The Medici Seal

The place is Romagna, Italy 1502. Fleeing from the murderous brigand Sandino, Matteo – a young boy – is saved from drowning by the companions of Leonardo Da Vinci. From this moment on, Matteo is at the Maestro’s side as he carries out his work, which ranges from the painting of magnificent frescos to intricate dissection of the human body.

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The place is Romagna, Italy 1502. Fleeing from the murderous brigand Sandino, Matteo – a young boy – is saved from drowning by the companions of Leonardo Da Vinci. From this moment on, Matteo is at the Maestro’s side as he carries out his work, which ranges from the painting of magnificent frescos to intricate dissection of the human body.

But Leonardo is employed by Cesare Borgia, head of one of Italy’s leading families. Cruel and ruthless, the Borgia punishes without mercy those who oppose him or who threaten him in any way. And as Da Vinci and Matteo travel across Italy on the Borgia’s business, murder, deceit and revenge follow in their trail. For Matteo carries with him a secret – a secret that both the Borgia and Medici families would kill to obtain.

A gloriously rich and authentic story of the Renaissance, “The Medici Seal” is also both the personal story of Matteo, a boy becoming a man, and a fascinating glimpse into the world of Da Vinci.

Shortlisted for the Royal Mail Scottish Children’s Book Awards 2007


Chapter 1

The first blow struck the side of my head.

I stagger, almost falling to the ground.

Sandino moves forward, stepping over the man lying dead at his feet. The man I saw him murder. Now he means to kill me.

I stumble back.

He thrusts out his cudgel, jabbing it hard into my gut.

Doubled up, I scrabble onto the rocks away from him.

He grunts in annoyance and follows.

I glance around desperately. Only the river, behind and below me, rushing in full flood.

Sandino grins, ‘No escape for you, boy.’

He raises his arm. Swings his cudgel again.

I jerk my head away to avoid his next blow. My feet slip on the wet surface.

He shouts a curse.

I am falling.

The sudden shock of cold water.

And the river has me.

The current batters my body, grabbing at my clothes, dragging my legs. I swallow great lumps of water but I force my head to the surface and try to swim. My flailing is useless against the strength of the flow as it hurtles me onwards in its greedy grasp. I must try to reach one side of the riverbank. I must.

But I am weakening. Unable to keep my head up.

Then a sound fills me with terror. A waterfall!

The noise becomes louder, the water swifter. I am seconds from death. With a last effort I fling up my arms and scream for help. I am flung over the waterfall and slammed down into the foaming, broiling torrent.

A thundering mass of churning water pounds at me, driving me under. Caught in the whirlpool, I cannot break free of its deadly force. My face is upturned, mouth stretched wide, desperately sucking for air. The falling water distorts my vision. A shattered rainbow. Beyond it is light and life. My eyes roll back, blood roaring in my brain.

Now I seem to see myself from a great height. As though my mind views my body from another plane. Removed from this Earth to a different place, I look down and watch the frantic, dying struggles of a ten year old boy.

Clawing. Breath. None now.

Splintered light and utter darkness.

Chapter 4

‘Matteo, do you want to travel with us to our next stop?’ the Maestro asked me as they made ready to go.

‘Where is that?’ I asked him.

‘We cross at the bridge downstream and go back up country on the other side to a place called Perela.’

I tried to think of what Sandino might be doing at this moment. He would want to find me – not that he cared whether I drowned or not, but for another reason altogether. I had something he desired, a precious object that he’d deceived me into stealing for him.

Months ago he’d turned up at the gypsy camp where I was living after my grandmother’s funeral. From my earliest memory my grandmother and I had travelled the roads together by ourselves, my mother having died when I was a baby and my father being unknown. Mostly we kept separate from any other band of gypsies, until my grandmother, realizing that she was very ill, took her wagon to a camp north of Bologna so that I would not be on my own when she died. Sandino claimed some kind of kinship with my grandmother. She, being dead, could not agree or disagree. I went with him, because he promised me the life of a pirate and I’d been enchanted with the idea of sailing across the ocean. To be a buccaneer, as he described, appealed to me. But taking me on a ship was not his true intention. Sandino had heard of my dexterity in opening locks, and he, in the pay of others, had a murderous plan which required my skills. I was the person he thought could help him, and in part I had. Except that I had not handed over the thing I had stolen on his behalf. I still carried it with me.

