Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Book Review: Nonna's Book of Mysteries by Mary Osborne (Lake Street Press, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Author Mary Osborne's trip to Florence inspired this engaging novel of Emilia, a young girl in 15th century Florence who dreams of becoming an artist. Very few women became artists at this time, and while her mother is supportive, her father is eager to have her understand "the way things are in the world." However, he indulges her and allows her to apprentice with a local artist, while disguised as a young boy. When her deception is revealed, she is dismissed, much to her dismay.

Emilia finds solace in a treasured book which has been in her family for generations, A Manual to the Science of Alchemy. This text, which Emilia considers to be little more than a family heirloom, contains passages from ancient texts that her mother assures her will help her get through difficult times. Throughout the novel, Emilia's story is interspersed with often mysterious quotations from this alchemy book.

When a grey-bearded man, a foreigner from Constantinople, finds her sketching in a Florence church, he offers her a position working with him at his workshop. While Makarios paints commissions for the Florentine gentry, he also creates ethereal icons from his own Orthodox tradition, and Emilia learns how to paint in this exotic tradition as well as in the Florentine style.

Emilia's head is soon turned by one of Makarios' patrons, a handsome and wealthy businessman from Genoa, Franco Villani. His flirtatious behavior makes Emilia believe that perhaps she could become his wife and the lady of his exquisite home. When they become engaged, it seems that all her dreams will come true. But when Emilia's friend Giacomo returns to Florence, she realizes she has romantic feelings for him as well when they exchange a passionate kiss. Giacomo warns her that we all have to make choices in life--will she choose Franco or Giacamo?

At the same time, Emilia's suspicions are aroused when her fiance Franco seems to take an inordinate interest in her ancient book of alchemy; when it disappears and other disasters begin to occur in her life, Emilia wonders if Franco could be to blame and how she can extricate herself from this marriage she once dreamed of. When she is asked to do a painting for the powerful Cosimo de' Medici, can he help her realize her dreams of being a successful artist and recover her family's treasured heritage as well?

This novel is the first of four in a series; the second, Alchemy's Daughter, is a prequel set about 100 years earlier.

As a former student of art history, I especially enjoyed the way Mary Osborne incorporated many well-researched details of painting and an artist's life during the Renaissance in her novel. She describes in detail everything from preparing walls for frescoes to grinding and mixing paints and preparing canvases. Teens who are used to picking up art supplies at the local Michaels or art store might be surprised at how time consuming painting was during this period.

While it may seem far-fetched to have a woman artist as the heroine in a novel set during the 15th century, there were a few women who succeeded in having artistic careers during the Renaissance (usually daughters of artists or members of the nobility), and certainly Osborne portrays how difficult it was for a young girl to pursue a path generally reserved for men.

Teen readers interested in more stories about girls craving to be artists during this period might also enjoy The Vanishing Point by Louise Hawes. This novel is based on the adolescence of Renaissance artist Lavinia Fontana, who lived in Bologna in the 16th century.

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