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.

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