Monday, September 27, 2010

Bronzino: Painter and Poet

A new exhibit on the Medici court painter, Bronzino, has opened at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. "Bronzino: Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici" runs through January 23, 2011 and features 70 paintings by the artist himself, as well as some of his poetic works. The show, which traces Bronzino's development throughout his career, includes many of his most famous works on loan from some of the world's leading museums.

If you click on the "Exhibition" tab at the Strozzi website, and then on "Sections," you can examine paintings from different periods of his life in great resolution. In addition, Alexandra Korey has posted a wonderful video review on her website, Tuscany Arts.

Bronzino is well-known for his exquisite portraits of the Medici family. I have a special fondness for him as the artist of the portrait I used on the "virtual cover" I created for my first novel a few years ago (follow-up post here). The novel I'm working on now centers on French portraitists, and Bronzino warrants a brief mention there, also. I so admire these artists who were able capture likenesses with such accuracy and can only imagine how amazing their portraits must have seemed in the days before photography.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Among natural prodigies, the first and rarest is that I was born in this century when the Earth was discovered, whereas the ancients hardly knew a third of it."

Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576),
Italian mathematician and physician
De vita propria (1576)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Tribute to Judith Merkle Riley

A sad note: Judith Merkle Riley, the author of six acclaimed historical novels, passed away on September 12 from ovarian cancer. Ms. Riley, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, published her novels between 1989 and 1999. A VISION OF LIGHT, IN PURSUIT OF THE GREEN LION, and THE WATER DEVIL form a trilogy set in 14th century England. Her three other novels, THE ORACLE GLASS, THE SERPENT GARDEN, and THE MASTER OF ALL DESIRES, are all set, partially if not wholly, in sixteenth or seventeenth century France. You can read a tribute to Ms. Riley's life and works here.

Ms. Riley was one of my favorite authors. I enjoyed all of her novels immensely--so much so that I wrote her my first and only fan letter. I never expected to hear back from her, but she sent a warm response, thanking me for my praise and encouraging me in my own writing endeavors. I believe she was the guest of honor at the first North American Historical Novel Society Conference, the only HNS Conference I was unable to attend. I always regretted missing the opportunity of meeting her in person and hearing her speak about her craft.

I highly recommend her books, historical fiction with a fantastical bent. I have only the final book of the trilogy left to read. Now I will read it slowly and savor it, knowing that, unfortunately, it is truly the last.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rats Have History, Too! Hilary Wagner's NIGHTSHADE CITY

One of the things I like best about participating in a writing group is the opportunity to read other members' works and celebrate their successes. Today I'm excited to tell you about Hilary Wagner's recently released middle grade novel NIGHTSHADE CITY (Holiday House, September 2010), a captivating adventure tale written in the tradition of the Brian Jacques's REDWALL series. With its charming characters, high-stakes mission, and empowering message, NIGHTSHADE CITY is a book that should grace every middle-schooler's beside table.

Deep beneath a modern metropolis lies the Catacombs, a kingdom of remarkable rats of superior intellect. Following the Bloody Coup, the once-peaceful democracy has become a dictatorship, ruled by decadent High Minister Killdeer and his vicious henchman, Billycan, a former lab rat with a fondness for butchery. Three young orphan rats--brothers Vincent and Victor and a clever female named Clover--join forces with Billycan's archenemy, Juniper, and his maverick band of rebel rats as they plot to overthrow their oppressors and create a new city--Nightshade City. This impossible-to-put-down fantasy explores timeless themes of freedom, forgiveness, the bonds of family, and the power of love.

