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The Ornatrix


The Ornatrix

How far are you willing to go to be beautiful? That timeless question is at the heart of THE ORNATRIX, Kate Howard’s twisted and engrossing debut novel set in 16th-century Italy.

Flavia di Maestro Bartofolo is a dyer’s daughter, and the bird-shaped birthmark on her face is an affliction that her mother, the pious Mona Grazia, is determined to hide from the outside world. Living in near-total seclusion and at odds with her family, the teenage Flavia’s long-simmering jealously explodes just before her younger sister’s wedding. She’s summarily shipped off to the convent of Santa Giuliana, where she’ll serve her penance by working as a servant.

Also cloistered at Santa Giuliana is Ghostanza Dolfin, a former Venetian courtesan so beautiful “it does not seem possible she belongs to a world of people who sweat and burn and itch.” Like Flavia, Ghostanza is an outsider, walled up with the nuns because her appearance --- a carefully constructed mask of makeup, hair dye and other 16th-century beauty treatments --- threatens the established social order. Once married to one of the city’s wealthiest men, her dead husband’s son has sent her to live with the nuns until she learns “to wear the face God gave you.”

"Howard’s richly poetic language puts a gloss on the harsh world her characters inhabit. THE ORNATRIX is suffused with the kind of specific detail that makes the best historical fiction come alive..."

Flavia is drawn to the convent’s mysterious and alluring resident, and before long she becomes the mercurial Ghostanza’s ornatrix, the handmaiden responsible for her toilette. But Ghostanza’s beauty masks a vicious heart. She mocks Flavia, lashes out at the sisters, scorns her adopted city for not being as sophisticated as her beloved Venice, and physically attacks her stepson and his wife during one of their visits. Her anger is that of a cornered animal. To someone who believes being admired gives a woman life, to be shut up is a kind of death. Still, the aging Ghostanza continues to paint her face everyday, enlisting Flavia to track down a substitute for her Venetian cerussa, the lead-based cream she uses to hide her skin’s flaws.

Like Ghostanza, who uses her powders and salves to mask her decaying body, Howard’s richly poetic language puts a gloss on the harsh world her characters inhabit. THE ORNATRIX is suffused with the kind of specific detail that makes the best historical fiction come alive, from Howard’s descriptions of the foul-smelling dyer’s vats to the recipes for the terrifyingly toxic concoctions women slather on their faces. She cleverly peels back the layers to show the ugly side of life in Renaissance Italy, and in doing so exposes the lengths to which people will go to meet idealized standards of beauty.

In Flavia and Ghostanza’s world, to be lovely is to be good, but to embrace artifice in order to achieve beauty invites censure, or worse (a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dynamic that persists to this day). “They say the devil hides in the space between a woman’s true skin and the cerussa she wears,” one character declares, and the women who slather on makeup and dye their hair do seem to invite the evil into their lives. When Flavia goes to work for Il Sicofante, the local apothecary, she dons a layer of cerussa and a wig to cover up what she believes is her essential ugliness, but her mask allows her darker nature to flourish. Ghostanza’s commitment to her appearance is wrecking her body, and possibly her mind. And then there’s Ghostanza’s rival and stepdaughter Gilia, who is fresh-faced, innocent and on the verge of being thrown into an adult world she’s wholly unprepared to navigate.

In THE ORNATRIX, Howard describes a world of casual violence and willful cruelty, spinning a complex tale that builds to a horrifying climax, the seemingly inevitable outcome of the lies and deceit that have come before. Ghostanza and Gilia are like the courtesan’s pet exotic birds, with nothing to do but peck each other to death since they cannot escape their cages. Meanwhile, Flavia, who once believed that her blemished skin was a permanent veil between herself and happiness, discovers “there are much worse things to see, most of them lodged deep under the skin.”

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on December 9, 2016

The Ornatrix
by Kate Howard

  • Publication Date: December 6, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: The Overlook Press
  • ISBN-10: 1468313827
  • ISBN-13: 9781468313826