Please welcome Mary Jane Beaufrand, author of Primavera and fellow Seattle-area resident, to Damsels in Regress.
1. What drew you to this particular event in history? How much of the book is fact and how much did you get to invent?
I was drawn to the Pazzi Rebellion because I loved the contrast of the beauty and the brutality. We tend to think of the Florentine Renaissance as this great flowering of ideas, when all these wonderful thinkers and artists appeared. And yet, here was this bloody spectacle which was anything but enlightened. I thought it was really interesting that Lorenzo de Medici, the great patron of the arts, was behind both.
As to what was fact, and how much I made up: there was no Flora. Other than that I stuck as close to history as I could. The names of her brothers and their fates, for example. The dates of the actual Botticelli paintings. The fact that the Medici and Pazzi families had this tremendous bloody clash.
2. You mention a trip to Florence in your acknowledgements. What did you gain from that trip that you wouldn’t have gotten if you hadn’t gone?
The book was mostly completed and with my publisher by the time I could get away. Still, there were minor things I tweaked based on what I found, like the color of the tile roofs, for example. But there was one woo-woo of a detail that validated some of the work I’d already done.
We don’t know much about the real Alessandro Botticelli. All we know for sure is that his real name was Filipepi. “Botticelli” was the name he took. It means “little barrels” in Italian. The sources I read said that his nickname came from his build, that he was short and round. Not a lot on which to base such an important character in a novel. So in Primavera, I gave him a drinking problem.
When I got to Italy, my guide said that my source was wrong, and that the painter was called Botticelli because he drank a lot of “little barrels.” I got a good yuck out of that one. He was a lush after all.
3. What were some of your challenges when writing and/or researching this book?
The research was more of a joy than it was drudgery. I really enjoyed looking at paintings and reading about Florentine history. The major challenge was more emotional for me. I had a real-life Italian friend named Emilio who died suddenly in a mountaineering accident in the Alps when I started writing this. I felt like I should finish it for him. I suppose it was therapeutic, that writing Primavera helped me work through the grief. But especially in the end chapters, I went through a ton of Kleenex.
4. What is your background with respect to Renaissance art? Is it a life-long passion or something that required a lot of research for you?
I don’t know that I’d call it a life-long passion since I only picked it up during Art 101 in college. It was a class that took place in a big auditorium and had a lecturer at the front and flashed slides of different artwork on the big screen. We’d just finished a unit on medieval architecture, lots of solid arches and heavy stones. I’ll never forget the day the lecturer threw a slide of the duomo on the screen, and how the hundreds of students in that auditorium, me included, sat up a little straighter. Ooooo . . . . pretty . . . .
And since I went to school in Boston, there was also this wonderful museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where I used to go on weekends. It used to be Mrs. Gardner’s home, and she didn’t believe in those little plaques most museums have on walls to describe the works of art. She thought spectators should react to art on its own without the cheat sheet. I originally saw Botticelli’s “Madonna of the Grapes and Wheat” there, which is the painting I imagine Botticelli painting of Domenica. Amazing stuff.
5. Your most recent novel is contemporary. Do you have any more historicals in the works? If so, what are some time periods you’d like to explore?
At the moment I’m working on a project that takes place in the 1980s, which, my agent informs me, isn’t old enough to be historical. Huh. I suppose that’s good since that’s when I came of age. Nice to know I’m not a fossil yet.
But after I’m done with this project, hopefully I’ll be able to get back to another book I’ve been kicking around that takes place in Wellesley College in 1912, when the campus burned down. All the students made it out of the fire unharmed, even saved valuable books and letters from the library by passing them through an open window, bucket-brigade style. One of the students who helped was Harriet Stratemeyer, who went on to be one of the two women who created Nancy Drew.
I once saw a letter from a father to his daughter in the aftermath of the fire (not Nancy Drew’s mommy—some other student). He wrote, “How could you have saved those books but left your fur coat behind?”
That still tickles me. I’m hoping to get back to that particular moment in history soon.
Stay tuned Friday for a chance to win Mary Jane’s book!