kind of fall. She lived in thrilling times: Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Pope Alexander Borgia, and she played a significant role wherever she went. Caterina was no wallflower. She left her mark, whether with her beauty, her courage or her cannons. She was an amazing challenge to understand. Not all she did was pretty, and to get inside the head and the world of a woman who made such surprising decisions took a lot work, but was so wonderfully worth it!

Giovanni de' Medici was the love of Caterina's life

Giovanni de’ Medici was the love of Caterina’s life

In reading the book, it seems at times that you get so under her skin that you begin to identify with her. Was this a plus, or did you have to make sure you weren’t projecting yourself on her?

There were many things in Caterina’s life that I identified with: being a single mother, and trying to figure out how to keep a family afloat in difficult circumstances among others. Indeed, I believe I brought a unique perspective to certain aspects of her story because I evaluated her options as a woman who had known similar situations. In some cases, where men dismissed her as power hungry or simply inept, I saw strategy. The hardest part to write was the tragedy of her wrongdoings. Caterina made terrible mistakes. In those cases, I found myself not projecting, but looking to her to see how one keeps going after a very public and humiliating fall. I must admit, there were days when I wished I was as tough as she was!

Caterina Sforza appears to be a very liberated, strong woman, once you get past the fact that she was engaged at age ten and forced to wed at age thirteen. Was she unique or were there other women who were equally agile at working the power dynamics of their time and assertive in taking the initiative?

Actually, there are many more remarkable women of the Renaissance than we recognize. Caterina grew up in a world that celebrated a 14-year-old girl named Agnes who had defied the Roman Empire, a world that named a Bolognese woman as patroness of artists, and Caterina herself was named for a 20-something woman from Siena who told the Pope “to be a man.” She was admired by Isabella D’Este—art patron extraordinaire—and knew Lucrezia Borgia (although she didn’t think much of her).

Elizabeth Lev discussing the  fresco by Pinturicchio that depicts Lucrezia Borgia

Elizabeth Lev discussing the fresco by Pinturicchio that depicts Lucrezia Borgia

The women of the Renaissance were trained to be circumspect and modest, but they were also adept at running businesses and complicated households, and at times engaged in the battles for power that raged in their time. Very few actually found themselves in situations where the ability and will to rule came to the fore, but they were formidable when they did. Some dazzled with charm and others with ruthlessness, but Caterina had a substantial dose of both.

Caterina Sforza was an iconoclast in her own time – men rose to fight wars at her behest, wrote poetry in her name, sent snarky reports about her behavior, and debated the political wisdom of killing her off – but it is hard for me to determine how an illegitimate pawn of a noble family got on this rollercoaster to fame. Was it nurture or nature?

Caterina’s father, with all of his obvious flaws, believed in education, whether for sons and daughters, legitimate and illegitimate. As condottieri, the Sforza family also understood that ability to command and to wield weapons was their lifeline. Hunting, like sports today, also taught important life skills for that age. Take that kind of training and put it into a package of natural beauty, fashion sense honed in the glamorous Milan court, brains nourished by Greek philosophers, Latin politicians and Christian thinkers, then add a sense of self-worth given to her by family and faith, and you have the stuff of legend and song.

Portrait of Caterina Sforza by Lorenzo di Credi

Portrait of Caterina Sforza by Lorenzo di Credi

In a time without Facebook and Twitter, the word of Caterina Sforza’s antics seemed to spread throughout the peninsula and into France and Germany. Was this the reality or is just that in The Tigress of Forlì you are recounting the reports sent to various noble courts? Did the common man in Rome or Florence know of Caterina Sforza or was she just the concern of the highest levels of the church and the nobles of warring city-states?

Before Facebook and Twitter, the story had to be really good in order to spread. The ease of information in our age has led to an indiscriminate sense of its value. But an astounding character, like Caterina, who had impressed armies, would soon find pan-European fame, thanks in large part to the mobility of soldiers. They sang ballads of her in France, (“For a good fight call….”), and they whispered about her in Rome. Obviously, in the modern age, she would have been much more notorious, but perhaps the incessant hammering of the modern news machine would have stifled her. It is one thing to make outrageous choices with a few court ambassadors scribbling by the sidelines; it would have been another thing altogether on the ramparts of Ravaldino with news helicopters flying overhead and paparazzi hiding in the bushes.

Please describe how the research for this book was done. How many archives did you use? Were you handling original documents or had they all been copied? What was the best “ah ha” moment you experienced in the research?

The most fruitful were the archives of Milan, Forlì and Florence (where they kept accounts of everything!). It is amazing how well-informed these princes and leaders were. The Vatican archives allowed me to handle the diaries of Pope Sixtus IV, which were so intimate they made me feel like I was in the room at times. Most were copied, except for a few diaries, where the notes in the margins and a text alteration that had happened during Caterina’s lifetime were crucial parts of understanding the text.

The fortress of Ravaldino that Caterina Sforza defended

The fortress of Ravaldino that Caterina Sforza defended

I was struck when I read the accounts of “the retort at Ravaldino,” the most famous event of her life, at how many different versions there were of the story. As I read each account, then read the author’s other writings, then researched the author himself, I began to see how much chronicles and accounts were manipulated in that age. One tends to think that these writers were serious men with a weighty sense of their duty to posterity, but one is a gossip, one is a stalker, one is trying to forge an alliance, one is hysterically prim and so on… It is sort of like reading the Italian newspapers today—read five stories, take an average mean, and you will wind up with an approximation of what might have really happened.

