The Creation of Eve
by Lynn Cullen
Sofonisba Anguissola was one of the first major female painters of the Renaissance, so highly regarded by her peers that Giorgio Vasari included her in his famous biographies. Another of his subjects, Michelangelo, was a teacher of Sofonisba, and it is in his workshop that The Creation of Eve begins. After Sofonisba is caught in a compromising position with one of Michelangelo’s apprentices, she flees Italy and ends up at the Spanish court of King Felipe II, recruited to teach painting to the King’s new bride, Elizabeth. The artist must keep one wary eye on her new mistress, who risks the King’s wrath as she flirts with his half-brother Don Juan, and the other eye on her own past, as the Inquisition investigates the great Michelangelo for heresy and the crime of sodomy.
As an artist, I found Sofonisba a fascinating character. She wants to become a true master of painting, and throughout the book her techniques are described in detail. As I read I learned about making paint, positioning subjects and composition, how a brush’s texture can influence the painting, and many of the new ideas artists were trying during this revolutionary period in the arts. Unfortunately, Sofonisba cannot overcome the mores of her time. She is forced to restrict her paintings to portraits because it is considered unseemly for a woman to study anatomy, and she never learns how to paint the human body accurately.
Michelangelo is a background character for the most part; we hear about him through the gossip of courtiers and a few letters sent to Sofonisba from friends and family. But this is his story, too. Everyone in Italy and Spain is aware of the great artist, and wants to know more about him, so stories and rumors about him surface again and again.
For fans of romantic intrigue, there’s plenty of that too. King Felipe is portrayed sympathetically, as a man genuinely devoted to his new wife, but with a cruel, ruthless streak. Queen Elizabeth is lusty but frail, and though she seems fond of her husband she’s a girl half his age, and spends more time with his son Carlos and half-brother Juan than would be wise.
Historical fiction fans will enjoy this book a great deal. I know I did! I think it would especially appeal to those who enjoyed Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and fans of Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Tudor courts.
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth attributed to Sofonisba