Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Coming of Age in an Italian Cloister

Victoria Strauss, Passion Blue

Young Giulia Borromeo, half-caste daughter of a Milanese nobleman, aspires to marriage and the stable home she never knew in girlhood. But her father’s spiteful widow forces her into the convent. Renaissance Italy offers women limited choices, and Giulia has learned to navigate a woman’s place, but behind the convent wall, in an entirely female world, she discovers the most fantastical world of art she’s ever known.

Victoria Strauss’ latest youth “romance” is delightful in its ambiguity. The “Passion blue” in her title refers not to romantic passion, but to a shade of blue oil paint so vibrant that artists favor it for painting of Christ’s Passion. And while “romance” may best describe this story, in the sense of heroic aspirations and legendary style, but men play a very small role, and though Giulia aspires to romantic love, she learns to define herself away from her relationship to men.

Instead, Strauss presents us a coming-of-age story with hints of fantasy, and a remarkable immersion in the world of Renaissance art. Though we often think of men like Michelangelo and Leonardo, who ran for-profit art workshops, the Renaissance apparently produced many refined, innovative women, mostly nuns who painted religious frescoes. And as Giulia discovers this shadow world hidden behind Italian patriarchy, we discover it with her.

Giulia has grown up in a world where a woman can become a wife, a courtesan, or a nun. She thinks the cloisters will inhibit her natural spirit, which tends to run very high. (Women in these historical romances generally reflect the time the book was written, not the time it’s set—think Desdemona, or Juliet.) So when Giulia finds she’s being forced behind the wall, and will probably never be free to marry, she sees her life as coming to a premature end.

Simon Bening, "The Arrest of
Christ," ca. 1525. Click to enlarge
Seeking to subvert this seeming doom, Giulia sneaks out to a local sorcerer. Because of her tight circumstances, she purchases a charm that will grant her “her heart’s desire,” which she assumes will be the husband and home her mother taught her to want. But even inexperienced readers will anticipate, correctly, that her story will represent not the fulfillment of the dreams her mother had for her, but the dreams she has nursed in her heart, secret from even herself.

Despite the sorcerer and his charm, Giulia’s story remains substantially free from signs and wonders (the odd prophetic dream peeks through). Instead, plunged headlong into a world where women build their identities separate from the men who would define them, she gradually learns to read her own spirit. She learns to separate her real personality from the one her culture says she should have, and to stand up for what’s real, not what’s learned.

And she discovers the world of art. In a time when artists collaborated in factory-like workshops and undertook years-long apprenticeships; when every pigment had to be ground, blended, and poured by hand; when heroic-scale commissions defined a city’s identity, Giulia goes through the process of becoming a true Renaissance master. The slowness of the process doesn’t just make her a better person; it strips her false desires, one by one.

Giulia’s greatest struggle comes in letting go of worldly ambitions, and the culture enforced on her by men. It’s remarkable to see her persevering in her dreams of marriage and submission, when all around her, she sees that the man-free world of the convent gives her freedom and power she could never have. But the true nature everyone else sees in her, remains concealed behind curtains of patriarchy from her own view.

If it’s true, as I’ve read, that the best youth fantasy can only be truly understood and enjoyed by adults, then Strauss, a seasoned youth fantasist, has accomplished that goal admirably. Her detailed, rich setting and complicated characters yield their revelations to careful reading, free from judgment. Her moral lessons, while present, don’t bludgeon readers into agreement. And her situations, while building to an inevitable end, never cease bearing a texture of joyful surprise.

Had I a daughter, I’d press this book into her hands early. Its message, of knowing yourself and seeking your greatest meaning, not just the one some man sells you, is one many girls learn late. Strauss doesn’t preach, but she takes readers on a journey through one girl’s conflicted heart, letting the message speak for itself. When we emerge from a book that seems much shorter than it is, we feel we share Giulia’s triumph. What more could we desire?

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