Amidst all of the revelations brought about by my trip to the Loire Valley, there were some lovely scenes that simply stole my breath.
The grounds of Château Royal d’Amboise near the hunting lodge proved simple for the most part.
It was, however, the ramparts which provoked majestic ooooos and ahhhhhhs.
One of the most remarkable qualities of the royal residence is only about a fifth of what it once remains intact. Imagine what it must have been like, its towering presence over Amboise and the Loire River, five-hundred years ago.
I like to imagine that da Vinci and Melzi sat in a tower long the victim of time and treachery painting elegant women with the Loire in the background.
Meanwhile, the tiny town of Amboise bustles below:
“I’ve been walking for like an hour and I’m exhausted. I’m going to sit on this bench over here for about two days,” I told my ephemeral guide.
“Perfect. Right over there. Nope, one more bench over. There, you got it.”
There, at a tiny grove of trees just above the marked remains of where the Château Royal d’Amboise used to extend into a far greater complex than what remains today, I could see what she offered up.
A new whispering in my ears began to shift from mere chatter to a conversation overheard and a vision of an old man alongside two others stationed at wooden easels. Amongst the shady plane trees and Gary oak, he guided their hands to sketch and capture the scene in front of them.
I stepped forward to take a closer look, and a young woman stretched her neck around the closest easel to make sure I saw her.
A quiet wave.
A knowing, modest smile.
The old man waived a gentle finger at her and everyone returned to their work. Something pricking me on the shoulder forced me out of the vision and around staring back at the river.
An arched bridge.
A wild river.
Rugged hills and shifting light.
I caught a glimpse of the landscape they had been painting in the background.
By the time I turned back around, the group of painters had vanished from view, but not from my own knowing of who I’d had the chance to watch at work that day—Melzi, Salaí, and their Master. Who was their muse? What else had they learned to paint on that hill in the magical light of Amboise?
Just beyond it on the trail, it would seem others may have a bit of a sense as I dd that something truly remarkable took place there.
My guide pointed out that it is marked in plain sight, for those of us who know to use as a guide.
I nodded and acknowledged her gift, then suddenly stood.
My attention redirected itself by force, and I moved toward what appeared to be the remains of a moat or battlement at the top of the castle where I was offered another vision.
This time men and women fled a burning castle, but it was too late. The bodies piled up, filling the space, the screams and panic swarming my senses until my mind snapped back and I stood in the sunshine shaking.
It would take a week for me to understand the final message of that time at the top of the world with da Vinci.
My guide spoke in a solemn tone, offering up an explanation of what I’d seen.
So, there we were—the long-dead woman whose pronouncement shook me to the core and my trembling core.
Now that she’d offered to introduce me to the crew, I had to forgive her for so unabashedly revealing her death to me without my consent.
Apparently, when you are a novelist who’s come to tell their stories, those who’ve waited all of those centuries for you to get it together already know your storyline.
I knew what I wanted: to plot out what Elijah would find in the modern timeline of the novel when she made her way to Amboise. Streetscapes and entry points to the castle made it into the massive journal I’d imagined long before the journey would be an epic record of what showed up. I walked and walked the empty roadways, alleys, dark corners, and abandoned ancient doorways of town as if all other human activity was pushed in some alternative direction while my new friend showed me this path.
In my everyday life, my willingness to push through a half-open metal gate or get down on my hands and knees to see inside a partially sealed-off doorway almost guaranteed unpleasant, if not downright dangerous consequences.
In Amboise, it meant finding myself delivered into new realms of imagination and opportunities for crafting the stories I came to tell. This place, it seemed, welcomed those who sought its secrets. Those who might have otherwise dissented knew better than to silence the spirits that day.
Château Royal d’Amboise today is a mere ruin of the extravagant palace that towered above the banks of the Loire at the beginning of the 16th century. As I traced the base of the ramparts back father and father from the tower where I began, I stumbled across Le Choiseul, and extraordinary site, now a hotel meant to draw in the wealthy traveler. It instead drew me to its courtyard goddess, who sent me up into the hills behind the property to discover the first of several novel locations in the ruins of what I later discovered must have been the enormous halls of the main castle.
