Da Vinci’s Tiger

Written by L.M. Elliott
Review by Sarah Johnson

When there are gems like this to be found, it’s no wonder adults get in the habit of raiding bookstores’ YA sections. This lyrical character-driven novel is narrated by 17-year-old Ginevra de’ Benci Niccolini, daughter of a banking family in 15th-century Florence, who was one of Leonardo da Vinci’s early subjects. His painting of her is groundbreaking for its forward-facing gaze and backdrop of the natural world. Ginevra was also a poet, although only one line remains of her writing (the book’s title derives from this).

Ginevra is the wife of a kind but distant wool merchant twice her age. Her marriage was arranged by her uncle and Lorenzo de’ Medici, and despite her convent education and spirited wit, she’s used to having little say in her life. However, when Venetian ambassador Bernardo Bembo decides to make her his Platonic lover and commissions her portrait, it pushes her to consider delicate matters of the heart, especially when Bembo seems to want more than idolizing her from afar. Her sympathetic mentor, Abbess Scolastica, gives her wise advice on how she can retain her virtue and make her own voice heard.

Ginevra’s movements around the city create a richly detailed tour of Florentine history and culture, from an exciting joust at the Piazza di Santa Croce to the peace of the Le Murate convent – famous for its sisters’ gold-thread embroidery – to a fancy dinner party at the Palazzo Medici, where the strange new table fork is introduced. Elliott also brings readers into the studio with Leonardo, imagining the artistic decisions behind Ginevra’s portrait. Her research is thorough and enthusiastic, so much so that Ginevra’s story sometimes fades into the background, but anyone fascinated by the setting won’t mind. Speaking to the theme of women’s agency in restrictive times, this is a beautiful and thoughtful read for teenagers on up.