So I feared that Sandino would follow the river downstream to try to retrieve it from my body, dead or alive. I had no way of knowing how far I had come. The river had been swift moving, swollen and flooded with rain. I guessed it had taken me several miles. Sandino and his men did not have horses and would therefore have to walk. Also he would spend time searching for my body along the banks. Hopefully he’d think I had been swept into the sea, or was caught in reeds somewhere being eaten by eels. Even if he suspected I had survived, if I crossed over and went back upstream with these men to the village of Perela, Sandino would not think I’d gone that way, back in the direction I had come from. My rescuers had horses, which meant I would travel faster. I decided that I should go with them and then run off when it was safe to do so.

‘We should be at Perela before dark,’ said Graziano.

‘We’re lodging at the castle there.’ Felipe addressed me. ‘It’s likely that they would feed a boy who could help in the stables.’

The Maestro reached out and put his hand on my forehead. His fingers were finely tapered, his touch gentle. ‘You’re still half stunned from knocking your head. I think we should carry you with us on one of our horses and take you there. Yes, Matteo?’

I nodded.

‘Will the Borgia be there to speak to you?’ Felipe asked him.

The Maestro shrugged. ‘Who knows where Il Valentino is, or will be? Isn’t that one of the features he has as a military commander? No one knows his exact location. He strikes like a snake, and then is gone, to reappear somewhere else when least expected.’

It was the first time I’d heard them mention Prince Cesare Borgia, known as Il Valentino, although I was familiar with the name. Who was not? The Borgia family was known throughout Europe. Rodrigo Borgia sat on the throne of St Peter and ruled the Church as Pope Alexander VI. This wicked man with his bastard children, the infamous Cesare and Lucrezia, meant to bring all Italy under their dominion.

His daughter Lucrezia, fair-haired and beautiful, was recently wed to the heir of the Duke of Ferrara. And I had seen this Borgia marriage celebrated in the spring of this year in Ferrara when I had been going about Sandino’s business. Her wedding had provided an entertainment for the citizens and spectators. Although, not all of them were kindly disposed towards her, the bride being regarded by many of the Ferrarese as a deceitful woman whose father, the Pope, had paid their Duke Ercole a vast dowry to marry her to his eldest son, Alfonso, the future Duke of Ferrara. I’d heard murmurs and cat-calls on the day of her wedding as I moved through the crowd.

One woman commented on the shield given by the King of France to Alfonso as a wedding gift, saying, ‘The duke’s new shield portrays an image of Mary Magdalene. Was she not also a loose woman?’

Many people in the woman’s vicinity laughed, though some looked nervously over their shoulders to see if anyone had noted that they mocked the house of Borgia. The revenge of the Borgia to those who offended their family was terrible. But the mood of the crowd was festive and the quips continued.

As the procession passed to the great cathedral for the marriage ceremony a loud whisper echoed in the piazza: ‘Let the groom pray well, that he might live longer than her previous husband, strangled on the command of her own brother.’

So I discovered that these men who had rescued me, and with whom I had agreed to travel, had some connection to Cesare Borgia. But I reckoned that, at the moment, this might be more help than harm for me.

We crossed the river at a little stone bridge and turned towards Perela. It was a popular crossing place and many horses had trampled the path between river and road. The Maestro had placed me on his saddle in front of him. I was still bundled up in Felipe’s cloak and I kept my face hidden as he showed the bridge keeper the pass he carried, signed by the hand of the Borgia himself.

By the time we reached the village of Perela I’d had time to think more of Sandino and what he might do. I thought now that I should not run away at the first opportunity. In addition to covering Bologna, Sandino would have spies on the main roads around this area. But he knew that I had discovered that the Borgia family paid him to do their evil work. If these men, my rescuers, were to be lodged in the castle at Perela then, for a short time at least, remaining with them was the safest thing for me to do. Perela, a Borgia stronghold, would be the last place Sandino would expect me to seek shelter. He would not look for me there.

That is what I truly believed.

