Published: 22nd May 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trigger warnings: Homophobia, sexual references
1508. In Rome artists are everywhere, and feted as gods. But the most celebrated amongst them, a man who can paint beauty itself, is Raphael. When he touches brush to canvas, his subjects burst to life; he takes base metal and turns it to glistening gold.
When Raphael meets Margarita Luti, a baker’s daughter, he is beguiled and inspired in equal measure. As his muse, her face becomes that of a thousand Madonnas, but it is his portraits of her which reveal his full talents – and which will become his downfall.
For Raphael is wanted for greater things than a mere baker’s daughter. He is soon promised to the niece of a cardinal, a man upon whose connections and commissions the artist’s future relies. Without his good will, Raphael will be ruined.
Raphael must make a choice between his love for Margarita and his future as an artist – a choice that will have devastating consequences.
This was a fascinating and sophisticated portrait of Renaissance Italy, which told a compelling and insightful story from a unique perspective. Highly character-driven and written with impressive detail throughout, it offered an engaging plot that contained deceit, forbidden romance, and an ounce of tragedy.
While it certainly was not without its faults, I really enjoyed the concept along with the depiction of several famous artists and the way they shaped history. Although the overwhelming majority of the events that take place during the book are fictional, the author displays an excellent knowledge of the time period and succeeds in capturing the essence of the central characters.
This book tells the story of the romance between the celebrated artist Raphael and humble baker’s daughter Margarita Luti, from the eyes of one of the maestro’s apprentices, Pietro. It begins in 1508 when Pietro is dismissed by the temperamental Michelangelo and finds work with the even more highly-strung Sebastiano, who is in the process of painting La Fornarina, a portrait of Margarita.
After an accident takes place, Pietro loses his job there too only to be reprieved by Raphael, who offers him a position at his workshop. However, that does not prevent Pietro from being cast out on to the streets by his father, where he encounters danger before being rescued by the kind and considerate Margarita.
Pietro develops an immediate attraction towards Raphael and clearly desires him, trying to impress the artist at every opportunity in order to gain his attention. That backfires on him when he introduces Raphael to Margarita, and the two ultimately fall in love. In the years that follow, he secretly attempts to destroy their relationship.
The most interesting aspect of the book is the decision to tell the story entirely from Pietro’s perspective. He occasionally addresses the reader directly and through that, we are made to experience all of his jealous feelings and duplicitous deeds in his personal mission to break Raphael and Margarita apart.
It was good to read for the most part, but in some ways it was also counter-productive as it meant that important parts of the plot were glossed over and not given enough depth. There are several things we are told about rather than actually shown, which made me feel that the addition of a second POV might have proven useful.
As much as Pietro has an engaging voice and tries to justify his actions to the reader, the fact is that he was extremely selfish and disloyal, which made him frustrating and quite unlikable. At the start it was easy to empathise with him as encounters a series of misfortunes, but that soon dissipates after Raphael and Margarita initially meet.
It was interesting to see how a number of renowned artists were portrayed in the book. Unlike his peers, who seem to offset their ability with a paintbrush with a lack of manners, Raphael is shown to be kind and charismatic with an infectious energy. He refuses to criticise others, instead gaining inspiration from their work. These generous traits make him a likeable character.
One less savoury fact about early sixteenth century Rome is the treatment of women. Many of them are sadly considered as mere objects, and the author does not shy away from depicting that. On a happier note, Margarita does not conform to that trend, and as a consequence she is undoubtedly my favourite character in this story.
Margarita is a strong and independent female character who knows her own mind, but she also balances that with being exceptionally compassionate, tactful and not afraid to tell others how she feels. That makes Pietro’s scheming and veiled dislike of her all the more unfathomable and difficult to tolerate.
I found the ending to be bittersweet, but also quite fitting. It contains its fair share of tragedy as fate conspires against Raphael, but there is also an unexpected twist that leads to Pietro earning a chance of redemption. The final chapter was actually quite powerful, although a sub-plot involving a series of deaths was not adequately resolved.
The writing style was eloquent and flowed very nicely, while the book moved at a fairly solid pace. I loved the detail contained within the setting, which made it easy to visualise, even though I felt it lacked a little in terms of atmosphere. The emphasis on art was something I really appreciated, too.
Overall, this was a good read and a very accomplished novel. I liked the manner in which the story was developed and although Pietro is often a frustrating narrator, he has a good voice. It may have benefited from an extra POV and a brighter light shone on sections of the plot, but as a character-driven story, it works well.
With an MA in French Literature from King’s College London, Kerry Postle has made a natural transition to becoming an author of historical fiction. Her first novel, The Artist’s Muse, was released in 2017, and that was followed two years later by A Forbidden Love.
She has also written articles for newspapers and magazines.
A good read that showed Renaissance Italy in an interesting light and uses an innovative angle to tell a powerful story.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
*I received a free advanced copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Woman In The Painting is available to buy now!