“To truly love another, you must follow the lover’s path wherever it may take you . . .”
Filamena Ziani is the much younger sister of the most famous courtesan in sixteenth-century Venice, Tullia Ziani. Orphaned as an infant, Filamena has come of age bent like a branch to her sister’s will, sheltered and lonely in the elegant but stifling confines of their palazzo by the sea. Then a dark-haired stranger offers a gift that will change the course of her life forever: a single ripe plum, and an invitation to walk along the lover’s path, wherever it may lead.
THE LOVER’S PATH, a moving tale of forbidden love, is a romantic epic told in multiple layers. Through a novel combination of Filamena’s narrative, famous love stories from history and mythology, and sumptuously ornate illustrations, Filomena’s path is beautifully described and, finally, stunningly revealed.
Praised by The New York Times Book Review for her “quality of myth and magic,” Kris Waldherr brings to life a remarkable period in Venetian history using art and words. Her glorious celebration of romance, the feminine spirit, and the power of love to transform will inspire and move readers everywhere.
Chapter 1: Grace
The fiaba of the lover’s path begins almost two decades ago as the story of two sisters, alike as doves in appearance, but different as water and wine in temperament and experience.
At that time, I was only a girl of sixteen. For as long as I could remember, my sister Tullia and I lived in a palazzo set in Venice, a labyrinth of a city where we heard the sea murmur its music day and night. This palazzo was furnished by my sister through her extraordinary talents and beauty. It glittered with golden mosaics, and was graced with sumptuous paintings and intricate tapestries. Within this palazzo we were aided by servants who felt affection for us. Among them were Caterina, who was Tullia’s ruffiana—her procuress and confidant—and Caterina’s daughter Laura, who was my playmate as well as my maid. And it was there in this palazzo that I bent to my sister’s rule, a sapling recognizing the sun’s sovereignty.
As I write of Tullia, I will try not to be harsh. I know many have called her a mysterious beauty, cool in the use of her considerable intelligence and allure. In all honesty, my sister was as elusive to me as she was to others. Nonetheless, I hope time has bestowed upon me a measure of wisdom as I remind myself of her unavoidable influence upon me. After all, Tullia was my first vision in this life. My earliest memory is of her bending over to soothe me as I sobbed the inconsolable tears of childhood, her blonde hair a dazzle of light around a divinity. Unlike most children, my first word was not madre or padre. It was sorella, sister, in honor of Tullia, for our parents had drowned a year after my birth, leaving my sister as the elder of us by fourteen years to raise and provide for me.
Despite her reputation as the most illustrious courtesan in Venice, Tullia shielded my eyes from the carnal nature of love; I saw little that would make a nun blush. But she educated me in other ways, teaching me to read and write in Italian and Latin, a priceless gift bestowed upon few women, for which I am forever grateful. She also tutored me in the art of music, for which I quickly showed love and aptitude. My precocious talents soon won me the affectionate soprannome, or nickname, of la filomela—the nightingale—so similar to my given name of Filamena.
If it was because of my sister that I had an active mind, a voice to sing, food to eat, and a roof over my head, it was also because of my sister I was made to stay inside my home after I turned twelve. Noting that I was of an age where men might approach me because of her profession, Tullia did not allow me to leave the palazzo unless I was dressed plainly and accompanied by an elder servant. These occasions arose less and less frequently as time passed. No matter how much I begged for freedom, Tullia ignored my pleas. She would explain to me in patient tones that my isolation was necessary. It was her hope that, in time, people would see me as a woman separate from her, rather than as the sister of a courtesan. This was small consolation, for the loneliness that colored my hours felt unending. At sixteen, I was of an age when most young women had already married and borne children, or entered a convent to do God’s work. For myself there was nothing—only an abstract promise that might be fulfilled in the future if my sister willed it so.
What else do I remember about my life at that time? Sometimes when I was alone in my room, I would let a feather fall from my window into the sea. I’d watch it float away into the sea for as long as I could, imagining the countries it might reach—faraway lands I wished I could visit one day, unnamed countries I could only imagine.
I also recall the brightness of gold ducats and of my sister’s hair. The insistent chatter of baby sparrows clustered about my feet as I sang inside the walled garden behind our palazzo. The precious show of sun upon my face. The spicy perfume of oranges from our garden. The briny smell of the sea on warm summer afternoons. The starched linen of my plain brown cloak against my young, tender skin—the cloak that hid me from others’ eyes on the increasingly rare occasions when I ventured into the world. Most of all, I remember the confusion of innocence, gratitude, anger, and guilt that infused my emotions toward the sister I loved yet resented.
Now as I look back, I think Tullia truly wished our fiaba of two sisters to remain as it was forever—to divert time like water from its path. But this, of course, was impossible. To preserve my innocence, a courtesan such as my sister would have had to layer restriction upon restriction as if they were blankets upon a winter bed. While she may have thought she was protecting me from the bitter cold, she only made the snow outside my window look all the more enticing.
I began to think of escape.
In the May of 1526, I celebrated my sixteenth birthday, still trapped within my home by my sister’s will. By then, it had been well over six months since I’d last set foot outside our palazzo beyond the walled garden. Shortly after my birthday came La Sensa, the annual celebration marking the marriage of Venice to the sea. Despite the cruel illness that had taken so many lives earlier that spring, my sister still held her infamous annual feast. Many considered this unseemly, but Tulla’s La Sensa feast was necessary to solidify her standing and desirability in society. It was for this celebration that she would compose a poem praising the powers of love and set it to music; I would perform this song to the accompaniment of her lute.
