The Painter’s Apprentice

Written by Laura Morelli

Maria Bartolini, the daughter of a master gilder in Venice in 1510, wants to follow in her father’s footsteps. But when he finds her with her lover, a half-Saracen man who works as a gold beater in the workshop, he sends her away as an apprentice to Master Trevisan, a famous painter. Soon Maria discovers she is pregnant. When plague breaks out in her father’s neighborhood, no one is allowed to enter or leave the area. A maid and a treacherous boatman discover Maria’s pregnancy and extort money from her to keep her secret. Maria thinks the painter and his wife will turn her out of the house when they find out she is pregnant, but without a way to get word to her lover, she is desperate. And every day she is afraid her father and her lover will fall victim to the plague. A place in her aunt’s convent might solve her problems, and even allow her to see her child, but she would not be allowed to practice the art she loves. What will Maria be prepared to sacrifice for the sake of her art?

Normally I do not care for historical fiction written in the present tense, and the writing has to be extraordinary for me to enjoy it very much. Sarah Dunant is one exception, and Laura Morelli is another. She brings 16th-century Venice to life in loving detail, and her descriptions of the artists’ craft are exquisite. This was a time when art was rapidly evolving from gilded paintings on wood panels to oil on canvas, and Maria knows her art is a dying one, but it was what she was born to do. This is an outstanding story of a woman with the courage to pursue both her forbidden love and her art.