Seven portraits. Seven artists. Seven girls and women reading.
A young orphan poses nervously for a Renaissance maestro in medieval Siena. An artist's servant girl in seventeenth-century Amsterdam snatches a moment away from her work to lose herself in tales of knights and battles. An eighteenth century female painter completes a portrait of a deceased poetess for her lover. A Victorian medium poses with a book in one of the first photographic studios. A girl suffering her first heartbreak witnesses intellectual and sexual awakening during the Great War. A young woman reading in a bar catches the eye of a young man who takes her picture. And in the not-so-distant future a woman navigates the rapidly developing cyber-reality that has radically altered the way people experience art and the way they live.
Each chapter of Katie Ward’s kaleidoscopic novel takes us into a perfectly imagined tale of how each portrait came to be, and as the connections accumulate, the narrative leads us into the present and beyond. In gorgeous prose Ward explores our points of connection, our relationship to art, the history of women, and the importance of reading. This dazzlingly inventive novel that surprises and satisfies announces the career of a brilliant new writer.
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Katie Ward was born in Somerset in 1979. She has worked in the public and voluntary sectors, including at a women’s refuge center, in the office of a Member of Parliament, and in various community-based projects. She lives in Suffolk, England, with her husband and two cats.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
She arrives glowing from the effort of running, strands of red hair coming loose from her kerchief (she tucks them in), marks on her neck like bruises on fruit. A few minutes late but not enough for anyone to mention it. Is almost surprised to find herself in the wards once more amid illness and suffering (on an evening such as this). Her mind is elsewhere. She accepts a dish, a spoon, instructions to feed a patient who rasps with each breath, whose sores stink, who has for eyes one piercing brown bead and one sagging black hole. Familiar and strange, ordinary and violent.
She does not smile encouragingly at the invalid to finish her meal, does not add to the whispered hubbub of the stone halls. They labor together in silence. The crone chews and swallows slowly despite the impulse of her body to reject what it consumes; the girl holds the spoon out, withdraws it, rests it; the food on the plate scarcely diminishes. Candle flames are skittish in the draft, creating the impression of hasty movement.
The old woman speaks; the girl is roused from her private thoughts. Who are you?
My name is Laura Agnelli.
That is not what I asked.
A patient in a bed farther along screams with pain. There is a disturbance. Some run to her aid, some are disgusted and afraid to be close by.
Laura offers one last mouthful to her charge, wipes the remnants from her bluish lips. I am a daughter of Santa Maria della Scala hospital.
You are a foundling? What is your history?
I have none.
You have a name, though.
The rector himself named me Agnelli. It means “lamb.” He is over there. Laura indicates, without pointing, Rettore Giovanni di Tese Tolomei, a man as wide as he is tall, his thumb tucked into his finery as he makes his inspection of the wards.
The woman swivels her eye toward him, then back to the girl. You were plucked from a crop of innocents by that man?
He showed me compassion because I was weak. He held me in his own arms and gave me his blessing, so I am told.
I am surprised he did not mistake you for a ham.
Laura frowns at the crone. He saved my life.
And the lives of many foundlings, before and since.
But he bestowed his favor on you. It is not an honor I would wish for a daughter of mine.
The patient’s pillow needs rearranging, the bedclothes have slipped down; Laura sets them right, noticing as she does so how cold are the limbs beneath.
The old woman winks her eye. What else do they tell you?
That it was Our Lady who inspired him. The rector heard me crying, held me and foretold that I would take religious vows—and that one day, I would bring rewards to Santa Maria della Scala hospital and the whole city of Siena.
The woman raises her good eyebrow, exaggerating the unevenness of her face; Laura covers the marks on her neck, uneasy.
What do the other children make of it?
They never say.
How did you come to be called Laura? Did your mother call you this?
I know not.
Maybe when she could provide nothing else, she gave you this name—Laura—hoping you would like it?
Yes, you might be right.
She did what she thought was for the best, like all mothers who bring their babes here and turn them over to Signor Rettore. Suffer little children to come unto me. (The woman shuts her eye, while the other socket hangs open still.) Yes, I can see her perfectly, even though she is doing her best to hide. Her head is uncovered, she lets her hair hang about her shoulders like the fallen woman she is. Pitiful. But we should not be too harsh on her; it is only because she is using every fragment of cloth to keep the infant warm. She is giving it her blessing before she parts with it: I hope you will be spared the pain I knew. Is that all? Such a small request, for such a small wriggling bundle! And yet it is worth a dozen of Signor Rettore’s grand pronouncements. She looks tired . . . poor thing has not slept in days. She should sleep now, I think.
