Tuscan Daughter: A Novel

Written by Lisa Rochon
Review by Jinny Webber

In the village of Settignano outside Florence, Beatrice was orphaned by her father’s murder and her mother’s abandonment. Through her, Tuscan Daughter brings to life the early 16th century in that celebrated city. Beatrice, who sells olive oil to sustain herself, is involved in various ways with chief persons of the era, including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the Mona Lisa of Leonardo’s portrait. On her quest to find her mother, we see the impoverished as well as the wealthy and newly wealthy in artistic, mercantile Florence.

In her author’s note, Lisa Rochon says that historically, Michelangelo is known to have mentored at least one female artist, and here, it’s Beatrice, whose talents shine even when she’s charcoaling images on walls. Adding to the female perspective is Agnella, a healer sometimes seen as a near-witch, Mona Lisa herself, and the feminist attitudes of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and, in a cameo, Botticelli. Walking the streets of Florence with Beatrice and her cart to deliver olive oil to some of its iconic artists is a stimulating experience. With her we witness their creativity in action and the nuances of her relationships with them. Both through the subjects of their art, e.g. Michelangelo’s David and Leonardo’s Virgin and St. Anne, and in the central characters’ lives, are reflected the many faces of love, sometimes braided with sorrow, even hatred. Tuscan Daughter is carefully researched with an engaging, spirited protagonist. An occasional anachronism stops the narrative flow, such as ‘prime real estate’ and ‘cult of personality,’ but it easily resumes. Readers drawn to historical novels about artists or set in Italy will especially enjoy Tuscan Daughter, but its appeal is broader, through Beatrice’s struggles and triumphs. Recommended.