Thursday, July 31, 2008

"Renaissance Faces" at the National Gallery

This 1523 painting by Lorenzo Lotto, "Marsilio Cassotti and his Wife Faustina," is one of the works that will be featured in an exciting exhibition of Renaissance portraiture to be held at the National Gallery in London from October 15, 2008 to January 18, 2009. "Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian" will gather 70 paintings, along with statues and drawings, from all over Europe. Highlights include works from Ghirlandaio, Van Eyck, Titian, Raphael, Botticelli, Holbein, Dürer, Pontormo and Bellini. The National Gallery website has a description of the exhibition, along with a pictorial sampling of the works; the New York Sun ran a short interview with the new director responsible for organizing the show. There must be a Clouet or two in the mix, but even if there isn't, the show promises to be a marvelous one. Unfortunately, I don't think trip to London in the next few months is in the cards for me. If anyone does get a chance to view the exhibition, please come back and tell us about it!

If I believed in portents, I'd latch on to the title of the portrait above: Marsilio, the husband, shares the name of the antagonist in The Measure of Silence; Faustina is the name of one of the female characters in the Fontainebleau novel I'm working on now. Might a two-book deal be in the stars? If only....

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Local Boy's New World Adventure

The ghost of Giovanni da Verrazzano is haunting me. This evening, while skimming Jean Etèvenaux's Les Grandes Heures de Lyon (20o5), I fell upon another mention of the new-to-me story of Verrazzano christening New York "La Nouvelle-Angoulême" (see my previous post). I gleaned an additional bit of information from Etèvenaux's brief version. It appears Giovanni was from a Florentine family that had established itself in Lyon, of all places; it was from Lyon that the explorer had sought François I's patronage in 1522. Who would have guessed?

I did a little Googling and found more details on Verrazzano's page at The Mariners' Museum. It claims that circumstantial evidence (the lack of any mention of Giovanni's birth in the records of the Florentine Verrazzanos and the marriage of a certain Giovanna to Allessandro di Bartolommeo da Verrazzano in 1480 at Lyon) points to Lyon as Giovanni's probable birthplace. More interesting still, with regard to the 1524 voyage, the article claims: 

With the accumulated knowledge and information gathered by Cabot and other explorers who went before him, Verrazzano made his plans and preparations for his own expedition. In 1523, letters were written concerning the efforts of a group of Florentine bankers and merchants, living in Lyons, to organize financial support for a voyage led by Verrazzano. Interested in finding a source for silk for the textile factories of Lyon, these backers were among the wealthiest and most influential families in France, and are among those linked by marriage to Verrazzano. The support of the king, Francois I, was also necessary for the venture, but there are no written records of a royal commission. It must have been given in some form however, because on returning from the first voyage, Verrazzano made his report directly to the king.

To think that this important voyage to the New World, which produced the first written descriptions of the landscape and the native peoples, was financed by the silk merchants of Lyon! (I think there's a story here, just waiting to be told...Book 3, perhaps?)

To honor its local adventurer, the city of Lyon named a square in the northern part of the city Place Giovanni da Verrazzano. The explorer is also one of the twenty-five famous Lyonnais featured on the seven-storey wall mural at the corner of the rue de la Martinère and quai de la Pècherie (more on Lyon's murals in a later post).

(Be sure to read the entire Verrazzano entry at The Mariners' Museum and explore the museum's fascinating website.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Interview with author C.W. Gortner

A warm welcome to C.W. Gortner, author of the fabulous new historical novel The Last Queen (Ballantine, 2008). C.W. graciously agreed to be interviewed for this blog; it was great fun corresponding with someone who loves the Renaissance as much as I do. Here is what he had to say about the writing of The Last Queen and historical fiction in general. 

1. What was it about Juana of Castile that inspired you to write about her?

I’ve been fascinated by Juana since childhood. I’m half-Spanish by birth and was raised in Spain; as a child, I visited her tomb in Granada and I remember staring at her effigy, her anguished face turned away from that of her dead husband, and thinking: Was she really mad? What happened to her? Her story intrigued me even then, for she is legendary in Spain. Much later on, when I began seriously contemplating writing a novel about her, I took into account the fact that history is rarely kind to women, particularly women in power. And history has by and large relegated Juana to a side-note. Though she’s the sister of Catherine of Aragon and mother of the Emperor Charles V, as well as her mother Queen Isabella’s legal heir and the last queen of her medieval Spanish bloodline to inherit the throne, she barely excites notice. Yet, she shaped Europe through her children, and her own life was full of drama and passion—she seemed to me a remarkable woman and very contemporary in her struggle to balance life and duty, love and betrayal. I thought, why has no one questioned the official accounts? The implicit silence around the usurpation of her rights, the agreement among historians that she was unbalanced and would never have been able to rule, seemed to hide something. There had to be more to her story than we’d been told; she couldn’t be this stereotype I kept reading about. The compulsion to unravel her mystery inspired me to undertake what turned into years of research and writing.

