Sofonisba Anguissola, a student of Michelangelo, became the first distinguished female painter of the Renaissance.
In her first novel for adult readers, The Creation of Eve, author Lynn Cullen uses the facts of this little-known artist's life to conjure an intoxicating tale of love, betrayal and redemption.
After a passionate encounter with a fellow student in Michelangelo's studio, Sofi, as she's called here, escapes ruin by accepting an appointment that is proffered by the most powerful king in Europe.
Transported from Italy to the Spanish court of Felipe II, the 27-year-old artist becomes the favorite companion of Elisabeth de Valois, the king's teenage bride. To teach the young queen to draw is Sofi's official job, but to save Elisabeth from the treachery of the court becomes her secret mission.
Perhaps her work as a prize-winning writer of young-adult books, including I Am Rembrandt's Daughter, enables the author to get inside the head of the teen queen with such compassion and clarity.
When Elisabeth falls in love with her husband's illegitimate half brother, Don Juan, and attracts the attentions of the king's troubled son, her situation quickly grows even more perilous.
Sofi's intelligent voice keeps the story grounded. Her struggle to create art at a time in history when women were not allowed to observe dissections or paint nude figures — let alone sign their names to their own paintings — is heroic.
Thinking of talented women everywhere, those "pale uncertain Eves," she offers this advice: "If only we can be so brave as to love and accept the fragile spirit residing within each one of us, then, only then, we might take the gift of self-knowledge offered in its shy and trembling hands."