The Cat Came Back — All the Way From 16th-Century Rome

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DA VINCI’S CAT
Written by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

On any normal pre-Covid summer day, as many as 30,000 visitors craned their necks to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, one of the greatest achievements of Western art. I was not among them when I visited Rome a few years ago with my parents, who had already seen the ceiling and were not enthusiastic about waiting hours in line. I wasn’t among them the time before, with my toddlers, who were even less enthusiastic about lines. Nor did I see it as a backpacker in the late 1980s, when restorers were injecting polyvinylacetate resin into its cracks. From 1710 to 1713 the frescoes were cleaned with sponges dipped in Greek wine. In 1625 a dark patina was removed with damp bread. In 1511 the plaster was still wet and Michelangelo was standing on his scaffolding, painting, which is when “Da Vinci’s Cat,” by the Newbery honoree Catherine Gilbert Murdock (“The Book of Boy”), begins.

Sir Federico Gonzaga, son of Duke Francesco II of Mantua, is vain, arrogant and snooty. To be fair, though, he’s only 11. He is also far from home and friendless. A political hostage of Pope Julius II in 16th-century Rome, Federico is confined to the Vatican, but he is not exactly suffering. He eats sugared almonds and wears rings on his fingers and pearls on his cap. He plays backgammon with the pope, is fawned over by the artist Raphael — who paints his portrait — and is tolerated by the latter’s rival, the great and apparently stinky Michelangelo, who is halfway through painting his masterpiece. Federico is, however, achingly lonely. So when he finds a kitten in a fancy carved closet, he is delighted. When the kitten toddles back into the closet and vanishes into thin air, he is crushed. And when she reappears, seconds later, full-grown, he is dumbfounded.

It is not long before the closet produces Herbert Bother, an amiable art dealer from 1920s New Jersey, who explains that it is, in fact, a time machine designed by Leonardo da Vinci, and the grown-up kitten is Leonardo’s cat. Bother has traveled back to 1511 to procure sketches by Renaissance masters for resale. He enlists Federico with the promise of friendship and futuristic chocolate-coated peanut candy. So begins a chain of events that sends us, and the cat, forward through time and space to contemporary New Jersey, where we meet 11-year-old Bee from Brooklyn. Curious, empathetic and adventurous, Bee becomes embroiled in an elderly neighbor’s problem and, before she knows it, is transported back to 16th-century Rome to solve the mystery of a drawing that may or may not be by Raphael and may or may not be of Bee herself. The likeness is uncanny.

In the Vatican, Bee and Federico become tentative, then firm friends and together set about making everything right, but not before they wreak havoc on history, almost erasing the Sistine ceiling, and Bee herself.