Laura counts the lengthening spaces between the woman’s breaths, stays by the bedside for many hours until it is over.
What pretty feet you have. Like two pigeons with their wings folded and their heads tucked in. Do you dance?
Not often. Not well. When there is music, and I am moved to.
I imagine you bouncing and bobbing like a wheat stalk in a breeze, and afterward I imagine you rosy and out of breath. What pretty knees you have too. There is no doubt about it, God intends you to be a bride. My bride.
You are making fun of me.
I would swear to it. Pretty legs. Where the heart goes, the body has to follow.
What did you say? What are you doing?
The magnificent cathedral is the envy of every city-state. It matches the ambitions of those who built it, and the saints themselves would nod their appreciation. The Duomo is absolutely Siena’s, and Siena is absolutely the Virgin’s. How they flourish under her protection.
A man stands before the high altar but he is not here for mass, and he has no awe in his heart. He is inspecting something he has seen hundreds of times before, his objectivity strained. Wealth does not impress him, for he is wealthier than most. Lavish decorations hold few surprises these days. His arms are folded across his chest like a farmer’s, his gargoyle features contracted in a scowl; a short lump of a man. Were it not for the fine weave of his tunic, the opulence of its color, the ornate trim, he might be mistaken for a pilgrim or even a beggar. He senses a presence in this marvelous place (how it glitters, how it is still!) but it is no angel or deity: it is the laughing ghost of a man he knew extremely well in life.
The altarpiece is the Maestà, the enormous panel showing the Madonna and Child upon a throne, adored by a host of angels and saints. It is surrounded by smaller storytelling panels and drenched in gold. For the faithful, the Maestà is a channel to the Virgin: she sees out of those very eyes, hears their pleas through it. On the day it was installed in the Duomo, there was a procession led by the bishop, the priests and friars around the Campo, attended by the Nine, the entire Commune, the citizens of Siena. Resplendent, it passed through the crowds. Bells rang, alms were given to the poor, prayers were made to Our Lady, our advocate. It is Duccio’s (old master, old rogue). Simone Martini snorts.
Simone Martini? I’ve heard of him! He was Duccio’s pupil.
This is the best accolade he can hope for now. One wants to be trained by the greatest living artist, and then to transcend him. That will not happen.
Simone examines the icon, trying to see it as a peasant would, as a monk would, as a lord, a foreigner, a child, a dog. He tries to see it for what it seems to be and for what it is. He tries to see its multiplicity in order to see its truth, but the truth eludes him like incense. It is before him, around him, above him, but vanishes into air. He is morose.
A new commission for Siena Cathedral. Something different. He is getting what he wants, and he does not like it. He does not like the serpent of his vanity being provoked by a bishop’s crozier.
Vescovo Donusdeo dei Malavolti glides toward the artist, extends his hooked hand for Simone to kiss the episcopal ring. The bishop has an ancient face but his frailty comes and goes. Sometimes the sharp edge of his willpower is visible, which can be dangerous; sometimes he is as meek as a kitten, which can be lethal. When the formalities are over, he extends a trembling pat of reassurance to the artist’s arm and wheezes, It warms me, Maestro Simone, to see that you have begun your work. That is what I like about painters, they always have their most valuable tool on their person: their imagination. You cannot help it, can you? You are making lines and filling shapes with pigment even as we stand here. If I were a betting man, which naturally I am not, I would say you have made up your mind what the finished piece will look like. But I must reign in your impulses, though it grieves me to, for I would be intrigued to know what the farthest limits of your creativity can do. It is the Opera del Duomo, you see. You know what they are like. Some of them can be resistant to innovation. They mean well, of course, but it would be remiss of me not to repeat, for appearance’s sake, the prescriptions they have made.
Prescription, guidance, what you will. You know best, and I trust you will interpret their expressed wishes suitably. They are not as brave as you and me. Were it my choice, I would say go and do your best, give to the cathedral whatever your genius can conceive of, and be as radical as you dare. They ought to listen to me, but they do not. I am too lenient with them. I sympathize, Maestro Simone, I do. Having someone restrict what you can paint must make you feel as I would feel if someone restricted my prayers.
I would not want my prayers inhibited either. What are the instructions?
Hardly worth mentioning. As I have stated already, you are to paint a functioning altarpiece that celebrates our principal protector, the Virgin, and represents an episode from her life. In due course there will be four new altars in the cathedral, each dedicated to one of Siena’s auxiliary patrons, starting with Saint Ansanus—and then Saint Savinus, Saint Victor, and Saint Crescentius. Each altar will feature a moment from Our Lady...
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