The Daughter of Siena
by Marina Fiorato
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The Daughter of Siena is a thriller crafted around the rule of Violante Beatrice, the widow of a Medici prince, as Governor of the Italian city of Siena in the early eighteenth century. Then as now, Siena was a colorful place, divided into numerous contrade, city divisions with traditional rivalries and alliances which erupted picturesquely into the open during the Palio. In this horse race, still celebrated twice every summer, many of the the contrade sponsor riders and compete with a passion worthy of their medieval forebears.
The central character, Pia Tolomei, is named after an ancestress portrayed in Dante's Divine Comedy whose disastrous fate she would prefer to avoid. Her father, a leader of the Owl Contrada, forces her to wed the sadistic son of a leader of the Eagle Contrada. She begins to realize she is a pawn in a complicated scheme of "The Nine," a secretive group of contrada representatives plotting to wrest control of Siena from the benign but weak Violante during the second Palio of the season. Violante, vaguely aware of undercurrents of discontent and disorder in her city, determines to become a better Governor while contemplating the fresco of the "Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government" in her residence, the Palazzo Publicco. A handsome horseman's selfless act during the season's first Palio gets the story going, and from there out, the ride is fast and furious, full of startling twists and turns.
The primary characters, either paragons of goodness or steeped in evil, invite love or hate on first appearance. Readers will most enjoy the breathless pace of The Daughter of Siena if they don't mind suspending credibility as coincidences mount and physical impossibilities (like a system for fixing elections by weighting the black or white balls used to cast votes) are slipped in to make the plot hang together. For travelers, it offers a panoramic introduction to the culture and traditions of Siena. (2011; 387 pages, including a Historical Note on the later fates of the historical characters)
More about The Daughter of Siena at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Other novels featuring members of the Medici family:
A Tabernacle for the Sun by Linda Proud (2005), about a young man who wants revenge on Lorenzo de Medici. See review or More info at Godstow Press
The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner (2010), a biographical novel about Catherine de Medici. See review or More info at Powell's Books
The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas (2011), about Lucrezia de Medici's marriage to the dangerous Alfonso d'Este. More info
Nonfiction with information about Violante de Medici and Siena:
The Last Medici by Harold Acton (1980), about Violante's sister-in-law Anna Maria Luisa de Medici. More info
Siena, the City of the Virgin by Margaret Mcdonough Brown and Titus Buckhardt (1960). More info
Siena, Civil Religion and the Sienese by Gerald Parsons (2004). More info
Illustrated blog about the fresco Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government in Siena's Palazzo Publico, at the My Daily Art Display blog. Scroll down for the posts dated February 12, 13 and 14, 2011.
Wikipedia article about the Palio di Siena
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