Chapter 7

My heart.

Seeming too large for the space beneath my ribs. Thudding so noisily that I thought my master walking just behind me, following the light of the lantern I held up to show our way, must hear it.

‘Halt here, boy.’ He spoke softly, took the lantern from me and raised it to the street name painted on the wall. ‘Street of Souls,’ he murmured. ‘Yes, this is the place.’

He kept the lantern and went into the alleyway.

And I was left to hasten after him. Glancing around fearfully. Walking down the narrow street, he lifted the light high, and the darkness dispersed. But the shadows scrolled in once more as we passed, creeping at our heels, bringing the spectres who hover in the night to pounce on the unwary.

I made the gesture used by the gypsies to keep away evil, and then, as I caught the amused glance of the Maestro, I fumbled the sign of the cross on my forehead, breast and shoulders. He laughed out loud at me then, but not unkindly.

‘Keep your magic signs to ward off the dangers of this world, Matteo. The harm that men do to each other in battle is more wicked than any the spirits can offer.’

We came to a door set in a wall. Unmarked but not unknown. The mortuary door of the hospital of the city of Averno.

‘Hold the satchel, Matteo.’ He handed me the large bag that contained his working tools, his papers, parchments and chalks.

I’d only been with his household a short time but I knew that this was an honour. I put the strap around my shoulder and clasped the heavy leather bag carefully in both hands.

He positioned the lamp so that it would shine on his own face. Then he knocked on the door. We waited. At this time of night the porter would be asleep or drunk at his post. After sunset no one came to collect their dead.

The Maestro raised his fist and pounded on the door. Minutes elapsed. Then the grille slid back. A bad-tempered face regarded us.

‘I have permission from the magistrate to examine the bodies of the dead.’ The Maestro took the order from the inner fold of his sleeve. He held it up.

‘You are?’ Through the grille the porter spoke in the superior way of men of little authority.

‘Leonardo, engineer, and . . . painter. From the place known as Vinci.’

‘Vinci? Never heard of it.’

‘I also carry another pass’ – the Maestro spoke quietly – ‘which allows me free entry to wherever I choose. It has the personal seal of the Borgia on it.’

The man recoiled.

‘Il Valentino,’ the Maestro continued, without changing the expression on his face, ‘Cesare Borgia – you may have heard of him?’ He placed a caress rather than an emphasis on the last word of the sentence.

The mortuary attendant had the door open before the Maestro drew another breath. He bent so low that his brow almost touched the cobbles.

As we passed through the Maestro winked at me.

My heart lifted. For to begin with, in those first weeks of being his servant, I was not always sure of his mood. Was not familiar with his deep periods of reflection, when he hardly spoke or ate or slept. Had not yet become accustomed to his intensities and preoccupations.

Chapter 8

The porter pulled the interior night bell. The hospital in Averno was conducted by the brothers of the Order of the Holy Compassion of Jesus, and after some moments a monk approached along the outside cloister.

He moved silently on sandalled feet, the grey of his cloth merging with the shades of night. The cowl of his habit was raised. The flaming pitch torches set at intervals along the wall flung dark shadows on his face.

This man introduced himself as Father Benedict, the monk in charge of the mortuary. He regarded both my master and myself with interest. Then he took the Borgia pass and the magistrate’s order and read them closely.

‘This document, signed by Cesare Borgia . . . Il Valentino, the Honourable’ – was there a hesitation upon that word? – ‘Duke of Valentinois and Prince of Romagna, gives leave for you to access the castles and fortified houses in the Romagna and other parts under his domain.’

‘That is so.’ The Maestro inclined his head.

The monk held up the parchment. He read unhesitatingly:

‘This Order is to all our lieutenants, castellans, captains, condottieri, officers, soldiers and subjects, and to any others who read this document.’


‘Our most beloved Architect and General Engineer, Leonardo da Vinci, who bears this pass, is charged with inspecting the palaces and fortresses of our states, so that we may maintain them according to their needs and on his advice.’

‘It is our order and command that all will allow the said Leonardo da Vinci free passage, without subjecting him to any tax or toll, or other hindrance, either on himself or his companions.’

‘All will welcome him with amity, and allow him to measure and examine any things he so chooses.’