I looked forward to these recitals as a prisoner yearns to glimpse the first anemones of spring from her jail window. I loved the intense study involved in mastering new music as much as I loved the transfixed attention of my sister’s guests as I sang for them. While I did not otherwise participate in Tullia’s entertainments—she would not allow me, for by morning’s wake these celebrations often disintegrated into private ones of a more sensual sort—after I finished singing, I would watch from the back of the musicians’ gallery, set high on the wall of the great hall. I was careful not to let the candlelight reveal me as I eagerly spied upon the world forbidden to me.
However, by the spring of my sixteenth year, my joy in music was tempered with steely resolve: I would use my music to free myself from my sister.
Though over two decades have passed since this night, I still remember how I sat inside my chamber the evening of the feast, trying with little success to calm my trilling nerves. Caterina had confided that a great cardinal was coming to La Sensa, one reputed to especially love music. I would perform for him and more than one hundred guests. He would hear me sing. Perhaps I could gain his favor, like so many musicians before me. He could champion my art, bring me to court. I would become a virtuosa, a great musician, and make my way in the world.
As I prepared for La Sensa, I felt the weight of the hopes I dared not express to anyone but myself. My maid, Laura, helped me dress. I braided my hair myself. As I twisted it into a knot behind my neck, a sinuous perfume curled about me. Lilies, roses, vanilla....
“Like two doves are we,” Tullia announced softly, standing behind me as I stared at myself in the mirror. “Both light and serene.”
I exhaled her perfume and looked up. The mirror reflected two golden-hair sisters with grey eyes. One wore a simple gown the color of cream, her braided hair bare of ornaments; the other, red brocade embroidered with silver thread, the full sleeves of her dress slashed with silver ribbon, her curls woven with pearls. I felt as plain as Tullia was beautiful. A sparrow next to a bird of paradise.
“I know you’ll sing your loveliest tonight, Filamena,” she said. “Though I remain uncertain how wise it is to allow you to perform....”
I couldn’t bear to answer; I feared any protest would invite attention to what I most desired. My heart sped as my sister curved her long neck, so much like mine, to rest her soft cool cheek against my shoulder. Could she guess my thoughts? Apparently not, for she only smiled at our reflection in the mirror.
“Shall we?” she asked after smoothing my hair. “The hour is late.”
Tullia took my hand to lead me to the musicians’ gallery, where I was to remain unseen though not unheard. I followed her, cold with desperation.
From my perch above the great hall, I looked down onto the celebration already underway. I stared at the cardinal, resplendent in his scarlet robes as he held court before my sister’s guests, willing his eyes toward mine. Though the hall was full, there were fewer guests than usual, no doubt because of the sickness that still lingered in Venice. Some wore large-nosed masks of gold and silver, as if they could deceive death by hiding their identities. Others, their faces bared, were less cautious. Dressed in costly silks and velvets, they milled about the large wood and marble table set in the center of the great hall. Gracing the table were some of the voluptuous offerings for which my sister’s celebrations were famed: platters of fowl and fish and bread, with rose petals arranged like a ruddy snowfall around each dish; rare fruits preserved in cordial, nuts glistening in honey, and numerous silver flasks of wine.
Upon my sister’s cue, servants extinguished half the candles, plunging the room into a golden dusk. Everyone fell silent.
Tullia rose and greeted her guests with a graceful speech. Then she looked up at me, hidden in the musician’s gallery, and nodded.
As she plucked the strings of her lute, my voice soared forth.
Praise for The Lover’s Path:
“THE LOVER’S PATH is beautiful in every way; not only is the story of the girl’s secret and ultimately dangerous love wonderfully told, but the exquisite illustrations and layout make you feel that you have truly fallen into old Venice with its longing and eroticism. Prepare to be lifted into another time and place and discover secrets long guarded. That one extraordinarily talented writer/artist/designer could have created this whole world is almost not to be believed but it is so. You must own this lovely, lovely book! —Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude and Camille and Marrying Mozart
“The Lover’s Path is a visual and literary feast…. The star-crossed lovers are a celebrated courtesan’s virginal and over-protected young sister and a cardinal’s illegitimate son. The lovers in the book are linked mythically and thematically to the archetypal lovers on the Lover’s Path: Dante and Beatrice, Isis and Osiris, Tristan and Isolde, Orpheus and Eurydice, and ultimately Eros and Psyche…. Haunting.”—Mary Sharratt, author of Daughters of the Witching Hill
“Prepare to be transported to 16th century Venice from the first page. This novel is a feast—a full-color picture book for adults that tells a wrenching story of eternal love…. This beautiful fable reminded me of Erica Jong’s Serenissima.”—NPR Books
“With this illustrated novel, Waldherr has spun a wondrous story spilling over with mythological figures, with tarot cards and personal letters. You’re pulled into a vortex of a 16th century romance centered on Filamena Ziani, the younger sister of a famous courtesan in Venice…. Waldherr, who based her novel on a real-life courtesan, also created the illustrations for her book.”—The Albuquerque Journal
“Voluptuous illustration and enthralling narrative … in this extraordinary testament to the strength of the feminine spirit.”—WNBC/B(u)y the Book
“Kris Waldherr’s The Lover’s Path plunges readers into the mysterious and exhilarating world of sixteenth-century Venice…. A visual adventure.”—Women in the Arts, the Magazine of the National Museum of Women in the Arts
Kindle Fire format (Deluxe edition with full color graphics)
Kindle format (Optimized for b/w and smaller screen size)
iPad format (Deluxe edition with interactive full color graphics):
iPhone format (Optimized for small screen size):
The Lover's Path is on a blog tour!