2. Did you ever consider writing Juana's story from the third person? What made you choose first, and what challenges did this choice pose?

I actually wrote the first draft in third person. It was my agent who told me that while she loved the story and felt I had captured Juana’s world, something in her character was missing. I’d actually felt the same while writing her. I was frustrated but unsure as to how to fix it. Juana wasn’t an easy character to capture; and I’d been so focused on not making judgments about her, in third person my caution had translated into making her seem remote. My agent patiently suggested some changes I could do to make her more accessible; changing to first person never came up, simply because that kind of overhaul is monumental and more often than not can collapse a carefully constructed novel. It was only while I was working on the changes, and by chance reading a historical novel in first person that captivated me, that the idea surfaced. As a reader I’d always preferred third-person narratives, but I saw how deep a first person narrative could delve and I thought, maybe I’ll try it. Just a few chapters. The moment I slipped into first person, it was as if Juana was with me. It’s hard to describe, but there’s this transformation that occurs during writing and a writer can “feel” when a character finally breathes on her own. Allowing Juana to tell her own story released her from the constraints I’d imposed on her as a character. As a result, the novel changed in many ways; the beginning was totally re-written and all the characters had to be reinterpreted. The main challenge was to retain the scope of the original version as seen through Juana’s eyes yet the actual work itself was very instinctual. It ended up being a year of re-writing but she stayed with me the entire time.

3. Juana is a woman of intense passion and often exaggerated action, yet you avoid any trace of melodrama in your narrative. How did you achieve this?

Lots of re-writing?! Actually, I was keenly aware that Juana’s story is so intense at times it lends itself perfectly to the type of lurid melodrama I adore in old films and so I deliberately stopped myself from indulging. There’s a film about her that was made the 1940s in Spain and won lots of awards: it’s deliciously over the top, and while as a child I’d stared mesmerized at the spectral actress playing Juana in her billowing black veil, as a writer I was very cognizant to not let my childhood fascination overcome me. Past depictions of Juana are almost all melodramatic, but her story is a serious one, with terrifying consequences, and melodrama by definition degrades. I wanted to avoid this at all costs.

4. The opening scene of the defeat of the Moorish prince Boabdil in many ways prefigures Juana's fate at the end of the book. Was the Boabdil scene always the opening scene in your mind, or did you arrive at it during a later draft of the story?

It came later. It was one of the scenes I wrote after I switched to first person. In third person, I had a similar scene involving the fall of Granada but Juana’s is a peripheral viewpoint. When I started my massive re-write, the scene developed organically and ended up replacing the first four chapters in the original draft. I’ve had other readers tell me, that scene echoes Juana’s fate. It must be something I constructed on purpose on some level, but it was very subconscious. It wasn’t something I set out to achieve deliberately; though I’m delighted it worked out that way. That’s the fun part of writing: things happen that you never envisioned.

5. [Possible spoiler, but I had to ask] About three-quarters of the way into the book, Juana commits a horrendous act that you admit in your afterword was pure speculation on your part. Narrative considerations aside, did you have any qualms about attributing this grave deed to the dead queen?

Ah, yes. Well, I must admit, I did. I was actually horrified when it first arose and I came to a complete stall in my writing. As I’ve said, sometimes things happen on a subconscious or organic level during writing, particularly when it’s a novel, which can take years to complete, and this was another of those moments when the character took over. It sounds like a split-personality excuse, but I have to say in all honesty, the Juana I created wanted to go there. I tried several other devices and everything fell flat. When I finally just allowed myself to write the scene I’d been avoiding, it flowed out in one burst and has remained virtually untouched by both my agent and my editor—which is saying something! My theory, if it can be called that, isn’t completely without basis: there were rumors at the time and for years afterwards that the event had occurred; only someone else was blamed for it. But yes, strictly speaking, it is speculative on my part (though I like to think she would have been perfectly justifiable, had she done it) and I do hope it doesn’t cause great offense.

