Book Review/Interview: Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power by Laura Amazzone

In a few days is the September new moon (Wednesday the 20th) and the beginning of the annual fall festival in India and Nepal of Navaratri or called Durga Puja.

In honor of this transformative celebration I share and recommend a great companion guide to read throughout the festivities or anytime, Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power by Laura Amazzone. The book transports you into the heart of the sacred feminine and Durga Puja, the largest modern day commemoration to the Divine Mother on the planet with roots that reach back 5000 years. Through vivid storytelling Amazzone shares with us how people come together during this time of year “to celebrate the ancient mysteries of life, death and rebirth on the personal, social and cosmic level.”

by Laura Amazzone Navaratri Nepal 2016

Divided into three sets of three days and nights, the festival is dedicated to different aspects of Durga, of Goddess: MahaKali, MahaLakshmi, and MahaSaraswati. All faces of Goddess in their “Great” forms of which Amazzone elucidates on, to helps us understand the inner workings of how the dedicated days of specific goddess worship are guides to assist one on our path to inner balance and liberation. She explains how this yearly event focuses on honoring the cyclical nature of existence and how it promotes empowerment and freedom of the individual and universal. In addition, she goes into depth about various aspects of Goddess, as Kumari, the Navadurgas and more, plus the practices and rituals of renewal and regeneration fundamental to Navaratri.

Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power is a profound introduction and exploration of Durga and goddess traditions of the Kaula, Shakta and Tantric cultures in Nepal and India. Plus, the healing and power to be found and accessed within these ancient sophisticated traditions.

Through scholarship and personal accounts Amazzone allows the reader to enter into the world of female-centered deity worship and reverence. The Devi Mahathyma is the sacred text of Navaratri, which the author narrates important key parts of this ancient mythology, where Durga is central. Through the writer’s life experiences and struggles and study of the this important manual she shares with us its relevancy to our lives today. She also reveals wisdom and guidance found in this fifth century seminal work, also known by the names of Chandi Path and Durga Saptasati, of which offers us a divine feminine path to realize one’s divinity and be in the world where female power is honored and revered.

by Laura Amazzone Navarati Nepal 2016

The first part of Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power gives one a framework and understanding as what is nondual Tantra and Goddess and Her place and power in our lives and cosmos. The later, follows day by day the unfoldment of the nine night festival through Amazzone’s daily pilgrimage experiences, recountings rich in tradition details and insights. She also exposes how forms and structures of ongoing patriarchy have not served, nor are positively providing for the health and equlimbrium of the world and people today.

Throughout the book she shares encouraging and inspiring examples from her own life of how these spiritual pathways have assisted her in overcoming and meeting head on life traumas. Thus, allowing the reader to viscerally enter and begin to understand the healing and life-empowerment to be accessed through female-centered deity practices, ones that uphold female sacredness and the importance of female power.

Amazzone’s writing is the heart-soul of Devi, well-researched and experienced. One feels as if you too are on pilgrimage in Nepal or India kneeling and offering flowers at the feet of Goddess.

Blessed, Laura Amazzone was open to interview to share with us a bit more about the book, her relationship to Durga and the Chandi Path, and how these ancient teachings are vital to our lives today…

Stephanie Renee dos Santos:  What moment or pivotal situation prompted you to write Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power?

Laura Amazzone:  There was actually no one pivotal moment. Since I was 6 years old I knew I was going to write a book (and hopefully books). Spirituality and women’s rights and studies have been a central issue and passion in my life for as long as I can remember. I have continuously been guided on this path and there have been many synchronicities and divine displays that led me to writing and finally publishing the book in 2010. On a practical level, Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power evolved out of a Master’s Thesis for the California Institute of Integral Philosophy and was, in part, going to become a dissertation until I decided I did not want to go the route of academia. I was actually told by an adviser at one of the PhD programs I interviewed at that I would have to cut off the mystic/Yogini/devotee in myself to be taken “seriously”—and that one of the professors there had “had no interest in my feminist and subaltern perspective!” (My story about how I came to the subject for my thesis is in the book). At this time (early 2000s) I was working very closely with a Kaula Odiyya (Shaman) and author, Amarananda Bhairavan. At a certain point, he said to me, “No more new sadhanas or mantras for you. Your sadhana and dharma is to write this book on Durga.” He actually wanted me to include more of my personal story. While I did include some key stories, I left a lot of those mystical experiences out because I wanted to honor the researcher in me and really ground the work not only in experience, but also in looking at the historical, social, cultural and religious context. So there is a whole other book waiting to eventually come out on this subject.  Other mentors and teachers like author Linda Johnsen, who read a draft of my thesis, told me it was my dharma to publish it as a book. Shaman, Author, Co-creator of Motherpeace Tarot, Vicki Noble was a huge teacher and supporter as was author Elinor Gadon, and many other Feminist Spirituality foremothers. Alice Walker was another powerful mentor who personally encouraged me to write this book on Durga while I was working as her executive assistant for several years. It was not a matter of if I would write a book on Durga, but when and how much to include.

SRDS:  How did you learn that you were a “Daughter of Durga”?

LA:  When I first met the Kumari in 1998 I recognized something in Her that was very familiar. Being in the Kathmandu Valley I felt like I had come home and I did not want to leave this young living Goddess. I could not rationally explain it but receiving Her darshan changed me forever. I actually stood in Her temple courtyard and made a vow to dedicate my life to Her even though I did not really know who She was in that form! When I started researching the Kumari and learned about the Durga Myth I knew I had a very deep connection to this Goddess—in many ways the myth was describing my personal story and also affirmed much of what I was observing in my own culture—all the ignorance, greed, abuse of power, violence, destruction, misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.  The next time I returned to Nepal (in 2000) for the Durga Puja, every where I went Sadhus, Pujaris, Yogins, Matas would “randomly” tell me I was becoming Durga, or that I was Durga. I did not even really know fully who Durga was at this time and found it strange, how could I be Durga? What did that mean? I remember being at the burning ghats in Pashupatinath and sitting with the Milk Baba there. He said to me, “I see Durga all over your face, you are becoming Durga.” Honestly I was uncomfortable hearing this as I was not sure what to do with it. I started looking into what it meant within the Shakta Tantra context to be Durga, what it meant to have an Ishta Devata (a personal deity), and discovered how each of us ultimately is a “daughter” or “son” or we could say, embodiment of these different expressions of Consciousness. I am not unique, we all have Durga’s Consciousness within us—whether or not we connect to it or know Her in this or Her myriad other expressions.  I believe it came out so strongly in me because I have a strong dharma to embody Her and share this ancient and very necessary wisdom for these times.

Also, a couple years later after much study, practice, and devotion, Amarananda gave me the spiritual name, Ambika (a name for Durga). I actually have many different stories of how I realized the depth of my connection to Her and over lifetimes. There has been a sort of mandala of experiences and reflections that have led me into my center and showed me my place within this existence.

SRDS:  When and how did you first start working with Chandi Path?

LA:  During the Durga Puja in 2000 in Nepal, I was given a copy of the Chandi Path from a Tantric practitioner. When I returned to San Francisco I showed it to my professor, Dr. Jim Ryan, who is the Director of the Asian Comparative Studies program. He told me this was a very rare copy of this text—that I may be one of the only people in the States to have this and that I needed to study it and perhaps even write my thesis on the Devi Mahatmyam! Again I got the message that Durga was calling me and I needed to write about Her story. I started comparing this text with other translations of the Chandi Path/Devi Mahatymam. It became part of my daily practice with Amarananda and he told me I would eventually teach it. Like with the book and all the synchronicities that came for me to write it, many of my primary teachers have told me I needed to TEACH the Chandi for years. It has been a constant thread—so every time I would doubt or feel overwhelmed by the thought of teaching this epic Sanskrit text, another synchronicity would happen pointing me back to my sadhana so I could embody the teachings and eventually share what I have learned and experienced. Several years ago my Yogini teacher told me it was time for me to teach Chandi and create kulas around it. So that is my current seva!

SRDS:  What makes Durga’s teachings crucial to our lives today?

LA:  Now more than ever we need Durga Maa. At the end of Her myth Durga tells us to call on Her should we ever be in distress. Her myth and ritual festival is an opportunity to understand the cyclical natural of reality, and that the demons and instability in the world is actually created from our own ignorance and greed. Doing Durga practice, (chanting Her mantra, reading and reciting Her myth) during the Kali Yuga, a time of deterioration, destruction and decay, is one of the most effective ways to alleviate suffering both personally and in the world. In the midst of so much political instability and the climate crisis, we need to call on Durga to bring inner calm and harmony amidst all the chaos and destruction.

Thank you so much Laura for bringing the world this book on female sacredness and Goddess Durga, a goddess whose known by many names, one being “Hard to Access”, for which Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power makes it easier to begin to do so.

For anyone interested or drawn to learn about feminine voices and paths within yoga, just starting out or the experienced, this is a vital, must read. Be embraced and know the love of Maa in all her forms. Jai Maa! Jai Durga! Thanks again, Laura!

