Art In Fiction

Who Is Sofonisba and Why Was She Awesome feat. Donna DiGiuseppe, author of Lady in Ermine

April 22, 2021 Carol Cram Season 2 Episode 3
Art In Fiction
Who Is Sofonisba and Why Was She Awesome feat. Donna DiGiuseppe, author of Lady in Ermine
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Meet Donna DiGiuseppe, author of Lady in Ermine, a stunning biographical novel about Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola.

Highlights:

  • Lady in Ermine is "a vivid portrait of a talented woman who defied the conventions of her times." Find out why!
  • Who is Sofonisba Anguissola and why is she in the news lately?
  • Discover why Giorgio Vasari, who wrote Lives of the Artists, considered Sofonisba's work worthy of the descriptor "invenzione".
  • The Prado exhibition in 2019 that expanded Sofonisba's popularity
  • Is it true there were "no women artists" back in the day? 
  • Why Donna DiGiuseppe chose Sofonisba Anguissola as the subject of her debut novel
  • Was Sofonisba the Forrest Gump of her time?
  • Why was Sofonisba considered  one of the premier portraitists of the 16th century?
  • A reading from Lady in Ermine
  • What was something Donna DiGiuseppe learned from writing Lady in Ermine ?
  • What's the next novel about?

Press Play now & be sure to check out Lady in Ermine on Art In Fiction.

Donna DiGiuseppe's website and more information about Sofonisba Anguissola: www.sofonisba.net

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Music Credits

Intro: Paganology, performed by The Paul Plimley Trio; composed by Gregg Simpson
Ad: Celtic Calypso, performed by Lunar Adventures; composed by Gregg Simpson

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Carol Cram:

Hello and welcome to Season 2 of the Art In Fiction Podcast. I’m your host Carol Cram, a novelist and avid reader of books inspired by the arts. This episode features Donna DiGiuseppe, author of Lady in Ermine: The Story of a Woman Who Painted the Renaissance, listed in the Visual Arts category on Art In Fiction. 

Donna is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley where she studied Humanities with a focus on the Renaissance in northern Italy. She then attended the University of San Francisco School of Law and, after a decade practicing law, left to pursue a Master of Arts in History degree at San Francisco State University, where she wrote her thesis on Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola. 

Lady in Ermine is her debut novel.

Welcome, Donna, to The Art In Fiction Podcast.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Thank you, Carol. I'm happy to be here.

Carol Cram:

So your wonderful debut novel has been described as 'a vivid portrait of a talented woman who defied the conventions of her times'. So can you tell us more about what the novel is about and who the novel is about?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Well, Sofonisba Anguissola was a 16th-century painter originally from Northern Italy, but her life and travels took her around the Mediterranean, throughout Spain, into Southern France, Sicily, Tuscany, up through Northern Italy again in the final tour of her life was down in Sicily, and during her long life, she perfected the art of portraiture, replete with symbolism and beauty, and elegance. And it is noted in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists as having invenzione, an adjective Vasari uses to describe one other artist—Michelangelo.

So she had an incredibly successful artistic life and an interesting personal life, her travels and what happened in her personal life. So when I was looking for a subject to write about, I was hoping to find that real woman who did something that actually was successful. And Sofonisba fits the bill entirely. She really did have a successful artistic life.

Carol Cram:

Yes, she did, and she's not well known or she wasn't well known. Now I see her everywhere, but even a year ago, I had never heard of Sofonisba. So how come now she's so much more well known?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Well, she's had her own Renaissance. 2019, the year that Lady In Ermine was published, it could not have been better timing because Sofonisba really had a Renaissance that year. She had been researched by scholars in the '70s, '80s, '90s, and a volume in Italian, Sofonisba Anguissola e le sue sorelle, which was published back in '85. And again in '92, has a register in the back of almost every moment recorded of her life. So her life is incredibly well documented, but mostly it was in academic circles.

