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Excerpt: PORTRAIT OF A CONSPIRACY by Donna Russo Morin

June 30, 2016

Excerpt from PORTRAIT OF A CONSPIRACY by Donna Russo Morin

Viviana stood near the front of the congregation beside the Conte and Contessa, for once as enthralled with Fiammetta’s rank as Fiammetta always had been. She forgot any and all earlier concerns; her slippered feet—her best pair, though worn—tapped upon patterned marble, her thumbs twirled around in the clasp of her hands. It was the best attempt at quiet reverence she could manage within the multitude of distractions.

The Gothic vaults of the central nave towered above, guarded by the columns and round arches of ancient Rome, so high only birds could reach its apex, set aglow by the sweet light streaming in through the mammoth clerestory windows. It was a cave of wonders built by the hand of man, a hand guided by God.

Viviana aimed her eyes forward, on the priest standing in wait, small and encapsulated within the chancel and the cupola over it.

“Where is our Lapaccia?” Fiammetta leaned close to whisper, and Viviana could merely shrug in ignorance. They had planned to be together on this special occasion but the woman and her son were nowhere in sight.

Mass was often no more than an excuse to see and be seen, but never before had Viviana witnessed so many watching so many others. Yes, it was Ascension Day and with a cardinal coming to celebrate it at that. Still, the congregation appeared incongruently heavy with men…well-dressed, well-outfitted, standing side by side, and yet apart.

A metal hinge creaked; Viviana blinked as sunlight and the Medici brothers burst through the door. The chorus struck a rousing chord as if to sing their praises and not those of God. Both brothers accompanied the cardinal to his seat beneath the cupola. Viviana lowered her head as the priests began their parade of blessing, thuribles clacking, releasing the spicy scent of the incense that did little to mask the odor of so many bodies packed side by side.

The brothers separated, each taking the head of one side of the congregation, as far apart and as far forward as they could, Lorenzo to the left, Giuliano to just a few rows before Viviana. She wondered if perhaps they separated to discourage contrast of one so powerful and one so beautiful. With them and their group, the church filled— dignitaries, nobles, clergy, and dashing soldiers; Viviana tried not to stare at the luminaries but failed. A few she recognized as those she had seen approach with the Medici contingent, malcontent slick upon their faces, shrouded in a disquiet out of sorts with such a hallowed place.

Many congregants marveled at the sight of the Medici brothers and their guests. Viviana felt it too, their magnetism. But at the glimpse of one of the men among them, at the tall, thin man most simply called da Vinci, her breath became a shallow, elusive thing. Her emulation of the artist bordered on obsession, regardless of the salacious rumors that swirled around him like a storm.

Movement snatched her attention. Archbishop Salviati, the hem of his rich purple cappa magna slapping at his ankles, scampered down the far aisle on his short legs. Viviana turned rudely from the altar—eyes wide, brows high—following the clergyman hurrying past the ranks. Oh, over there now—an equally disruptive sight.

Messer Jacopo de’ Pazzi, the presiding patriarch of the powerful family, yanked her gaze to the right as he too rushed from the cathedral, and out the opposite door.

Viviana looked round, forehead creased, wide blue eyes beseeching; had none of the other congregants seen what she had, did they not find it baffling? True, she was not so familiar with Mass among esteemed patrons, but none considered such displays of disrespect normal. Did they?

“Bene dictam, adscrí ptam, ra tam, rationábilem, acceptabilém fácere dignéris.”

Viviana pinned her gaze forward, shaking her head softly to set aside and away all confusing thoughts, for the priest was making the sign of the cross, three times, over the great chalice. The Consecration had begun, the blessing of the body and blood of Christ. In this moment, she often found the greatest connection to Jesus.

Today it was not to be.

The bell rang, the host was elevated, and…


The scream tore through the church, a shrieking, evil explosion. Viviana’s breath faltered, her heart hammered. Directly in front of her, directly beside Giuliano de’ Medici, a mad man came to life. He was not alone.

“Look out!” Viviana screeched and pointed at the daggers raised high. Just as the priest upon the altar raised the host, the shiny steel flashed in her gaze, the flaying weapon intent upon spreading pure madness. Downward they plunged.

Viviana’s world turned blood-red.


Book One

Portrait of a Conspiracy

Da Vinci’s Disciples

One murder ignites the powder keg that consumes a Florence under the iron rule of the powerful Medici family. Amidst the chaos, five women and one legendary artist weave together a dangerous plot that could bring peace, or get them all killed.

Seeking to wrest power, members of the Pazzi family drew their blades in a church and slew the beloved Giuliano. But Lorenzo de’ Medici survives, and seeks revenge on everyone involved, plunging the city into a murderous chaos. Bodies are dragged through the streets, and no one is safe.

Five women steal away to a church to ply their craft in secret. Viviana, Fiammetta, Isabetta, Natasia, and Mattea are painters, not allowed to be public with their skill, but freed from the restrictions in their lives by their art. When a sixth member of their group, Lapaccia, goes missing, and is rumored to have stolen a much sought after painting before she vanished, the women must venture out into the dangerous streets to find their friend. They will have help from one of the most renowned painters of their era―the peaceful and kind Leonardo Da Vinci.

It is under his tutelage that they will flourish as artists, and with his access that they will infiltrate some of the highest, most secretive places in Florence, unraveling one conspiracy as they build another in its place.

Historical fiction at its finest, Donna Russo Morin begins a series of Da Vinci’s disciples with a novel both vibrant and absorbing, perfect for the readers of Sarah Dunant.

Suspense | Mystery Historical [Diversion Books, On Sale: May 10, 2016, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9781682300602 / eISBN: 9781682300596]

Women Painters, Conspiracy and Murder Star in This View of 15th-Century Florence

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