Saturday, July 19, 2008


by Mary Jane Beaufrand

Little, Brown and Co., 2008

Primavera is a fast-paced exciting book, set in Florence in the 1480s. Flora, the protagonist, grows from a day-dreaming girl to a brave, forceful woman. The Medicis are delightfully ruthless, the setting is lush, and the characters live and breathe.

I admire novels that include “plots within plots.” Each character has a plan and a counter-plan in opposition to every other character’s plans and counter-plans. In Dune, Shōgun and Fly by Night, the plots within plots are expressed through multiple points of view. Beaufrand succeeds in communicating complex intrigue through the eyes of one young girl who cannot know all that goes on in the scheming world of the Medicis. Kudos.

But, I do have a small bone to pick. Whenever a poisoning occurs, Flora smells almonds, and arsenic is named as the poison. Arsenic is odorless unless it is heated and oxidized to form arsenic trioxide which smells of garlic. The poison that smells of almonds is cyanide. I found several references to arsenic poisoning during the Italian Renaissance, but my brief computer search did not inform me if cyanide was known as a poison at that time.

I did find other interesting information about Medici poisons, though. For me, the most notable concerned a character mentioned in Primavera. Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici
was the illegitimate son of Giuliano de' Medici, the man who was assassinated in the Pazzi Conspiracy. Giulio later became Pope Clement VII and died after eating Amanita phalloides (death cap mushrooms). The toxin in these mushrooms (α-amanitin) inhibits RNA Polymerase II, the enzyme that catalyses the synthesis of messenger RNA. My last job as a scientist involved researching the molecular mechanism of RNA Polymerase II.

No comments: