Sofia Barducci is born into a world where a woman is only as good as the man who cares for her, but she still claims the right to make her own mistakes. Trained in secret by her father to create the beautifully crafted panels and altarpieces acclaimed today as masterpieces of late medieval art, Sofia’s desire for freedom from her father’s workshop leads her to betray her passion and sink into a life of loveless drudgery with a husband who despises her when she does not produce a son.
In an attack motivated by vendetta, Sofia’s father is crushed by his own fresco, compelling Sofia to act or risk the death of her soul. The choice she makes takes her on a journey from misery to the heights of passion—both as a painter and as a woman. Sofia escapes to Siena where, disguised as a boy, she paints again. When her work attracts the notice of a nobleman who discovers the woman under the dirty smock, Sofia is faced with a choice that nearly destroys her.
The Towers of Tuscany unites a strong heroine with settings and characters drawn from the rich tapestry of medieval Tuscany. The novel will appeal to readers fascinated by art, by Tuscany during one of Europe’s most turbulent centuries, and by the struggles of a gifted painter who refuses to be defeated.
Winner of the Chaucer Award for Best Historical Fiction Pre-1750 and designated Editor's Choice by the Historical Novel Society. The Towers of Tuscany is also translated into German and Czech.
Scroll down to check out my Author Notes, Discussion Questions for book groups, an Art Guide to the kind of artwork Sofia would be creating in the 14th century, and a list of selected sources for the novel. If you have questions about The Towers of Tuscany, I'm always happy to chat! Just contact me.
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Do you speak German and/or Czech? You can purchase the German and Czech translations of The Towers of Tuscany!
The hill town of San Gimignano is justifiably famous for the thirteen towers that march dramatically across the Tuscan skyline. But in its heyday in the 14th century, the skyline bristled with more than 70 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 14th 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 as it appeared in 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 guide was pure bliss.
A few days later, I took a bus to Siena and visited the Pinacoteca Nazionale, an art museum that features room after room of paintings from the 14th century. Almost every painting is a “Maestà”—a Madonna and Child. In the 14th century, the Madonna was a popular subject, more popular, by far, than Christ. The Madonna’s popularity waned in the 15th and later centuries, possibly as a result of Church fears that she was becoming 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 15th 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 14th century Sienese artist to depict towers in a landscape.
I hope readers of The Towers of Tuscany explore the art of 14th century Tuscany. Figures and buildings are flattened and stylized, perspective is only hinted at, and the warm colors 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 14th century and changed Europe forever.
Book Club Questions
- How does Sofia change and develop over the course of the novel?
- How do Sofia’s interactions with the principal men in her life—Giorgio, her father, Francesco, and Salvini—reveal her character?
- 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?
- 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?
- Did Sofia make the right choice when she refused to marry Salvini? Why or why not?
- So far as we know, the only women who painted in 14th 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?
- 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 colored her worldview?
- 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?
- 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?
- Although Sofia and Caterina represent opposites—the rebel and the conformer—both women find fulfillment. How are they ultimately very similar?
- 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 14th century and for Marla in the 21st century Epilogue?
- 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?
- At the beginning of 1348, more than 13,000 people lived in San Gimignano. Six months later, only 4,000 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?
- Antonia goes with Francesco to Siena. What do we hope might happen to her?
- 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?
- 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”?
If you are reading The Towers of Tuscany and you’d like to know about the art of 14th century Tuscany, check out the links to the Art Guide I’ve prepared to accompany the novel. You’ll see pictures of the kind of art that Sofia created and some of the very famous works that influenced her and inspired many of the scenes in the novel.
Sofia paints several small panels of the Nativity. She adds a tower to one Nativity panel near the beginning of the novel. Later in the novel, Sofia makes Joseph an old and tired man in the Nativity panel that is painted for Matteo Salvini, the man she falls in love with. Below is a version of the Nativity painted by Duccio, one of Siena's most renowned painters in the 14th century. You can see a great deal of Duccio's work in Siena today, particularly in the museum for Siena Cathedral.
Sofia is thrilled when finally she is permitted to paint a scene of the Annunciation--when Mary is approached by the Angel Gabriel and informed that she will be the mother of Jesus. Here's how the scene is described in the novel: While her brush moved, her mind moved faster as she thought how to arrange the figures of the archangel Gabriel and the Holy Mother in an Annunciation panel. She would make Mary young and beautiful, of course, but she would also show something of her fear, maybe have her turning away slightly from Gabriel. Below is the famous Annunciation by Simone Martini painted in 1333. You can view this painting in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It's truly a masterpiece of the 14th century.
Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good and Bad Government
Almost all paintings of the period depicted religious subjects. However, some painters, such as Lorenzetti in Siena, painted secular subjects. One of the first secular works--and certainly one of the most famous--is the fresco titled Allegory of Good and Bad Government. You can visit the fresco in the Palazzo Pubblicco in Siena. In the detail below, the architecture Siena--its towers and workshops--is clearly depicted along with lively scenes of everyday life.
Before her marriage, Sofia is taken by her father to visit Lorenzetti as he was on the fresco in Siena.
In the novel, Sofia paints a version of the story of Santa Lucia. Here's the description: Sofia had painted one of the oxen with its neck extended and its snout high in the air, straining to pull the saint off her feet. The panel that Sofia painted was similar to the one shown below. This panel was painted by Giovanni di Bartolommeo Cristiani, a Florentine painter active between 1367-1398 (a few decades after the narrative in The Towers of Tuscany.)
Simone Martini’s Frescoes
Sofia is taken to see Martini’s frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico (they are still there in Siena). She marvels at Martini’s use of architecture in the fresco of General Guidoriccio (right) and the use of light in the Maestà fresco.
Small panels depicting the Virgin and Child were commonly painted as devotional items. Sofia is commissioned to paint a Maestà that uses her lover’s betrothed for the face of Mary—the ultimate insult. To the right is a detail from Martini’s Maestà fresco in the Palazzo Pubblico.
Almost all painting of the period depicted religious subjects. In fact, one of the very first secular works is Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government fresco (detail shown above). Before her marriage, Sofia sees Lorenzetti working on the fresco in Siena. Depicting architecture fascinates Sofia until finally she paints the small panel of the towers of San Gimignano that will survive to our time. Shown below is another of Lorenzetti’s secular paintings – City by the Sea that is the direct inspiration for Sofia’s panel.
List of Sources
Boccacio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1351?, 1993. Translation by Guido Waldman.
Cole, Bruce. The Renaissance Artist at Work: From Pisano to Titian. London: John Murray, 1983.
Dean, Trevor. The Towns of Italy in the Later Middle Ages. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.
Frugoni, Chiara. A Day in A Medieval City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Jansen, Katherine L., Joanna Drell, and Frances Andrews, Eds. Medieval Italy: Texts in Translation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
Kelly, John. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.
Maginnis, Hayden B.J. The World of the Early Sienese Painter. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Norman, Diana. Painting in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.
Ward, Jennifer. Women in Medieval Europe 1200-1500. London: Pearson Education, 2002.
Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.