CUPID AND THE SILENT GODDESS, by Alan Fisk, was published in Great Britain by Twenty First Century Publishers in 2003. The book's cover features a magnificent reproduction of Bronzino's painting, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, which is now in the National Gallery of London.
The story is set in sixteenth century Florence at the time of Duke Cosimo de' Medici. This was a harsh and brutal period in which violence and danger lurked about the city's streets amid the abysmal poverty of the majority of the population and the immense wealth of its aristocracy. It was also the time of its artistic and architectural efflorescence.
Alan Fisk's depiction of this historical and cultural setting fulfills one of the principal requirements of historical fiction, that is, of combining relevant historical information with an insightful picture of how the cultural context and events of the time motivated the behaviour of its characters. It is this attribute that differentiates historical fiction from academic compilations and costume romances set in the past.
The author has brilliantly recreated the atmosphere of mid-sixteenth century Florence, and has succeeded in bringing his characters to life in a way that enables the reader to understand how they related to their environment and why. The focus of the novel is the creation of a painting, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, by the Florentine painter Bronzino [about 1545]. The principal characters are Giuseppe, the fifteen year old apprentice of Bronzino, the painter's former master and current lover, Pontormo, and Angelina, Bronzino's exquisite model for Venus. The supporting characters are the sculptor, Baccio Brandinelli, the priest, Fleccia, the nun, Sister Benedicta, the ruler of Florence, the Duke, Cosimo de' Medici, and his military commander Captain da Lucca. The main theme is the story behind the famous painting. The reader discovers why Duke Cosimo commissioned it, how the painter Bronzino arrived at its final composition, and the technical process of its creation.
Another theme is the brutal relationship between Bronzino and the apprentice Giuseppe, a youth whom he used both as the model for Cupid and as the object of forced sodomy. A parallel theme is the contrast between this relationship and the gradually developing affection between the apprentice and the beautiful mute model Angelina.
The reader's deep involvement in the story is achieved through the engrossing intricacies of artistic techniques used by Italian renaissance artists, and the description of how they arrived at the representations they used in creating a particular painting. Fisk's meticulous research into the culture of the period which is reflected in the behaviour of his characters, differs greatly from the dominant reactions of modern Westerners, and yet is so natural in his chosen context. The result of this ability is an historical novel that will gain both the approval of today's reading public and become a classic example of what is best in historical fiction.
Boris Raymond, author of The Twelfth Vulture of Romulus.
A witty and entertaining romp set in the seedy world of Italian Renaissance artists.
Award-winning historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick (The Falcons of Montabard, The Winter Mantle).
Alan Fisk, in his book Cupid and the Silent Goddess, captures the atmosphere of sixteenth-century Florence and the world of the artists excellently. This is a fascinating imaginative reconstruction of the events during the painting of Allegory with Venus and Cupid.
Marina Oliver, author of many historical novels and of Writing Historical Fiction.
How can one not be intrigued by a novel that begins thus:
When I was a young man, King François of France greatly admired my bare buttocks. I have that information only by hearsay, of course, because my buttocks were in the king’s château of Chambord while I was here in Italy.
The bare buttocks, of course, are in a painting, An Allegory with Cupid and Venus painted by Bronzino in 1545and which inspired this novel, the imagined story of how the painting came about.
One hot afternoon, while all of Florence is taking a siesta, Giuseppe, a painter’s apprentice, is at work making gesso while his master Agnolo Bronzino retires to his bed. Having spent the morning posing for nude studies, Giuseppe has decided not to dress to undertake his rather noisome task. Suddenly the door is broken in and the house is invaded by the Duke Cosimo de’ Medici and his guards. The Duke orders Bronzino to create a painting that he can send to King François of France as a diplomatic gift. Seeing the seventeen-year-old Giuseppe in his nakedness, the Duke insists that the boy should pose for Cupid even though he is too old for the role.
Bronzino takes on the onerous commission in the hope that it will lead to his appointment as official court painter, but his progress is blocked until his former master, Jacopo da Pontormo, diagnoses his problem. He needs to find the perfect model to pose for Venus. Together the three men comb the city until Giuseppe spots a tall, beautiful young woman with a mysterious smile, standing at her window. She is Angelina, a mute, simple-minded girl living under the protection of a nun. With the Duke’s intervention, Angelina is taken from her safe and happy home into the perilous art world of Florence. Giuseppe sympathises with the innocent, exploited girl and inevitably falls in love with her.
I was engaged by this novel from beginning to end. Alan Fisk brings the sights, sounds and especially the smells of Renaissance Florence to life, and his characters, especially Bronzino, are captivating. But as much as I enjoyed reading this novel, I felt that there could have been so much more to it – more about the actual process of creating the painting, more about the characters and their relationships.
Like the painting it describes, the novel is somewhat chaotic with a disparate set of minor characters that seem to be there largely to act as models for figures in the painting. But what gives the painting its unity is the delicate rendering of the two central figures and the complex relationship between them. It is this strong centre that the novel lacks.
At the core of the novel is the three-way homosexual relationship between Pontormo, Bronzino and Giuseppe. Giuseppe, while accepting Bronzino’s instruction as his apprentice, must also accept his sexual attentions, however unwillingly. At the same time, Bronzino continues his relationship with Pontormo, even though his own apprenticeship is long over. Fisk is not coy about acknowledging his characters’ sexuality, yet seems uncomfortable with it, on the emotional level even more so than on the physical. Time and again he gives us a glimpse of what might be complex emotions, but then shies away.
I doubt I am the first reader to have noticed this trend. In his Author’s Note, Fisk attributes any shortcomings to the limitations of his narrator Giuseppe, but after all it is the author who creates the narrator. Here I feel that the author is only doing himself a disservice. Rather than defending himself against the criticism, he could have made constructive use of it. By failing to explore the deeper, emotional potential of his own characters and the relationships he has set up, he has missed the opportunity to make this book into a truly memorable novel, rather than merely the good read it is now.
Pauline Montagna - Romance of History E-Zine.