‘ To this effect, we desire that delivered unto him should be any provisions, materials and men that he might require, and that he be given any aid, assistance and favour he requests.’

The monk raised his eyes. ‘This is not a fortified building.’

‘Yet it is under his rule now,’ my master pointed out.

‘We are very aware of this.’ The monk spoke quietly.
There was a silence.

The brutality of Prince Cesare Borgia’s regime and its enforcement by his governor in Romagna, General Remiro de Lorqua, was becoming known in all parts of Italy. This Remiro de Lorqua, in effecting the prince’s instruction to impose civil order locally, while the Borgia armies conquered and subdued the rest of the region, had caused widespread terror throughout the area. His methods of public torture and execution intensified the fear and hatred of the name of Borgia.

It would be a brave man who sought to oppose so ruthless an overlord. Brave monk, braver than I knew. The last sentence of the Borgia document, which he had not read out, said: Let no man act contrary to this decree unless he wishes to incur our wrath.

‘It would please me to make a donation to your funds,’ my master suggested.

But this mortuary monk was a brother of the Holy Compassion Order, whose reputation also spread wide. Established during the Crusades by a devout knight named Hugh, they were enjoined by their founder to care for anyone in need of medical care. This good knight, doctor, soldier and, latterly, saint would not allow any distinction between men and women, civilian and army, Infidel and Christian. Braving the arrows of both sides, and without payment from either, he tended the hurt and wounded where they fell on the battlefield. At home his monks nursed the poorest of the poor, the victims of plague and pestilence, the beggars and the penny whores. Unlike others they turned no one away, not even those for whom the road was home. Theirs was a true vocation, not like the secular clergy who joined the Church for personal profit. There was no bribe that could corrupt this monk, no threat that he feared. He walked with death many times every day.

He ignored my master’s offer and said, ‘If you are engaged in engineering studies, what interest do you have here?’

‘Is not the human body the most perfect piece of engineering constructed?’ my master asked him.

The man held the Maestro’s gaze for a long moment, and finally replied, ‘That is your purpose then? A study of the human body?’

‘Yes. Most sincerely it is. I am an engineer, and a painter.’

‘I am familiar with your name, Messer da Vinci,’ the monk interrupted. ‘And your famous works. I have seen your fresco of the Last Supper at the Dominican monastery in Milan, and your cartoon of the Virgin with the Christ Child and Saint Anne in the Church of the Annunciation in Florence. The images you have produced are masterpieces . . . with God’s grace.’

‘Ah!’ My master regarded the monk, then asked thoughtfully, ‘You are interested in how Scripture can be illustrated by man, through visual art?’

‘Messer da Vinci,’ the monk replied, ‘it is said that your works have many codes and symbols contained within, and that we should seek to find their true meaning.’

Chapter 17

The eyes of the Borgia flickered over his dinner guests. His gaze rested on me where I stood beside the Maestro’s chair.

‘Do we need this boy here?’

‘He will fetch my sketches and plans should you require them, my lord,’ said the Maestro. ‘Matteo knows where everything is kept.’

The dinner began.

I reached out and lifted my master’s wine cup. Before I handed it to him I drank from it.

The Maestro’s eyes opened in surprise. ‘You insult our host,’ he said in a low voice.

We both looked to the top of the table. The Borgia had turned his head to listen to his dining companion. She was the wife of the lieutenant who had arrived that morning and quite beautiful. She smiled at him coquettishly. He laughed.

His guests relaxed.

I did not.

Cesare Borgia ate heartily, but drank little. Frequently he glanced around the table. He had the countenance of a man who has just entered a brothel.

Dessert was announced with a trumpet fanfare. Cherries soaked in liqueur flavoured with cocoa, a delicacy brought from the New World. It struck me then that as few people would have tasted this plant it was the perfect opportunity to conceal poison.

I bent and wiped the Maestro’s spoon with the napkin. I whispered,

‘Do not eat this dish.’

‘Tush! Matteo.’

This plate was to be served to every individual separately yet at once. Led by a single drummer a great procession of servants filed into the great hall. They each carried a single plate, and they positioned themselves, one behind each chair, in preparation of placing a dish before each guest.

