A Renaissance-era woman artist and an American scholar. Linked by a 500-year-old mystery…
The secrets of the past are irresistible—and treacherous.
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.
In The Girl from Oto, a baby is born into a cruel and violent noble family; her mother names her Miramonde, ‘one who sees the world.’ Raised in a convent, Mira becomes an extraordinary artist—never dreaming she will one day fulfill the promise of her name.
Mira’s modern-day counterpart, Zari Durrell, is a young American scholar doing research in Europe who discovers traces of a mysterious woman artist in several sixteenth-century paintings. Soon she’s charting a path through history to Mira herself—but the art world ignores her findings, dazzled by a rival academic’s claim that the portraits were in fact made by a famous male artist.
I never set out to write this story when I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime a decade ago. In fact, I was writing an entirely different novel at the time—a pharmaceutical thriller I call The Sunscreen Caper—which is now tucked away, gathering dust.
But during travels with my family in Europe all those years ago, I struggled to make centuries-old portraits by Old Masters relevant to our two young daughters. I wished there were women painters to serve as examples for them. Then I was lucky enough to visit Oxford University.
|Caterina van Hemessen|
At Magdalen College, I stumbled across a sixteenth-century portrait of a woman that was attributed to a female artist, Caterina Van Hemessen. After visiting museums full of Renaissance-era portraits and learning about art history as a college student, I had somehow never heard of female Old Masters. But now, before my own eyes, was evidence that there were women painters in those days.
Around the same time, a friend saw 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s work in a Paris museum and gave me some information about her. I was hooked. I soon learned that because women’s work wasn’t valued, their paintings were often attributed to men or kept anonymous. I became obsessed with the lost stories of these women artists—and I resolved to write a novel on the topic.
|Artemisia Gentileschi painting.|
Visiting the Pyrenees soon after seeing the portrait at Oxford, I found my setting and my heroine. Our family stayed in a restored medieval tower on the edge of Ordesa National Park in Aragon, Spain, and I knew this was where Miramonde de Oto’s story would begin.
As I dove into research, I got seriously obsessed with the medieval wool trade in Spain; the wealth created in Toulouse by the blue dye made from the humble woad plant; the independent communities of the Pyrenees, which self-governed during the era of feudal societies; and the clash of paganism and Catholicism in those mountains.
|Ordesa National Park photo by Gustavo Naharro.|
Winding their way through this history were the pilgrims who journeyed along the Camino de Santiago to Compostela despite all the dangers. And then there were Basque fishing and whaling traditions and the mysterious people known as the Cagots. My original idea for one novel expanded into a trilogy as I developed my plot and characters.
As I studied forgotten women artists and their work, I developed a fascination with the field of art conservation. Using X-rays and other tools, researchers can now see under the layers of paint in a portrait, determine the age of a wooden panel, and more. We used to rely solely on the ‘eye’ of an art expert to determine who actually painted a portrait. But today, science can debunk the opinion of an expert and reveal secrets within paintings.
For me, this knowledge made a dual narrative critical to the story. I wanted a modern-day female historian, an outsider in both the academic and art worlds, to discover a hidden female artist using these high-tech research methods. I read a lot and relied on the expertise of art conservation professionals who gave generously of their time and resources to help me. Still, each time I sat down to write about modern heroine Zari Durrell’s efforts, I felt like was studying for a college exam. I would pore over the technical material and then, over painstaking hours, translate it into a compelling scene.
Since The Girl from Oto was published in 2016, more women artists of the past have been rediscovered, their work studied and promoted by academics and historians. Their work is fetching higher and higher prices at auction. Museums are dusting off women’s paintings that have been hidden away in basements and attics for far too long, giving them space on their walls and even the occasional exhibition. Finally, these forgotten women are getting the recognition they deserve.
It’s incredibly gratifying to know that the Miramonde Series has played a role in amplifying the work and lives of these talented artists. I get chills thinking of all the other women artists languishing in the shadows of history, waiting for people like Zari Durrell to shine a light on them and their work.
Thanks so much for hosting me today, Mary Anne!ReplyDelete
Such an interesting post, thank you for sharing.ReplyDelete