PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'The Creation of Eve': When Religious Dogma Trumped Education and Sensuality Wrought Persecution

Self Portrait (partial) (c1600)

Lynn Cullen proves herself a master of chiaroscuro with the The Creation of Eve, a vivid, painterly recreation of the life of Renaissance portraitist Sofonisba Anguissola.

The Creation of Eve

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 400 pages
Author: Lynn Cullen
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-03

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.