LOPEZ: Have you written the screenplay for Caterina & Giacomo already? How might you write the two-minute pitch?
LEV: Oh heavens, no! It is true that I love movies, and I saw the story in my head very often when I was writing. I tried to use a lot of description and action in the book, because that is what I enjoy in film.
I’d say a sound-bite version could be: “Caterina was like a modern-day career mom, brainy, brave, and beautiful, who fought, loved, and lived in the world’s most fascinating country, Italy, in its most wondrous era, the Renaissance.”LOPEZ
: How do you bear Rome, as oppressive and patronizing as the Catholic Church is to women?
LEV: The Catholic Church gave us Saint Teresa of Avila, St. Joan of Arc, St. Edith Stein, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and St. Gianna Beretta Molla, just to name a few. I can’t think of any other religion or society that has allowed and encouraged women to flourish to the same extent — not just with money or power or looks, but with admiration and recognition through the centuries. The choices of these women were unique, and they defied the mores of their times. The Church, with all its human foibles, gave them the strength to achieve their greatness. In other realities of her age, Caterina would have never been able to spread her wings; she would have been shut away by her husband or put to death.
LOPEZ: How does it feel to have to written a sentence such as this one? “Even as the pope was offering salvation to everyone in Christendom, his second-born son was bent on eradicating the ruler of Forli.”
LEV: It feels as if I am writing about the Renaissance. It was a time of great worldliness, when members of the Church were easily seduced by the temporal. Even so, the Church understood the need for repentance, and I doubt that it is a coincidence that the Jubilee Year 1500 fell right as the Renaissance reached its peak. Michelangelo’s Pietà, which still produces conversions today, was produced by the court of Pope Alexander VI Borgia, a notoriously sinful pope.
LOPEZ: What would bring me to Forli today?
LEV: Very little. It was seriously damaged during WWII, and only Caterina’s fortress remains, along with a wonderful little art museum that contains her picture next to that of Cesare Borgia. The food, however, is still fabulous!
LOPEZ: What do you hope comes of this book? Who do you hope reads it? What do you hope they come away with from it?
LEV: I was taken with Caterina and her life and wanted her story told well by someone who tried to understand her and love her in all her complexity. But I also hope people reading the book will come to see Italy and the Renaissance and the Church itself not as cut out of two-dimensional worlds, but that in their recognition of humanity and its failures, in its search for greatness among the humblest of material, there is something almost sacramental about this world where the ordinary or even damaged can rise above its circumstances and station to become extraordinary.
LOPEZ: What have you observed about human nature and our current culture in showing people around Rome as an art historian?
LEV: Two things come to mind. One is that people have become less and less culturally literate over the years. History, the Bible, geography, and literature have given way to TV series and People magazine as a common point of reference. A second is that beauty frightens people far more today than it did in the Renaissance era. The Renaissance reveled in beauty; the stunning churches, the graceful sculptures, and commanding fresco cycles were a source of joy. Although people travel incessantly today to see these wonders, the vulnerability that beauty causes discomfits them. For example, how often in the Sistine Chapel, faced with the triumph of the stories of salvation, do people distract themselves by asking about Michelangelo’s self-portrait, whether he was lying on his back or simply what’s that missing spot in the ceiling. I think it is a way to dodge how beauty demands things from us. It may seem strange, but I think our modern age fears beauty, especially transcendent beauty, and the challenges it poses.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online .