Excerpt: Alchemy's Daughter

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“Too much learning is vanity,” Santina’s older sister put forth. She threw open the shutters, admitting the early morning light, before covering her hair in a serviceable white wimple. “Mama would not have approved.”

Lauretta always seemed to know what Madonna Adalieta, who had been taken by the Lord three years earlier, would have thought. Santina considered her sister’s admonition as well as the fact that Lauretta, who was twenty, would soon be married to a portly, balding, and widowed apothecary. After Lauretta moved away from their home on Via San Giovanni, Santina would have more time to hide away undisturbed with her precious books. There was nothing wrong with young women seeking out knowledge. In fact, Madonna Adalieta would surely have approved of her lessons with Calandrino.

Santina’s father, Iacopo Pietra, was the first to befriend the young scholar; the two met while hunting wild game in the woods near the friary. Although Papa was fully occupied with the business of importing cloth and overseeing his two stores, he shared Calandrino’s interest in the subject of alchemy. Before long the two had taken to working together in the attic room of the Pietras’ home, measuring and mixing salts and metals, trying to make gold.

He is the most learned man in San Gimignano, san jee mee NYAH noh, Papa always said. He could speak Latin, Arabic, Greek, and French. Calandrino, an orphan, was given to be raised by the good friars of San Damiano, although he was not called to the mendicant life and took no vows. When he was just ten years old he went to Sicily to serve as a page for Sir Ugo, a knight of the Hospitaller Order of St. John. Sir Ugo had been to the Holy Land years before, and he had taught Calandrino wondrous things about alchemy and Arabic medicine.

Calandrino, five years Santina’s senior and possessed of many gifts, was unlike the other men in her village, for he encouraged her ambition to improve her mind. No doubt Madonna Adalieta would have done the same. “Mama read Dante. She taught all of us Latin,” Santina reminded Lauretta. She pulled a mulberry-colored gown over her head. “She would not begrudge me an education.”

“Pay me no heed if you will, but you will never find a husband if you persist in this manner.”

“The jeweler from Certaldo might marry Santina,” offered Isabella, who was arranging her pretty blonde hair in numerous braids and ribbons, trying to copy the style of a noblewoman she had seen. Santina’s youngest sister, who was in love with the blacksmith’s son, regretted that she was fourteen and too young for marriage. “I heard him asking Ruberto about you at the store,” she said when Santina looked at her skeptically.

“I have no interest in marrying,” she mumbled. The mere mention of the jeweler soured Santina’s mood, not because the man was distasteful in any particular respect, but because he was the unexceptional type of man Papa would choose for her. Trying to put the jeweler out of her mind, Santina picked up Aristotle’s De Caelo, “On the Universe,” and started out the bedroom door.

“Not yet,” Lauretta called. She held up Mama’s illuminated Book of Hours, which contained devotions to be read at various times throughout the day. Obediently, Santina paused to pray.


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