Across the table from the Maestro sat the lieutenant. This man had displeased Cesare Borgia, and I remembered how, earlier in the afternoon, Cesare Borgia made much show to welcome him. Embracing the lieutenant in the courtyard as he arrived at the head of his column of soldiers.

But now the Lieutenant’s men were barracked some distance from this castle. And their commander sat alone at the table of the Borgia.

My eyes met those of the servant who now stood behind his chair. The breath in my chest thickened so that I could not breathe. This was no servant. It was Michelotto, personal henchman of Cesare Borgia.

The Borgia stood up and made a signal. Opposite me, like all the other servants, over each diner’s head, with both hands, the Borgia henchman placed the dish down on the table. The servants kept their hands on either side of the plate, and waited.

The guests at table made appropriate noises of delight at the unusual dish. Some of the ladies applauded. The Lieutenant’s wife scooped up a cherry and popped it into her mouth.

‘Delicious!’ She exclaimed. She tilted her head provocatively at Cesare Borgia. ‘You must try one.’

He smiled at her but did not make any motion to eat. It was obvious that I was not the only one to have doubts about the strange dish for although some people lifted their spoons, many hesitated.

Chapter 38

A few days later Donna Lisa came into the courtyard alone. A black veil shrouded her face.

‘I would speak with your master,’ she said to me.

At this time the Maestro was totally absorbed with the cartoon for the fresco. He was making numerous models and sketches, of horses in various positions, and drawing a vast amount of sketches of men’s faces, arms and bodies. I glanced at Zoroastro.

‘He cannot be disturbed when he is working,’ Zoroastro told her.

‘I will wait,’ she said.

‘He can work for many hours,’ Zoroastro told her kindly. ‘He is capable of going without food or drink or sleep.’

‘I will wait.’

In the later part of the day Donna Lisa’s husband arrived. He sat beside her and stroked her hand. He was older than she was, but that is the way of our times. A man lives longer and therefore often has more than one wife, and I believe Donna Lisa was Francesco del Giocondo’s second or third. He whispered in her ear but she would not be persuaded to leave and go away with him. Why did he not command her to obey him? He would be within his rights as a husband to bring servants to seize her and force her to return to his house with him. But I saw how it was between them. He put his hand under her elbow and tried to coax her to her feet but she shook her head and would not rise.

Eventually he stood up. ‘You, boy.’ He spoke to me and gave me a few pennies. ‘If your master can spare you I would be obliged if you would attend to this lady and bring word to me when she is decided to come home this evening.’

But evening came and still she did not move. It was cold. Zoroastro piled more wood upon his fire and placed a stool for her closer to the flames. I served her a plate of our food, which she refused, and some wine, of which she sipped a little.

The night grew very dark.

Then the Maestro came from the workshop. He came into our common room via the internal door that had been made on his request so that he could pass from his own accommodation directly to the studio at whatever time he chose. His tunic was streaked with plaster and he had clay stuck to his fingers.

I pointed out of the window to where Donna Lisa sat patiently. ‘This lady has waited all day to speak with you,’ I said.

‘A commission? I cannot take on any more work just now.’

‘I told her this, but she said she must speak with you.’

He sighed. ‘It would seem that every rich lady wants her portrait done but I am unable to satisfy the whims of these women.’

‘I do not think this woman would come here on a whim, or to gratify her vanity.’ It was Graziano, the best assessor of women, who made this observation.

I had brought a basin of warm water so that my master could dislodge the particles of clay from his fingers.

‘Very well.’ He immersed his hands in the water. ‘Ask her what she wants, Matteo.’

I went to where Donna Lisa was sitting by the fire. I opened my mouth to speak but she spoke first. ‘Tell your master that I require a death mask made most urgently. Tell him also that this is a task so particular that he is the only person to whom I would entrust it.’

I knew that this work would have to be done at once as, even in cold weather, a body could decay very quickly. It was a very popular custom and there were little workshops that specialized in it. Mainly it was given to apprentices, as by doing it they learned basic bone structure and the contouring of the human face.

I returned and informed my master what she wanted.

‘Tell her that any jobbing craftsman can do this for her.’