6. I was particularly drawn to the character of Soraya, Juana's Moorish handmaiden. Was she an actual person? How did you learn about her?

She’s a fictional composite of two actual persons. Accounts of Juana’s household when she first left Spain for Flanders include ‘two Moorish handmaids’, a euphemism for slaves who had agreed to convert. Most likely, these were young girls caught up in the expulsion of the Moors ordered by Queen Isabella, who were either orphaned or abandoned to fend for themselves. They’re unnamed, but they must have stayed with Juana for years because when she later returned to Spain to fight for her throne, the handmaidens are mentioned again in a dispatch from one of Philip’s henchmen—this time, saying they’d been banished from the queen’s service, to her outrage. Philip used her fury over the loss of these servants he barely considered human as another reason to promulgate her unworthiness. Thus, was Soraya born. Spain has this unique and beautiful combination of the Islamic, Celtic and Christian cultures: Juana embodies these contrasts in her uniquely Iberian character. It might be of interest to you to also know that Soraya didn’t exist as a character in the third-person draft of the book. She came to me through Juana’s first person voice, another of those surprises I mentioned.

7. How do you think Spanish, and indeed European, history would have been different had Juana been allowed to rule?

First and foremost, Spain would not have suffered the degradation it did under the Hapsburg rule of Charles V. As queen, Juana would have sought to maintain the realm’s independence and unity, to uphold the statutes that her parents worked so tirelessly to achieve. She would also in time have inherited her father’s kingdom of Aragón and no doubt have called for her children to join her in Spain, if not year-round, at least for extended periods of time. They would have had a mother present and Juana would probably have been a good one, because she knew first-hand the importance of family. Charles V was raised as a prince but he never knew familial affection as a child and this had profound effects on him. He showed his indifference in the way he raised his own son, Philip II, who also suffered from distance from his family and a severe lack of affection. Charles V had his father Philip the Fair’s education, reared to be a Hapsburg first, and he treated Spain as a vassal state. As a result, he endured violent revolts by the Spanish, one of which had direct implications for Juana. This might not have happened had Juana ruled. Spain would have had a sovereign queen and it truly is fascinating to conjecture if the terrible hostilities between Spain and England, once historically allied countries, would have arose; if the Armada would have sailed; if Juana would have authorized the horrors of the Inquisition that took place under Philip II. I think much would have been different, and Spain might not have reached its brief apex under Philip II only to collapse into bankruptcy at his death. Queens, historically, are less prone to sacrificing their realms to unrealistic ideals.  

8. Which scene in the book was the most difficult to write? Which scene did you enjoy the most?

Hard questions! It’s all difficult and it’s all enjoyable at the same time, for different reasons, but if I had to pick the most difficult scene, I’d say it’s the one where Philip assaults Juana. There’s a terrible finality to that moment: she realizes she is trapped in a disintegrating marriage she can’t escape and that everything she has believed in is a lie. It was quite painful to experience that with her. As for my favorite scene, it’s the one where she makes peace with her mother. I love the tenderness of that scene, the realization that they’ve been at odds for years because they are so alike. It is a defining moment for Juana as well: she emerges from that room as the woman she will be for the rest of her life.

9. I would think American readers, on the whole, are less knowledgeable about Spanish history than British, or even French. How did this affect your presentation of history in the novel?

Quite a bit. I had to be meticulous in giving the reader the information they would need to understand and navigate the past, without making it pedantic or overwhelming. I also had to link the more familiar aspects of history for American readers (i.e., the Tudors) to Spain. Fortunately, Juana was a well-traveled princess for her day and her own life facilitated this.

10. If you could have included one hundred more pages in your novel, what would you have added or expanded?

Oddly enough, not much more than I have now. The book captures everything I wanted to convey about Juana. If I had to add something, I might have started the story earlier, when she’s younger. But then, I’d have lost the impact of that first chapter. I know many writers bemoan the enforced reduction of pages we often endure, and I’m going through some challenges now with my next novel, in terms of length, but with THE LAST QUEEN it just wasn’t an issue.

11. Why do you write historical fiction? What principles guide you as you write?

I’m often asked this question, and while I have the usual answers (I loved reading it as a child; I want to immerse myself in the past to make sense of the present; etc), all of which are valid, the more I think about my reasons for writing historical fiction the less clear they become. Put simply, history compels me. It’s almost as though I seek to return to a place I once knew and re-experience it on a sensory level. I once had a psychic reading (it was the 80s!) and the woman told me I was an old soul who’d taken on earthly form only a few times. She didn’t know anything about me but she mentioned seeing a past life in ancient Egypt and two different lives in the Renaissance. Eerie, because these are by far the eras I’m most attracted to. Of course, she might have been assessing my decidedly gothic way of dressing at the time and drawn reasonable conclusions. A man who wears a cape in broad daylight would probably like the Renaissance, right? Still, it does feel as though I’ve been there before and my obsession with historical fiction is an emotional coping mechanism, since I don’t own a time machine. I’m rarely as content as I am when I’m writing. The book itself may present a thousand challenges and drive me nuts but the scents, the tastes, the textures and hues of history . . . they’re manna from heaven to me.

As for my principles, I strive for historical accuracy. I research to the best of my abilities; I make it a point of actually traveling to the places I’m going to write about (a picture on the web just cannot replace the feel of those stones under your hands); and I take great pains to draw up psychological and emotional profiles for my characters that are true to the recorded circumstances of their lives. That said, I look for secret stories, the ones that hide within official accounts, and I am a novelist first and foremost, whose primary principle is to take the reader on an emotional journey into the past. While I do my utmost to present as realistic a depiction of that past as I can, it is still a fictional interpretation, as we can never know completely what it actually felt like to live in that world. Being twenty-first people defines us just as being 16th century people defined them; all we can manage are close approximations. Perhaps we write historical fiction and read it to kindle a connection that would otherwise be lost forever.

12. What advice do you have for unpublished writers of historical fiction?

Be persistent; be true; be brave. Writing is a tough pursuit: while we experience the euphoria of creation, the act of publication can be anything but. Historical fiction presents unique challenges in that it ebbs and flows according to consumer demand—today it’s hot, tomorrow it’s not – and it suffers to some degree from literary snobbery, in that it’s viewed by some as a “genre” and thus devoid of true lasting merit. This perception is changing (and it’s blatantly wrong, as historical fiction is one of writing’s oldest traditions) but the change is fueled by commercial success and it’s still difficult for the average debut historical writer to get noticed in today’s fiercely competitive marketplace unless he or she hits that coveted bestseller list. Also, the success of one author can dictate to some extent the way others’ books are perceived. You must stay true to your voice, because if you try to imitate the most recent historical bestseller chances are you’ll betray yourself and fail at it. While editors may declare, “We want more books like so-and-so’s”, the truth is what they want is that more books will appeal to so-and-so’s target audience and sell as well. Publishing, like any other business, is driven by profit. The trick is to appeal to the current audience for historical fiction without sacrificing that unique story you want to present.

Thank you so much for taking this time with me. I wish everyone the best of success with their endeavors and hope you enjoy reading THE LAST QUEEN as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please visit me at to learn more about my work, Juana and her world, and special offers and contests for readers.

And thank you, C.W., for this fascinating look at the genesis of The Last Queen. I wish you all the best, and can't wait to read your next novel, about a figure near and dear to my heart--Catherine de Medici.

Readers, if you have any questions for C.W., post them in the comments. I'm sure C.W. will be happy to stop by to answer them.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Review of The Last Queen by C.W. Gornter

Tuesday, July 29 is the official publication day for C.W. Gortner's new novel, The Last Queen. Having read an advance copy of the novel, I can claim without exaggeration that it is one of the best historical novels I have read. The Last Queen is the story of Juana of Castile, the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit the kingdom; known to history as "Juana la Loca"--Juana the Mad--for the unbridled love for her husband that supposedly robbed her of her senses after his death, her story is an amazing tale of determination and courage in the face of repeated betrayal.

Juana is the third daughter of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Fernando of Aragon, monarchs who have fought long and hard to unite their country and free it from Moorish occupation. Eager to forge alliances with the powers of Europe, they send Juana, who embodies the bold ferocity and indomitable pride of her beloved country, to Flanders to wed the archduke Philip, heir to the Hapsburg empire. The unexpected love and passion Juana shares with her young husband assuages her discomfort with the lavish luxury and loose morals of the Hapsburg court and distracts her from her homesickness.
Juana and Philip's idyllic existence comes to an abrupt end when her older siblings and their heirs die one after the other and Juana stands to inherit the Spanish throne upon her mother's passing. As she grieves the successive tragedies that strike her family, Juana finds herself fighting for the future of her country as well as the freedom of her person. Unsatisfied with his role as Juana's consort, Philip is determined to have himself named king and rule Spain in her stead; the Spanish nobles, who must approve the investiture of the monarch, side with him, eager to trade their loyalty for money and favors. The once-devoted spouses find themselves estranged, separated by Philip's brutal lust for power and Juana's determination to keep him from the throne. Using Juana's temper and flamboyant gestures against her, Philip declares her unstable. Steeling her heart against this man she loved so deeply, Juana does what is necessary to protect her realm, only to face a new betrayal by the one man she thought she could trust, a man who covets the throne of Castile even more than Philip did.  