In 2019, the Prado hosted a major exhibit of her work, along with Lavinia Fontana, and it was sort of a culmination of this second wave of imagining of her life because the first wave of scholarship gripped academia, but the second wave, of which Lady in Ermine was a part, was to bring her more to popular consciousness. 

And the Prado exhibit, which I was fortunate to attend in October, it was absolutely beautiful and showing her work, the body of her work together, not all the pieces, but 57 pieces together, was just an incredible effort. And also there's now just, I think, just a consciousness around female success and agency, the #MeToo movement certainly plays a part in that. And even just this sort of very contemporary push now to reconsider people's roles from different perspectives, whether gender, sexuality perspectives or racial, class perspectives, all sorts of, you know, different perspectives than the old school Renaissance portrait that was given. 

So it's been fun working Sofonisba's story into this contemporary look toward history.

Carol Cram:

Yes, it's interesting how now she and other great artists of the Renaissance and later female artists are now coming to the fore. I missed the Prado exhibit by a few weeks, unfortunately.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

At the end of the exhibit, when you went through the room with Sofonisba and Lavinia's beautiful work, at the end were some contemporary pieces that give tributes to the two artists. And then outside of that was this schematic of female artists in history and you'd be amazed how many artists there were, and this schematic was beautifully shown chronologically, but there were female artists in all time. 

And this, this beautiful schematic showed so many of them that there are many stories to be told, and many biographical novels need to be written to tell the story of all these amazing women painters. And while there were painters, there had to have been writers and other creatives. So then that makes you think, you know, who were the political operatives, perhaps behind the scenes, who were the people affecting legal cases, perhaps with their persuasive arguments to the people they knew who were influencers. 

You know, I grew up with a narrative that women were completely kept out of the Renaissance, but maybe women had defined their own agency and avenues for successes that weren't quite, maybe they didn't get told through the meta-narrative. And that's why biographical histories can show these perhaps 'smaller' stories in which women's successes are known. 

That's been my theory since my work in graduate school for my master's at San Francisco State, it was my working theory for Lady In Ermine, and even my projects going forward. And one thing that I saw in The Towers of Tuscany was a vision of potential, of what could have been.

And if we go and look at that Prado schematic, there will be names on there that fit the character that you were creating from your mind.

Carol Cram:

Because I'm not an art historian, I hadn't known of any women artists in the 14th century. That did not mean they did not exist. I love what you're saying about how they were there. We just didn't know about them because, yeah, I was also brought up with this idea that, oh, there were no women artists before, like, I don't know, Berthe Morisot or someone like that, but that's just not true. There's also women composers, women writers all through history, through the millennia. It's just they were under the radar. We didn't invent smart women, did we?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

No. No. So, Sofonisba's story was so compelling, but she's one of dozens and dozens of compelling, interesting, sexy, romantic, successful, um, female histories.

Carol Cram:

So why did you choose Sofonisba among many others?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Well, I wanted to do Italy because of my Italian roots, and I'm very happy I made that choice because I decided to do the long approach. I wrote about Sofonisba for my master's thesis.

Carol Cram:

Oh, that's convenient.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

So I went to the places where she lived and I don't think that was essential for creating her story, but it definitely gave me more of a layered view of where she was and how it looked and helped me to imagine the scenes.

Carol Cram:

Oh, definitely. I really think it's a great idea to travel to where your novels take place. I just think you get a different atmosphere.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

And just the joy of doing it. And in the process, we reconnected with family that we have in Italy, whom we knew more casually, but now we know we're very close and we have local roots and it's been a wonderful exploration, weaving our personal history and with the discovery of Sofonisba's personal history.

I've thought about maybe a braided story around that, but I'm not sure. If I do something contemporary, I think I want to write about more of a 20th-century immigration story.

Carol Cram:

So just to get back to why Sofonisba—because she was Italian, I've got that, but why else?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

She had a fascinating life. She had a life of her own personal agency where many of the women we know about from the Renaissance are connected to powerful men, Sofonisba was not, that's not how she got her start. How she got her start was through effort and experience and sheer, her hard work at training to be a master painter. She had some local influence in her life. Her father had some diplomatic ties. He was a local, like a town father, a decurion, and educated. He saw that his daughters and son were educated and trained in the arts. So she had the support of her family and some local nobility, but she didn't have big, royal connections until the one she made. So I just really loved her story.