‘She says that in her case it is a task most particular.’

‘There is a place in the next street where they do it as a speciality,’ he observed.

The thought came to me that she must have walked past that shop to come here.

She did not bow her head in submission when I gave her my master’s reply. ‘I will wait to speak to him,’ she said.

I returned to the inside of the house and told him of her intention. He made a small gesture of irritation. The dinner was set out on the table. The smell of hot food flavoured the night air. My master made to go away from the window but then he turned back and looked again to where she sat, the veil across her face, her hands folded in her lap.

‘Do we know her? She is familiar to me in some way.’

‘She is the mother or stepmother of the boys who come to watch Zoroastro work at his forge,’ Felipe informed him. ‘The wife of the silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, who lives in the Via della Stufa.’

‘Giocondo….’ The detail in the name caught his attention. ‘Jocund.’ His tongue played on the syllables. ‘A name with more than one meaning.’ My master went to the doorway and looked at her.

She became aware of his gaze and raised her eyes. She did not drop her glance. Neither did she smile. Only looked at him steadily.

‘Graziano,’ he began, ‘tell her – very gently, mind – that I cannot—’

He broke off, and then abruptly went out into the yard. He spoke with Donna Lisa for a few minutes and then came into the house.

‘Matteo, I would like you to accompany me.’



We had not eaten since mid morning. My master went into his private rooms and came out carrying his leather satchel. He opened the door of our store cupboards and selected some materials. ‘Save us a plate from dinner,’ he said to Felipe, ‘and do not wait up.’ Throwing a cloak over his work clothes, he went out with me at his side.

Donna Lisa shivered as we left the warmth of the courtyard. Away from Zoroastro’s forge we felt the bitter wind that swept up from the river to the city centre. My master took off his cloak and placed it around her shoulders. She looked up at him and her mouth curved a little, a half-smile, barely distinguishable by the light of the street torches.

I saw then the glimmer of the girl she had been. Earlier her face had the cast of a lady who would never smile again.

As if he had not noticed any awkwardness Cesare Borgia sat down then, picked up his own spoon and dipped it in the dessert. He put a mouthful to his lips. But it was not until he had eaten that the rest of the company followed suit.

The Lieutenant took his spoon in his hand.

The Borgia nodded and waved to his servants in a gesture of dismissal. Everyone’s attention was on the table in front of them. Everyone except me.

On the opposite side of the table I saw the Borgia executioner smile. He raised his hands to withdraw. Between his fingers, in the candlelight, gleamed the wire of a garrotte.

Chapter 43

He readjusted her veil.

It was the sixth or seventh time he had done so. As he went back to his easel I looked more carefully at how the veil hung around her face. Why was he so unhappy with it today? The Donna Lisa was usually able to arrange herself almost exactly as he required.

On the days the Maestro decided he would paint her I was sent ahead to ensure that she was available and had time to prepare. She would dress in the agreed costume and go to the studio room. With the help of her nurse she would arrange herself in her chair, her clothes draped, her body posed, exactly as she had been doing for the previous months. When he arrived he made the minor adjustments necessary and then the session would begin. I would either leave or stay as he commanded.

Sometimes he barely waited half an hour in the house, other times he spent half a day or more. When painting her he might stand for very many minutes staring at her or at the portrait. This did not discomfit her. She was a woman who could sit in silence and with her own thoughts. He would come out of his reverie and say a word or two, and she would continue the conversation seamlessly as though an hour had not elapsed. She had her own time and occupied her space in it and was not uncomfortable with his long silences. However, if he felt that her mood was heavy he would ask me to tell a story aloud and I would oblige.

What was wrong with the veil? Had she set it further back from her face?

He continued but only worked for a matter of minutes before putting down his paintbrush.

‘You must tell me what is amiss.’

‘There is nothing amiss, Messer Leonardo.’

‘There is something troubling you.’

‘Not at all.’

‘The lady I have painted on this board is not the one sitting before me.’

He was teasing her. And she responded.

‘I am my own best companion. I assure you it is I.’

He sighed and lifted his brush again.

But there was something altered in her. I studied her carefully and tried to see what he could see. Her dress was the same. Her hair, her veil, her expression . . .