Set in fourteenth century Italy, The Towers of Tuscany focuses on the life of Sofia, a talented painter who is prepared to risk everything to fulfil her ambitions, however she’s been born in an time when women are not allowed to paint. Trapped in a loveless marriage and shocked by the sudden death of her father, Sofia runs away to Siena where she masquerades as a boy in order to become an apprentice in a workshop. Few people know Sofia’s true identity but her considerable skill doesn’t go unnoticed for long and the workshop begins to receive many new commissions. Sofia’s future is threatened when a young nobleman, Matteo, becomes enamoured with her work and eventually discovers her secret.
I was attracted to this novel because I love reading about Italian history, however this story is too full of contradictions for my liking. The premise of the book is hinged on the fact women were not allowed to be artists, however the author makes no effort to explain why and leaves the reader to conclude it is a gender issue. While it is true female artists were not common in this period, the author does acknowledge art was done by nuns in convents but neglects to mention noblewomen or even those born into artistic families would often be trained, albeit sometimes in different fields such as tapestry or embroidery. The impression we are given in Sofia’s case is that a female painter is completely taboo, yet her father seems to have no issues developing her skills or using her to paint commissions in secret.
All of this could be easily forgiven if Sofia was a remotely likeable character but I couldn’t warm up to her at all, mainly due to her superiority and her smugness. Sofia admits her pride is her worst fault, and while it is certainly true, constantly bemoaning the fact doesn’t excuse her conceit or the selfishness of her actions towards others. While Sofia maintains her only desire is to paint, she marries Giorgio to get away from her demanding father who continuously found fault with her painting. Feeling she could do nothing right, Sofia was under the illusion being a married woman would give her more freedom and her husband would accept her desire to paint. The problem for me is Sofia is never allowed to grow as a character and isn’t given the opportunity to learn from her mistakes. She never comes to the realisation her father was so hard on her because he knew just how talented she was and he was determined to force her to produce her very best.
Sofia may be a brilliant painter but she is very naive when it comes to romance. She falls in love with Giorgio because he is more handsome than his brother, Ruberto, but then belatedly realises Ruberto is the better man and there are hints he would have given her the freedom she desires. In the same respect, she falls for Matteo because he appeals to her vanity and the reality of their situation doesn’t become clear to her until it is far too late. The biggest issue I had with Matteo was the lack of clarity in his relationship with Sofia, particularly in the beginning when he believed he was befriending a boy called Sandro with an extraordinary talent for painting. When Matteo discovers Sandro is really a girl, the relationship changes instantly into a romantic one and Matteo never once questions why he was so enamoured with Sandro in the first place.
Sofia becomes Matteo’s lover despite his revelation he is already betrothed, and her lack of foresight leads to disaster. While it is clear Matteo doesn’t have honourable intentions, I never felt like his character was fully fleshed out, and this is a problem which also affects the other characters. Many of them are introduced briefly when the plot requires it, and then forced into the background where they languish until Sofia has need of them again. This is particularly true of her half-brother, Marcello, who helps Sofia escape from her husband, only for them to be separated by brigands, and since he never reappears, Sofia assumes he is dead and is later joined by the much younger Francesco. This all seemed rather pointless to me and a waste of a perfectly good character in Marcello.
Having read a few good historical books set in Italy last year, I found the setting merely scratched the surface and most of the time I forgot the book was even set in Italy. Although Sofia expresses an admiration for the towers being built in her hometown of San Gimignano, the history of the town is never fully explored and we never learn why these towers were being built. In reality, the towers were built increasingly higher because of the constant feuding between rival families but this is never directly explained in the novel and the feuding families are only introduced briefly in connection with the death of Sofia’s father.
The same thing could be said about Siena when Sofia is tasked with the endless painting of shields, there is no mention of the famous contrade who rule the city, other than a brief allusion to the Nine. Last year, I read Marina Fiorato’s novel The Daughter of Siena which gives a far more vivid portrayal of Siena, albeit in a later era. Sofia is so isolated in the workshop because of her secret, she isn’t given much opportunity to explore the city and we miss out as a result.
The best part of the book comes from the exploration of the craft of painting, particularly with the detailed descriptions of how the different colours were mixed and the occasional toxins which were part of that mixture. I particularly liked how Sofia would look at something and then imagine how she would create the perfect colour to render it in a painting. Some may find the constant descriptions of her work processes rather tedious after a while, but I actually found them fascinating and it left me with a renewed appreciation for the skills of these artists.