Laura Amazzone, M.A. is a teacher, writer, intuitive healer, Yogini and initiated priestess in the Shakta Tantra and Sri Vidya traditions of India and Nepal. She is the author of the award-winning book, Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power. She has published numerous articles within the fields of Hinduism, Tantra and Women’s Spirituality in many different encyclopedias, anthologies, journals and also online publications. Laura teaches in the Yoga Philosophy Program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Many of Laura’s teachings and rituals are offered in private settings, on a 1 to 1 basis and out of her home (or via Zoom/Skype). She offers a diverse array of authentic and undiluted lineage-based rituals, teachings and spiritual practices as well as pilgrimages to Nepal that promote spiritual empowerment and divine embodiment.

To learn more about Laura and her offerings visit:

To purchase book: Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power

Join Laura for “Nine Nights of the Divine Mother” of daily online practice, community, and teachings to participate and celebrate this 2017 Durga Puja!


Book Review/Interview: The Kaulajnananiranaya with Stella Dupuis

Happy International Yoga Day 2017! This year I’m sharing this important yogic text book review and interview in honor and celebration of this international event. Through studying the Yoginis and Yogini Temples of India I was introduced to the tantric text The Kaulajñananirnaya, “Discussion of the Knowledge Pertaining to the Kaula Tradition”, and to one of its modern-day collaborative English translators/editors Stella Dupuis. Dupuis is a longtime practitioner of yoga, a Yogini and novelist. Through her own studies of the Yogini traditions in India and serendipitous events, she discovered a copy of this text in Kathmandu at the Nepalese-German Manuscript Cataloguing Project in the Nepalese National Archives.

Photo of palm leaves of the ancient Newari text

The text was preserved on palm leaves in old Newari writing. Back in India while retrieving photo prints of the manuscript, as luck would have it, she encountered Pandit Mukhopadhyaya, one of the very few persons on the planet who could decipher the ancient script. Working together, Pandit Mukhopadhyaya and Dupuis translated this important yogic text into English and then later into Spanish. It first came into modern print in 2012.

Spanish translation

The Kaulajñananirnaya is accredited to have been written by Matsyendranatha “Lord of the Fish”, an early 10th century yogi saint considered a realized Siddha. Whom, one of India’s most famous philosophers and tantric scholars of the 10th century, Abhinavagupta, named him the “Father of Yoga”. Because Matsyendranatha shared teachings to realize an objective of Yoga — the state of non-duality. Through this text the core of the traditions of the Yoginis were introduced to the world in written print whereas in the past they’d been in existence as an oral tradition. Legend says that Matsyendranatha went to Kamarupa (“Place of the Senses”, and today often known by the name Kamakhya Temple in Assam, India) and with the assistance of the Yoginis there, he integrated these teachings into his daily life. Within the text it is explained that it was the kuala, the clan of Yoginis, who assisted Matsyendranatha in embodying the teachings that were revealed to him by Shiva in conversation with Parvati. As the story goes, he overheard the teaching exchange between goddess and god after he’d been cast into the sea by his parents because he was born under inauspicious signs, and while in the belly of a fish, under the sea and the sub-aquatic island of Chandradvipa (Island of the Moon), the mythical island exemplifying the state of transcendence, he received the grace to come to know these teachings. After reading this text numerous times and visiting Yogini Temples in India and coming to understand this tradition and history more, I think it is fair to say that the Yoginis can be considered “Mothers of Yoga” and also the forebears of the Hatha Yoga tradition, along with Matsyendranatha. 

The teachings of the The Kaulajñananirnaya empower women and men to develop their own yogic capacities in order to meet the challenges of everyday life and the state of innate wholeness and bliss.Through this interview with Stella Dupuis we learn more about this key yogic text and she offers ways to pursue this path to liberation. 

SRDS: What do you consider the most important teachings and passages within “The Kaulajnananiranaya”?

SD: The Kaulajñananirnaya embodies the essence of the spiritual current of the Tantra that became important in India from the 7th century and peaked around the 10th century.

The main goal of Tantra is to experience the state of non-duality. In order to understand this basic principle, The Kaulajñananirnaya makes no differences among human beings and anything else that is manifested.  In ancient and in modern India, the cast system of cast gives society and traditional religions (Hinduism) a rigid structure. The knowledge of emancipation, the attainment of Nirvana can only be achieve by Brahmin men, as often women were/are seen as a second class human and the lower cast as pariahs.

In the Kaulajñananirnaya, the knowledge is given to a lower cast, a fisherman, Macchaghna (colloquial variant of the Sanskrit Matsyaghna which means ‘killer of fish’). This is stated in every colophon (the final verse that gives the essence of the chapter) that it is the knowledge of the Yoginis was transmitted through a fisherman. Also the Yoginis appeared as teachers but these teachers are beyond gender. In the text there are female and male teachers. (Chapter VIII)

SRDS: How can everyday yoga practitioners today incorporate these teachings into one’s life?

SD: One important start point is to be beyond the preconceived ideas and judgement given by our social background. To transcend this it is important to refine our perception to see in everyone and everything the essence of the divine. Intellectually understanding is a first step but spiritual techniques are crucial.

The main difference between the traditional spiritual and the tantric paths is that in the tantric the senses are not rejected but used in order to refine them.

SRDS: Which specific practices do you suggest?                   

SD: The Kualajñananirnaya is an esoteric teaching that needs personal guidance. As it is not a manual, it does not explain step by step the practices but describes the delicate process that the senses go through during the practices. Such practices include:  mantra, chakras, yoga nidras, visualizations, meditations, practices of the siddhis, etc.

Yogini Temple India

SRDS: Can practices be conducted on one’s own or should they be taught by a teacher or guru?    

SD: The most important is the desire to attain non-duality and to continue to do the spiritual practices of ones own tradition. If we have an open mind and a mind that is settled (through daily spiritual practices), reading spiritual texts can have an influence in the more subtle levels of ourselves. The sculptures in the Yogini Temples complement the teachings found in the Kaulajñananirnaya.

SRDS: What makes these teachings relevant to our lives today?   

SD: When we stimulate the perception we empower our performance in daily life as we see more than before, we listen better than before, etc. As our intuition expands we become more alert, we empower ourselves. “Intuition and presence” will make life fun and heighten our daily experience. And we may perceive the essence of the divine in everything.

SRDS: What other resources do you suggest people pursue to follow the path of the Yoginis?                

SD: Everything that helps us to go beyond preconceived ideas is a great step towards non-duality. The path of Tantra is not a path of renouncement of material things, but values the non-attachment to ideas of what is good and right. Then we may understand that opposite values are complementary. That nothing is either bad or god “per se”…

Bhedghat Yogini Temple India

SRDS: What teachings from this text have you personally found most helpful and relevant to your life?                                                      

SD: Everything! I love the way the text shakes away ancient paradigms. I love the playfulness and beauty of the verses. I enjoy finding the pieces of the mysterious puzzle that is created while comparing the esoteric verses of the Kualajñanirnaya with the iconography, architecture and sacredness of the Yogini Temples.

SRDS: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?  

SD: Read the Kaulajñananirnaya without the intention of rationally understanding everything. Let the text flow in you. And if you can, visit the Yogini Temples, contemplate each Yogini, identify yourself with them… You may start to experience the non-duality. For me it has been “a divine gift” to have had the opportunity to help in the translation of the Kaulajñananirnaya in to English and Spanish.

Stella Dupuis, is a Swiss-American novelist born in Panama. Dupuis is an inveterate traveler and observer of different cultures and lifestyles. For more than ten years she traveled to remote sites and tribal areas in India and other countries in South Asia while studying the Yogini traditions. Through books, lectures and video clips she shares her researches, love and passion for lesser-known ancient spiritual paths.

She has published several works in Spanish, English and French: “Memoria de viento”,  “From Cuba to Tibet”, “La Puerta de Jade”, “Teli Ka Mandir”, “The Yogini Temples of India”, “Templos de Yoginis en la India, leyendas y misterios” “In the Belly of The Fish”, “The Kaulajñanirnaya” (Translation into Spanish and English) “The Yoginis’ Oracle” and currently she is the editor and collaborator of the book “Across Female Realms”.

For more about Stella Dupuis and her works:  and

2017 Historical Novel Society Writers’ Conference & Looking for Stories in Art

book collage 2

The 2017 Historical Novel Society Writers’ Conference in Portland, Oregon in the United States is less than two months away. It is a reunion of writers and those from the book industry who come together from all parts of the world to exchange on the genre of historical fiction. Every other year the conference takes place in the United States, the other year in a haunt of England.

2017 Art panel group

Laura Morelli, Kris Waldherr © Robert Presutti, Yves Fey, Stephanie Renee dos Santos

In year’s past, I and a group of authors have presented panel-discussions sharing the ins and outs and tips for writing art-based historical fiction. This year Laura Morelli, Kris Waldherr, Yves Fey and I will be talking on  “Looking for Stories in Art. The niche of art in historical novels is one that continues to flourish and interest readers for the lives of artists and art are as colorful as the painter’s palette. Join us on Saturday, June 24 from 1:15 – 2:15 pm at the Galleria South and be a part of this interactive conversation.

