Friday, November 17, 2017

Interview with Laura Morelli

 I interviewed Laura Morelli late in 2014 about her first novel, The Gondola Maker. Now she has a new release, set in the same city (Venice) a generation earlier: The Painter’s Apprentice. I loved both books, so I was delighted when she agreed to answer a few questions about them.

Even more than the first, the second is a real page-turner. So make sure to add it to your list of Hidden Gems. You can find out more about Laura at her website. There is also a short bio at the end of this post.

The Painter’s Apprentice takes place in the same historical world as your earlier book, The Gondola Maker. What made you decide to set another novel not just in sixteenth-century Venice but using some of the same characters?

Good question! There were a few questions raised in The Gondola Maker that I wanted to explore further. Plus, the setting of 16th-century Venice is so rich that I feel I could place an infinite number of historical novels there.

The Painter’s Apprentice is a prequel to The Gondola Maker and is set during a real plague epidemic that spread across Venice in 1510. In the story, 19-year-old Maria wants nothing more than to carry on her father’s legacy as a master gilder. Instead, her father has sent her away from the only home she’s ever known to train as an apprentice to a renowned painter. Maria arranges to return to her family workshop and to a secret lover back home. But the encroaching Black Death—not to mention some conniving house servants—foil her plans.

In The Gondola Maker, the main character, Luca, is unmoored by a tragedy in his father’s boatyard and eventually makes his way into the employ of a noted painter. In that painter’s boat slip lies an old, dilapidated gondola that Luca recognizes as a craft from his grandfather’s generation, made in his own family’s boatyard. He is compelled to bring the old boat back to life.

As I wrote The Gondola Maker, I began to wonder myself how that old boat got there, and why it was in such bad shape. The painter tells Luca a story about how the boat was wrecked by an evil boatman hired by his father, and how, after that terrible event, it had never been repaired.

I wanted to go back a generation to the painter’s father so that I could imagine what really happened to that old boat. The story of The Painter’s Apprentice began to formulate inside my head.

Could you tell us a bit about that earlier novel before we talk about the newest one, released in November 2017?


I lived in northern Italy for four years and spent a lot of time in Venice. The inspiration for The Gondola Maker came as I was researching another book, a shopping guide called Made in Italy, back in 2001–2002. I traveled all over Italy, from the Alps to the islands, talking with contemporary artisans who still practice centuries-old traditions like Murano glass, Florentine leather, Sicilian ceramics, Roman goldsmithing, and of course, Venetian gondolas. Over and over, the extraordinary people I interviewed told me how important it was to pass the torch of tradition on to the next generation. I began to wonder what would happen—especially centuries ago—if the successor were not able ... or willing. The character of the gondola maker and his son began to take shape. As I began to work on The Gondola Maker in earnest, it was an opportunity to take a deeper dive into the primary historical sources about the history of the gondola, the world of the guilds or artisans, and the role and reputation of boatmen in Renaissance Venice.

Maria Bartolini, the heroine of the new book, comes from a family of gilders. In 1510, the family fears that theirs is a dying profession. What did they do, and why do they fear that they will be replaced—and by whom?

Through the mid-15th century, Venetian painting relied on a medieval artistic vocabulary. The art of gilding was integral to painting with colored pigments, and therefore most “paintings” were actually collaborative works between gilders, carpenters, and painters specialized in working with egg tempera-based pigments.

One of the major artistic shifts in Venetian painting over the course of the 16th century was the preference for painting on canvas rather than on poplar or alder wood panels, and for oil rather than egg-based tempera paints. This change happened gradually, starting in the last decades of the 15th century.

What it meant for a family like Maria’s was that gilding suddenly seemed old-fashioned. They feared for the future of their trade.

Fifteenth-century Netherlandish painters had already pioneered the use of oil as a medium for pigment. Traveling artists—Venetians headed north and northern painters lured to the Most Serene Republic—transferred this new knowledge of materials and artistic possibilities.

