This is a book that starts with an ending: the death of an elderly nun in a 15th century Italian convent. A mystery is sparked when it is discovered that the nun’s tumor appears to have been faked and she has an evocative tattoo entwining her torso where it has been hidden by her habit.
From there the story vaults to the beginning - to when this mysterious nun was a 14 year old Florentine named Alessandra. Alessandra is presented as the youngest daughter of a rich cloth merchant. She is clever, and inquiring, chafing at her incredibly sheltered existence. Most of all she loves art and has tried, with no instruction except books, learn to create it. The story is told from her perspective and she chooses to start her story on the night her father brought home a painter to live with them and paint their family chapel. It is that night, she believes, that shaped the rest to come.
The city of Florence is also an important character in the book. On first meeting the City is at its zenith ready to topple over the edge into the abyss. Art and beauty are everything and the Medicis rule the city. The middle part of the book lays out Florence’s downfall first through a “friendly” occupation by the French and then a coup by an ultra-conservative cleric who locks down the city and decrees art to be ungodly.
All this unrest is viewed through the very personal story of Alessandra. She is a wonderful storyteller and while she is easy to like, she does not spare us from her fits of childish moodiness and brazen naiveté. It is an extremely engaging tale she tells, that winds its way through a gripping series of events to finally bring us to the mysterious and, for me, heartbreaking death of a nun.
This was great historical fiction. I have already picked up and am reading another book by Sarah Dunant as I really enjoyed this one.