I can attest to this from organizing a review series in 2014 for the Historical Novel Society called “Art in Historical Fiction Interview Series”. Today I have a bookshelf full of recent releases of art-inspired titles waiting to be read.

At this year’s conference I will be offering again a free “Yoga for Writers” session. Bring your yoga mat or towel and join us! To open the shoulders, neck, hips, legs and lower back after long months of writing. More information on the time and place of practice will be available at the conference. See you there, books and mat in hand!

Book Review: Śāktapramodaḥ of Deva Nandan Singh, edited by Madhu Khanna

color-saktapramodahToday, more than ever, empowering Sakta teachings are relevant and needed, as we seek ways to transform ourselves in order to meet the challenges of our day. The Śāktapramodaḥ of Deva Nandan Singh, edited by Madhu Khanna, is one such ancient text that has guiding goddess wisdom applicable to the now. Khanna, a distinguished scholar of Indic Religion, who earned her PhD from Oxford University in Hindu Sakta Tantra is the author of multiple important books and academic papers that provide access to yoga practitioners into the heart of tantric teachings. Her PhD dissertation, The Concept and Liturgy of the Sricakra Based on Sivananda’s Trilogy (Oxford University, 1986), was one of the first contemporary comprehensive examinations of the Srikula lineage of Sakta worship.

Her latest release, the Śāktapramodaḥ of Deva Nandan Singh, is an edited compendium of sixteen tantric ritual manuals in Sanskrit, covering ten texts on the Mahavidhyas, the Kumari Tantra, and the five Tantras of the Five Gods called the Pancayatana.

The book opens with a 97 page introduction written in English which provides the text’s historical background, elucidates its subject matter, and offers details on applied practices.

The first edition of the Śāktapramodaḥ, which translates as “Joy of Goddess Worshipers”, was published in 1891, followed by a second edition in 1894, and now Khanna’s 2013 edition. The initial edition was a work compiled by Raja Deva Nandan Singh Bahadur, an aristocratic zamindar, who had amassed a significant collection of Sakta texts. His motivation for the creating the Śāktapramodaḥ was to re-invigorate Kali worship in his region in India, to counter fraudulent Sakta teachers of his time, and for the benefit of Sakta worshipers to have what we’d call today a “go-to” manual for reference and practices.

The Śāktapramodaḥ of Deva Nandan Singh  edited by Madhu Khanna is an authoritative portal into the origins and worship of the Dasha Mahavidyas (Ten Goddesses of Transformation), a collective of deities: Kali, Tara, Sodasi, Bhuvanesvari, Chinnamasta, Tripurabhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi and Kamala. In English, each goddess is address one-by-one, exploring the historical cultural roots, unique traits, and interrelationships between the goddesses, along with specific ways to worship. Khanna’s presentation of the Mahavidhyas is riveting and in depth. Plus, she references her source texts, empowering each of us to seek further should one like to do so.

In addition, Khanna clearly explains the step-by-step process of the Devi Puja “goddess worship”, presenting the different stages and the sequence of practices that were derived from authoritative tantra ritual manuals. Include are the ten parts of worship: (1) dhyana of the deity; (2) yantra; (3) mantra; (4) puja-vidhi; (5) stotra; (6) kavaca; (7) hrhaya; (8) upanisad; (9) satanama/astakam; and (10) sahasranama. This is extremely helpful and useful for those who are curious and would like to pursue practice of this pathway towards moksha,  liberation.

Khanna goes on to introduce the reader to the ongoing ancient practice of the Kumari Tantra, devotion to a living virgin child who embodies Sakti, a tantra which abolishes all distinctions and barriers of class and caste.

Thereafter, Khanna covers the Tantras of the Five Gods called the Pancayatana, with an exploration of this grouping of five deities: Durga, Siva, Ganesa, Surya and Visnu. The tantras of this collection are organized with Durga coming first, i.e., in the most prominent position, reflecting the Sakta influence of the supremacy of Goddess.

Khanna concludes the introduction with an explanation of the mode of worship of the five Pancayatana Tantras which exposes how the dominate Smarta tradition incorporated aspects of tantric practice into its worship. Thus, Khanna challenges the popular assertion that tantric practices were peripheral forms of worship and in opposition to the mainstream religious beliefs of India. We can understand, through Khanna’s explanation, that this isn’t the case, that in fact, there was an intermingling of the two. There is still an enormous corpus of Sakta texts yet to be thoroughly examined and Khanna encourages continued research.

The book’s cover depicts an exquisite Mahavidya painting in the Mithila style painted by Bhattoji Jha. This book is a must have text for those interested in or studying and practicing with the Mahavidyas and wanting to learn about the Kumari Tantra. This is an inspiring read and will become an important reference text for those who wish to explore these transformative tantric teachings. And for those who read Sanskrit, it will be a treasure trove of practice and wisdom. I highly recommend that this book become part of your permanent library.

The Śāktapramodaḥ of Deva Nandan Singh, edited by Madhu Khanna, can be purchased from Amazon or is available from DK Printworld. Hardback, 728 pages.

To Buy:  The Śāktapramodaḥ of Deva Nandan Singh, edited by Madhu Khanna

Words to describe this book: authoritative, clear, concise, riveting, in depth, inspiring.

madhu-khannaMadhu Khanna is founder and director of the Tantra Foundation in New Delhi, India. Her other publications: The Tantric Way (1977) co-authored with Ajit Mookerjee; Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity (1994); The Cosmic Order (2004);  Asian Perspectives on the World’s Religions After September 11 edited with Arvind Sharma, (2013); forthcoming publication The Sricakra as Tripurasundari, History, Symbol and Ritual.


Cut From The Earth Book Trailer: In Memory of All Saints’ Day 1755

Happy All Saints’ Day 2015! And heartfelt remembrances and blessings to all those who were lost on this historic day of November 1, 1755 in Lisbon, Portugal to “The Great Lisbon Earthquake”. In memory of the 1755 events, I share with you the book trailer for my upcoming historical novel Cut From The Earth. The book celebrates Lisbon and her artists, illumines their struggles and artistic achievements prior to the All Saints’ Day disasters, takes you into the abyss of the tragic events, and reveals the resurrection of “The Queen of the Seas”.

revised for Mary

Click here to view book trailer

Note: Cut From The Earth is in the final stages of rewriting before being sent to interested agents. Please hold tight readers! As many of you know, novel writing and publishing is a long process…



Love of Art in Historical Fiction Series featuring Laura Morelli & The Gondola Maker

Gondola Maker with seal small 1 mbThe Gondola Maker by Laura Morelli is a finely crafted novel like the Renaissance Venice, Italy gondolas the story features. The book celebrates and explores the tradition of boat making, painting, social classes, and bonds of family and craft. When disasters befall the Vianello boat makers, Luca Vianello, the heir to a renowned gondola-making shop believes his destiny lies elsewhere. He takes to the streets looking for a way to survive and lands in the trade of gondola oarsmen. His luck takes a turn for calmer waters when he finds work as a private boatman to a renowned local painter Trevisan. Here, unexpectedly, Luca discovers his family’s legacy and his hearts calling while falling in love with a girl far from his social station and reality. And in time, he uncovers a dark and disturbing perversion of the powerful and learns the hard way what the costs are for blindly interfering with a deviant’s plan.

Through Luca we delve deeply into the Venetian Republic and the history of  gondola making — its fascinating detailed process and history. Learning why gondolas are black, why they were burned, and the strict code of gondoliers and their secret language used to maneuver the vessels through the endless canals of the water-bound city. The story flows like a perfectly crafted vessel. Morelli brings us the heart and soul of beloved Venice , the insider’s tale of its boat making traditions, the culture that rowed them, and the patrons that paid them. This novel stands out for the superb writing and the intimate details of how gondolas were built in the sixteenth-century and before, along with their accessories. Through the compelling and sympathetic protagonist, Luca, we live Venice through its rich arts and crafts and endless intrigues and waterways.

Stephanie Renee dos Santos: Is the antagonist, His Eminence Councillor, and the novel’s painter, Trevisan, story lines based on real historical characters?

Laura Morelli:  The artist in the story (Trevisan) is not an actual historical figure. However, I did model him on a variety of Venetian artists of the time period such as Titian.

Neither is the antagonist (His Eminence) a real historical figure, but he is modeled on a member of the Council of Ten, the notoriously secretive governmental branch of the Venetian Republic. Part of their job was keeping the peace and thwarting corruption, so they weren’t too fond of boatmen!

SRDS:  What compelled you to include art and artist in your historical novel?

LM:  I am traditionally trained as an art historian, and studied the great artists of the past: Michelangelo, da Vinci, and many others. However, once I realized the importance of living artisanal traditions within Italian culture, I was riveted; I wanted to know everything! It was the beginning of a journey that would take me from the Alps to Palermo, and become an obsession. The contemporary Italian artisans I interviewed, one after another, told me how important it was to them to pass on the torch of tradition to the next generation.

SRDS:  What drew you to your specific visual art medium, artwork, and/or artist?