Carol Cram:

Yes, it's fascinating. I've just so enjoyed reading it. And how much of an influence she had in her own destiny, even though she was also constrained a lot, as were many people at the time, particularly women, but within the constraints, she did have agency, didn't she?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

And I don't see as she was particularly constrained either. She did a Flight to Egypt, Virgin Mary that is the most voluptuous, sexy Virgin I've ever seen. She did schematics; she did portraiture in all sorts. She did miniatures. She did backgrounds with landscapes. So I don't know of any 20-by-30-foot-style panels, but her Madonna dell'Itria is a massive panel, and a seascape, with the Madonna, with lots of symbolism. I mean, she experimented in all of the different painting forms.

Carol Cram:

I meant she was constrained in that, like for example, when she was in Spain, she couldn't go home when she wanted to go home. That I find a constraint rather than artistic, but it's really interesting to hear how she was not constrained artistically and just the variety of work that she came up with. And actually, you mentioned the word earlier that came in a lot in the novel is invenzione.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Yes.

Carol Cram:

Was that something that was particular to Sofonisba, and you also mentioned Michelangelo, or was that a general term?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

The word itself, I've had my Italian friends ask me about the word, because I guess it really doesn't exist in modern Italian. I think Vasari is using Latin, although not a linguist and in the translation that I saw, it wasn't invenzione with a Z, it was with a T, inventione. I did the Z because that sounded more like a contemporary Italian word now, but it's a word drawn from Vasari's Lives of the Artists, because he says that she makes her work seem truly alive and she shows great invention or inventione. I interpret that as invention or inventiveness. He uses that word for her. He also uses that word for Michelangelo. I just find that so impressive that the big, unique adjective he's giving her is a comp to the artist who was considered the greatest master of all time. 

So Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists is like five volumes, and he may use that adjective for other artists as well. And I can't speak to that because I haven't read the whole thing, the whole five volumes back to back. He probably does use the word, but he's definitely drawing a connection before these two 16th-century grandees and given Sofonisba's connection with Michelangelo, with the letters and The Boy Bitten, it's wonderful to have this one word that sort of represents that connection that she made, she carved out, with this great, legendary painter.

And when her father was writing to Michelangelo and when she was drawing for him, Michelangelo was elderly then, he was pretty much near his death bed. So he had made his reputation. He already was legendary. So it was no small accomplishment that she got under his radar. And, um, his praise. I love that. I love that detail of her life. It just proclaims her success. And it's right there published in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists. So it's not, you know, a figment of feminist imagination, it's recorded.

Carol Cram:

I caught that right at the beginning that you mentioned the word invenzione in connection with Michelangelo and Sofonisba because I saw the word all the way through the novel and I see that as, that's wonderful.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

So I used it all throughout the novel as sort of a tribute to Sofonisba and a nod to the fact that she is in fact published in Lives of the Artists. It was part of my effort to credit Sofonisba's legacy. And I was trying to drive the point home. 

I received an email from a scholar on the East coast who said that portraiture is not inventive, and I overused the word, so people can agree to differ. But if you look at Sofonisba's Dominican Astronomer, where she signs her name upside down, because she's attributing Leonardo's backward handwriting, and if you look at her Bernardino Painting Sofonisba, I mean, there are so many ways in which Sofonisba uses portraiture inventively and creatively, which is why Giorgio Vasari says she makes figures come truly alive. 

So I just have to laugh that the scholar was telling a novelist that I'm overusing a word - it's just an adjective, you know, and I'm writing a novel. So how can I be overusing that word, which I didn't make up, it's from Giorgio Vasari. So that word,  maybe I do overuse it because I'm trying to tribute her legacy and really drive home the point that she's being comped by the greatest art historian of all time to Michelangelo.