Oil afforded translucency and brilliance of color, built up in thin glazes that dried slowly. These rich visual effects, combined with greater versatility and durability of oil-based paints, appealed immediately to Venetian painters. Oil paint allowed painters to apply color both in fine detail as well as thick impasto. It allowed deeper, more realistic plays of light and shadow, more convincing rendering of three-dimensional form. And perhaps most important of all, Venetian painters saw the potential to take their rich, saturated colors to the next level.

As it turned out, the art of gilding never died. Although it was no longer used extensively in paintings, Venetian gilders turned to making frames as well as small, exquisite luxury objects like the gilded boxes that play a central role in the story of The Painter’s Apprentice.

Maria’s father apprentices her to Master Trevisan, a painter. Ostensibly he wants her to master the painter’s use of color, but that, we soon discover, is not the only reason Maria has been sent away from home. What is the other reason?

In The Painter’s Apprentice, Maria finds herself apprenticed to Benvoglio Trevisan, a noted Venetian painter. A generation later, in The Gondola Maker, Luca also finds himself in the same house, working as a private boatman to Master Trevisan’s son, now a successful painter in his own right.

This is a spoiler, but the real reason that Maria has been sent to the Trevisans’ painting studio is that she has become involved with a young man apprenticed to her own father. When her father discovers the relationship, he apprentices his daughter to the painter under the guise of training her in colored pigments, when his real motivation is separating her from her secret lover.

Maria’s love affair can’t be easily resolved by the usual rapid marriage, even though her lover is a master goldbeater. Why is that?

Cristiano—Maria’s lover—is a biracial man. As a person of color, Cristiano already faces hurdles to become recognized as a master goldbeater or battiloro. As much as Maria’s father respects Cristiano for his skill as a master artisan, he could never accept him as a potential suitor for his daughter.

During the Renaissance, the Venetian Republic was renowned as a model of cultural and religious tolerance, at the same time that its authorities locked up Jews at night in the world’s first ghetto, and many of its people took the branding iron to their own slaves. The challenges of making a living—and making a life—were real indeed for people of color.

However, apart from illegitimate children and master-servant situations that occasionally appear in the historical record, there are actually a few documented cases of lasting interracial relationships across 16th-century Italy. In Renaissance Venice, interracial relationships would not have been unheard of, even if they were not readily accepted.

Things get really sticky for Maria when the Black Death appears in Venice. What happens then?

While the painter’s boatman is portrayed as the bad guy, the real villain in this story is the bubonic plague. Early on, the neighborhood where Maria’s father lives is barricaded to prevent the spread of the disease, which has only begun to appear. That means that Maria can no longer see her family and is also cut off from her lover. Being unable to communicate or reach her loved ones becomes ever more complicated as the story progresses, because Maria is keeping a devastating secret.

As a waterlogged city, a major maritime port, and Europe’s gateway to the rest of the world, Venice was particularly vulnerable to plague outbreaks. Between 1456 and 1528 alone, there were 14 documented plague outbreaks in the city. The 1510 outbreak, the setting for The Painter’s Apprentice, took the life of 32-year-old Giorgione, one of the city’s most celebrated painters, who we now know died on the pesthouse island known as Lazzaretto Nuovo.

At that time, only about a quarter of the people who were quarantined on the lagoon islands returned home. We can only imagine the terror that such a disease must have inspired when it began to spread across the city.

Do tell us the origin of that glorious cover. It looks like a Titian painting. Is it, and if not, where does it come from?

Good job! Yes. The cover is adapted from a work by Titian called Woman with a Mirror, painted about 1515 and now in the Louvre in Paris. Doesn’t she look just like Maria? My talented designer, Kerry Ellis, also created the cover of The Gondola Maker. That cover was a finalist for the Da Vinci Eye Prize, which recognizes great cover design.

What are you working on now?

So many readers have asked, “What happens next?” after reading The Painter’s Apprentice and The Gondola Maker. I am well underway with the next story in the Venetian Artisans series, which is set on the famous glass island of Murano. In addition to writing about made-up characters, I have begun to write historical fiction based on real artists of the Italian Renaissance. Writing about real people is a special challenge, and I’m having a blast with it. Thanks for reading!

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions!

Thank YOU for taking the time to read and cover this story. I really appreciate it!

