Discussion Questions

Here is a selection of questions you can use to facilitate discussions between members of your book club. If you have ideas for additional questions, please let me know – carolcram [at] gmail.com

  1. How does Sofia change and develop over the course of the novel?
  2. How do Sofia’s interactions with the principal men in her life—Giorgio, her father, Francesco, and Salvini—reveal her character?
  3. Manzini quotes a real law to Sofia after seeing a young woman whipped in the streets. What does this law tell us about gender-bending in medieval Italy?
  4. Salvini is already half in love with Sofia before he discovers she is a woman. Would his love for her have been as intense if he’d never had the chance to know her first as a boy?
  5. Did Sofia make the right choice when she refused to marry Salvini? Why or why not?
  6. So far as we know, the only women who painted in fourteenth-century Italy were nuns who illuminated manuscripts in isolated convents. There is no documented evidence of women painting alongside men in artist workshops. However, is it plausible that women could have painted and participated in other professions ostensibly closed to them? Why or why not?
  7. Like many artists of the period, Sofia’s father travelled extensively to fulfill commissions. He took his precocious daughter with him on many of these trips. What are some ways in which Sofia’s travel experience (unusual for a woman at the time) might have coloured her worldview?
  8. During the time period in the novel, humanist thinkers such as Petrarch were starting to question established orders. Sofia’s father was both a thinker and a painter. He taught his daughter about logic and about thinking for herself. How do her father’s attitudes about the Church, beauty, logic, and the role of women influence the choices Sofia makes?
  9. Although Sofia learned about logic from her father, she lived in an intensely religious time where angels and demons were considered real, not imagined. How do Sofia’s beliefs influence the choices she makes?
  10. Although Sofia and Caterina represent opposites—the rebel and the conformer—both women find fulfillment. How are they ultimately very similar?
  11. The theme of the novel is the triumph of the creative spirit. How is this theme realized both for Sofia and her daughter, Antonia, in the fourteenth century and for Marla in the twenty-first century Epilogue?
  12. What is the significance of the painting of the towers of San Gimignano that Sofia hides at the end of the novel and that is purchased by Marla in the Epilogue? Consider that secular art was almost unknown during this period. The vast majority of all art produced depicted religious subjects. Sofia views some secular works in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. How might her viewing of these works have influenced her choice of subject when she takes refuge at the tower outside San Gimignano during the plague?
  13. At the beginning of 1348, more than thirteen thousand people lived in San Gimignano. Six months later, only four thousand people remained. Other communities in Europe lost up to 90 per cent of their inhabitants. As far as many people were concerned, the plague was the end of the world. Of course, the world survived. How is the journey of Sofia’s final painting of the towers a metaphor for survival and the healing power of art?
  14. Antonia goes with Francesco to Siena. What do we hope might happen to her?
  15. In the Epilogue, Sofia’s painting of the towers is described as having no firm attribution but presumed to be a particularly fine example of the work of Manzini or Barducci. How might the value of the painting change if it could be proved that it was the work of a woman? Would it matter?
  16. Bruce Cole, in The Renaissance Artist at Work, writes, “Our notion of a work of art would have been unintelligible to someone living in the Renaissance [or the Middle Ages]” (35). Cole states that “art was created for practical purposes” and had to be “well-conceived, well-wrought, and long lasting. [The artist’s] creation was perceived not only as a Virgin and Child or a Resurrection of Christ but as an object with a function, a thing made by a skilled craftsman for a specific commission” (32). How does this attitude toward art differ from our twenty-first century notion of art as intensely individual and “original”?