Renaissance in Fiction

Last modified: 
Friday, July 3, 2020

Enjoy a few novels set in the Renaissance before the Kansas City Renaissance Festival starts on August 30, 2008. From mysteries to romances to art-inspired works of fiction, authors depict this influential era to great effect in these books.


Renaissance era Venice provides the backdrop for the novel Dirge for a Doge by Elizabeth Eyre. Signor Sigismondo, with the help of his faithful servant Benno, investigates the aristocrat Niccolo Ermolin’s murder. The list of suspects is long, more corpses appear, and a secret diary seems to hold some of the answers. For a literary mystery that delves into the architecture and landscape of the Renaissance, try The Savage Garden by Mark Mills. Cambridge student Adam Banting travels to Tuscany in 1958 to study a famous Renaissance garden at the Villa Docci estate. He discovers a connection between the garden and two deaths: one in 1548, the other during World War II. A classic mystery, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco revolves around a monk, William of Baskerville, investigating a death at an Italian monastery. More bizarre deaths occur as Brother William collects evidence that includes secret symbols and manuscripts.


Susan Vreeland, author of the best-selling book Girl in Hyacinth Blue, depicts the life and career of the Italian Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi in the novel The Passion of Artemisia. Raped by an assistant of her father’s and humiliated in the subsequent public trial, Artemisia eventually becomes the first woman to be elected to the Accademia dell'Arte in Florence. Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex stars two very different sisters, Isabella and Beatrice, in Renaissance Italy engaged in rivalry over Beatrice’s husband. Isabella also wishes to sit for the court painter Leonardo da Vinci in this novel of art, intrigue, and politics. Author Javier Sierra writes about a 15th century papal inquisitor investigating Leonardo da Vinci’s alleged heresy in the novel The Secret Supper. This book provides an alternate interpretation of the painting The Last Supper as the inquisitor looks for hidden codes and messages in this historical thriller.


Set in 16th century Venice, Loredana: A Venetian Tale by Lauro Martines stars two lovers, Loredana and Orso, an aristocratic widow and a Dominican friar. Richly imagined through letters, confessions, a diary, and other first-person accounts, this novel brings the time period to life. In this well-crafted novel set in Renaissance Italy, Jacqueline Park's The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi depicts the courageous and introspective life of a Jewish gentlewoman married to the Pope’s physician and lover of a Christian knight. Written as her memoirs, this book combines romance and history with a fascinating story. Finally, The Italian Garden by Judith Lennox tells the story of a 16th century painter, Joanna, who struggles as a female artist and then goes on to become a wife, a mistress, and a mother in this historical romance that includes many details of daily life during the Renaissance.