Deep inside the base of the tufa structures carved right out of the hillside, the stories called. What would this complex in stone reveal?
No signage or historical markers hampered my imagination as I stepped inside the gates of the lowest corridors. Nerves firing, I explored and they vibrated with the hum of wanting to be discovered.
Cells? Storage? Ancient homes? Something more? I followed the trail as it moved upward. Within minutes, I stood at the entrance to vast subterranean vaults known as Les Greniers de César. The sunbaked printout clumsily tacked to one of the old wooden doors told a version of what these carved-out silos might have been.
My liminal guide decided to download a whole different version for me.
Perched upon a bench near a cut in the stone for the better half of two hours, I waited for the visions to drop in, and they did so with expressive clarity.
My guide introduced me to those with whom I’d long sought to make the acquaintance. Up from the docks where the gabare boats of traders and cabanée boats of fisherman delivered goods, the king’s sister Marguerite made her way to what I deemed The Treasury with little notice from the menagerie dealing in salt, spices, wheat, and coin.
Here, in this place, she bargained for the security of a kingdom we now know nothing of, a kingdom she pledged to serve in the halls of Fontevraud long before she bore the name Queen, as her mother did, and a dozen generations of women before them—the Mother Blood of the Anjou.
Deep within the caverns of The Treasury, men such as da Vinci and Francesco Melzi greeted her upon arrival, and those who traveled at the queen’s side proved the most notable guests ever to have to be ushered onto the grounds of the royal residence in secret through the caves at the base of it.
The Treasury showed itself as a rich, effusive secondary story location where women such as Marguerite and Aesmeh bargained to usher in the return of a civilization thought wiped off the Earth nearly two-thousand years earlier. It showed itself as a place where men and women gathered to commit a worthy sort of treason.
Its existence and mysterious origins left me room for my own bargain, allowing me to imagine within the complex the potential for a passage leading to and from the castle existed. I needed it to serve as the means through which Elijah might discover that world for herself. The clarity with which this site settled in my mind as a novel location drove all sorts of other questions. Was the Loire navigable from places such as Saumur? What would boat transportation have looked like? So much more. I wanted confirmation that I should move ahead with including it, although I already knew I would.
As I made my way back down onto the grounds of Le Choiseul, the grove just beyond yet another Greek statue glistened in the afternoon light. Behind it, the remains of an old silo shown, and within it stood a cistern marked with a single patch of cyclamen.
For those familiar with plant lore, the cyclamen as a truly powerful protective flower which blooms in the cooler months and is affiliated with the Dark Mother Hecate. I found it everywhere in Amboise, particularly in location where evidence of the Sibylline rose up.
Confirmation. The Treasury was in.
My new friends weren’t even close to being done with me that day. We had one more stop at the very top of a hill overlooking the royal residence. it was there I discovered how the relationship between Melzi and Aesmeh blossomed, and what would lead us all to the true identity of the Mona Lisa.
“Is this the line for the Mona Lisa?” the older woman behind me asked as her husband moved up and down the snaking procession of people asking anyone who looked like an official Louvre employee if they’d actually made it to their destination.
There we stood, eyes alighting upon the gorgeous glass Pyramide du Louvre that is the iconic “You are here” sign for the magnificent museum. It was 8:52 a.m. and the line tripled, then quadrupled, then trickled well past the initial security screen and out into the rainy morning.
We had arrived, nearly ten minutes early in fact, for our 9 a.m. appointment. We’d done everything in our power to ensure such a meeting took place—bought our tickets in advance, made reservations online, left nothing to chance.
However, I. M. Pei’s architectural wonder could not convince those of us who had another sort of iconic masterpiece in mind that we’d not screwed this all up and would be stuck in a line that led to, well, not what we came to see.
It turned out that EVERYONE was in line for a visit with La Gioconda, and we’d totally done the right thing. Those of us with advance tickets and reservations for the very first slot of the day trotted right through, up the stairs, up more stairs, and then some more, and one more flight just to make sure.
The museum docent that I stopped to talk to at the top of the stairs said that in half an hour those stairs would be packed with people waiting, waiting, waiting. Some might wait for three hours for a glimpse at the beauty beyond the doorway.
