Author Amy Maroney was on A Writer of History last year to share her tips and techniques on researching a long ago time. Today she’s back to talk about the difficulties of writing biographical fiction when the person in question is a woman and the time is the 15th century plus how she incorporated a female artist into her latest novel, Sea of Shadows.
Recently I discovered a female artist, Agnes van den Bossche, who was a member of the Ghent, Flanders, artists’ guild for over three decades during the 15th century. Her father and brother were master painters. For her part, Agnes painted mostly on cloth. Her only known surviving work is a banner she was commissioned to produce for the city of Ghent.
Agnes is that rare person—a woman artist of the late medieval/early Renaissance era whose story survives. Most of her contemporaries are lost to history, their voices and legacies relegated to the shadows. As a historical novelist who specializes in stories about forgotten women artists, I was thrilled to discover the traces of Agnes van den Bossche. She is more evidence that the fictional artists I create are based on real women, not just my imagination.
When it comes to biographical fiction about artists of this era, you’re in luck if you want to write about men. The Old Masters, after all, were mostly men. And there is a lot of scholarship devoted to them—plenty of research rabbit holes to explore. People never get tired of fiction featuring Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and the other superstars of that era. Women who were known to paint in those days were fewer, and their work less valued. Many of them worked anonymously or their paintings were attributed to men.
As more scholarship reveals the truth about women who worked alongside their male counterparts in art studios all over Europe, it’s been thrilling to see their work commanding high prices at auction and a growing body of fiction published about them. Sofonisba Anguissola, Judith Leyster, Artemisia Gentileschi, Lavinia Fontana . . . they are all getting their moment in the spotlight. My first trilogy, the story of a Renaissance-era female artist and the modern-day scholar on her trail, featured a fictional woman painter named Miramonde de Oto. She was based on the real artist Caterina van Hemessen, whose 16th-century painting of herself is the first known signed self-portrait of a female painter.
With my new Sea and Stone Chronicles series, I wanted to continue featuring women artists. But this time, I wanted to focus on the unsung, unknown women like Agnes van den Bossche. For every Agnes we can point to in the historical record, there must be hundreds who are lost in history’s shadows. Women who worked alongside fathers, husbands, and brothers in the family studio, who had every bit as much talent as their male counterparts—and, in some cases, more—but were never acknowledged. It was with these women in mind that I created Anica Foscolo, the heroine of my new novel Sea of Shadows.
Sea of Shadows, the second book in my series of stand-alone romantic historical suspense novels, takes readers on a journey through the beauty and danger of Renaissance-era Greece. It stars an unlikely duo. Anica Foscolo, a gifted painter on the Greek island of Rhodes, is the daughter of a Venetian artist and a Greek woman. Drummond Fordun is a fierce Scotsman renowned for his exploits as a privateer serving the Knights Hospitaller of St. John, who are headquartered on Rhodes. When her family’s honor is threatened, Anica reluctantly turns to Drummond for help. There’s just one problem: she never planned to fall in love with her accomplice.
Like Island of Gold, its predecessor in the Sea and Stone Chronicles, Sea of Shadows explores the shadowy world of the Mediterranean during a time of adventure, war, prosperity, and risk.
Artists and artisans exploited the wealth in Rhodes Town under the rule of the Knights Hospitaller, setting up studios and workshops within the walled city. Gold-beaters, jewelers, textile workers, stoneworkers, and painters were among the creative classes. Evidence exists of Italian-trained artists commissioned by the knights to create frescoes and paintings for their private residences and for chapels and churches on the island. At the same time, the astounding layers of history in Rhodes offered opportunities for entrepreneurs to sell artifacts to collectors from Italy, who traveled to the island seeking treasures for wealthy patrons.
As a product of her Rhodian environment, my heroine Anica Foscolo—the unsung talent behind her father’s dazzling portraits—embodies the conflicting loyalties of her time and place. She’s Venetian (not always an advantage for a citizen living under the rule of the Genoa-loving Knights Hospitaller), but she’s also Greek (and, as such, seen as subservient by the knights).
For his part, my hero Drummond Fordun is based on a real Scotsman called Diguerus le Scot. Apparently he travelled with a Scottish knight to Rhodes sometimes in the 1430s, where he made a career for himself and returned to Scotland with a pension from the Order of St. John in 1454. In Alan Macquarrie’s Scotland and the Crusades 1095-1560, he is described as “a servant of the grand master, who served the order for many years by land and sea, with manly striving against the infidels.” The fictional Drummond is a self-made man: he earned enough money through the spice trade to buy his own ship, then signed on as a freelancer for the knights.
Rhodes under the Knights Hospitaller was a goldmine of adventure, scandal, love, and divided loyalties, offering rich fodder for a historical novelist. Though I never found evidence of a woman artist working in Rhodes at the time, there was plenty of evidence about male artists who prospered under the rule of the knights. So I created Anica in homage to women working in family studios who, unlike Agnes van den Bossche, never made it into the historical record. She is a reminder that our history is full of holes. To me, historical fiction is a way to fill those gaps and illuminate the silenced stories of the past.
Thank you, Amy. I love that you’re featuring unacknowledged women artists of the past and best wishes for Sea of Shadows. Having read Island of Gold, I can attest to the fact that Amy’s novels are wonderful page turners.
Sea of Shadows by Amy Maroney ~~ 1459. A gifted woman artist. A ruthless Scottish privateer. And an audacious plan that throws them together—with dangerous consequences.
No one on the Greek island of Rhodes suspects Anica is responsible for her Venetian father’s exquisite portraits, least of all her wealthy fiancé. But her father’s vision is failing, and with every passing day it’s more difficult to conceal the truth.
When their secret is discovered by a powerful knight of the Order of St. John, Anica must act quickly to salvage her father’s honor and her own future. Desperate, she enlists the help of a fierce Scottish privateer named Drummond. Together, they craft a daring plan to restore her father’s sight.
There’s only one problem—she never imagined falling in love with her accomplice.
Amy Maroney studied English Literature at Boston University and worked for many years as a writer and editor of nonfiction. She lives in Oregon, U.S.A. with her family. When she’s not diving down research rabbit holes, she enjoys hiking, dancing, traveling, and reading. Amy is the author of The Miramonde Series, an award-winning historical fiction trilogy about a Renaissance-era female artist and the modern-day scholar on her trail. Her new historical suspense/romance series, Sea and Stone Chronicles, is set in medieval Rhodes and Cyprus.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.