Venice gondola depositphotosLM:  The story of The Gondola Maker developed while I was working on another book called Made in Italy. The living artisans I interviewed, whether makers of gondolas, carnival masks, or Murano glass, told me how important it was to them to pass on their trade. I began to wonder what would happen if the successor were not able…or willing. The characters of the gondola maker and his son—and their complicated relationship—began to take shape.

SRDS:  What unique historical objects and/or documents inspired the story?

LM:  I have been fortunate to live in Italy and to travel all over the country, but Venice holds a special place in my heart. If you described Venice to someone who had no prior knowledge of it, they might think you were making it up. It’s mind-boggling to think that the entire built environment of Venice–everything from the humblest coffee shop to the grandest church–stands atop thousands of wooden pilings driven into the mud centuries ago. The city has been described as “impossible,” and I think that’s a good way to capture its essence. Perhaps no other object is so synonymous with its place of origin than the Venetian gondola.

SRDS:  Is there an art history message you’ve tried to highlight within the novel?

LM:   Whether in fiction or nonfiction, in my work I try to capture the excitement I felt when I first discovered the history of art. Those of us in academia are trained to write about art in a specialized style. I have the utmost respect for the craft of academic writing as well as those who spend their careers doing it. The down side is that academic writing comes across as dry and dull, full of terminology that is inaccessible to all but those of us who spend many years studying the field. But art history is the most fascinating subject in the world! I try to bring to non-art historians some of the specialized knowledge but also some of that passion that is so inherent to the arts.

SRDS:  What do you think readers can gain by reading stories with art tie-ins?

LM:  Art history is a fantastic subject, but just like any great story, a great art-related story is about the stories and the people behind these great traditions.

SRDS:  What fascinating information did you uncover while researching but were unable to incorporate into the book, but can share here?

Squero San Trovaso Venice istockphotoLM:  Wealthy Venetians owned one or more of their own private gondolas, employed their own boatmen as part of their servant staff to maintain their boats, dock them in private boathouses, and remain at their masters’ disposal to ferry them around the city. Eventually, the gondola became a status symbol much like an expensive car, with custom fittings, elaborately carved and sometimes gilded ornamentation, and seasonal fabrics such as silk and velvet. Even after 1562, when Catholic authorities banned what was seen as sinfully ostentatious ornamentation and decreed that all but ceremonial gondolas be painted black, some wealthy Venetians chose to pay the fines, a small price to keep up appearances.

SRDS:  Any further thoughts on art in fiction you’d like to expand on?

LM:  I have always enjoyed historical fiction, and I love it when an author can bring the past to life through sights, smells, sounds, and sensations. Art a perfect path into sensory writing.

SRDS:  Are you working on a new historical novel with an art tie-in? If so, will you share a little with us about your next release?

LM:  I’m working on two new historical fiction projects right now. One of them continues the story of Venetian artisans. Another one focuses on the fascinating life and subjects of the Italian Renaissance Raphael. So many stories behind the world’s works of art—whether true or imagined—remain to be told!

Laura Morelli author photoAbout the author:  Laura Morelli holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University, where she was a Bass Writing Fellow and Mellon Doctoral Fellow. She authored a column for National Geographic Traveler called “The Genuine Article” and contributes pieces about authentic travel to national magazines and newspapers. Laura has been featured on CNN Radio, Travel Today with Peter Greenberg, The Frommers Travel Show, and in USA TODAY, Departures, House & Garden Magazine, Traditional Home, the Denver Post, Miami Herald, The Chicago Tribune, and other media. She has also written and produced art history lessons for TED-Ed. Laura has taught college-level art history at Trinity College in Rome, as well as at several American universities. Laura is the author of the Authentic Arts guidebook series, and is well-known for her travel series that includes Made in Italy and Made in France. The Gondola Maker, a coming-of-age story about the heir to a gondola boatyard in 16th-century Venice, is her award-winning historical novel.

For more about Laura’s works and to sign up for her newsletter:

To buy: The Gondola Maker

This post concludes our series, profound thanks to all the authors and readers of this series!

For the Love of Art in Historical Fiction!

Interview posting schedule: 

2014: August 30th Susan Vreeland, Lisette’s List (new release), September 27th Anne Girard, Madame Picasso (new release),October 25th Yves Fey, Floats the Dark Shadow, November 29th Mary F. Burns, The Spoils of Avalon (new release), December 27th Kelly Jones, The Woman Who Heard Color 

2015: January 31st Heather Webb, Rodin’s Lover (new release), February 28th Alyson Richman, The Mask Carver’s Son, March 28th Maureen Gibbon, Paris Red (new release), April 11th M.J Rose, The Witch of Painted Sorrows (new release), April 25th Lisa Brukitt, The Memory of Scent, May 30th Lisa Barr, Fugitive Colors, June 27th Nancy Bilyeau, The Tapestry (new release) July 25th Andromeda Romano-Lax, The Detour, August 29th Frederick Andresen,The Lady with an Ostrich Feather Fan, September 26 Laura Morelli, The Gondola Maker

Join Facebook group “Love of Arts in Fiction”!

Love of Art in Historical Fiction Series featuring Frederick Andresen & The Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan

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The Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan:  The Story of the Yusupov Rembrandts by Frederick R. Andresen recounts the inception and life history of two of Rembrandt’s most celebrated masterpieces:  The Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan and Portrait of a Gentleman with Tall Hat and Gloves. The story takes us through the centuries, through country upheavals, and the ongoing responsibility to protect these exquisite portraits by courageous female protagonists charged with seeing to the welfare and care of these important works of art. Historically fascinating, this novel shows us the long enduring struggle great artworks and their caretakers have weathered as well as the demands of familial ties.

The story explores what those in search of gaining or maintaining societal status will suffer in the name of art, family, and personal honor.  They risk their lives to preserve these family treasures, to keep them safe from the threats of revolution, obsessive parties, personal interests, and finally American law — until the paintings find a place to call home.

The book is unique in its scope of recreating the history behind these two important paintings and what they and their family custodians endured through the centuries so that we today are now blessed with the ability to enjoy and view these extraordinary masterpieces.

Stephanie Renee dos Santos:  Will you please tell us about the unique structuring of the novel? Why did you chose this particular format?

Frederick Andresen: The format is dictated by the long, exciting, and sometime perilous journey of these extraordinary paintings. The Rembrandts and their descendant family of caretakers witnessed critical points of history and were threatened by life-changing events. While the time zones of these 282 years and evolving historic places can be divided into six ages, the story still fits into a broadly expressed dramatic three acts. The format is natural as the story is based on actual facts and historic events.

Act 1 Holland:  The life expectation of portraits being painted, the artistic immortalization by Rembrandt, the sudden death of the woman, the ups and downs of the Dutch Golden Age, the paintings’ removal via auction to Paris where the Russian connection occurs as the “Lady” and the “Gentleman” escape the threat of the French Revolution and are taken to “safe” Russia by the famed and rich Yusupov family.

Act 2  Russia:  The Rembrandts and their protecting family ownership over the entire eighteenth century, the dramatic threats from war and domestic uprising and the eventual fall of the Russian Empire, including the murder of the notorious monk, Rasputin, by the controversial Felix Yusupov who then escaped sure death with his jewels and the Rembrandts, to London.

Act 3 The Western Art World:  The future of the Rembrandts at the whim and tactics of possessive art collectors, agents, and a scheming Felix Yusupov, ending in a New York courtroom where the art is possessed by the famous Widener family who finally give the entire collection to the new Mellon museum in Washington, DC., the 1942 wartime opening days of the National Gallery of Art where representatives of the Dutch legation view the art, along with the woman Dutch official who is a direct descendent of the woman in the portrait.

SRDS:  What compelled you to include art and artist in your historical novel?

switchFA:  One afternoon I was in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and I happened to call a friend who asked me if I knew of the Yusupov Rembrandts. I said, “No,” so I went to see these famous portraits. In about an hour I had the start of a story. Why? It was the eyes—the eyes of the lady in Portrait of a Lady with an Ostrich- Feather Fan and her partner in Portrait of a Gentleman with Tall Hat and Gloves. They set me wondering about the message in the eyes of those mysterious characters, especially the eyes of the woman—Rembrandt’s woman.

paintings in new home

Both paintings in their now home The National Gallery in Washington D.C

The driving force was The Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan painting and the story wanting to come out from behind those eyes. When I questioned NGA Curator Arthur Wheelock, Jr., I could see the path for a story was open to explore.

SRDS:  What drew you to your specific visual art medium, artwork, and/or artist?

FA:  Rembrandt! What else! But also the environment of The Golden Age, Holland’s magnificent seventeenth century. And what was to follow in European history and the how the art was protected and guided through that tumultuous time — 282 years until the paintings find their home in the NGA.

SRDS:  What unique historical objects, places and/or documents inspired the story? 


Moika Palace of the Yusupov family in St. Petersburg with the largest art collection in Imperial Russia, including the two portrait Rembrandts, called home in the late 1800s

FA:  The Dutch Golden Age, Czar Peter the Great’s visit to Holland, The French Revolution, the historic Yusupov family, the Russian 19th Century especially in St. Petersburg, The Russian Revolution and fall of the aristocracy, the murder of Rasputin, post war England and America, The Widener family, the founding of the National Gallery of Art by Mellon.

