The hill town of San Gimignano is justifiably famous for the thirteen towers that march so dramatically across the Tuscan skyline. But in its heyday in the fourteenth century, the skyline bristled with more than seventy towers. The idea for The Towers of Tuscany grew from my musings about what such a small town must have looked like with so many towers. I couldn’t even imagine it! I began the novel with the idea that the main character, Sofia, would paint a landscape featuring the towers of San Gimignano, even though I was well aware that painters during the fourteenth century almost never depicted secular subjects. But as Sofia began to come alive for me, the idea of her painting the towers just wouldn’t go away. I had to find some way to make the story plausible.
Fortunately, help arrived. Not long after I started the novel, I discovered that two amazing artists in San Gimignano had created a scale model of the town in the year 1300. Imagine my delight! Now it was possible for me to see what the city might have looked like in the 1340s. I had my flight booked to Italy before I’d even closed the web page for San Gimignano 1300. The morning I spent at the San Gimignano 1300 museum with the very well-informed young guide was pure bliss.
A few days later, I took a bus to Siena and visited the lovely Pinacoteca Nazionale, an art museum that features room after room after room of paintings from the fourteenth century. Almost every painting is a “Maestà”—a Madonna and Child. In the fourteenth century, the Madonna was a popular subject, more popular, by far, than Christ. The Madonna’s popularity waned in the fifteenth and later centuries, possibly as a result of Church fears that she was getting a bit too influential.
In a dimly lit corner of the Pinacoteca, almost lost among all those staring Madonna eyes, I found a tiny panel depicting a town of towers on the shores of the sea. Called City by the Sea (Città sul mare), the panel is attributed to Sassetta in the fifteenth century, but later I read that some experts dispute this attribution and believe the panel was painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in 1340. Lorenzetti also painted the magnificent fresco Effects of Good and Bad Government on the Town and Country that Sofia sees on a visit to Siena with her father and that I saw the day before in Siena’s beautiful Palazzo Pubblico. For the purposes of my novel, I decided to go with an attribution of 1340 for the little panel of the towers, with apologies to Sassetta. As far as I was concerned, Lorenzetti was not going to be the only fourteenth-century Sienese artist to depict towers in a landscape.
I hope readers of The Towers of Tuscany check out the art of fourteenth-century Tuscany. Figures and buildings are flattened and stylized, perspective is only hinted at, and the warm colours are redolent of the Tuscan sun. Check out the work of Giotto, Duccio, Martini, and Lorenzetti. In my opinion, the more florid realism of paintings done a century later in the Renaissance lacks the intense, naive, and yet wonderfully sophisticated soul of paintings created in the decades before plague bisected the fourteenth century and changed Europe forever.