What I enjoyed most about The Tigress of Forlì is that it is a researched (and footnoted) work of nonfiction that reads as smoothly as fiction. This appears to be your first book. How were you able to achieve the descriptive flow?

I have been leading tours for fifteen years and teaching sophomores at Duquesne University for twelve. If you can’t tell a story and weave your facts into vivid picture of people and events, you will find yourself with snoozing tourists and students succumbing to their hangovers. Of course, much of the credit is due to my editor at Harcourt, who had the good sense to tell me to cut out a lot of the academic sounding explanations and always encouraged me to try to find the “voice” of my characters.

This story is so colorful, so exciting, so full of adventure that it almost reads like a movie script. Have you considered making the book into a movie or television series?

As I was writing the book, I saw much of it happening in my mind. The amount of information available allowed me to imagine the sets, the extras, the scenery and of course, as I got to know the people, I would sometimes cast them in my head. It was a great help when trying to get through rough spots where the words just stayed still and dry on the page, to try to see the events taking place, the exchange between the characters, and wonder who would make a good Caterina or Cesare Borgia or Machiavelli. But sadly, Caterina remains for the moment alive in words instead of images.

There are hundreds of convoluted family relationships, fluid political alliances, arcane minutiae about everything from home life to warfare, and more. Did you have a wall full of post-it notes and string to help keep it all straight?

It was a daunting task—learning about the Salt Wars, the Riario dynasty, the fluctuating friendships—and I grew to think about my job as “making perfume.” I’ve heard it takes 60,000 roses to make 1 ounce of rose oil. In many cases to get an event or dynasty straight, it felt like 60,000 sources for one paragraph!!!! The hardest part, however, was seeing my hard-researched work wind up on the editor’s floor. In earlier drafts I meticulously outlined the conflicts and characters, only to have my editor sweep in with her red pen and cut, cut, cut. My editor was a saving grace for the book, however, because a small dab of rose oil is fragrant, but being doused with it would be stifling!

I like to tell visitors to Florence that families like the Medici operated on the “five son formula” for successful dynastic growth. One son for the family business, one for the military, one destined for politics, one entered the church, and a spare. Did Caterina Sforza ascribe to this theory? If so, why were her sons so disappointing? Again, nature or nurture?

Caterina’s children made me much more patient with mine. Her older sons were too lazy for dynasty, too dumb for politics and too cowardly for the military. The interaction between Caterina and her oldest son was so tragicomic at times; they could have had a reality show! Her youngest son was, of course, her darling and became the hero known in the peninsula as “L’Italia”, and her daughter trusted her to help raise her own children, so despite the failure with the oldest boys, Caterina eventually must have done something right.

Is this Caterina Sforza in Botticelli's Sistine Chapel fresco?

Is this Caterina Sforza in Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel fresco?

Finally, Botticelli. Did Giovanni de’ Medici, Caterina’s last husband, grow up in a home where Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus were on the walls? Did Giovanni’s father commission these paintings? And, how did you learn that Caterina is depicted in The Purification of the Lepers by Botticelli, located in the Sistine Chapel?

The earliest mention of Botticelli’s two most famous works has them in the Medici Villa Castello owned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici of the cadet branch and brother of Caterina’s husband. Caterina herself also lived there at the end of her life. Lorenzo is also the one who commissioned the illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy from Botticelli. I find it comforting that this warrior princess found true love with a family of great art patrons—no wonder Botticelli loved painting images of how love conquers all!

Ludwig von Pastor, in his History of the Popes made an interesting excursus into the panel paintings of the Sistine Chapel. To be honest, he identified Caterina as one of the daughters of Jethro in the Botticelli image on the opposite wall. But Pastor also pointed out that the Purification, across from the papal throne, had several unique qualities that were all family references. I knew Caterina was pregnant at the time; all sources said that Sixtus doted on her, and the viper playing around the child’s feet seemed to allude to the Sforza family symbol. It was a great moment to be able to make a new argument for her identity in that great space!

What led to your involvement in the book, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches?

George Weigel has been a friend of mine for years and indeed it was he that introduced me to my agent when it came time to publish The Tigress of Forlì. George came to me when the Caterina project was over and asked me if I would like to co-write a book with him. He is an outstanding writer, with great turns of phrase and clear, powerful prose and I was honored to be part of this project. It was wonderful to be able to see these Roman churches as part of a community of worshippers and to feel the connections between the buildings we admire today and the burgeoning, vibrant Christian community of sixteen hundred years ago.

Do you plan to write another biography? If so, of whom?

I have recently published a book with Father José Granados on the Theology of the Body as expressed in the art collection of the Vatican Museums, and now I am trying to get back into more of an art history groove. I am looking to work on something involving Michelangelo and I am also looking at another project to capitalize on my specialized knowledge of the Vatican collections.

A review of The Tigress of Forlì by Elizabeth Lev can be found here.

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