SRDS:  Is there an art history message you’ve tried to highlight within the novel?

FA:  The art history message is that there is so often a history to art, surely unexpected or known to the artist, and often unnoticed by the succeeding owners, museums, etc. And history is filled with that entertaining trick called “unintended consequences.”

SRDS:  What do you think readers can gain by reading stories with art tie-ins?

FA:  The art subject is an innocent character in an unpredictable series of events. In well-written historical fiction, the fiction becomes real, and the history is seen through new eyes.

SRDS:  What fascinating information did you uncover while researching but were unable to incorporate into the book, but can share here?

FA:  Oh, so much. There is the story of the “Seven Rembrandts” and the one about “Coco Chanel and who? Rasputin?” 

It is amazing how things “happen.” As a side event to the Russian Revolution, a deciding one in some people’s minds, was the murder of the mystic Gregori Rasputin by, it was popularly assumed, Prince Felix Yusupov.  In my historical novel The Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan, this short side-story actually took place after that famous murder. But my story here is not about Prince Felix Yusupov or even Rasputin, both of whom figure largely in my book. This is about a happening that resulted from the Yusupov/Rasputin affair—an “unintended consequence” as they say. In researching and writing, many side stories surface, some new and some known.  This is a truthful and fun one.

It involves Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, first cousin of Czar Nicolas II, and who was one of the handful of conspirators, led by Prince Felix Yusupov, who murdered Rasputin in the basement room of the Yusupov Palace on the Moika in Saint Petersburg in December, 1916. Czar Nicholas II sent the murdering conspirators far out of town and Dimitri was sent to a military unit in Persia. In the next year, 1917, it was all over for Czarist Russia and the Grand Duke never returned to his homeland. Like many other fleeing Russians, he ended up in Paris. And who do you think took notice of the aristocrat’s arrival? Coco Chanel. She was eleven years his senior but that didn’t stop either one.

The French perfume business was booming because the scents didn’t last past eleven in the evening. So they bathed in the stuff. (Can you imagine?) However, as I heard the story, Dimitri said to Coco that she should not sell big bottles of perfume for cheap prices, but small bottles for high prices. There is much written about this affair. Dimitri introduced Coco to Ernest Beaux, a successful Russian-born perfumier from St. Petersburg. Beaux’s grandfather was part of the Napoleon invasion of Russia in 1812, was captured by the Russians and upon release, decided to stay there. Ernest Beaux found himself in France after World War 1. His French employer, Rallet, would not follow his suggestions. From his Russian experience, Beaux insisted that the addition of deer musk would make the perfume last the night. On Dimitri’s suggestion, Coco hired Beaux, added deer musk to the eighty-some other ingredients and voilà- we have Chanel No. 5. That was 1920.

The Coco-Dimitri affaire lasted a year and while she moved on to others, the relationship is indeed historic. You may have seen the film “Igor and Coco” about her affair with Stravinsky. It seems she liked Russians—famous Russians. But as an unintended consequence of the murder of Rasputin, our lovely ladies have Chanel No. 5.  Ce qui arrive, arrive.

To read more about all this read Chanel by Edmonde Charles~Roux.

SRDS:  Any further thoughts on art in fiction you’d like to expand on?


Self Portrait by Rembrandt

FA:  “The painting is not over until the viewer walks away.”  I don’t know the source, but it comes out in Act 1, the painting by Rembrandt. This is true and because the viewer, each viewer in fact, may well come away with a different message or feeling, it is story, you can call it fiction. So as art may move to varying cultural environments, the reaction, the message changes.

SRDS:  Are you working on a new historical novel with an art tie-in? If so, will you share a little with us about your next release?

FA:  Oh yes, but let’s first get the present “art in fiction” story published and in the hands of the reader. But, yes, there is a new idea. In The Hermitage is the famed painting by Rembrandt of The Prodigal Son. That parable of Jesus is my favorite—what a story! When one looks deeper into the possible mind of Rembrandt and his last years, this being his last painting, what are the signals in the painting. After long study of the painting, I have a story and one which is universal and eternal. And I plan to set it in early California.  But first, The Lady with the Ostrich Feather Fan will see the light.

Fred's Optimized.1903_new.jpg vs_editedAbout the author: Fred Andresen draws on a lifetime of international adventure and travel. A businessman in Asia, Europe and Russia, he founded his success on understanding the people, their history, and their stories. He lived in Russia for six years and has continued to maintain an interest there for the last twenty years. He writes historical fiction and non-fiction: The Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan: The Story of the Yusupov Rembrandts;  Walking on Ice: An American Businessman in Russia (2007), which details his Russian experience with an “openly Chekhovian” narration, according to Andrei Zolotov, Jr., of Russia Profile;  Dos Gringos (2010) is a true and hilarious account of his Norwegian immigrant father’s escapades in The Mexican Revolution. “A Norwegian and an Irishman meet in a Texas bar…” His essays and short stories have appeared in magazines in Russia, England, and America.

He is a Director of Chamber Orchestra Kremlin and was president of the Los Angeles-   St. Petersburg Sister City Committee. A graduate of Thunderbird School of Global Management and Colorado State University.

A guiding motto of Fred‘s adventures and storytelling is Robert Frost’s “Two roads diverged in a wood, And I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

For more about Fred’s works:

To buy: The Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan: The Story of the Yusupov Rembrandts

Join us here August 26th for an interview with Laura Morelli, author of The Gondola Maker!

Interview posting schedule: 

2014: August 30th Susan Vreeland, Lisette’s List (new release), September 27th Anne Girard, Madame Picasso (new release),October 25th Yves Fey, Floats the Dark Shadow, November 29th Mary F. Burns, The Spoils of Avalon (new release), December 27th Kelly Jones, The Woman Who Heard Color 

2015: January 31st Heather Webb, Rodin’s Lover (new release), February 28th Alyson Richman, The Mask Carver’s Son, March 28th Maureen Gibbon, Paris Red (new release), April 11th M.J Rose, The Witch of Painted Sorrows (new release), April 25th Lisa Brukitt, The Memory of Scent, May 30th Lisa Barr, Fugitive Colors, June 27th Nancy Bilyeau, The Tapestry (new release) July 25th Andromeda Romano-Lax, The Detour, August 29th Frederick Andresen,The Lady with an Ostrich Feather Fan, September 26 Laura Morelli, The Gondola Maker

Join Facebook group “Love of Arts in Fiction”!


Love of Art in Historical Fiction Series featuring Andromeda Romano-Lax & The Detour


The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax is a well-written and time period atmospheric novel. In 1938 Germany, art expert, Ernst Vogler is sent to Italy by the Third Reich’s Sonderprojekte, which is procuring Europe’s masterpieces on orders from the Führer. Vogler is to see to the transport of a famous Classical Roman marble statue, The Discus Thrower, and deliver it from Italy to the German border. It is to be a simple three-day mission.

But things immediately go awry upon his arrival in Rome. Escorted by Italian police twin brothers, Vogler sets out to fulfill his assignment while not being able to really confirm if the sculpture is in their possession as they truck it to the Gestapo. Meanwhile, the brothers seem to have other agendas: the pursuit of romance and suspect criminal side jobs. Vogler loses control of the delivery. As the twins steer the task off-track and onto a detour in which Vogler fears he may lose his work position, the highly sought after work of art, his life. When the whole mission spins out of complete control Volger is forced to find a way to survive and meet totally unexpected challenges; while discovering beauty, charm and love along the back-roads of the Italian countryside on the brink of World War II.

The Detour is full of flowing prose, fascinating observations on art and sculpture, interesting Italian folkloric tradition details, reveals disturbing Nazi policies and values, and closes with a surprising ending.

Be awed and admire artworks of the past and do whatever it takes for a masterpiece to live on…

Stephanie Renee dos Santos:  Where and how did you glean your knowledge about sculpture? As there are many insightful passages about the medium in The Detour that I found exquisite and educational.

Andromeda Romano-Lax:  The original statue was a bronze, now lost, created by Myron in about 450 BC. Many Roman marble copies were made, and one can read here and there about the discoveries and histories of each; I found information online, in footnotes of art books, and in museum guides. But my greatest information came from seeing the statue in person, in Rome. Comments by art historians helped provide a context and helped me appreciate what I had the pleasure of seeing with my own eyes: a figure that is dynamic–about to release the discus–but also static, frozen in that aesthetically pleasing but not exactly realistic posture. (The inherent symbolism of that balance between action and paralysis intrigued me, offering parallels to the lives of Germans in the late 1930s, including my main character.) The discus thrower has a calm expression on his face. The musculature is perfect, and the male figure is generic, blending styles from two eras and speaking to an ideal (noble and impersonal; poised for action but not straining) that resonated greatly with German collectors. Perhaps the best thing about seeing the statue in its current location and visiting the place where it was briefly kept, in Munich, was being able to contrast it more easily with many other ancient statues, illuminating what was particularly special about this one coveted work of art.