Carol Cram:

I actually really enjoyed that. I liked the way you did that and how you showed how invenzione relates to portraiture, which is not something I know a lot about. And she is considered one of the premier portraitists of the period. And what was it about her portraits that are so special?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Well, Lombard and sometimes Lombard Venetian portraiture, 16th century is its own class. And in Italian museums you'll find entire rooms dedicated to just Lombard or Lombard and Venetian portraiture of the 16th century. It's in the shadow of Leonardo da Vinci. You know, we have Mona Lisa, sort of this intensity of the vision and maybe this ambiguity, but Leonardo is, his theory was that portraiture was to show the soul.

Mona Lisa was begun when Leonardo was in the Milan region. So it's part of the birth of Lombard portraiture was this effort to show the soul through portraiture. If you look at Sofonisba's Portrait of a Friar at the Terzi Martinengo gallery in Brescia, you can see this intensity of the gaze that absolutely, I mean, in my mind equals or surpasses the intensity of any portraiture. So you really see how she's trying to show, like, show in the soul. 14, 15th century? It's a little more cartoonish. 16th century, they were going for this veritas, this accuracy while trying to really show something about the psychology of the person through the painting. 

And then in my mind, 17th, 18th starts to get sort of what I call flowery. They get away from that sort of realistic moment. So 16th century portraiture is really like they're trying to take a snapshot of the person, the person's thoughts, and the person's soul. And so that's why it's its own thing.

Sofonisba, one thing can be credited to her professionally speaking is that she was in the heart of Lombardy, in the heart of the 16th century, mastering the art of this style of portraiture when she gets called to the heart of the Habsburg court in Spain. So she is an exporter of this style into the web that that will spread the style throughout Europe and even to North America. So she was not only successful in the painting she did, but the way the veins and the outlets for which her portraiture went. So she actually really influenced Renaissance art, even though there'll be plenty of scholars who would say she's not the top tier artist, they wouldn't put her in the tier of a Caravaggio.

Given her travels and the influences she had among official Royal circles, her artwork had as lasting an impact. So I like to defend Sofonisba's accomplishments, as you can see, because I've been promoting her for a number of years now. And so I'm a real devotée.

Carol Cram:

Well, I mean, they've got a convert here. I want to see a lot more of her work and I really enjoyed how from a novelist's perspective because you're a storyteller, you know, you're taking all this, but you're making a story out of it. And you talk about her struggles with trying to reveal the soul in her portrait of Phillip II of Spain, which was just marvelous because she had a hard time with it. And that does really mirror, I really related to that. Of course, I'm a writer, not an artist, but that idea of trying and failing and trying and trying to get it right. You really captured that well.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Thank you. I mean, there were points in the writing process when I feel like I was channeling Sofonisba's tenacity, just to sort of get over the hurdles and the, you know, when you want to just sort of take it easy or give up or procrastinate. Yeah. I drew on some of the lessons of her work.

Carol Cram:

Yes, it's interesting. I've never actually written a novel about a real person. So what are some of the challenges when you're actually taking someone who really existed and was actually relatively well-known and then getting into her skin? Like, how did that work for you? Or how did that work out?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Reducing the actual facts of a person's life to a novel, you have to take out some elements, you know, the novel ultimately has to be a story and a readable story. And I tried very hard to keep the narrative and the facts of her life factual, but the narrative and sort of the, you know, what is spoken of course is imagined. And the narrative of how she wove her successes is largely imagined, but sticking close to the biographical facts that we knew.

Carol Cram:

And you mentioned earlier that, that her life was really well-documented. So what were some of the research materials you had? I'm always fascinated by how people do their research with historical fiction.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Well, of course, I went to the places and I scoured through just, like, the popular culture and the libraries of the places where she was. I looked at Italian archives and I looked at all of her paintings. But for academic sources, I mentioned earlier, Sofonisba Anguissola e le sue surelle, it's in Italian. And then the work of Maria Cuccia, she has a fabulous volume on Sanchez Cuello and it has charts and charts comparing all of the portraiture and the artists. And it's so well indexed that between those two volumes, I drew most of my research. 

