Atlanta, Georgia author Lynn Cullen (I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, Moi and Marie Antoinette) makes a skillful—and, with any luck, permanent—jump into adult fiction with a suspenseful, evocative tapestry of Renaissance life, art, and royal skullduggery.
It’s 1559, and Sofonisba Anguissola, a 27-year-old Italian artist invited to Rome to study with the great Michelangelo, has just blown the chance of a lifetime. The great maestro himself walked in on her and a fellow student in flagrante—but so far, has said not a word about it.
Sixteenth century Italy is not friendly to unmarried women who sleep with dashing young sculptors. As Sofonisba returns home in shame, terrified that Michelangelo will make her dishonor public, she remembers what her lover told her: “The Maestro has a few secrets of his own.”
Everyone has secrets in The Creation of Eve, Cullen’s lavishly detailed, sparkling recreation of a decade in the life of the real Sofonisba (1532-1625), once renowned throughout Italy as a leading painter of the Italian Renaissance. Beginning in 1560, she would spend ten years as a lady-in-waiting and art teacher to the queen of Spain, abandoning her career at the height of her popularity.
In Cullen’s story, when no marriage offer materializes from Sofonisba’s tryst in Rome, she accepts a different proposal: an appointment from the Spanish king to teach his latest wife “her colors”. Her ill-fated love affair parallels the life of another young woman: Elisabeth de Valois, third wife of King Felipe II, who at the tender age of 14 becomes her charge and student.
For both artist and queen, the gloomy Spanish court takes some getting used to. Elisabeth, inexperienced and hardly the baby factory Felipe and his family bargained for, finds life at court a daily source of anxieties, mainly about pleasing her husband. “Why won’t the King touch me at night?” she pleads with Sofonisba who, still masquerading as a virgin, is not supposed to know the answer. “He lies next to me until he thinks I am asleep, then watches me as I pretend to slumber…” Her wedding night, she admits, was a disaster.
Nor is it easy for either to adjust to the Spanish idea of a fun day out—the Queen’s presence at an auto-de-fe, for example. “Last month, she had been required to… watch the burning of a tailor who refused to recant his support of Luther’s Protestant ethics,” the Queen recalls. “As the fire crackled between the King and his sister,” she watched in wonder “the King’s expressionless countenance and Dona Juana’s grim smile of satisfaction.”
Despite the differences in their ages, both the Queen and her new lady-in-waiting must adjust to their new roles. A portraitist talented enough to have attracted the attention of Michelangelo, Sofonisba is not expected to practice her own art while at court; her job is “to give instruction to the Queen. Not to paint sundry portraits.” The oldest in a family of six girls, however, she’s the perfect nursemaid for the flirtatious, careless Elisabeth. Someone has to watch over her when it becomes clear that she prefers the king’s handsome half-brother, Don Juan, to her stiff, pompous husband.
The story unfolds in Sofonisba’s journals, along with notes on her craft, herbal remedies, and relevant, occasionally gory, historical facts: “I have heard,” she writes, “the English queen, Kathryn Howard, had been feeding her dogs bits of boiled chicken when King Henry’s men came and took her screaming down the halls of Hampton Court.”
Before long, Sofonisba worries that her irrepressible charge will meet a similar end. A noblewoman by birth, Sofonisba is no stranger to the repercussions should Elizabeth fail to carry out her wifely duties—or worse, be caught in some not-so-innocent flirtation. “Even I, the daughter of lower nobility,” writes Sofonisba, “knew that dangerous undercurrents flowed beneath the surface of tranquility at every court. One misstep and a person could be washed away on a tide of disfavor, even a Queen.”
Or even an artist such as Michelangelo, whose controversial love life—and his involvement with the lover Sofonisba still hopes to marry—has caught the eye of prominent leaders of the Inquisition.
Lynn Cullen couldn’t have chosen a finer Renaissance reporter than this intelligent, educated, sharp-eyed romantic. Sofonisba notices everything—and what she misses, her servant, Francesca, eavesdropper extraordinaire, is sure to catch. Sofonisba’s notebooks are filled with shrewd observations of the brutal realities of court life, as well as the economic difficulties, religious conflict, piracy, and war that threaten a powerful empire. She gives us vivid portraits of the ruthless Catherine de’ Medici; the scheming Spanish courtiers; a passionate but misunderstood king; and a “little sprite” of a queen plagued by unexplained fevers and rashes. Her scientific training also enables her to grasp the King’s hope for his exotic, imported New World plants—including the moonflower, with its slow-acting, untraceable poison.
Cullen proves herself a master of chiaroscuro in the The Creation of Eve, celebrating one of the brighter lights of a shadowy era when religious dogma trumped education and sensuality became a lightning rod for persecution.
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