The Drama of Art and Wool
By Amy Maroney
I was lucky enough to spend most of a year traveling through Europe with my family when our two daughters were nine and twelve. I had no idea when we set out on this adventure that it would inspire me to write historical mysteries about a Renaissance-era woman artist and the modern-day scholar on her trail.
During our travels in 2011-2012, we visited many museums full of portraits of long-dead people, painted by long-dead men. While I was thrilled to see all of this art, our daughters were underwhelmed. I wished the paintings were more relevant to the girls.
|ortrait of Margaret of Lorraine, attributed to Caterina van Hemessen. Hangs at Magdalen College, Oxford.|
Halfway through the trip, I was lucky enough to visit Oxford University and see a sixteenth-century portrait of a woman that was attributed to a female artist. I was floored. So there were women painters in those days! I learned that their work was often attributed to men or kept anonymous. Soon I became obsessed with their lost stories—and I resolved to write a novel on the topic.
At the same time, I developed an interest in the technological strides being made in the field of art conservation. With x-rays and other tools, researchers can now see under the layers of paint in a portrait, determine the exact age of a wooden panel, and so much more. My book would have a dual timeline, I decided, to show how a modern-day researcher can uncover clues about art and artists that have been buried for centuries.
I started researching Renaissance-era female artists and learned that many of them were nuns or spent time living in convents. This is how I got the idea to have Mira, the protagonist of the Miramonde Series, grow up in a convent. I spent more time in museums and libraries around Europe, gathering material.
I didn’t quite know where Mira’s world would be until we stayed in a medieval tower in the tiny village of Oto in Spain. For several days we looked out the tower windows at the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees and hiked through the beautiful valley of Broto and Ordesa National Park. The owners of the tower explained that their ancestors were barons whose roots went back to medieval days.
|The tower of Oto in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Aragòn. Photo courtesy of La Torre de Oto.|
During our visit to Oto, we often saw flocks of sheep being herded by shepherds. Each animal wore an iron bell around its neck and the jangle of bells played in the background as we explored the rugged landscape. Adding to the atmosphere were entire towns built of stone, slowly crumbling into the earth. In the abandoned town of Yosa, we explored a forgotten world of homes and overgrown gardens, listening for the sounds of ghostly voices on the wind.
I soon realized that as magical as this area was, we had stumbled upon a place with a well-documented and fascinating history. The Pyrenees were ruled in medieval days by wild creatures (bears, wolves, lynx) and wild weather. Winter snows shut down trade routes over the mountains each year. Avalanches and floods were constant dangers. Bandits plied the roads, often targeting pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.
In those days, the mountain communities of the Pyrenees were governed by groups of “vecinos,” households that were independent of noble and royal oversight. They shared water, meadows, rights-of-way, and other resources. The leading families of these valleys kept records of their activities and business transactions. And their existence depended on livestock, especially sheep, that they herded to grazing meadows in the mountains each summer and took to lower altitudes in winter.
To defend their flocks, the shepherds of the Pyrenees developed skills and resourcefulness beyond those of any ordinary shepherd. For example, they bred a special type of guard dog, the great Pyrenees. The dogs wore spiked iron collars and had one job: to protect the flocks from bears and wolves.
I learned that merino wool was the jewel of Spain’s economy for hundreds of years. In fact, removing merino sheep from Spain was such a serious offense that for a time the official punishment was death. Merino wool had displaced English wool for Europeans in the 1500s (partially because of the Hundred Years War between England and France). The Aragònese took advantage of this by hauling it over the Pyrenees on the backs of mules and selling it in market towns all along the pilgrimage routes.
|Nay, France. Home of Pedro Sacaze, a wealthy wool merchant of the 1500s.|
When we visited the medieval town
of Nay across the Pyrenees in France, I got to explore the home of an Aragònese
merchant, Pedro Sacaze, who got rich off his wool and fabric business and was
able to buy himself a noble title and a couple of monasteries with the
proceeds. (For those who have read The
Girl from Oto—yes, he was the inspiration for Carlo Sacazar.)