Love is what keeps hope alive in the hearts of the rats of the Catacombs, once free and equal citizens and now nothing more than slaves to the appetites of Killdeer and the whims of Billycan. Killdeer asserts his control by destroying--or attempting to destroy--families, the basis of rat society. After murdering or exiling parents, he forces young boys into barracks as members of the Kill Army, bound to revere and protect him. Girls sleep in crowded dormitories and work endless hours in the kitchens, preparing food for the army. Yet the deprivation and capriciousness of life post-coup cannot extinguish the love that binds families together, even if only in memory. Brother tends brother, uncle niece, mother children. Families care not only for their own members but for orphans and the less fortunate. (In an ironic twist at the end, a father's love for his adopted son sets the stage for complications sure to come in Book Two, scheduled for publication in October 2011.) Juniper, a true hero motivated by a thirst for justice rather than revenge, devotes all his energies to creating a new city where generosity and selflessness can again prevail. The vision underlying NIGHTSHADE CITY is an immensely positive one. Evil is a harsh reality, but not indomitable. I found myself completely caught up in this well-written, thoughtful tale and rooting for its lovable, courageous characters in their quest to conquer selfishness and fear.

[One small caveat--The evil rats are vicious creatures and depictions of fights between the rodents tend towards the graphic. These parts might be a bit intense for very young or squeamish readers. The violence, however, is never gratuitous.]

In keeping with this blog's focus, I asked Ms. Wagner a few questions about the role of history in NIGHTSHADE CITY.

1. How important is history to the rats of the Catacombs? How does their memory of the past shape their present actions and their plans for the future?

History is extremely important to them. Their tumultuous past is what drives them to change their future. They once had a peaceful existence, but were taken over by a horrible dictator--High Minister Killdeer. And after eleven years of oppression, the rats finally fight back.

2. Did you have any particular eras of American or world history in mind as you wrote NIGHTSHADE CITY? Did you model any of your characters on historical figures?

There is a very French revolutionary feel to them. Omar Rayyan, the illustrator picked up on that right away--they are ragtag in appearance, but charming all the same. I didn't model them after any historical figures in particular, but I'd say some of the main characters, specifically the bad ones, are an amalgamation of some particularly wicked rulers in world history. My editor says my rats are very Dickensian--they are quite well spoken, I must say!

3. When you were creating your rat society, how far back and in how much detail did you construct their history?

Their history goes back several generations, revealing how the Catacombs came to be and why they are so very dear to the rats that dwell within. KINGS OF TRILLIUM, Book II of the Nightshade Chronicles, goes even further back into their history, revealing why they are so unique compared to other rats--even other creatures.

4. What ideas would you like your young readers to take away from the book regarding the relationship of past to present?

I want readers to realize change is possible. No matter what odds are against you or how unattainable something seems to be--change can happen, but you have to make the change yourself. You have to step up and say, "No more." I want readers to realize that it's never acceptable for a few to decide the fate of many. You have a choice.

5. Are there any YA works of historical fiction you'd like to recommend?

Since I like novels with a creepy charm, I have to recommend An Acquaintance with Darkness by Ann Rinaldi. Post Civil War grave robbing--what could be finer? ;)

6. What are you working on next?

I have a new animal series in the works, which I cannot talk about, per my publisher--top secret stuff and it couldn't be more different than NIGHTSHADE CITY! I'm also thinking about Book III of the Nightshade Chronicles, which will reveal the rats' full history, with some shocking twists about where they came from and what they really are.

Thanks so much for having me, Julianne. The history in my book is so important to the story and I never fully realized how my rats have such a deep, intricate history and at times quite a messy one! ;)


Be sure to visit Ms. Wagner's website for more information about the book, including a lengthy excerpt.

NIGHTSHADE CITY is available on-line, at Barnes and Noble stores nationwide and Indie Booksellers as well.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Power Billboards

Fascinating article by scholar Lisa Jardine on the use of commissioned tapesty and other artwork to proclaim the power, influence and cultivation of their owners on the international stage in the sixteenth century. An excerpt:

As part of the preparations for an unprovoked military attack on Muslim forces in North Africa in 1535, the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V hired the same Pieter Coeck van Aelst and the artist Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen from Haarlem in the Netherlands to travel with his military retinue and record the progress of the campaign for propaganda purposes. By late July the Imperial forces had conquered Tunis. The campaign was - as Charles V had hoped - a surprise victory over the increasingly invulnerable Muslim forces, and a blow to the international prestige of the French king, Francis I, who had declined to be drawn into a North African war.