At the end of the catalog, Sofonisba Anguissola e le sue surelle, is this register that gives the legal, financial and diplomacy documents of her long entire life. It's very well detailed. So there actually is just a huge treasure trove of information on Sofonisba. Most of my effort was put toward translating the Italian and the Spanish, although it would be easier now because I didn't have Google translate back when I was working on it.

Carol Cram:

So obviously you speak Italian and Spanish.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

I'm proficient in Italian. Spanish, I labored over it with a dictionary and the help of friends. And there are lots of secondary sources on Sofonisba as well. And I also researched the other actors in her life, the people at the Habsburg court, the people in Rome and Milan and Tuscany. And I think I over-researched. In fact, my first draft was 720 pages.

Carol Cram:

Oh, my goodness.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

And I then had to spend a lot of time whittling it down to a readable size, but all of that was great background for my ultimate project, which is making a film version, envisioning her life through the novel, re-envisioning her life. As I presented her case through my book tour, I feel I've lived her life. And I have seen it. I spent my 2020, coronavirus lockdown time, writing a feature film screenplay based on Lady in Ermine. And then in 2021 have written the pilot to a mini-series based on Lady in Ermine.

Carol Cram:

Oh, congratulations. So what's happening with that? Have you got someone that's going to produce it?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

What's happening with that is I'm now in a wonderful conversation with somebody who is very excited about the project. Very early stages.

Carol Cram:

Good for you. Well, it's such a fantastic story. And of course she's becoming better known that it's a natural, gosh, I wish you luck with that. I hope that gets made because it's very exciting. And the other thing that makes her story and your novel so interesting is the period in European history. This is a really fraught period, isn't it? The 1560s, seventies.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

It's an interesting period as well, because I didn't know until I read The Betrothed, I Promessi Sposi, that the large part of Northern Italy was ruled by Spain for a long period of time. And prior to that was overseen by France for a long period of time. And France and Spain were at war for, like, a hundred years over various territory disputes, one of which involved Lombardy. So the administration of Lombardy changed from French to Spanish during the course of Sofonisba's parents' life. And then the Spanish solidified their reign during Sofonisba's life, which gave her the opportunity she had at the Spanish court. But I didn't know that, you know, from my world view growing up, so that was a piece of history that was interesting to me.

Carol Cram:

I learned a lot as well. I thought I knew a fair bit about 16th century, but not from the perspective, of Italy and Spain as much. I think I tend to know it more from the English perspective.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Exactly. That was actually another theme because we, as Americans, do pretty much take our European history from a British perspective, like Henry VIII is always the protagonist and the Spanish ambassador is always the antagonist in the films we see. So in this, the Spanish ambassador is the diplomat and the English are the ...

Carol Cram:

Yes. Well, and then Phillip II is central to it, whereas in the English history, I tend to know, you know, he's like the husband of Mary Tudor and you don't hear much about him and he's sort of gone, but he was huge. I mean, he was incredibly influential in the 16th century, wasn't he? I didn't really realize as much until I read your novel.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Right, and it was actually, in many ways, the death of Mary Tudor that launches Sofonisba. Phillip needs a new wife, and he ends up marrying Isabel de Valois, and Sofonisba was in Isabel's court.

Carol Cram:

So for a lot of the novel Elizabeth I would have been on the throne, I presume.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Sofonisba and Elizabeth were almost contemporary. Sofonisba was born around 1535 although we don't know for sure when she was born. And Elizabeth I think is born 1533. And then Elizabeth dies in 1601 or 1602 and Sofonisba dies in1625. I love the little fact that Sofonisba was born 30 years before Shakespeare, and then outlives him by, like, 20 years. 

