Botticelli’s Muse, the first in Dorah Blume’s trilogy set in Renaissance Florence, begins in 1477, when the artist Sandro Botticelli is dismissed by his friend and patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici. Forced to work for Lorenzo’s fifteen-year-old cousin, Piero, Sandro runs out of ideas for his art until he meets Floriana, a Jewish weaver imprisoned in his sister’s convent. Sandro and Floriana are attracted to each other, and she becomes the inspiration for his masterpiece La Primavera. But, because of the difference in their religions, they cannot marry. When church officials threaten to force Floriana to convert, she goes into hiding. Meanwhile, the young Dominican friar Savonarola sets out on a mission to save souls. He knows of a secret in Floriana’s past and threatens to keep her and Sandro apart. Sandro learns of a plot to overthrow the Medici family, and has to choose between his love for Floriana and his loyalty to his patrons.
The novel is beautifully written, with great insight into the life of an artist, and what inspires artists to choose their subjects. Blume is an artist herself, and her delightful illustrations illuminate the story. The characters are believable, with Sandro and Floriana as an appealing hero and heroine. Savonarola is portrayed as a complex character with a violent past, but not entirely unsympathetic, as the reader learns what motivates him. Blume includes some loveable fictional characters, such as Sandro’s sister Oslavia and young Piero’s generous nursemaid, Poppi. But I was surprised to find some glaring anachronisms in an otherwise meticulously researched novel. These include a mention of tomatoes, which could not have been available anywhere in Europe before 1492, and references to the Via Cavour, which did not exist until the 19th century. I hope these will be corrected in later editions.