Book review: 'The Creation of Eve' by Lynn Cullen

By Eugenia Zukerman
Wednesday, March 31, 2010


By Lynn Cullen

Putnam. 392 pp. $25.95

Sofonisba Anguissola, a student of Michelangelo, became the first distinguished female painter of the Renaissance. In her first adult novel, "The Creation of Eve," Lynn Cullen uses the facts of this little-known artist's life to conjure an intoxicating tale of love, betrayal and redemption.

The complex story is told through letters and journals kept by Sofi, as she's called here. After a passionate encounter with a fellow student in Michelangelo's studio, Sofi escapes ruin by accepting an appointment proffered by the most powerful king in Europe. Transported from Italy to the Spanish court of Felipe II, the 27-year-old artist becomes the favorite companion of Elisabeth de Valois, the king's teenage bride.

"So this was the child for whom I put aside any hope of becoming a maestra," Sofi tells us, "because the King, upon hearing about me from the Duke of Alba, thought his little bride might enjoy painting lessons from a virgin painter." To teach the young queen to draw is Sofi's official job, but to save Elisabeth from the treachery of the court becomes her secret mission.

While giving the reader illuminating information about art and science during the 16th century, Cullen also provides insight into the royal struggles and political machinations of the time. Perhaps her work as a prize-winning writer of young-adult books enables the author to get inside the head of the teen queen with such compassion and clarity. When Elisabeth falls in love with her husband's illegitimate half brother, Don Juan, and attracts the attentions of the king's troubled son, her situation grows even more perilous.

Sofi's intelligent voice keeps the story grounded. Her struggle to create art at a time when women were not allowed to observe dissections or paint nude figures -- let alone sign their names to their own paintings -- is heroic. Thinking of talented women everywhere, those "pale uncertain Eves," she offers this advice: "If only we can be so brave as to love and accept the fragile spirit residing within each one of us, then, only then, we might take the gift of self-knowledge offered in its shy and trembling hands."

Cullen tackles the contradictions of the Renaissance and captures the dangerous spirit of the Inquisition while handling these vivid characters with prodigious control. "The Creation of Eve" is a historical romance that teaches as it touches.

Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books and artistic director of the Vail Valley Music Festival.

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