Carol Cram:

Yeah, it's such a great period. Oh my goodness. And, I mean, we had the Spanish Armada in 1588 and that was about the only part I knew about the Spanish was from the point of view of how the English fought them in the Spanish Armada. And of course, the conquistadors and all of that, which you do bring in there as well, a little bit about the New World. So it's fascinating. The combination is really well done between Sofonisba's very personal story and her own anguishes with, you know, deaths in her family and all of that kind of thing. And her artistic imaginings or her artistic struggles on the canvas of the history makes it a really compelling novel.

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And now back to the show!

Carol Cram:

I think this would be a good time if you could do a short reading for us.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

I think I'd like to just start from the beginning.

Carol Cram:

Okay.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Chapter one is called Prince's Parade. 

Cremona, Lombardy, Italy, September 21, 1549.

Sofonisba was alone in cavernous San Sigismondo. As the other parishioners mingled outside after Mass, sweating in their finery, their velvets and satins embroidered with silver and gold, Sofonisba remained in front of the high altar, transfixed by one tiny face that radiated back at her amid the clusters of angels and patrons that hovered around it. With large pleading eyes, Saint Daria seemed to cry out to Sofonisba. Sofonisba had studied this painting, Giulio Campi's Virgin in Glory, her entire life. Indeed, it was almost as old as she, six years away from twenty. But this morning, the eyes taunted her, beseeching her, no, daring her.

"Sofi, there you are." Her father's deep voice startled her. "I've been looking for you."

"Father, you see her face?" Sofonisba stretched an arm toward the painting, exposing a tiny leather bag. Her father had given her this bag to use as an art kit. He even allowed her to use it during Mass, concealed under her wrap. 

Amilcare smiled despite his impatience. Mass had an effect on Sofonisba. She often lost herself in a world of invenzione as she studied the paintings around her, while Father Patrizio mumbled in Latin, his back to the congregation.

"Father, of all these swirling figures what moves me is one face, there, on the left." She pointed beyond the mountainous Madonna to a small figure. "You see Saint Daria peeking out from the foreground? I feel like she's communicating to me alone." Sofonisba glanced at her father, her enormous eyes glistening from her moonlike face. "I don't mean to sound disrespectful." 

Amilcare had a hand in commissioning most of the church's paintings, one of his duties as a local decurion. Instead of focusing on Campi's painting, Amilcare's gaze went to his daughter's blackened fingernails, and he recalled an event earlier that week. He and some fellow decurions had gathered at his shop on the town square to discuss arrangements for today's visit from the Spanish Prince. Sofonisba rushed past them on her way home from Master Campi's studio, a rolled-up canvas under her right arm, paint brushes clutched in her left hand.

"Amilcare, there's your Sofi," one of the decurions said. Amilcare simply nodded. "My friend," the man persisted, "how can you let the girl parade through town like that? Aren't you afraid of discouraging suitors?"

"I only want what any father wants, a better life for my children, "Amilcare said quietly.

"And you think the girl will prosper more pretending to be Leonardo da Vinci than through an advantageous marriage?" 

Amilcare shrugged off the comment, accustomed to townspeople frowning on his decision to permit his eldest daughter and her sister to study in Master Campi’s studio, a studio full of men of lower rank –men not related to her, men who might forgo their shirts when the temperature rose. Amilcare had encouraged all his daughters' talents, as if trying to prove himself. He might be a member of the nobility now, albeit lower nobility and a respected decurion, but his past spurred him to promote the family name relentlessly.

"Father," Sofonisba said, drawing Amilcare's attention back to the painting. "How can we see the soul of the savior when he's overshadowed by the crowd of angels that surround him? That face of Saint Daria grips me more than all the rest." 

Amilcare smiled affectionately at his earnest daughter. Her ambitions rivaled his own. "Sofi, the prince will arrive shortly. I must meet the decurions. Go home with your mother and sisters and make ready for the parade."

Carol Cram:

Oh, thank you. That's wonderful. Yeah. I remember that opening and how she was looking at the painting and, you know, it's just like what you think a painter would think. 

