Nonna's Book of Mysteries

by Mary Osborne

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Nonna's Book of Mysteries by Mary Osborne In fifteenth-century Florence, Italy, Emilia treasures Nonna's Book of Mysteries, an alchemy manual handed down from her great-great-great-grandmother. Along with instructions for the transformation of other metals into gold, which can also be understood symbolically as a process of purifying the soul, the book contains passages from Plato and a sage known as Hermes Trismegistus. Emilia knows she must keep the book a secret. Some people would find it heretical.

Emilia aspires to become an artist. With her father's grudging consent she has disguised herself as a boy to apprentice with a painter. After her wavy, blonde hair spills from under her cap and she is sent away, disaster turns into opportunity. As Nonna's Book says, "Be grateful ... for the many trials God grants you along the path of wisdom, for these are signs of His love for you." Emilia will make many mistakes on her path toward wisdom. Though kind-hearted, she is also high-spirited, determined and dazzled by the luxury of a rich man's villa. She trusts where she should not and fails to trust where she should. But she earnestly desires to improve both her soul and her artistic skill, desires which come together as she learns to paint icons.

The romantic plot involving two admirers may be a bit predictable, but Nonna's Book of Mysteries offers a charming introduction to Renaissance thought for readers with mystical leanings. The historical figure Marsilio Ficino, who made the flowering of Renaissance philosophy possible by translating Plato into Latin, plays a key role in saving the day for Emilia. But it is really Emilia, guided by the ancient wisdom she strives to understand, who saves herself. (2010; 326 pages including a Glossary and Bibliography. Recommended for age 12 and up.)

More about Nonna's Book of Mysteries at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

Other YA novels about Renaissance artists:

The Medici Seal by Theresa Breslin (2008), about a boy who is taken in by Leonardo Da Vinci after the artist's companions save him from drowning while he attempts to escape a murderous brigand. More info

Leonardo's Shadow: Or, My Astonishing Life as Leonardo da Vinci's Servant by Christopher Grey (2006), about a boy who works as a servant for the artist Leonardo da Vinci in fifteenth-century Milan. More info

The Smile by Donna Jo Napoli (2008), about a girl who believes herself to be plain but inspired Leonardo Da Vinci's famous painting, the Mona Lisa. More info

Nonfiction about alchemy:

The Path of Alchemy: Energetic Healing and the World of Natural Magic by Mark Stavish (2006). More info

Alchemy & Mysticism by Alexander Roob (575-page edition 2006; some editions are abbreviated to 191 pages). More info

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Alchemy by Dennis William Hauck (2008). More info


The Alchemy Web Site

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