The Last Queen is a riveting tale, from first page to last. Writing in the first person under the guise of an imprisoned Juana penning her memoir, Gortner captures the passion, anguish, and wily intelligence of the queen. His voice, never faltering, brings her to life without seeming too modern in outlook or idiom. His secondary characters are well-developed; Queen Isabella, King Fernando and Philip are more than equal to the task of opposing the fiery Juana. The relationships between the characters are highly charged and constantly shifting; Juana reacts to what she sees (or what she wants to see), which isn't always the truth of the way things are. The nuances of the relationships and Juana's misreading of them contribute to the suspense regarding how it will all play out and keep the theme of "queen determined not to lose her throne" from becoming a static trope. Juana is never solely a victim; consciously or not, she has a hand in her fate as much as her betrayers do.

I applaud Gortner for his deft handling of the complicated politics of sixteenth-century Europe and of Spain in particular. Though I knew next to nothing about Spanish history before reading this novel, I found this to be no hindrance to my understanding of the story. The author weaves explanations of the unification of Castile and Aragon, the conflicting inheritance laws of the two realms, and the dependence of the Spanish monarch on the nobility into the narrative without resorting to information dumps or lectures thinly veiled as dialogue. The characters' actions clearly elucidate the rivalries and sensibilities of Spain, England, France and Flanders. I came away from the book with a better appreciation of the role of Spain on the European stage and a fuller understanding of how the Hapsburgs gained control of such a large portion of the continent. Yet the historical issues that inform the book never take the focus away from Juana and her plight. This book is a novel first, history lesson second--in other words, historical fiction at its best.

There are a few places where I wished certain relationships had been more deeply developed: for example, although we learn that Archbishop Besançon acts as a substitute for Philip's distant father, I never saw any true affection exhibited between him and the prince until the archbishop's death; I also wondered whether Juana, separated so many times for such long periods from her children, wouldn't have missed them more. But these quibbles are minor in light of the author's masterful exploration of the emotional intricacies of Juana's deteriorating marriage and her complicated relationship with her parents. Like Juana herself, the novel maintains a high level of emotional intensity; caught under its--her--spell, the reader turns page after page, ever wondering if Juana is just a bit as crazy as history has made her out to be.

The Last Queen is an engaging, entertaining, and exciting read that I recommend whole-heartedly to lovers of historical fiction. (Fans of Tudor fiction will find the interwoven story of Juana's younger sister Catalina, sent to England to marry the Tudor heir, an extra treat.) I thank C.W. for sending me an advanced reading copy and allowing me to contribute in a small way to the launch of his book. I'm sure The Last Queen will top many "Best Historical Novels" lists for 2008 and beyond.

Be sure to return tomorrow to read my interview with C.W. himself--after you run out and buy your own copy of The Last Queen, that is!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Renaissance Wordle

Here is a Wordle I made of words from this blog:

Wordle is a java applet that makes "word clouds" of any text you feed it. I put in the bodies of some of the posts, chose the colors and orientation, massaged it a bit, and this is what I ended up with! I love the associations that arise from the juxtapositions of some of the words. It's a great inspirational tool! Make your own Wordles here. (Thanks to Susan Adrian for telling me about it.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sixteenth Century Facebook

In our highly visual age, where identity is verified by photograph and pictures of singers, actors, and politicians adorn everything from magazine covers to cereal boxes, it is easy to forget that for centuries the linking of names and faces was not automatic. Celebrities (other than monarchs, of whom effigies, statues, and medallions were often fashioned) were faceless individuals known by their deeds and reputations, not their looks. That began to change in France during the sixteenth century, when portraiture (in oils or chalk) came into vogue at court and facilitated the linking of names and faces.