So I'd like to also talk a little bit about writing in general. One of the goals of The Art In Fiction Podcast is to inspire other authors. What's one thing you learned from writing the novel that you didn't know before?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

This may seem obvious, but I learned that I, one, can do it. In my prior life, I was a lawyer, and in that capacity, I learned to take facts and use them to craft a narrative, to persuasive effect. I realized it was pretty much what I would do with a novel, a historical novel. I would take the historical facts and then in my imagination, craft narrative to use the historical facts for some persuasion, some story. 

So I realized my legal skills were transferable, or at least my style of writing was transferable. And then I learned that I really need to love my subject. In order to have the wherewithal and the tenacity to stick with a piece, especially a novel, you better love your subject because you're going to be married to it for a period of time. 

And that may seem obvious, but it's just so important. Especially there might be temptation to do popular subjects or celebrity subjects, in the interest of your book getting noticed, but you really have to love your subject. And that should be the first calling.

And I had a mission behind what I was trying to do because I was trying to insert a woman into history, help insert, you know, among many other people, help push Sofonisba further into history. So that mission helped fuel the tenacity I needed to finish the piece.

Carol Cram:

What I really love is the advice about you have to love your subject because it takes a long time to write an historical novel. How long did it take to write Lady In Ermine?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

So I would say it took two and a half years for the first pass and that was the 720-page draft. And it took another couple of years to winnow it down to the final product.

Carol Cram:

It's like wine, isn't it? It's true. There's a lot of time that it actually just has to sit there that you think that you should be working, but actually even if you're not working, you're working, in that novel's sitting there and it's in your head and you're thinking about it. So, yeah, it's an interesting process.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

My next novel I have written my head and I think it's going to go incredibly quickly because it's based on the life of Isabel de Valois and it's just a different perspective on Lady in Ermine. So I'm going to see how quickly I can write this. I actually want to see if I can write this by September.

Carol Cram:

Actually, that's great for that novel because yes, you've already got a lot of your research done. So the next novel is going to be about Isabel of Valois, who was the third wife of Phillip II and plays a huge role, of course, in Lady in Ermine. She seems to be quite a fascinating character as well.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Yes. I really grew to love her, getting to know her and so I wanted to write about a woman of success, not a woman of royalty and yet, I grew to love Isabel de Valois enough that now she's the next novel I want to write, contrary to my original intentions, but she also though is a layered view on Sofonisba, which is why I want to write it.

Carol Cram:

Oh that will be a wonderful sequel and, and Isabel de Valois was the daughter of Catherine of Medici, right?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Yes. And I love that circle, the way, you know, Sofonisba has connections to the Medici from her roots, from her time at court, and then from her time after court. She is such a Forrest Gump of the 16th century, just always on the back wall of the main historical events.

Carol Cram:

I love that you say she's the Forrest Gump of the 16th century. That is true. She does happen to be around at a lot of different times that a lot of important, seminal things that have happened. 

What a great person that you chose for your debut novel, because not only is she a great artist, as we've said, she is a wonderful reflection of the historical period, a fascinating historical period. 

So you mentioned to me in an email that you've just completed the audiobook. So is that out now? Or how can we get it?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Yes, Tantor Media produced it and it's out now on the normal venues.

Carol Cram:

I love audiobooks. I've really gotten into them lately because of doing Art In Fiction and interviewing so many authors. I don't have time to read everything. So I often will download their books on audiobook and then go for a walk. 

So anything else that you'd like to share about the writing of Lady in Ermine or writing in general?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

As to Lady in Ermine in particular, through my travels, I was able to meet Alfio Nicotra, who is a researcher of the life of Sofonisba, out of Catania, Sicily. And he has been responsible for a lot of Sofonisba discoveries. I've documented a lot of that on my website, and I'm really grateful to Alfio Nicotra for bringing me into the circle and through Alfio, I was able to meet and befriend Ferrante Anguissola and the Anguissola family, and it was really an honor to get to go to the Prado exhibit with them and see Sofonisba's paintings with Ferrante. 

