Lady in Ermine: The Story of a Woman Who Painted the Renaissance

Written by Donna DiGiuseppe
Review by Elisabeth Lenckos

What reader could not fall in love with a heroine—a female Renaissance painter, no less—as she strives to preserve the artistic integrity and honesty of her work? In her debut biographical novel, Donna DiGiuseppe features the travails of the fascinatingly prodigious Sofonisba Anguissola, a portraitist praised by Leonardo and Vasari, who rose from obscure beginnings in Cremona, Lombardy to portray King Phillip II, his wife, and other notorious personages of her 16th-century world. The story shines especially bright and warm in the first half, as we get to know Sofi, called so lovingly by her family, struggling to pursue her calling in the home of a doting father, who educates his daughter and promotes her genius regardless of the contemporary disregard for female creativity. The plot turns menacing when Sofonisba joins the Spanish court as lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabella and makes an enemy of the Cardinal of Burgos, who threatens to ruin her reputation and to cut short her career before it has begun. Through her strength of character, Sofonisba prevails and eventually returns to Italy, where she marries and dies in her eighties, the art world of Europe and an adoring Anthony van Dyck at her feet.

Lady in Ermine is an ambitious work of literature, spanning seven decades and various countries. It includes a cast of characters, an author’s note, historical research, and, conveniently, a list of paintings referenced in the story, enabling the reader visually to celebrate Sofonisba’s oeuvre. The second half of the book would have benefited from more editorial attention, but the overall reading experience is both satisfactory and illuminating.