Jean Clouet (c. 1485-1541), a Flemish artist who emigrated to France around 1515, is the artist who turned the portrait into a specifically French art form during the sixteenth century. Clouet appeared on the royal accounts as a well-pensioned artist in 1516 and remained there until his death, when his position and pension passed to his artist son François (c. 1515-1572), who continued in his father's footsteps of providing portraits for the court's nobles. Both Jean and François sketched drawings, in red and black chalk, of their subjects in preparation for oil paintings. The drawings were usually a three-quarters view of the subject's shoulders and head and were kept "on file" in the studio long after the painted portrait was completed. The artists' output was prodigious: there are 363 drawings preserved in the museum of Chantilly, dating from 1510-1550 (primarily Jean's work) and 569 at the Cabinet des Estampes, dating from 1550-1600 (primarily by François's hand, although by the second half of the century minor artists were producing portraits of their own, careful to copy the technique and style popularized by the Clouets).

Art historians debate whether these drawings were used solely in preparation for the painting of oil portraits (the fact that many of the originals have notes about color, for example "Sleeves green," "Nose red," written on them supports this thesis) or were fashioned as works in their own right. What is certain it that copies of these drawings, traced by the artists' assistants, soon became hot items. Collections of them were bound together in books called albums, of which twenty or so survive. These albums were often sent as gifts to heads of state and other notables. Catherine de Medici was an avid collector of chalk portraits; drawings exist with the sitter's identity penned in her own hand in the margin. I can imagine Catherine, ever the skilled diplomat, pouring over these portraits in the privacy of her cabinet, memorizing names and faces so as to be able to identify the countless courtiers who flocked around her and her sons. On a less utilitarian note, the portraits became part of a courtly game: groups of courtiers would sit in a circle, cover the name and motto of the sitter written on a portrait, and try to identify the man or woman by looks alone.

Thus, portraiture and celebrity fed off each other: the noteworthy person (famous by virtue of his station, family, fortune or accomplishments) would strive to have his portrait drawn; the very fact that a person managed to obtain a portrait endowed him with a certain measure of notoriety. As E. Jollet points out in his excellent book Jean et François Clouet (1998), there were definite social stakes in gaining access to portraiture; having one's portrait done valorized the sitter, especially in the context of the court.

What strikes me about the Clouet portraits is the amazing detail and lifelikeness of the depictions. Think how amazing, in an era that did not yet know the wonders of photography, the skill of the portraitist to draw close likenesses must have seemed. I myself am grateful to the Clouets and their imitators for the documentary value of the surviving portraits. It is so much fun to view their work and discover what the individuals I read about in literature texts and history books actually looked like. If you go here, you can view over 200 of Jean Clouet's works, with the sitters identified when possible. It's an amazing pictorial "Who's Who" of François I's court.

Forthcoming Book Review and Interview

I'll be posting my review of C.W. Gortner's The Last Queen on Monday, July 28 and my interview with the author on Tuesday, July 29, to coincide with the book's official publication date. If Spain, early sixteenth-century Europe, strong women characters or beautifully executed historical fiction interests you, be sure to check back here then.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I Heart New Angoulême?

Next time you visit Angoulême, be sure to ride to the top of the Empire State Building, windowshop along Fifth Avenue, take in a show on Broadway, and saunter through Central Park. And don't forget to pay your respects at the site of the World Trade Center.

No, that wasn't a typo. Angoulême. And I'm not talking about the city in France.

Angoulême, the family name of François I, was the original European name the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano gave to the island of Manhattan when he discovered it in 1524. Eager to please the king, who had funded his voyage, Verrazzano called New York Bay Santa Margarita, in honor of Marguerite de Navarre.

I'd never heard this fascinating bit of history until last week. I was visiting my parents, native New Yorkers, who recently moved to South Carolina. One afternoon I picked up a book off their coffee table, Picturing New York: The City from its Beginnings to the Present, by Gloria Deák (Columbia UP: 2000). Opening it at random, I fell upon a full-page reproduction of a 19th century drawing of François and Marguerite--hardly something I expected in a book about New York City! Intrigued, I began to read and was amazed at what I found.

François, hoping for a piece of the Oriental trade to finance his armies, commissioned Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano to find a passage to the Indies. On January 17, 1524, Verrazzano set sail in his carrack La Dauphine. Fifty days later, he sighted the North American continent sitting squarely in his way. Verrazzano made seven landfalls along the eastern coast, from the Carolinas north to Newfoundland. On April 17, 1524, he dropped anchor in New York Bay, making him the first documented European to touch the shores of what is now known as Manhattan. The local natives greeted the Europeans warmly; you can read the account of the encounter and Verrazzano's description of the island in his report to François, translated here.