SRDS:  What compelled you to include art and artist in your historical novel?

ARL:  I’d already written about classical music as well as more general artistic themes, including the subject of political pressure put upon artists, in my first novel, The Spanish Bow. I wasn’t intentionally looking for a new art subject, but then I happened to see a photo of the Discus Thrower with a footnote explaining that Hitler was obsessed with the ancient marble and succeeded in buying it, against the objections of many, in 1938. I immediately wanted to know: what was so special about this statue? Why did it speak to Hitler, and how could one particular piece of art symbolize Nazi intentions? Through my first novel, I’d discovered many odd connections between the world’s greatest art, politics, and individual obsessions. Looking only at a small photo, I couldn’t tell why this statue would matter so much, but I felt the first tingles of a potentially fascinating exploration.

SRDS:  What drew you to your specific visual art medium, artwork, and/or artist?

Discus Thrower by Romano-Lax with children

The Discus Thrower

ARL:  I love art and music but I had never spent much time looking at statues. All art begs to be seen in person, but a three-dimensional statue is really different in life than a photo of the same piece. I knew from the start I would have to visit this statue in Rome—not a bad “must” to have on one’s to-do list! When I made that trip, in 2009, I loved being able to walk around the piece, seeing it from all angles, appreciating marble’s qualities in natural light, and also seeing it in relation to other statues. When you think of the paintings and statues that are immediately recognizable to many people around the globe, there really aren’t that many. Why does this statue represent the idealized human form; what does it say about beauty, athleticism, perfection, controlled emotions, dynamism without strain, ancient Greece and 20th century Germany? Why did it represent an artistic advance in one era, and an ideological tragedy in another? I wanted to find out.

SRDS:  What unique historical objects and/or documents inspired the story?

ARL:  The Discus Thrower itself, naturally. I also visited the Glyptothek museum in Munich, where the statue was kept prior to repatriation to Italy, and encountered an amazing art collection there, as well as a larger history of German art collecting, which pre-dates Hitler. (The Bavarian King Ludwig I was an avid collector of Roman and Greek art in the 1800s). Well before Hitler, many leaders have tried to acquire and control art and artifacts as a way of linking their nations to previous empires, legitimizing their claims of superiority, and shaping narratives that may encompass ancient myth, Biblical history, philosophy or science. Singular, recognizable works of art are potent symbols.

SRDS:  Is there an art history message you’ve tried to highlight within the novel?

Hitler and The Discobolus original source unknown

Hitler and The Discobolus

ARL:  In this particular story, my main character, Ernst, is obsessed with the idea of the perfect body and the depiction of that perfection in ancient Greco-Roman sculpture. The idea of perfection itself, and the corruption of that idea into hatred of self or others, can be explored on many levels. It’s troubling but irrefutable that art appreciation does not necessarily lead to compassion, morality, or love of mankind. Mussolini played the violin; Hitler was a failed painter; the Nazis as a group were rabid art collectors. Art for me represents one of the most beautiful expressions of humanity, but like everything, it has an extremely dark side. The unethical acquisition of art and the use of art (or destruction of art) for political ends is a key leitmotif in 20th century history.

SRDS:  What do you think readers can gain by reading stories with art tie-ins?

ARL:  Art teaches us something that is more important in a distracted age than ever before: how to slow down, to look. It connects us to timelessness—other people, other places, values both similar to and different from our own time—while inviting us to project our own stories and ideas onto and into the work. That makes it a great subject in fiction, which in its best form, allows us to see the world anew, challenges us to empathize with others, reflects our own experiences, and connects us with something larger.

SRDS:  What fascinating information did you uncover while researching but were unable to incorporate into the book, but can share here?

ARL:  I spent a lot of time learning about the Nazis’ unprecedented, seven-year attempt to collect most of the Western world’s art. That’s a postscript to The Detour, which is set in 1938, so the full story doesn’t make it into the book. But it helped me understand how this first, more innocent art purchase of a single statue foreshadowed a campaign to control art, period. I also enjoyed research digressions into Nazi documentary-making (including the controversial work of Leni Riefenstahl), Greco-Roman ideas about sport and the ideal body, details from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the history of eugenics (including pro-eugenics movements in America) and much more. I have bits of these subjects in the novel, but I had to leave so much out. Everywhere I turned in my reading and research travels across Europe, art, the human body, and politics seemed to be connected.

SRDS:  Any further thoughts on art in fiction you’d like to expand on?

Discus Thrower closeup by Romano-Lax

Discus Thrower closeup

ARL:  Whenever we are in an art or history museum, we get more out of the experience by trying not just to see a physical object in front of us, but by using the object as a gateway into a larger story. It’s an interactive, ongoing process. Really great art novels role model that way of looking for us, by presenting us with vivid, complex stories that bring art to life.

SRDS:  Are you working on a new historical novel with an art tie-in? If so, will you share a little with us about your next release?

ARL:  My next book, BEHAVE, features 1920s psychologists John and Rosalie Watson, so it’s more about science (including the science of parenting) than it is about art. But I’m always on the alert for other art history tie-ins, since I love spending time learning about that world.

AndromedaCU4About the author:  Born in Chicago, Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow, a New York Times Editor’s Choice that was translated into 11 languages, and The Detour, as well as numerous works of nonfiction. She teaches in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Anchorage Alaska and is a co-founder of 49 Writers, a statewide literary organization. Recently, she has divided her time between Alaska, Mexico, and Asia. Her next book, Behave, will be published in 2016.

For more about Andromeda’s works: 

Author website :


To buy: The Detour

Join us here August 29th for an interview with Frederick Andresen, author of The Lady with an Ostrich Feather Fan!

Interview posting schedule: 

2014: August 30th Susan Vreeland, Lisette’s List (new release), September 27th Anne Girard, Madame Picasso (new release),October 25th Yves Fey, Floats the Dark Shadow, November 29th Mary F. Burns, The Spoils of Avalon (new release), December 27th Kelly Jones, The Woman Who Heard Color 

2015: January 31st Heather Webb, Rodin’s Lover (new release), February 28th Alyson Richman, The Mask Carver’s Son, March 28th Maureen Gibbon, Paris Red (new release), April 11th M.J Rose, The Witch of Painted Sorrows (new release), April 25th Lisa Brukitt, The Memory of Scent, May 30th Lisa Barr, Fugitive Colors, June 27th Nancy Bilyeau, The Tapestry (new release) July 25th Andromeda Romano-Lax, The Detour, August 29th Frederick Andresen,The Lady with an Ostrich Feather Fan, September 26 Laura Morelli, The Gondola Maker

Join Facebook group “Love of Arts in Fiction”!


Recap of the 2015 Denver Historical Novel Society Conference panel-talk “Art and Artists in HF”


We love art. We love artists. We love art history. We write about art, artists and history. Art-based historical fiction is an expanding and exciting niche in the historical fiction genre. At this year’s Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver, June 26-28, writers Alana White (The Sign of the Weeping Virgin), Donna Russo Morrin (The King’s Agent), myself Stephanie Renee dos Santos (Cut From The Earth), Mary F. Burns (Portraits of An Artist), and Stephanie Cowell (Claude & Camille) came together to share our collective wisdom on how and what special challenges arise when writing about art and artists and what to keep in mind when delving into the world of the creative arts. A special thanks to the forty writers who attended our discussion. We hope each of you left with something to aid and enhance your stories!

Here’s the recap of the writing points we covered at the panel-talk:

edit Alana White

Alana White:  “Using art to advance the story in action and dialogue.”

In The Sign of the Weeping Virgin the setting of this historical mystery series is the Italian Renaissance when my protagonist, lawyer Guid’Antonio, conducts investigations for the powerful Medici family.  In the novel, the young ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici, asks Guid’Antonio to investigate two mysteries for him. One involves a weeping panel painting of the Virgin Mary, the other centers on a missing girl. While there is considerable art in the narrative, it is Sandro Botticelli’s fresco of Saint Augustine that provides the clue to solve the mystery of the young woman who has disappeared.

Since this is a mystery, I wanted to “plant” the clue that enables Guid’Antonio to solve the riddle four times. While painting the “Saint Augustine” in Guid’Antonio’s family church, Botticelli overheard some young monks arguing among themselves. Amused, he recorded four lines of their dialogue at the top of the painting in the scribbled lines of a geometry book. (Restorers discovered the lines while cleaning the fresco in the relatively recent past.)

  • We see Sandro painting the lines at the top of the fresco:

Is Brother Martino anywhere about?

Brother Martino just slipped out.

Slipped out where?

Through the Prato Gate for a breath of fresh air.