So, I stopped talking and scurried toward the magnificent Galerie Médicis where she stood, glassed-in, amongst some of the most spectacular paintings in the history of art.
Dwarfed by the size and absolute divinity of the 24-panel Marie de’ Medici Cycle painted by Rubens 400 years ago, there she sat, roped off, barely visible. Visitors, fifty or so at a time, were let past the ropes that kept them penned back from her as well.
With that, the stopwatch began.
That was all the time you had in her presence.
Time enough to click a selfie, take a picture or two, and then—poof—all the anticipation and work put in to stand even in her vicinity was over.
It was the most magnificent moment of my life.
No woman on this Earth is more mysterious and sought-after than the Mona Lisa. From obscurity to utter obsession, the world has latched itself upon this simple portrait. Everyone seems willing to speculate on her identity and nobody really knows who she is.
I spent far more time with her in other places—hours and hours at Clos Lucé and in da Vinci’s gardens at Amboise.
However, that one minute proved one thing to me—that this glorious goddess with whom women crave a moment and men desire with the greatest of passion is a vessel for immeasurable power.
While men wage war on the Earth, she conquers the mind. Her territory, her imperialism, lies within.
And so, Woman On The Wall seeks to explore the true identity of La Gioconda, this woman who has inexplicably captured our hearts, as she watches over the world.
If you hold this Dazzling emerald Up to the sky, It will shine a billion Beautiful miracles Painted from the tears Of the Most High. Plucked from the lush gardens Of a yellowish-green paradise, Look inside this hypnotic gem And a kaleidoscope of Titillating, Soul-raising Sights and colors Will tease and seduce Your eyes and mind.
Tell me, sir. Have you ever heard A peacock sing? Hold your ear To this mystical stone And you will hear Sacred hymns flowing To the vibrations Of the perfumed Wind.”
This beautiful creation by poet Suzy Kassem pulls me back to it time and time again, as does the stunning brilliance of the peacock.
Peafowl, as they are often referred to, are ancient creatures steeped in the lore of nearly every recorded civilization on Earth. That wee detail proved enough for me to begin to notice the presence of peacocks as iconography as I researched the Renaissance for The Woman On The Wall. The discoveries I made sent me down a rabbit hole that refuses to spit me out the other side.
The peacock, it turns out, is a mysterious, subtle presence in an extraordinary amount of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese, Persian, Hindu, and Pagan art throughout the ages. The Renaissance is no exception. If you examine the scenes of nearly any Madonna and child, religious gathering, ascension, angel visitation, even the Sistine Chapel, a peacock is likely to make a subtle, unobtrusive, yet significant appearance.
I posit that the true significance of this magnificent creature is much overshadowed by its reputation in modern culture as a showoff.
In fact, if we dipped back to the Renaissance or earlier periods in our trusty time machine and tried to make a case for the bombastic nature of this bird, most people would banish us back to the 21st century, horrified at such foolishness.
My suspicion is that, at some point, those who feared the deep symbolism and potential powerful hold such an animal might have over humanity made a story up about it so we’d all be like, “You arrogant peacock. I will strive in this pious life of mine to not be like you.”
It’s possible we ought to rethink such conditioning.
The peacock, since time immemorial, is a symbol of immortality and the all-seeing one. Once I found this out, I started to examine the potential connections between them and the oracular Sibyls of the ancient world.
This was a big moment for me because I’d long looked for an anima (not animal) connection to the collective unconscious as it related to the Sibylline. As oracles, their connection to dimensional realities and access to other realms had to have been the strongest out of all. Their connection to the animals who live between the worlds, or could cross over, made sense to me.
Without getting too Wikipedia, the whole immortality piece is said to have come about because the ancients believed that the peacock had flesh that did not decay after death.
It’s definitely oversimplified and vastly underexplored to state that early Christian paintings and mosaics use peacock imagery to denote the value of immortality. They even used peacock feathers can be used during lent as church decorations. Of course, the whole immortality gig is linked directly to Christ in that tradition. So, this makes sense.