Verrazzano paid tribute to his patron by dubbing the beautiful island Angoulême. He called the bay formed by this land Santa Margarita "after the name of your sister, who surpasses all other matrons in modesty and intellect." The French names of these territories were quickly incorporated into the engraved maps of the sixteenth century. However, Verrazzano's discovery--and the territories' French names--were eventually overshadowed by efforts of Henry Hudson, who managed to sail up the river which unfavorable winds had prevented Verrazzano from entering. In 1609 the name Manhattan appears in Hudson's logbook as Manna-hatta, native for "island of the hills." The elaborate Velasco map of the New World, printed in 1611 and presented to the King of Spain, used Hudson's names rather than Verrazzano's, effacing the city's French birth forever after.

François was captured at the battle of Pavia in 1525 and held prisoner by Emperor Charles V in Spain, so I suspect this is why he never followed up on France's claim to New York. I'll do some more digging to find out. In the meantime, read the report of the voyage. I almost cried when I read about the little Native American boy torn from his family and taken back to France. I wonder what ever happened to him?

[Factual content for this post taken from Deák's book, pages 1-8.]

Monday, July 14, 2008

Still Life with Books

Yes, I'm still alive. Between family visits, sick children, and overflowing laundry baskets, I've not had much time to blog. To jumpstart things, I'm borrowing this reading meme from Lucy at Lucy Pick Books.

Do you remember how you developed a love for reading?
I can't remember learning to read--it seems like I always have! One of my first reading memories is buying easy readers at the grocery store when I was about five years old. My mom would take me and my brothers to the store, and if we were good, she would buy us a book at the end of the visit. I still can picture one week's prize: Barney the Beagle, a salmon pink and white hardback I think is still floating around my parents' house somewhere. I loved that book, especially because it was hardback. We always had piles of books around our house; I always read voraciously. One of my favorite memories is going through the monthly Scholastic book flyer and picking out books to order.

What are some of the books you read as a child?
I'll always remember a book a read in fifth or sixth grade--it was the story of two friends who wrote a book together, passing a notebook back and forth each night for the other to add the next installment. I think it was this book that inspired me to be a writer. I would love to read it again, but unfortunately I've forgotten the title and author. If anyone can identify the book for me, I'll love you forever! As a young girl I read all the Little House on the Prairie books and biographies about famous women like Florence Nightingale and Molly Pitcher. One of my favorite books was Elizabeth Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond. As a teen, I read Gone With the Wind umpteen times and all of Victoria Holt's books.

What is your favorite genre?
My favorite genre is historical fiction, although I read contemporary fiction as well. I have high standards for books and have no qualms at all about putting down a book that loses my interest or is poorly written.

Do you have a favorite novel?
My favorite novels are Sigrid Undsett's Kristin Lavransdattir trilogy, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and George Elliot's Middlemarch.

Where do you usually read?
I read wherever and whenever I can, although I find I can't read in bed anymore--I fall asleep too easily!

Do you usually have more than one book you are reading at the same time?
I don't have any trouble reading a couple of books at the same time. I usually have one or two novels going, as well as a few research books.

Do you read nonfiction in a different way or place than you read fiction?
The only nonfiction I read is research books for my novels and an occasional parenting or spiritual book. Since the books are for research, I skip around and read only the relevant parts, taking notes as I go. When I read fiction, I never skip anything or jump ahead.

Do you buy most of the books you read, or borrow them, or check them out of the library?
I buy very few books, although I would buy many more if I could afford to. I joke that our family keeps the local library in business. We often have 50 books and movies checked out on my card at a time.

Do you keep most of the books you buy? If not, what do you do with them?
I always keep all the books I buy, since I only buy books that are especially meaningful. Even with my small book budget, our house is running out of shelf space. We always hit the library book sales, where we can buy hardbacks for $1. We often wind up bringing in cartons full of them.

If you have children, what are some of the favourite books you have shared with them? Were they some of the same ones you read as a child?
My daughter never liked to read too much--I'd buy her my favorites and they'd sit on the shelf unread. My middle son and I spent many hours reading together. One of our favorites was The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, along with Silverstein's books of verse. I read a lot to my toddler, although I must admit I'm getting quite sick of books about trucks and trains.

What are you reading now?
Right now I'm reading After This by Alice McDermott and The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai.

Do you keep a TBR (to be read) list?
I have a lengthy list, as well as several piles of books in my bedroom bookcase.