  • Guid’Antonio has gone into the church to inspect the panel painting on the altar—the reportedly weeping painting. On the way out, he notices Sandro’s newly completed fresco on the south wall.  While Guid’Antonio sees the scribbles high up in the gloom, he cannot read the lines. “Guid’Antonio made out a fringed tablecloth and a couple of books, one leather bound, the other open to a page scribbled with a few odd markings and, hidden as it was in the shadows, a bit of text he could not make out.  Like his spirit, all the rest of Sandro’s masterful work was lost in a world of dark, and so he turned away.”
  • Very brief, but advances the mystery elements of the story. By now, Guid’Antonio—and we—suspect “Brother Martino” has something to do with the missing girl.
  • While Guid’Antonio is standing near the church front, his nephew and secretary, Amerigo Vespucci, swings the doors open, admitting sunlight.  At last Guido reads the dialogue.  Realizing Botticelli must know something about “Brother Martino,” he hurries to Botticelli’s workshop. Now close to the novel’s end, Sandro provides Guid’Antonio with the clue Guid’Antonio needs to wrap up the loose threads concerning the girl, and the mystery of the weeping Virgin Mary painting, too.

edited Donna Russo Morrin

Donna Russo Morin:  “Using specific artworks to reveal time period and/or social/political attitudes – to depict an art history advancement.”

  • Civilizations are remembered, discovered, through their artists and their art.
  • There are certain eras where humanity made significant social/cultural changes. The Renaissance is one of those times.
  • The Italian Renaissance artists changed the very nature of their mediums.
  • The Renaissance signaled the reemergence, the ‘rebirth,’ of Humanism, the belief in the intellectual potential and overall experience of humankind. Art reflected Humanism, turning to more realism.
  • A perfect example is Michelangelo’s David. In this scene, my female protagonist in The King’s Agent sees the statue for the first time: It was indeed a giant; Aurelia guessed it to be taller than three men. When she studied the face, all of David’s mysteries were revealed. The face was, as she had heard, a bit large for the size of the head, but upon his features, she saw all of the fear, tension, and aggression the real David must have felt when attacked by the colossal Goliath. Wrinkles perforated his forehead, thick brows drawn together, with a scornful twist to his full lips; fearful, yes, but with an inner assuredness that all evil could be felled. There was great nobility to the man etched into immortality, a beautiful determination astounding the eye as well as the soul.
  • Art mirrored the turn from religious themes; were instead infused with sensation that paintings were modeled after real people/real life. In this quote, the male protagonist scours a painting by Carlo Crivelli:  The painting was a combination of hard angled buildings and gracefully rounded people. It projected a vanishing perspective, with Mary glimpsed in the foreground just through an open door, two men in the gallery beside the building, and others in the background, the success of the dimensions depicted, were a function of the perfect spatial and size balance of each person and object rendered.
  • This is the sort of realism that found its birth in the rebirth of the Renaissance.

edit Steph

Stephanie Renee dos Santos:  “Use of artist space to depict action in story – moments of crisis and conflict.”

I elucidated this point with excerpts (condensed versions shared here) from my forthcoming novel Cut From The Earth, the story of an empathetic Portuguese tile maker, Piloto Mendes Pires, who risks everything to save slaves and escape The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that ushers Portugal into a New Age. 

Example 1:  Chracter Conflict

The back alley door slammed open as Rafa picked up a large rolling pin, double the size of a baker’s.

In stormed Senhor Guimares, the owner of the nearby Red Clay Tile Factory. His dark mustache quivered on his flushed face.

“Where’s Padre Piloto?” he demanded.

Piloto peered down through the floor’s grid. He remained quiet, waiting to hear what he’d come for.

“Hand me the template,” Rafa said to Jawoli calmly. Rafa placed the 14 x 14 metal template on top of a flattened slab of clay, and began cutting tiles out with a knife.

“I asked a question you ignorant peças!” Senhor Guimares bellowed. “Where is the Padre!?” He shook his index finger at them.

Piloto cringed. He rushed to the stairway. How to deal with this man?

Senhor Guimares stomped by the kilns and over to where the men worked.

“Who’s in charge?” he demanded, his mustache now twitching. “Comer o pao que o diabo amassou! I’m speaking to you!” Sweat ran down his temples and dripped onto his pressed linen shirt, taut on his keg belly.

Rafa put the scoring tool down and stared coldly at the intruder. “Padre Piloto.”

  • This excerpt shows how one can use the artist space and materials to demonstrate and create conflict between characters, while allowing the reader deeper into the specifics of the artists world.

Example 2:  Crisis

A jolt shot through Piloto’s body, ejecting the tile from the tong’s grip. It shattered on the floor. He dropped the iron-tongs. They clattered upon the shards. Barrels of chalky glazes shook, their thick soups boiling over their rims, mixing paddles churning in the vats. The viscous substances ebbed and flowed down the sides of their holding containers: manganese-browns, copper-greens, cobalt-blues, iron-oxide oranges, creating an amalgam of colors on the ground.

Rolling pins fell off counters, and ricocheted end-on-end before congregating in a pile, next to the vats. Dried goat balls the size of peaches filled with liquid glaze vaulted to the floor, glaze paints squirting out their nozzle ends. Buckets of paintbrushes careened, the brushes scattering like plucked feathers. Work pedestals spun. Small glass jars of pigments vibrated across tabletops; others wobbled off, exploding. Water spilled from barrel containers, housing gooey slip used to join clay pieces, and formed puddles on the floor’s low spots. The holding tank of white iron-oxide cracked down the front, its contents oozed out. Stacks of clay blocks toppled, hitting the floor with loud thuds.  Pails of wires, paddles, anvils, and ribs shimmered off back shelves, while the shelves themselves threatened to pitch forward.

Piloto dashed from spot to spot, arms outstretched, catching items and picking up others.  He filled his arms.

What is going on?  

The earth heaved again, a second more severe shock, a violent undulating ocean wave.

  • This scene uses the visually unique and exotic tile making factory to recreate what it might have been like for a tile maker the fatal day of November 1st, All Saints Day, when The Great Lisbon Earthquake leveled Lisbon, Portugal in 1755.

edit Mary F Burns

Mary F. Burns:  “Seeing and thinking through the eyes and heart of the artist.”

A question for all historical fiction authors is: Do you have to be a (Fill in the Blank) in order to write about one as a character?  Lawyer, Doctor, Midwife, Artist?   No, but it helps if you have an affinity for the work that person does, and of course, you have to understand how that kind of person thinks, feels, sees, understands, communicates.

I learned enough about how John Singer Sargent painted—his style, his technique, his preferred media—to be able to realistically portray him in his studio and as an artist.  He was very expressive and entertaining for his sitters—he fed them, played the piano and sang, dashed around the room with a cigar in his teeth, laughing and telling jokes.

But away from the canvas, I learned from biographies, he had a hard time with words, found it difficult to express himself, a very private person, genial, kindly, energetic. He loved light and shadow, as most painters do, and having a complicated personality himself, he wasn’t averse to showing both the lighter and darker sides of his subjects.”

However, he denied that he consciously depicted the “psychological” state of his subjects, said he “merely painted what was before his eyes.” But even his closest friends said otherwise. If he simply accurately painted what he saw, then it must be that our feelings, our principles, our character and background and griefs and joys are written upon our bodies, because that’s what appear in his portraits, which is why ultimately, I decided to write my novel with fifteen different voices telling the story,  the voices of people who sat for portraits by Sargent, some of them dear friends, some one-time clients, but all providing different perspectives and clues as to who Sargent really was. As Oscar Wilde said, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” And Sargent definitely revealed himself through his portraits.

* A special thanks to Mary for creating our artsy book trailers for the talk!

(All except Stephanie Cowell’s which was made by her talented son!)

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Stephanie Cowell:  “How much artistic ‘process’ to reveal in scenes – when is enough enough?”

You cannot write truly and deeply about anyone’s work (be it laundress, cellist, teacher, or painter) without showing them doing their work yet you must be careful how you write this. I try to reveal the work of my protagonist in scenes in which he is also living his life.  In the panel, I read a scene where Monet has a fight with his wife, rushes off to paint to calm himself and loses track of the hours; when he comes back to his actual life, having been gone for a long time, he finds something bad has happened. So there is a contrast between the ecstatic, all-consuming hours of his painting and the relatively ordinary needs of the people he loves.  In the case of an artist, the art is indivisible from the person. But the language of any profession is unique to that profession and you can’t go so far into the way an artist works that you confuse the reader with terminology. You also can’t have so much of the creation of art that you lose the plot tension. But you can’t ever just say that someone is anything without showing how it affects everything, even the aches in his body. Painting ruled Monet’s life; if he felt it didn’t go well he would be in total black despair and you couldn’t go near him. So you have to show that. Art was so huge for him it was like being drunk; it affected everything in him and everyone to whom he was close.

For the Love of Art in Historical Fiction! 

To find out more about each author, their books, and to purchase their art-based historical novels: 

Alana White:

To buy:  The Sign of the Weeping Virgin

Donna Russo Morin:

To buy:  The King’s Agent

Mary F. Burns:

To buy: Portraits of An Artist

Stephanie Cowell:

To buy:  Claude & Camille

Join Facebook group “Love of Arts in Fiction”!

