Powerful written and richly depicted, historical fiction novel, The Towers of Tuscany by Carol Cram brings to life 14th century Sophia, a talented artist who must find a way to continue her art in secret or have her life put in danger.
“The bells for nones caught her by surprise…,” drawing Sofia’s mind away from the panel of the Nativity she is painting. She rises, steps over to the narrow tower window, and gazes out across the towers of San Gimignano, in central Tuscany. It is mid-afternoon of a day in March 1338.
In little more than a page, Carol Cram’s expertly crafted prose transports us across time and space to Sofia’s world. But what we find is not exactly what we might have expected—at least, not I. Sofia is assailed by the pounding of hammers and clanging of iron tools deriving from the endless construction in this rapidly growing town. The air is filled with dust, causing her to squint. Her tower view is so filled with other towers that she has but a tiny, oblique view of the countryside beyond the city walls. She longs to escape the cacophony.
Hearing her husband below, Sofia does not smile. He was once her Romeo, but not after their marriage. Now she longs to escape Giorgio’s brutish sexual assault on her body night after night, as well as his rigid control over her daily life. At this moment, his angry voice assaults her sensibility: “Wife! What the devil are you doing up there?” She gasps, fearful that Giorgio will learn she is painting and destroy her work! (In the fourteenth century, well-married women were forbidden to engage in “manual” activities.) She hurriedly wipes her hands and scrambles down the tower ladder.
Thus begins the saga of Sofia, daughter of a master painter who, behind closed doors, taught her from early childhood how to draw and paint. Still in secret, she now works as his apprentice. While Maestro Antonio Barducci is often overtly critical of her work, he is aware that her skill might one day surpass his own, though how she could continue to employ it after he is gone is a quandary contemplated by both. That time arrives sooner than either expected when local political violence leads to Barducci’s death.
Her father’s dying words reveal a way forward for Sofia, though it turns out to be not an easy one. Leaving Giorgio through subterfuge, she escapes to Siena disguised as a boy (named Sandro, from Alessandro), and her artistry continues in the painting workshop of her father’s friend, Maestro Manzini. Sofia/Sandro lives with few amenities and no small danger of discovery, which could end her life. But, she is painting again, and nothing else matters—at least not for the time being.
Cram cleverly takes advantage of the workshop setting to share with us some of the techniques and practices of pre-Renaissance painting, which was usually done on wooden panels (carefully smoothed and prepared with gesso), rather than canvas. Paints were made with pigments from natural substances—usually plants—mixed with urine and other materials, some of them poisonous. Painting in 14th century Italy could be dangerous work! Certain techniques are described by Maestro Barducci, whose fatherly voice Sofia often hears in her head, guiding her work as well as her life.
The best and worst parts of this dramatic, spellbinding work of historical fiction, with its many intriguing characters, deserves of your private reading—every word of it. Readers will find delight in a delicious love story, horror in a representation of the deadly bubonic (black) plague that decimated a large part of the European population of that time, and, in the end, a hint of peace and hope for the future.
Carol Cram, the author of The Towers of Tuscany and A Woman of Note, is lauded for her skillful and colorful writing, intricate weaving of a many-faceted plot, and minute attention to the details of daily life in a Europe approaching the Renaissance—all in a read you’ll not forget.
One woman clandestinely practices her art, risking not only her reputation but her life, in pre-renaissance Italy. Carol Cram presents a masterpiece in prose with historical fiction novel, The Towers of Tuscany. A must read!