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The Creation of Eve

by Lynn Cullen

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After a scandal ends her apprenticeship with Michelangelo in 1559, artist Sofonisba Anguissola accepts an invitation from King Felipe II to become lady-in-waiting and painting teacher to his teenage bride Elisabeth. And though Sofi's developing affair may be risky, Elisabeth's dalliance with the king's brother Don Juan could be deadly.… (more)

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When Sofonisba Anguissola yields to long temptation and has a passionate encounter with an artist colleague, she has much to lose. For one thing, Rome in 1559 is hardly the place for a woman to risk her reputation. For another, as a painter, Sofi has dared sign her canvases “the virgin,” partly out of pride in her dedication to her craft, partly to protect herself as a woman in a male profession. No more. As she says in the first sentence of this remarkable, compelling novel, “In the time it takes to pluck a hen, I have ruined myself.”

However, as the daughter of a petty aristocrat, Sofi’s not without resources, and her talent has received notice. No less a figure than Michelangelo himself has tutored her—which is how she met Tiberio, her lover, also the maestro’s student—and though she must now hide herself, she’s got a place to go. On the strength of drawings she’s made, Sofi receives an invitation from the court of Felipe II of Spain to teach painting to his new bride, Elisabeth of Valois, and be her lady-in-waiting. In that capacity, Sofi attends the royal wedding at Guadalajara, after which her adventure begins.

Cullen has given her protagonist a delightful, alluring voice and superbly re-created time, place, and manners, an atmosphere sustained throughout. You expect the novel to focus on feminist issues, notably the double standard regarding honor and purity, which the narrative handles with skill, in multiple facets and circumstances. As king, Felipe may have his mistresses, but if Elisabeth, who’s only fourteen, so much as smiles at the noblemen who fawn on her, look out. As a foreigner herself and a strong woman, Sofi becomes the queen’s trusted confidante.

Look out, again. Raising a foreigner of comparatively low birth to such a position makes enemies, and those who have been displaced put Sofi on notice. But they’re not the greatest danger. Felipe’s sister Juana, a marvelously insidious character, would like nothing better than to destroy Elisabeth and sees the upstart artist as a pawn in that game.

Not only does Dona Juana question Sofi closely about Michelangelo, now under fire for his rumored homosexuality and his “degenerate” fresco in the Sistine Chapel, which the Church is considering painting over (!), the king’s sister makes sure that Spain’s inquisitor-general asks Sofi about these as well. Further, Dona Juana seems to know about Tiberio, from whom Sofi has waited, in vain, for a letter declaring his love and willingness to marry her.

I admire how Cullen weaves art, feminism, palace cabals, politics, and sex, moving confidently among historical figures. She casts Felipe II as a more rounded person than he’s often portrayed, capturing his stiffness while revealing his love for gardening and tenderness as a father. I’m also glad to know about Sofonisba Anguissola, having heard only of Artemisia Gentileschi as a female painter of the time, though the former came first by several decades.

I like Cullen’s rendering of the royals, but the real show-stopper is Catherine de Medici, Elisabeth’s mother, whom the Spanish queen visits once in France. You understand immediately why, as a child, Elisabeth preferred her father’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, as a mother figure.

The way Sofi becomes privy to certain secrets sometimes stretches credulity, but not to the point of utter contrivance. The lone historical inaccuracy that sticks out concerns the potato’s presence in the royal gardens, which wouldn’t have happened then (if ever, in that era). More serious is Cullen’s assertion, in her afterword, that Felipe II is wrongly considered to embody the Inquisition, and that contemporary versions elsewhere (see, for example: Mary Tudor) killed more people.

That may or may not show Felipe in a more favorable light. But to suggest that the Spanish Inquisition has an exaggeratedly evil reputation because of contemporary chroniclers relegates a great crime to a body count. Fernando and Isabella’s expulsion of Jews and Moors in 1492 and the persecutions of converts afterward attempted to eradicate cultures that had enriched Spain. I think that outdoes Bloody Mary. ( )
  Novelhistorian | Jan 26, 2023 |
Based on the true, but little known, story of the first renowned female artist during the Renaissance period, this is a captivating work of historical fiction. Sofonisba Anguisola (Sofi) studied under Michelangelo, though, as a woman, she was not allowed to draw the naked figure. Still, her reputation garnered her an invitation from King Felipe II of Spain to join his court as a drawing instructor for his young bride, Elisabeth of Valois, the daughter of King Henri II of France and his wife, Catherine de’ Medici.