 

LAURA MORELLI holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University, has taught college students in the US and in Italy, and currently produces art history lessons for TED-Ed. She authored a column for National Geographic Traveler called “The Genuine Article” and has contributed pieces about art and authentic travel to CNN Radio, The Frommers Travel Show, and in USA Today, Departures, and other media. Laura is the author of the Authentic Arts guidebook series that includes the popular book Made in Italy. Her fiction brings the stories of art history to life. Her debut novel, The Gondola Maker, won an IPPY for Best Historical Fiction and a Benjamin Franklin Award.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Why a Vermilion Bird?

A few months ago, in “The Story Behind the Story,” I discussed themes in novels. But themes also show up—for me, at least—in images. These images range from cover graphics to metaphors and symbols that recur throughout the world of a given story.

Often the two are connected: the image sparks the recurring metaphor; the metaphor or symbol gives rise to the image that becomes the cover and even the title of a given book. Because of the way my mind works, I often see the image first, and I have to explore it to find out what it’s telling me about the story. Of all my novels so far, that was most true of The Swan Princess, which took a long time to incubate as I probed meanings of swans and swan princesses throughout the world and tried to imagine what the relevance of those legends and images might be to my series characters.

What then, is the relevance of the Vermilion Bird? As I explain in the Historical Note to Legends 4, the Vermilion Bird is a variation on the phoenix. Each of the Legends of the Five Directions novels links to one of the cardinal directions in Eurasian cosmology (west, east, north, south, and center, in that order), each of which has an associated element, color, and animal. Traditionally, the South connects to fire and thus to red and to the firebird, the phoenix or Vermilion Bird.

Just to confuse things, the Chinese have a second phoenix, Fenghuang, which through its association with the Dragon became a symbol of the imperial house, of the empress and emperor and, through them, of a balanced and therefore  happy and prosperous marriage. Like all things imperial, Fenghuang represents the center, the source of harmony (hence the old name for China: the Middle Kingdom), and is associated with yellow or gold, the imperial colors. But since I’m a novelist and not a cosmologist, I happily blend the two phoenixes without worrying about this distinction overmuch.

Behind all this background lies a simple point: whereas we in the West think of the phoenix primarily as a symbol of immortality, along the Silk Road(s) it has far richer associations. Fire, anger, and passion, of course, but also good fortune and happiness, striving and achievement. Fenghuang even rewards moral behavior.

All these elements show up in my novel, as does the theme of rebirth or renewal. Maria, the heroine, takes another stab at marriage, despite her disappointing experience the first time around. Alexei, the hero, has to remake his life after his long-term allegiance explodes in his face. Fyodor Koshkin, Maria’s father, struggles to reestablish his place at the Muscovite court, but he also finds himself in the throes of desire and jealousy in his second marriage, contracted purely for love after twenty years or so in a conventional arrangement that, however appropriate and fruitful, for him proved ultimately unsatisfying. Relationships grow, mend, and break, but the themes of revival, prosperity, and virtue (or lack thereof) intertwine throughout the book.



On the political side of things, in contrast, the skies are darkening. Two opponents, driven by fear, turn a simple misunderstanding into a steadily escalating crisis that no attempt at negotiation seems capable of resolving. Here the power of raw emotion pits family members against one another, and the inability to find harmony in the end damages both sides. The effects of that crisis give rise to the story—and the image and the theme—for the next book, The Shattered Drum, already close to completion and due for release next year.

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this next journey in the company of the Vermilion Bird, which, although it does not technically take place in the South, relies on the destabilizing presence of refugees from that region to set its cast of characters in motion.

As to when you can expect the journey to begin, stay tuned. I’m predicting three or four weeks, tops.


Phoenix purchased from Shutterstock.com, no. 56421991.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Stuff of Dreams


One of my earliest memories is of myself and my younger sister at my grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary party. I don’t know how old I was—probably around five. I recall sitting under a table with my sister while the grownups celebrated around us, as well as gold decorations and cake. At the time, the idea that anyone could remain married for fifty years seemed inconceivable. In fact, at five the whole concept of fifty, never mind years, is pretty inconceivable.