What's next?
I'm eagerly awaiting Michelle Moran's The Heretic Queen, which comes out in September.

What books would you like to reread?
I don't reread many books--there are so many books I haven't read, I hate to devote the time to revisiting ones I've already seen. I have started reading Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles again--I enjoyed them so much the first time, and they are rich enough to sustain a second reading. I suppose I would reread The Lord of the Rings if I had time, or some of the Thomas Hardy novels I read in college.

Who are your favourite authors?
My favorite authors are Sigrid Undsett, Dorothy Dunnett, George Elliot, and Elizabeth Speare. I know there are more, but I always blank whenever anyone asks me this question. My LibraryThing display to the right of this blog shows many of my favorite authors.

I'd love to read your answers to these questions. Let me know in the comments if you do the meme on your blog.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Excellence in Blogging Award

I'm honored to announce that Writing the Renaissance has been nominated twice to receive the Blogging Excellence award, once by Catherine Delors at Versailles and More and again by Sheramy Bundrick at Van Gogh's Chair. I am very grateful to both of these ladies for the nomination, and happy that they find things of interest here.

Being nominated requires the nominee to tag additional blogs. Here, then is a list of those blogs that I return to again and again for their excellent content. I apologize for duplicating some of Catherine's and Sheramy's choices, but there are at present a limited number of historical fiction blogs.

If I could, I would nominate my nominators:

Versailles and More--Historical novelist Catherine Delors brings the world of Versailles and Revolutionary France to life and shares her journey through the world of publishing.

Van Gogh's Chair--Art historian Sheramy Bundrick works to make the real Vincent Van Gogh known through musings on biographical topics and the stories behind his creations. Her novel Sunflowers will be published in 2009 by Avon, so she will soon be sharing her publishing journey.

Since I can't, here is my list:

Historical Boys--C.W. Gortner, author of The Last Queen (a wonderful novel about Juana la Loca), discusses the history behind his work and posts frequent, in-depth interviews with prominent authors of historical fiction.

Historical Tapestry-- These ladies have already been nominated by others for their excellent reviews of historical novels, but as they say, there can't be too many awards given to great blogs!

Reading the Past--Historical Novel Society board member and reference librarian Sarah Johnson talks about her favorite books and trends in historical fiction.

A Little Sweet, A Little Sour--New YA author Cindy Pon shares the saga of her soon-to-be published Asian fantasy Spirit Bound and gives readers a glimpse of the challenges of writing as a stay-at-home mom.

The Paris Blog--This group blog gathers the best of current blog posts about life in Paris, mostly from ex-pats' points of view. A great way to keep up on current issues in the City of Light.

Editorial Ass--The anonymous editor Moonrat shares her insights about life on the other side of the desk and gives unpublished writers valuable tips on working with agents and editors.

Lucy Pick Books--Lucy, also represented by my agent, gives historical fiction an intellectual spin and shares some great recipes.

The Literate Housewife Review--The Literate Housewife post great reviews of a variety of books as well as her take on literary memes.

World of Royalty--Cinderella blogs about royal characters, current and historical, from many nations.

Tea at Trianon--Elena Maria Vidal discusses the life and times of Marie Antoinette and Catholic culture in general.

Susan Adrian--YA author Susan Adrian blogs about the writing life and anything that strikes her fancy.

History Buff--Michelle Moran, author of Nefertiti and the forthcoming The Heretic Queen, shares articles about current archeological digs and posts monthly interviews with authors of historical fiction.

Okay, I snuck in two extra, but that's just more great blogs for you to enjoy! Our blogrolls will only increase as these nominees in turn nominate their favorites. Thanks to all the nominated authors for their wonderful blogs!

Thumbs Up for The Last Queen

It's very late, but I just finished reading an ARC of C.W. Gortner's The Last Queen and had to give it an early plug. It's a marvelous book! Gortner's Juana is a character you'll not soon forget, a woman of intense passion and great courage in the face of repeated betrayals by those she loves. I'll be posting an interview with the author on the book's publication date, July 29. Be sure this book goes on your wish list.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Brains in a Bowl

A while back, the New York Times ran an interesting travel article on Lyon which contained some interesting factoids about the silk industry. It appears one of Lyon's gastronomical specialties is cervelle de canut, "silkworker's brain," a dish of fromage blanc studded with spices. Hmmm. I imagine it tastes better than it sounds. I'd gladly mosey over to Lyon to find out.