On Charles V's return, no expense was spared in creating a magnificent tapestry series, The Conquest of Tunis, based on Coeck's and Vermeyen's eye-witness drawings, and a room in the imperial palace at Toledo was constructed to house the twelve panels of the series. Thereafter they often travelled with the Emperor - carefully rolled, and stacked on purpose-built wagons - to be unfurled on the occasion of a state visit, to remind those attending an Imperial gathering of the awesome power of the Habsburgs.

The article includes photographs of the Acts of the Apostles tapestries designed by Raphael and executed by the same Pieter Coeck van Aelst, presently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Celui qui ne sait pas se taire
sait rarement bien parler."

"He who doesn't know
how to be silent rarely
knows how to speak well."

Pierre Charron (1541-1603),
French theologian and philosopher

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Young Turks

In 1520, Suleiman the Magnificent became sultan of the Ottoman world, which stretched from Hungary to Baghdad to the Eastern Mediterranean. He was only 26 years old. At the time of his accession, the leaders of the western world's three superpowers, France, the Holy Roman Empire (which included Spain and the Netherlands), and England, were just as young: François I (born the same year as Suleiman, 1494), was 26; Charles V (born in 1500) was only 20; Henry VIII (born in 1491) was eldest at 29.

To put this in perspective, imagine a world whose supreme leaders were the likes of Zac Efron, Justin Timberlake, Elijah Wood and Daniel Radcliffe (all born in the 1980's).

Scary thought, isn't it?

Of course, unlike the celebrities listed above, François, Charles, Henry and Suleiman had all been groomed since childhood in preparation for kingship. They were well-educated, trained in the arts of war and governing, and counseled by seasoned statesmen and diplomats, many of whom had served previous monarchs. Convinced of their divine right to rule, these kings knew it was their duty to serve the best interests of their people.

Still. Nowadays we consider a politician "young" at forty. But twenty?

Men in their twenties are notorious for "strutting their stuff," vying with each other to claim that "top dog" status. François, Charles, Henry and Suleiman did compete directly with each other not only for territory, but for wealth, possessions, and influence. As they fought each other for chunks of Europe, they strove to construct the most magnificent palaces, employ the most accomplished artists and maintain the most cultured courts (Henry and François dug deep into their countries' coffers to outshine the other's extravagance at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520; François pulled the stops again in 1539 when Charles traveled through France on a state visit). They competed for the same offices (Charles beat out François in 1519 for the title of Holy Roman Emperor) and spheres of diplomatic influence (especially papal alliances). They raced to beat the others in exploring and colonizing the New World and monopolizing trade routes. They might have shared a woman or two (rumor has it that François might have been friendly with a young Anne Boleyn). Henry and François even wrestled each other for fun in front of the court at Cloth of Gold (François won handily, I might add).

I attribute much of the vim and verve of the first half of the sixteenth century directly to the youth and raw masculinity of these four rulers. How many battles were motivated not by the best interests of the country, but by a desire to beat the other guy? How many paintings and statues were commissioned in order to claim the title of supreme patron of the arts? How many religious dissenters were persecuted in order to prove oneself the staunchest defender of the faith? How many alliances were shifted or broken in order to make life difficult for one of the others? How many miles of silk and leagues of ribbon were cut and sewn in attempts to set the trends for all of Europe? One wonders.

Kings of their countries, these four men clawed and tussled to become King of the Hill.

Imagine how celebrity rags would have read.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"He [François I] liked it [Fontainebleau] so much that he spent most of his time there . . . all that he could find of excellence was for his Fontainebleau of which he was so fond that whenever he went there he would say that he was going home."

Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (1510-1584), French architect
Les plus excellents bastiments de France (1576)