Yet it happened. And went on: the marriage continued for another decade or two until my grandfather died at the age of ninety. Nor were my grandparents alone in that. My parents married on this day in 1951 and remained together to the end, almost fifty-five years later. 


My brother, too, married on this day a few years ago. It was less than a week after Super Storm Sandy, and Sir Percy and I drove to the ceremony along miles of roads flanked by woods that looked as if a giant had decided to play pick-up sticks with the forest to a hotel with generator power but not much else. It was one of the best weddings I’ve ever attended, because everyone there rejoiced at spending time with family and friends. Some had enjoyed their first showers and hot meals in days. Expectations were low and enjoyment sky-high.

This is not quite the wedding that Maria Kolycheva faces at the beginning of The Vermilion Bird, although for her sake we hope she will succeed in creating that kind of marriage. The fourth Legends novel—which should be available in print and for preorder right around Thanksgiving, with a formal release date in early December—dumps Maria right into a mess created by her own preconceptions and prejudices. Like most women of her time, she has not selected her own husband in the way we do now. Instead her father has picked him out for her, with the goal of advancing the family’s prestige in the Russian court (and, not coincidentally, Daddy’s own future in that court). 

The battle lines are drawn at Maria’s bride’s party the day before.

“It’s a scandal, I tell you. Fyodor has gone mad.” Over the plink-plink of psalteries, the chatter of fifty women, the murmurs of servants in corners, and the noise from the courtyard below, Aunt Theodosia’s voice soared like a song. “Marrying a hussy two years older than his own daughter? Then wedding his own girl to his new wife’s former lover? Abominable! Where is his honor?”

“Auntie! How can you?” Maria, tempted to shrink into herself like a tortoise into its shell, instead gripped the hand of the hated Roxelana, whose fingers returned the favor with equal strength. “Stop squeezing me,” she hissed at her stepmother, who narrowed her eyes and hissed wordlessly back.

But Roxelana, although a general irritant, bore no responsibility for Maria’s present agony. On the contrary, she shared it.
Must Auntie announce their predicament to the world? Thanks to her, every woman here knew—now, if she hadn’t before—that Roxelana had lived for years with the man destined to become Maria’s husband tomorrow, only to abandon him for Maria’s father and the respectability he offered.

A hint of sandalwood and cinnamon released into the air as Roxelana shifted in her seat. Among the many perfumes wafting around the room, hers stood out: seductive, elusive, foreign.
Respectability? Roxelana? As if that’s not a contradiction in terms!

Aunt Theodosia was still talking—bellowing, rather, with the blissful unconcern of the hard of hearing. “Twenty-two years old, and him a ripe thirty-seven. What does he want with a lovely nincompoop to warm his bed? After wearing my dearest sister to the bone, bearing and raising his children. Thirteen she gave him. Thirteen. And seven who lived!”

“We know, Auntie. We can count.” This voice, young and sweet, belonged to Maria’s sister Varvara, second of the seven living offspring. She spoke in softer tones than Theodosia.

“Don’t mumble like that, girl,” Theodosia snapped. “Speak up.”

“Hush now.” Varvara raised her voice as commanded. “The whole room can hear you.” She gestured with her right hand. “Including our stepmother.”

“Don’t be absurd. I’m whispering, just as you are,” Theodosia said at top volume. “Stepmother, indeed. Harlot, more like.”

Roxelana hissed again, louder this time, and Varvara pressed her lips together, as if trying not to giggle. In response Theodosia fixed Roxelana with her basilisk glare. “Ridiculous. Just ridiculous.”


As you might expect from a novel, events go downhill from there, as Maria struggles to force the world to meet her expectations and the world pushes back. But never fear, the ancestral grandmothers still know what they’re doing, and the forces of good will once more triumph—whatever that means in the context of this particular story.

So mark your calendars, and keep an eye open for book teasers and other promotions as the time approaches. I will be announcing sales of previous books in the series and perhaps a surprise associated with the launch.

And remember, however a marriage starts, it’s how it ends that counts. Maria and her Alexei may have a long road ahead, but they do have a few things going for them—if they can stay alive long enough to figure out what those are.



Images © Five Directions Press and Clipart no. 109357139.