All of these elements added complexity and excitement to the story that was blossoming in my mind. I realized merino wool could tie together the characters in my story. The drama and power struggles that were byproducts of the wool trade would add richness to the tale and anchor it in a fascinating historical backdrop. As my original idea for one novel expanded into the Miramonde Series, my research on the wool trade guided many of the plot twists and gave me some of my best ideas.
When I first decided to write these books, I was driven by a desire to shine light on women artists who fell through the cracks of art history. I never dreamed that something as humble as wool would be the source of so much inspiration, too. That’s what I love about travel—it sparks my creativity like nothing else. I can’t wait to find out what history has in store for me on my next adventure.
The Girl from Oto
A Renaissance-era woman artist and an American scholar. Linked by a 500-year-old mystery…
The secrets of the past are irresistible—and dangerous.
1500: Born during a time wracked by war and plague, Renaissance-era artist Mira grows up in a Pyrenees convent believing she is an orphan. When tragedy strikes, Mira learns the devastating truth about her own origins. But does she have the strength to face those who would destroy her?
2015: Centuries later, art scholar Zari unearths traces of a mysterious young woman named Mira in two 16th-century portraits. Obsessed, Zari tracks Mira through the great cities of Europe to the pilgrim’s route of Camino de Santiago—and is stunned by what she finds. Will her discovery be enough to bring Mira’s story to life?
A powerful story and an intriguing mystery, The Girl from Oto is an unforgettable novel of obsession, passion, and human resilience.
Castle Oto, Aragón
Like the breath of an angry god, the wind streamed over the mountains from the north and slammed into the castle. The balcony shutters bucked and heaved, straining against the iron latches that held them in place. To Elena’s ears, the sound was the hollow clacking of bones.
Wind goes where it wants, she thought, finding the source of a draft with her fingertips. She closed her eyes and imagined herself in the forest, where brittle leaves swirled in unruly flocks and golden-eyed owls blinked in the high branches of oaks.
A faint moan rose from across the room.
Elena straightened up, squared her shoulders. The sooner they got on with it, the sooner she could escape these walls. She rolled up a small woolen rug and wedged it against the base of the shutters, muffling the rattle. Then she padded across the thick Moorish rugs to the great bed and pulled aside the drapes.
The young woman lay curled on her side. In the candlelight, it was difficult to pick out details, but Elena had dressed and undressed this body so many times that she did not need the aid of the sun to understand the predicament. The woman—still a girl, really—was built like a snow finch. Her belly was far too large for her bony frame. For months, Elena had traced its bulbous arc with her fingertips, measuring the swell of it, prodding the taut skin. The likely explanation was not a giant, but twins, and for a first birth that often meant catastrophe.
She dipped a cloth into a copper pot of water that sat on the floor by the bed. With practiced movements she bathed the woman’s pale limbs, smoothed back her tangled hair, massaged lavender oil into her skin.
“My lady, the baby can’t wait any longer.”
She raised her voice. “Lady Marguerite! There’s more yet to do. Rouse yourself!”
Pick up your copy of The Girl from Oto
Amy Maroney lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family. She studied English literature at Boston University and public policy at Portland State University, and spent many years as a writer and editor of nonfiction before turning her hand to historical fiction. She’s currently obsessed with pursuing forgotten women artists through the shadows of history. When she’s not diving down research rabbit holes, she enjoys hiking, drawing, dancing, traveling, and reading. She’s the author of The Girl from Oto and Mira’s Way, the first two books in the Miramonde Series. The third book in the series will be published later in 2019. To receive a free prequel novella to the series, join Amy’s readers’ group at www.amymaroney.com. You can find her on Twitter @wilaroney, on Instagram @amymaroneywrites, and on Facebook.