A Rare and Curious Gift

Written by Pauline Holdstock
Review by Andrea Bell

The life of female painter Artemisia Gentileschi serves as inspiration for one of two central storylines in Pauline Holdstock’s richly-textured, multilayered novel set among artists and patrons of the Italian Renaissance. Sofonisba Fabroni is a beautiful, talented, spirited painter, studying under her father in 1554 Florence. She enjoys a complex relationship of rivalry, friendship, and flirtation with goldsmith and sculptor Matteo Tassi, a gifted but commanding “one-man bluster.” The pair is surrounded (and at times engulfed) by a large cast of characters: the superstitious fool who pants after Sofonisba; the brilliant artist/engineer who studies anatomy in secret; a wealthy collector of art and living exotica; the ambitious, decadent archbishop; the wise papal legate with an eye for talent; and well-known historical figures like Cosimo de Medici. Everyone convenes for the festival of San Giovanni, with explosive results.

Holdstock’s other strong storyline belongs to a nameless slave girl with mottled skin; eventually, her name will become “Chiara,” the fleshly embodiment of chiaroscuro. Chiara’s appearance elicits reactions of fear, admiration, fascination, and disgust from the other characters. Many of the scenes written from her viewpoint display Holdstock’s writing at its best and most affecting. Chiara’s plight reflects the novel’s recurring concern with the transformative power of the beholder: is Chiara’s skin a mark of the devil, or an opportunity for knowledge, or an embodiment of beauty? Is Sofonisba’s (or Artemisia’s) painting of Judith beheading Holofernes an allegory of the Church conquering the State, or is it a personal, intimate expression of violence and revenge?

Holdstock’s style seems meditative and almost distant from her subjects at times, but it is nonetheless evocative, and she is clearly comfortable with the historical material. This novel is for savoring, not devouring.