However, my limited experience with research has proven that folklore and legend is rarely the sole reason for integrating it into art, and most definitely not the reason for including it in church ritual. Not to mention, the peacock is very much NOT a Christian symbol at its origin. Therefore, associating it as a symbol of Christ without taking the rest of history into consideration is dismissing thousands of years of storytelling and knowledge.
Let’s step way back in time:
The peacock’s origin is, as far as we know, India. Hindu mythology is packed with peacocks, and they were worshiped with exceptional reverence, associated with Sarasvatī.
In Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology, the peacock feathers were considered much like the evil eye. They were all-seeing. It’s no secret that Egyptians, in particular, had a jonze for immortality. Again, though, this leads my seeking mind to wonder where the peacock got its reputation as the immortal oracle.
Pythagoras wrote that the soul of Homer moved into a peacock.
Greek mythology declares the peacock created by Hera out of her watchman, Argus.
Christians call it their own as it was the creature that refused to eat the forbidden fruit at Eden and was granted immortality for such a pious act.
Islamic legend claims it was cast out of paradise. However, Ottoman iconography carries the bird on everything from mosaics to dishes.
In China, the bird was a symbol of the Ming Dynasty. The Chinese equated the peacock with divinity, rank, power, and beauty.
This led me to a fascinating fact that the peacock has the ability to eat poisonous snakes without harm. In India, Persia, and North Africa, this allowed for the title of protector as it became the defender of royal (or any for that matter) households.
It also shows up in 16th-century illuminated manuscripts and in front of the Vatican even today.
A necklace of Amethyst, peacock feathers and swallow feathers were a talisman to protect its wearer from sorcerers according to Pliny (my personal go-to while exploring the connections between alchemy, science, and the metaphysical). Meanwhile, the peacock’s blood could dispel evil spirits.
Alchemist thought the fan of the peacock (cauda pavonis) is associated with certain texts and images that are useful in turning base metals into gold.
So, as you can see, the peacock may have some cause to be a bit cocky. However, I believe it instead to be the keeper of secrets far deeper than the simple myths that exist surrounding this gorgeous creature.
The peacock plays a primary role in The Woman On The Wall. Stay tuned to learn more, as da Vinci was an enormous fan of the birds who still walk the grounds of Clos Luce today.
I’m finishing up research on Medieval and Renaissance uses of stones of all kinds (even stones like gall stones and kidney stones) for the purpose of religious worship (including all Abrahamic religions), healing, and protection.
The stones you see in the picture are a string of raw amber my grandmother brought back for me from Częstochowa, Poland. She made a pilgrimage to see The Black Madonna of Częstochowa 30 years ago and returned a very different woman after that experience. They carried so much energy in them that I locked them away and lost track of them until recently.
According to the lapidary, amber or Cymbra as it was called is thought to be engendered from the breath of a whale, found at the bottom of the sea and the mouth of rivers. It guards the virtues of the body, sharpens the memory, and banishes sorrows.
In The Thousand and One Nights, all sorts of stones are pitched into the sea by a fountain, swallowed by fish and spit back out as amber.
Pliny offered us a fanciful creation story, stating that amber was produced by the sun’s rays that would leave it behind as they struck the ground at the end of the day.
In folk medicine, it is used to tranquilize the mind.
Amber plays a key role in The Woman On The Wall, As does the Cult of the Black Madonna.
The Germans got it right with their word for wanderlust.
Fernweh, or farsickness, is the perfect description for the longing I’ve held within myself for as long as I can remember.
I get super swoony over the wonderment brought on by thoughts of heading off to other places. It’s where I go when I read, but even more so when I write.
Like that moment in Out of Africa (#2 on my top 5 swoony movies of all time list) when Meryl Streep says to Robert Redford, “I have been a mental traveler.”
(Pretty sure I was Karen Blixen in another life)
I recall the very moments of when this all began. As a child, I spent my days announcing to my parents that I would travel the world as a biologist or an archeologist. I would speak ten languages. I would seek out the elephants of Africa, the ruins of South America, the ghosts of Medieval France.
My father, a bit wanderlusty himself, first gifted me with a subscription to National Geographic. I pored through the pages, careful never to crumple or tear the stories within them, as I believed they would serve as my travel guide to all of the places my soul longed to take in.
