In Rome 1559, Sofonisba Anguissola is training to be one of the first female painters of the Renaissance. Under the tutelage of Michelangelo, she begins to stretch her talent to heights unheard of for a woman at the time. Her father places a lot of faith in her abilities and provides her with the best teachers, but her status as a woman means she cannot study, sketch, or paint the naked body. This leaves her with little understanding of the human form itself, and she is told it adds an inhibited quality to her work that she struggles to overcome.
During her time in Rome, she meets and falls in love with another student of Michelangelo’s, Tiberio Calcagni. Their brief affair causes her shame, and she leaves the city hoping that what happened between her and Tiberio will not be found out by her father, who worked so hard to make sure she would have the chance to learn her craft.
Unaware of what will happen between her and Tiberio as there is no forthcoming proposal of marriage, she takes a position as a lady-in-waiting to Elisabeth of Valois, the young bride of Felipe II, the King of Spain. She is to teach the young Queen how to draw and paint. Since she can no longer sign anything with her name as she is now part of the court, she begins to look at painting differently and even asks questions of the King's official painter. Unfortunately, her sad love life, or lack thereof, weighs heavily on her. The love trials of the young Queen breaks Sofi’s heart, while all this time she wonders silently about Tiberio and what they had together. The King’s sister, who is not a fan of Michelangelo’s, constantly tells Sofi about his troubles with the Spanish Inquisition and that his paintings and sculptures are to be destroyed. This causes her only more suffering and pain as she is left to wonder what will happen to Tiberio and if their affair will be exposed.
Sofi's heart suffers while she is at court, and the growing attraction she sees between the Queen and the King’s brother, Don Juan, brings her even more heartbreak. Her choices are limited, and she struggles with her heart, who she is, and what she must do for the Queen.
Very little action takes place in this novel, but the affairs of the heart take center stage. You're aware the entire time that the story is being told by an artist. The descriptions, colors and experiences are filtered through an eye that is always looking for shape, texture and depth. Sofi is easy to become attached to. She is immensely talented and yet held back at the same time because of her sex.
Told through diary entries, each chapter begins with a painting hint or fact. I loved that the story was told through Sofi's point of view as it allowed you to get close to the characters. Sofi’s descriptions of the court, the Queen’s dresses, the other ladies-in-waiting, and the palaces are wonderful; it's as if you're watching and hearing the conversations firsthand.
Sofi’s guilt over her failed affair with Tiberio remains raw after many years and only becomes amplified when the Queen’s love problems become outwardly noticeable. She ends up trapped, and those feelings prompt her to do things she knows are wrong. But she doesn’t stop herself, and you come to really appreciate that quality in her. She is the artist looking for a true color to paint or a true feeling to experience again.
Oddly enough, very little painting takes place in this book about a painter. Somehow that’s a good thing, as you come to know the artist behind the easel instead. For anyone who loves historical fiction, THE CREATION OF EVE is a great read. You finish the last page wanting to know more about everyone in the story.
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on December 28, 2010