A TABERNACLE FOR THE SUN
Brief Summary of the Plot
(warning: this gives away the plot so do not read before reading the book itself; it is intended only as an aide-memoire for those working their way through the trilogy)
The main story of the novel is set in 1472-1478 and is framed in a narrative 1499-1500.
In the narrative frame, Tommaso de’ Maffei is in Oxford, teaching Greek to those gathering around the magnetic figure of John Colet. We are not told what caused Tommaso to leave Italy and go to England, but we do learn that he finds it hard to let go of the past. Thus he is writing down his story for his friend, Erasmus.
The story covers his youth in Volterra and the start of his life in Florence. As a boy, growing up in the Bishop’s Palace, which is vacant but for a skeleton staff, he has idolised Lorenzo de’Medici, the youthful ruler of Florence. Tommaso is a Maffei and that noble family was pro-Florence and supported its rule over Volterra.
As the story opens, alum is discovered in the lands of Volterra and everyone believes that this precious mineral will make them rich. At once strife begins between Volterra and Florence.
The Bishop arrives unexpectedly and in him Tommaso finds a friend and mentor. He soon discovers that the Bishop’s unusual virtues stem from his philosophy – he is a member of the Platonic Academy of Marsilio Ficino.
Tommaso’s cousin, Antonio de’ Maffei, returns from Rome (where the family spend most of each year) and tells his cousin that he is a fool to support Florence. Antonio and the Bishop are soon in conflict, and Tommaso begins to feel pulled two ways. However, despite his worship of his cousin, Tommaso doggedly persists in believing that Lorenzo de’ Medici will arbitrate in favour of the city.
His hopes are dashed and soon Volterra and Florence are at war. Volterra is sacked and afterwards Tommaso, mute with shock, is taken to Florence to begin a new life. It is the life he has always wanted: he is going to become a scribe and he will live in the Medici household. But now these are the last things he wants to do: his dream has become a nightmare.
His boyish love of Lorenzo has transformed into hatred. Each time he meets him, he shrinks away in bilious negativity. But Lorenzo’s brother, Giuliano, is innocent of Lorenzo’s crimes, and Tommaso turns his admiration and affection to him. At the same time he falls in love with a young girl of the Pazzi family, called Elena.
Tommaso becomes the scribe of Angelo Poliziano, a member of the Platonic Academy. His best friend is Filippino Lippi, an apprentice of Botticelli, and Tommaso is used to model the figure of Mercury in the Primavera. He is very drawn to the pagan gods and soaks up the Platonic philosophy. He is desperate to meet Marsilio Ficino and join the Academy but Ficino proves to be even more elusive than Tommaso himself.
A conspiracy gets underway to murder the Medici. Led by the Pazzi family, it has many members and each has his own reason, but Antonio de’ Maffei’s is clear: revenge for what happened in Volterra. He tries to draw Tommaso in but Tommaso, unable to face the consequences of choosing either way, becomes remote and misses all appointments. The time must come, however, when he has to choose, and that moment is when the daggers come out against the Medici during a service at the Cathedral.
Tommaso sees that Antonio (who he has since learnt is his half-brother, not his cousin) about to strike Lorenzo and acts, saving Lorenzo’s life at the cost of Antonio’s. Giuliano dies in the attack.
At the end there is a scene of resolution between Lorenzo and Tommaso. Tommaso has come to tell Lorenzo that Giuliano was the father of an illegitimate son. Grateful that Tommaso has saved his life, Lorenzo grants him his wish, to marry the young girl he loves, Elena de’ Pazzi.