One Italian Renaissance painter created stunning portraits of warmth and sensitivity, caught Michelangelo’s favourable attention, served the most powerful monarch of the time, and achieved international renown. But that artist fell into obscurity for one reason – she was a woman. Sofonisba Anguissola’s abilities as a painter, evident while still in her mid-teens, combined with her father’s promotional efforts, made her well known in her native northern Italy. That fame led to a position as a lady-in-waiting to the young wife of King Philip ii of Spain. Portrait in Black and Gold takes the reader through the triumphs and tragedies that Anguissola witnessed at Philip’s dazzling but troubled court.
There are gaps in the historical record of Anguissola’s life. It is uncertain whether she actually studied in Rome with Michelangelo. And we know nothing about her mother’s attitude toward her highly unconventional career. But this uncertainty allows the novelist to choose the possibilities that make a stronger, more memorable story, and Portrait in Black and Gold takes full advantage.
The novel spans Anguissola’s life all the way to her nineties, when Anthony Van Dyck sought her out in plague-ravaged Sicily. An epilogue explains how and why Anguissola and other women artists were ignored by art historians.
The novel is a rich and rewarding read. The book moves at a brisk, engaging pace, and the story is enriched by spirited dialogue and imagined letters and journal entries.