And back in 2009, I was able to present in Parma and Sicily with Maria Cuccia. And that was a real honor because her work on Sofonisba is outstanding. So those three—Alfio, Ferrante, and Maria Cuccia - were just so formative in my research, I'm really grateful for their help. Finding a mentor along the way is really a gift.

Carol Cram:

It is. And I found as well that experts in whatever area you're writing in are so important. And also so incredibly helpful. I found that when I've consulted with people, they've been amazing. They really kind of go out of their way to help flesh things out for me from an historical perspective. And it sounds like you had that same experience. 

Sofonisba's paintings were incorrectly attributed to men. And now, of course, it's becoming clear that they were done by her. How do they know that?

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Various attributions are disputed still. Lady in Ermine itself for many years was attributed to El Greco. And I have a long blog on that up on sofanisba.net about why I think it couldn't be El Greco and why many, many scholars think it couldn't be El Greco. 

And then on the eve of the Prado exhibit, October of 2019, the press in Madrid announced that the attribution was changed. It was no longer attributed to El Greco, but neither did they attribute it to Sofonisba. They attributed to her competition at court, Sanchez Cuello. So I've written about that. I don't believe that's possible either on that chronology, of their personal chronologies. And that's where knowing their biographies helps, but officially, the Prado attributes the exhibit and the Glasgow museum, which owns it, attributes it now to Cuello. 

Her drawing from Michelangelo has been attributed at points to Michelangelo. Various of her paintings have been attributed to various different artists, but some of those paintings have been put under microscopes and looked at that way. Some of them are the stylistic comparisons and some of it just documentary evidence. I have not been the scientist to find a painting, to make an attribution. I rely on the work of others. And as I mentioned, I follow the work of Maria Cuccia. So where her attributions are different from, say, the Prado's, I'm going with Maria Cuccia because I have such profound respect working with her, but I don't think we can know with absolute certainty all of the paintings.

Carol Cram:

Because of course, people did not necessarily sign their work in those days.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

But she did sign a lot of her early work when she was in Lombardy. Definitely less so in her court portraiture, but I love her signature on the Dominican Astronomer because he is signing a document with a quill. But when you look closely, what he is signing is the name Sofonisba Anguissola. But he is signing it upside down.

Carol Cram:

Wow.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

It was just so interesting. And she writes the date right in on the page. It's, like, March 3rd, 1556. And so she's writing her presence right into the painting, which I think shows her, her invenzione.

Carol Cram:

Yes. Very much so. 

Thank you so much, Donna, for talking to us today about your wonderful debut novel Lady in Ermine. It's been such a pleasure to learn all about Sofonisba Anguissola.

Donna DiGiuseppe:

Well, thank you, Carol. It's been lovely chatting with you and I loved your book as well, and I'm really looking forward to future episodes from Art In Fiction.

Carol Cram:

Thanks so much. Have a wonderful day.

 

I’ve been speaking with Donna DiGiuseppe, author of Lady in Ermine listed in the Visual Arts category on Art In Fiction at www.artinfiction.com.

Be sure to check the show notes for links to Donna’s website at www.sofonisba.net. You’ll also find the link to a 20% discount on a subscription to ProWritingAid, a fantastic editing tool for writers.

Please follow Art In Fiction on Twitter and Facebook and subscribe to The Art In Fiction Podcast and give it a positive review or rating wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks so much for listening.

 

 

Welcome
An overview of Lady in Ermine
The Renaissance of Sofonisba Anguissola
Recognition of female artists
Why did Donna choose Sofonisba?
What is invenzione?
Sofonisba's portraiture
The challenges of writing fiction about a real person
Will Lady in Ermine make it to the big screen?
The historical era of Lady in Ermine
Advertisement
A reading from Lady in Ermine
What did Donna learn through writing Lady in Ermine?
What is Donna's next novel about?
Why Sofonisba is the Forrest Gump of her time
The audiobook version of Lady in Ermine
Research and mentors
Attribution of Sofonisba's works
Extro