I got on my first plane when I was 8. Back in the prehistoric ages (1979), it was totally cool to put two young kids on an airplane in Denver, let them change planes in Chicago, and let their auntie pick them up in Toronto or Buffalo so they could stay the Summer with their cousins. We did that every year until I was probably 12. When people freak out about me traveling alone as an adult, I tell them that story and we never speak of such fears again.
Since then, it is an unsatisfied ache that I cannot contain.
I’ve lived and traveled all over North America (43 states, 8 provinces) on my own and with my family. We, as a family, camped our way across Canada twice, deliberately left our lives on Vancouver Island in order to spend a year in Halifax just to experience the Atlantics. As a younger adult, I moved every 18 months from the time I was 22 until I was 35. I married a Canadian, immigrated to another country.
Looking back as I write this, I realize how much traveling I have actually done. There’s just one hiccup in all of that – I have never left the continent. I didn’t even have a passport until I was 30.
My tendency is to lean toward a willingness to exaggerate the rationale behind this little crimp in my fernweh in order to avoid my underlying shame. Really, though, I spent a lot of my life as a bit of a sissy.
Well, that shit is all done.
In three months, I wave goodbye to my family, honouring that 8-year-old little kid and the Medieval French ghost hunter inside me as I head to Paris, then deep into the Loire Valley on my own.
It’s about healing an old wound I inflicted upon myself so very long ago – the one where I didn’t trust in my own ability to travel the world.
Yes, I’ve dressed it all up in a romantic package of researching The Woman On The Wall. However, all of the museums, countryside explorations on my bike, backroom castle tours, and cafe writing with espresso and a slab of brie serve an even higher purpose than tapping into the magical world of da Vinci.
They give a little girl back her dream, and then let her see it through.
I’ll be journaling about bits and pieces surrounding this trip for the next few months or so. Follow me to see how this all plays out.
I’ve made a huge dent in The Woman On The Wall this week, finally hitting my flow in the balance between the modern-day timeline and the historic epistolary component.
Incorporating the fictitious journals and letters of Francesco Melzi and determining their role in the storytelling process has, to be honest, posed the biggest dilemma for me. How I approached them would determine the entire tone of the novel.
Would it be a thriller?
Would it be a historical drama?
I went with a love story full of magical realism as our adoration of the Monda Lisa is nothing short of a torrid romance.
To drive this level of intoxication, mystery, and obsession, I turned to Griffin & Sabine this afternoon. Nick Bantock may qualify as the grand master of epistolary storytelling with his series, leading us through the mysterious connection between two unlikely lovers.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s birth. In the last half a millennia, there is hardly another human who has seen as much praise heaped upon him. To say his body of work is admirable is a mild statement.
So, when I set my sights on writing a novel about the true identity of the Mona Lisa, I knew I could not miss a chance to travel to France this year to take in all of the fanfare.
For the last month, I’ve been cruising websites and consulting my lovely friend Celia who is a fabulous travel agent about this journey of a lifetime.
At first, I thought I might take my oldest daughter on the adventure. In the end, though, it looks like I will be traveling solo, and I’ve never been more excited.
I’ve busted out the Duolingo to make sure I can communicate with ease. Phrasebooks and maps are starting to pile up as well.
I’ve pulled out my Kate Mosse collection to re-read for inspiration.
Of course, I will be diving deep into the history, preservation, and stories surrounding Mona Lisa. A trip to the Louvre is definitely in the mix.
I’m most looking forward to a week in Amboise, France—especially Clos Lucé where da Vinci spent his final years.
Amboise is my kind of vacation town—a local open-air market for food, quaint house vacation rentals, the ability to walk everywhere, and evenings along the Loire River.
Of course, Chateau Amboise and the history of that magnificent place makes me swoon.
I have my theories about how it’s possible that two of these beauties exist. Time to go finish what may be like the twentieth book on the Mona Lisa that I have read since I started researching her for Woman On The Wall.
My plan is to go hang out with her in person this Fall on a solo research trip—first stop, Paris. After that, I’m headed for the bucolic hills of Amboise to hang with da Vinci himself and see if I can discover some of my own answers about our La Gioconda.