I invited author Carol M. Cram to talk about why she chose to set her historical fiction novel The Towers of Tuscany in Medieval Italy. Here is her response:
I have visited Italy several times over the past two decades and was particularly drawn to the medieval towns such as San Gimignano, Montalcino, and Siena. At night when the streets were quiet, I was easily transported back to a time when life was short and harsh and at the same time produced so much wonderful art.
The Italian Renaissance, with its Michelangelo and da Vinci and a host of other artists is considered—and rightly so—as the era that produced some of the world’s most magnificent art. However, I was intrigued by the art that preceded that Renaissance and led to it. In the 14th century, painters were struggling with perspective, experimenting with fresco and tempera (no oil paints yet!), and starting to explore non-religious themes. I wanted to dig deeper into the psyche of a 14th century painter to reveal their passions and their struggles.
I decided to make my painter a woman because I was also intrigued by the fact that, so far as we know, none of the art produced during the first half of the 14th Century when the novel takes place, was produced by a woman. The key phrase here is “so far as we know.” In the 14th Century, painting was very much a family affair. The master who ran a workshop passed his knowledge down to his sons and brothers and nephews. But what if a master had no sons or brothers or nephews? What if he had only a daughter—a bright, precocious child fascinated by the tools of the painter’s trade? I contacted an expert in art of the period, the wonderful Dr. Efrat El-Hanany who later became my historical advisor on the novel, and asked her if it was plausible that a man could teach his daughter how to paint. She thought that yes, the idea was plausible. That’s all I needed to dive in and invent Sofia Barducci—a young, spirited woman who makes a very big mistake.
Unlike most girls of her era, Sofia is allowed to marry a man who she chooses. Unfortunately, she chooses wrong. How many women have made that mistake? Sofia’s plight, although rooted in the prejudices and customs of 14th Century Tuscany, is not so different from the plight of many women all over the world in our own time. Sofia wants to follow her passion and paint. The world and her own choices conspire against her.
Regarding my research for “The Towers of Tuscany,” I was very fortunate to have a translation of “Il Libro dell’Arte, an amazing handbook for painters written in the late 14th Century by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini. Most of the references to painting techniques come for Cennin’s wonderful book. In it, he advises painters in all aspects of the trade—from grinding pigments to making sizing from goat’s hooves to painting haloes. Cennini acknowledges the need for the painter to have “passion and enthusiasm” for the work. A painter in the 14th Century did not consider himself an “artist” as we would use the word. A painter was a craftsman who served a long apprenticeship to learn the skills of his trade. Painters were also businesspeople who, with their painted panels and frescoes, made important contributions to religious and secular life in the 14th Century.
Thanks so much to Carol for her thoughtful response. Carol is on tour with her book until January. Click on the tour banner below to see reviews of her book.