The Towers of Tuscany tells the story of a fictional woman painter in 14th Century Tuscany. During this period, women did not generally paint alongside men, particularly in Italy.
In nunneries in northern European countries such as Germany and England (and to a lesser extent France and Italy), nuns were sometimes engaged in painting religious iconography and illuminating manuscripts. However, according to my research, there is no documented evidence that women artists in Tuscany were engaged in any significant way with painting frescoes and panels.
Painting during the period was very much a family affair. A master painter (or maestro) would work alongside his brothers and train his sons and nephews. I consulted with an expert in Italian art of the period about whether it was plausible that a painting master who had no sons could teach his daughter painting skills. I was told that yes, the situation was plausible. That’s all I needed to dive in and invent Sofia Barducci, the daughter of Maestro Antonio Barducci of San Gimignano in Tuscany. Sofia is a young, spirited woman who makes a very big mistake. Unlike most girls of her era, Sofia is allowed to marry a man whom she chooses. Unfortunately, she chooses wrong. How many women through the centuries 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 to paint. The world she inhabits and her own choices conspire against her.
Regarding the subject matter for art of the period, religious themes were used in almost all the paintings produced in the 14th Century, particularly the first half of the century before the plague devastated Italy in 1348. My character, Sofia, paints religiously-themed subjects such as nativity scenes, annunciation scenes, and stories of the saints in the traditions of the period. However, she also experiments with painting buildings and even a stylized city. I wanted to show Sofia striving to improve her craft, to branch out from religious iconography, just as many of the painters of the period did. Four of the best-known artists of the period are mentioned in the novel as influencing Sofia: Lorenzetti, Giotto, Martini, and Duccio. Travelers to Italy, particularly Siena and Florence, can view the work of all of these artists. For more information about the art referenced in the novel, readers can view the Art Guide on my Web site.
In the 14th Century, art played a very important role. People living during that time would not understand the concept of hanging a painting on a wall to admire it as we do today.
Instead, art had a purpose—to teach religious and civic subjects, and to be venerated. For example, small panels of subjects such as the ntivity that Sofia paints would be set up on candlelit altars in homes and prayed to. In fact, many of these panels have not survived because they were so heavily damaged by candle smoke. One of the most famous large frescoes of the time “The Effect of Good and Bad Government on the Town and Country” by Lorenzetti was commissioned by the city to depict an allegory of good and bad government. This fresco can still be viewed in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. In churches, frescoes would depict religious themes, particularly Bible stories. Most people coming to church during the period would be illiterate so the frescoes played a very important educational role.
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.
Although painting and art play a major role in The Towers of Tuscany, the novel is ultimately the story of a woman who strives to follow her passions and in doing so, does not always make the best choices. I hope readers enjoy Sofia’s adventures as much as I did writing them!
After Sofia’s father is crushed by his own fresco during an attack motivated by a vendetta, Sofia realizes she must escape her loveless marriage. She flees to Siena, where, disguised as a boy, she paints again. When her work attracts the notice of a nobleman who discovers the woman under the dirty smock, Sofia is faced with a choice that nearly destroys her.
Meticulously researched settings and compelling characters are united with a strong heroine in this rich portrait of medieval Italy.
Praise for The Towers of Tuscany
“From the very first page, Carol M. Cram captivates with her writing, transporting you to the rolling hills and rich palette of 14th-century Tuscany. You care for the protagonist, Sofia, from the outset and become an ally throughout the perilous pursuit of her beloved art. The twists and turns of the plot, and the fast pace of the writing, make it a book that is very hard to put down. I cannot praise this novel highly enough. It is a story that lingers long after you have reluctantly reached the last page. I highly recommend this book as a must-read and wish this debut novelist great success with her career. She is definitely an author to watch and has earned a firm fan who will be buying her next book.” —Janis Pegrum Smith, Historical Novel Society
“The Towers of Tuscany is a delightful escape to the Siena we all love. Carol Cram has crafted a delicious story about a strong woman torn between her secret past, her love of painting, and the forbidden charms of her rich patron. Hard to resist and highly recommended!” —Anne Fortier, author of the New York Times bestseller Juliet and The Lost Sisterhood
“The Towers of Tuscany has all the elements of a wonderful historical novel—a talented, frustrated heroine; a treacherous, feckless husband; and a promise to a dying, much loved father who orders the heroine on a dangerous mission. Carol is a first rate storyteller. The research is well done. Every chapter displays a fine knowledge of painting technique of the 14th century, and customs and mores of the age. The details of dress, fabric, food, are flawless. The clever dialogue and fast pace make the novel zing along.” —Roberta Rich, bestselling author of The Midwife of Venice and The Harem Midwife
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About the Author
Carol M. Cram is the author of The Towers of Tuscany, an historical novel about a woman painter in fourteenth-century Italy. In addition to writing fiction, Carol has enjoyed a great career as an educator, teaching at Capilano University in North Vancouver for over twenty years and authoring forty-plus bestselling textbooks on business communications and software applications for Cengage Learning. She holds an MA in Drama from the University of Toronto and an MBA from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Carol is currently focusing as much of her attention as she can spare between walks in the woods on writing historical novels with an arts twist. She and her husband, painter Gregg Simpson, share a life on beautiful Bowen Island near Vancouver, Canada. Visit her at www.carolcram.com.
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