I knew nothing about this extraordinary woman, and only a little about the court of King Felipe II. I had not realized the extent of his empire or how very powerful he was. I also was unaware of his relationship to the infamous Don Juan.

Cullen crafts a compelling story that includes intrigue, romance, mystery, politics and the frustration felt by a woman shackled by society’s conventions. Sofi is a strong woman: intelligent, observant, loyal, talented, and determined to live her own life. Her role in the novel, however, is mostly as observer to what is going on in the court, especially in regard to Elizabeth and her flirtations with Felipe’s son, Don Carlos, and with Don Juan.

The author’s notes at the end include more information about Sofonisba herself. I want to look up all her paintings now. ( )
  BookConcierge | Jan 12, 2022 |
I loved this book. Usually I'm not a fan of books about royalty, All those royals were related to each other, so I guess it really doesn't make a lot of difference which one you're reading about, but this one is about Spain, Phillip II and Elisabeth, so maybe that made it go down easier. Catherine Medici with her spider web of schemes is in the background for most of it, and she is interesting, but if she were a man with such an unstoppable and Machiavellian lust for power, I don't think I'd find her enticing. What got me interested in the book is that the main character is Sofonisba Anguissola, the first famous woman renaissance painter, and art is a power that truly draws me to it. Alas, there's more romance than I'd like, but so much about art, society, disease, religion, the class system, imports from (our) new world, and daily life that I hadn't known before. (Oh, she ate a tomato. What happened to her?) Also, in describing the heat in Spain, she really gets heat right. Coming from the western US, I know how sticky and debilitating the summer can be, and evidently she does too. She absolutely gets it right. ( )
  Citizenjoyce | Sep 11, 2017 |
The world building and story in this book is lush and suspenseful. One literally seems to experience the hot sun of Spain, the dark opulence of the Spanish royal court, and the fear prevalent in everything due to the Inquisition. The author’s research into the time period shows abundantly as she gives the readers an intimate look at this fascinating time. The political intrigue of the royal court and the dangers our characters had to navigate through also me spellbound.

The author does a fantastic job in her general characterization. I liked how the characters never got predictable and two-dimensional. They always surprised me by some twist in motivation and action, some new depth of personality. I was especially interested in Philip. There are so many facets to Philip’s personality and how history views him. He was different things to different people. So it was interesting to get a window into his personal life and see him as a man, husband, and father.

My only gripe and shadow of disappointment I had in this book was the main character. I found I just couldn’t connect with her. She seemed very blah and just boring, to be frank. At times she seemed like just a window through which to explore the time period or the other characters. Some of her background was interesting; I especially liked some of the details on painting and the art world told through her. Yet, her constant obsession with Tiberio and her conspiracy theories got grating.

Overall, I liked the historical details, the political intrigue storyline, and most of the characters. The author definitely knows how to set a scene and make it sing. Yet, her main character definitely needed some juicing up. I was hoping for way more on such an intriguing character as this early Renaissance female painter who was a trailblazer in so many ways. But I think I’ll still be checking out more works by Cullen with all the good stuff in evidence in this book. ( )
  Sarah_Gruwell | Jan 13, 2016 |
Sofonisba was a young, female Italian painter who was briefly tutored under Michelangelo. She became 'the first renowned female artist of the Renaissance,' for early portraits of her family and those of nearby city states in Italy, and was recognized by Michelangelo for her talent. In more recent times, she has been identified as the artist of more important portraits which were originally attributed to other artists because she was not allowed to sign them.

She was hired by King Phillip II to teach his young French bride, Elisabeth, how to paint and to serve as one of her ladies. During this time, though given a relatively secure position, she had little time for painting and could not sign her name anyway because her position with the Queen superseded that of painter.

The late 16th Century was a highly volatile time not only in England where Queen Elizabeth I had a precarious hold on her throne, doing battle with various factions within her realm, the Pope and the European kings, but in Spain as well. King Phillip's control of the Netherlands and factions within his own lands, plus the high cost of maintaining armies and navies in the field were near ruinous. Also, his sole male heir was clearly unbalanced and finally had to be locked away. ( )
  cfk | Apr 4, 2013 |
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After a scandal ends her apprenticeship with Michelangelo in 1559, artist Sofonisba Anguissola accepts an invitation from King Felipe II to become lady-in-waiting and painting teacher to his teenage bride Elisabeth. And though Sofi's developing affair may be risky, Elisabeth's dalliance with the king's brother Don Juan could be deadly.

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