Love of Art in Historical Fiction Series featuring Nancy Biyleau & The Tapestry

Tapestry coverThe Tapestry by Nancy Bilyeau is the golden star of this Tudor mystery trilogy, featuring novice nun Joanna Stafford and her difficulties and adventures through the tumultuous reign of King Henry the VIII. This novel to the best of my knowledge explores for the first time ever the arts of Tudor England in historical fiction. I reveled in learning about “arras”, the formal term for Flemish tapestry work of the sixteenth century and the fact that England was in possession of one of the world’s greatest collections of them. Bilyeau takes us inside King Henry the VIII’s court and into his royal artist studio under the helm of German artist Hans Holbein the Younger who produced numerous paintings for the king like the little painting “The Dance of Death” featuring a floating skeleton visiting a ruler, for no one, not even a king escapes death’s clutches. Full of secret plots and twisted motives this mystery weaves a story that keeps you wondering until the end. You’ll be surprised, dismayed, and consumed by the tale that unfolds and enjoy learning about the art and artists of this time.

Sketch, paint, catalog…throw the loom shuttle and try to please the tastes and temper of King Henry the VIII or else…

Stephanie Renee dos Santos:  Artistically what sets the Tudor period apart from other eras as highlighted and celebrated in The Tapestry

Thomas Cromwell portrait

Thomas Cromwell portrait

Nancy Bilyeau:  The 16th century was a magical time in English history, full of beauty and poetry and song, of romance and danger—and yet, English painters were not part of this magic. People might not realize that there really wasn’t a school of English painters in the late medieval times and into the modern age, right up to the early 18th century when William Hogarth finally made an impact. There were important paintings and murals created by artists that were seen in the Tudor and Stuart courts, but the artists themselves were foreign born: Hans Holbein the Younger and Anthony van Dyck. In the case of Holbein, he was paid commissions by King Henry VIII and some of his ministers and chief nobles to paint portraits. Those portraits, such as the ones of Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More that now hang in the Fricke Collection in New York City, are expressive and convey the spirit of their subjects very well. But back in the day, most Tudor homes did not have paintings on the walls.

What truly sets the reign of Henry VIII apart is a different kind of visual art that was celebrated at the highest level of society: tapestries. The king inherited a collection that was begun by the later Plantagenet rulers and he became a passionate, if not obsessed collector. He owned more than 2,000 at the time of his death, and many of them were incredibly expensive. Tapestries were woven with silk and wool, gold-edged threads in Brussels, within workshops ruled by exacting guild standards, and each one could take a team months to complete. They were stunning in their colors and quite complex, often showing a famous scene from the Old Testament, or from Classic Greek legends.

The story of Abraham tapestry

The story of Abraham tapestry

For instance, The Story of Abraham, commissioned by Henry VIII, is a set of ten panels, each depicting a different story, like the return of Sarah or the separation of Abraham and Lot. The series was valued at the sum of £8,260, much more than any other work (or collection of works) of art. Historians think that he paid more for The Story of Abraham than for two warships! It’s believed that the king commissioned this set after the birth of his son, Edward, when he felt he had a lot to celebrate. King Henry had the tapestries mounted at Hampton Court, and the kings and queens who came after him often displayed them too. About ten years ago, they were restored to some of their former glory—tapestries don’t age all that well.

SRDS:  What compelled you to include art and artist in your historical novel?

NB:  Art is extremely important to me on multiple levels. The first one is personal. My father, Wallace Bilyeau, was a watercolor landscape artist. He had a basement studio, and he’d come home from work as a commercial artist, first in Chicago and then Detroit, and after dinner head downstairs to paint. So I saw from childhood the importance of expressing yourself through art. I also feel that in fiction, the arts can provide another level to your narrative. What the characters see in art, their reactions, and how they share those responses, is important. And I think artists are fascinating characters! Hans Holbein the Younger has an important role to play in my third novel, The Tapestry.

SRDS:  What drew you to your specific visual art medium, artwork, and/or artist?

NB:  My novels are mysteries, and I thought of tapestry at first as a way to convey secrets, hidden within the stories displayed in the weave. That runs throughout The Crown. My main character, Joanna Stafford, is a Dominican novice, hoping to take vows as a full nun at a real-life priory in Dartford, Kent (I traveled to Dartford to research the book). She and her fellow sisters have a small loom at the priory to weave their own tapestries. In that I was being creative. There was an enormous amount of beautiful embroidery being created at the priories and the large manor houses and the palaces (several of Henry VIII’s six wives were talented embroiderers), but we don’t know of any looms used in England until the reign of Elizabeth I. Tapestries were imported. But I know that the nuns during this time did a lot of needlework, and so I expanded the scope of their output. In the second novel, when Henry VIII has destroyed the priory and Joanna is struggling to make a life for herself after being ejected with the others, she decides to make tapestries her vocation. She’s going to keep weaving them, and then try to sell them. Joanna is quite good at this, which has the unintended consequence of making Henry VIII aware of her tapestries, and in the third book she is pulled into this orbit, at great danger to herself.

SRDS:  What unique historical objects and/or documents inspired the story?

the crownNB:  I use a lot of historical objects in my novels, some of them real and some of them building on my imagination. The “crown” in my first novel, The Crown, is a mysterious and mystical object that Joanna Stafford tries desperately to find. It was once worn by the Saxon ruler, Athelstan, and it might—or might not—be an ancient relic as well. I uncovered a lot of fascinating research about Athelstan and holy relics. One of the descendants of Charlemagne may have given Athelstan some precious relics in his quest to marry the English king’s beautiful sister.

In my third novel, The Tapestry, a certain book becomes important to the characters. It’s a grimoire, actually, which is a book of spells, and the author may—or may not—be Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, a German scholar, astrologer and magician. In the early 1530s Agrippa published De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres, which is “Three Books of Occult Philosophy.” Then there is this infamous “fourth book,” putting into practice the philosophies and ideas of the first three volumes with invocations of good and evil spirits. As you can imagine, publishing books of occult instruction was risky during this time, with the Inquisition in full force! Agrippa has inspired a lot of writers since his lifetime, including Mary Shelley in Frankenstein.

SRDS:  Is there an art history message you’ve tried to highlight within the novel?

NB:  In all of my novels, the weaving and the purchase of the tapestries have a great deal of narrative meaning. Joanna Stafford, in The Chalice, seeks out a drawing for her first privately woven tapestry of The Rise of the Phoenix. This is what she wants to weave. At certain critical times in the story, other characters wonder if Joanna, a member of a vanquished religious order, is trying to put across a subversive message through her choice of the phoenix, which rises from the ashes. I think art in history could be a way for people without power to try to express powerful ideas.
6. What do you think readers can gain by reading stories with art tie-ins?
These stories provide another rich level in the narrative. In novels, the art and the artists can be pretty to look at—and they can be profound. It depends on the writer!

SRDS:  What fascinating information did you uncover while researching but were unable to incorporate into the book, but can share here?

NB:  Well, I think last year I may even have shared with you on social media, Stephanie, that I was terribly excited about including a certain spectacular painting in my third novel: The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch. In The Tapestry, Joanna Stafford travels to Brussels, and this painting was on view in that city in that year, 1540. What an opportunity! The Garden of Earthly Delights is gorgeous, it’s complicated and it’s a little mystical—in other words, it’s exactly what I love. But there was no reason I could come up with for Joanna to see it and be moved by it, to be sent in a certain direction needed for story momentum. It could only be a tangent. So I regretfully did not write a scene including it.

SRDS:  Any further thoughts on art in fiction you’d like to expand on?


Triumph of Hercules tapestry

NB:  Art can be used in many ways in a novel, some of them obviously important. In my books, certain characters are artists; the creation of art is a livelihood. But art can serve a more subtle purpose too. In my third novel, Henry VIII commissions a tapestry showing the feats of Hercules (this is taken from history, it actually happened). The feats are those of courage, of violence, of seduction. Hercules himself is muscular and skimpily dressed. When the finished tapestry arrived in England, Henry VIII was devastated by the collapse of his fifth marriage to a much younger woman. He was grossly obese and stricken with all sorts of illnesses that made it hard for him to even walk. The tapestry, when it arrived, was put in a prominent place. What was Henry VIII trying to say about himself, his own feats, and his feeling about his manhood, in selection of this subject? That is woven through one of my last chapters, but it’s subtext.

SRDS:  Does art play a part in your new novel?

NB:  It does indeed. And my next book is not set in the Tudor time period. But it’s too early to share. Check back with me, please!

Nancy Bilyeau (Photo credit-Joshua Kessler)About the author: Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor who has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Entertainment Weekly and Good Housekeeping. Her trilogy of historical novels set in the reign of Henry VIII and featuring the struggles of a Dominican novice, have won awards and been published in nine countries. A native of the Midwest, she lives in Forest Hills, New York, with her husband and two children.

For more about Nancy’s works:  


Facebook author page:


To buy The Tapestry:

Join us here July 25th for an interview with Andromeda Romano-Lax, author of The Detour!

Interview posting schedule: 

2014: August 30th Susan Vreeland, Lisette’s List (new release), September 27th Anne Girard, Madame Picasso (new release),October 25th Yves Fey, Floats the Dark Shadow, November 29th Mary F. Burns, The Spoils of Avalon (new release), December 27th Kelly Jones, The Woman Who Heard Color 

2015: January 31st Heather Webb, Rodin’s Lover (new release), February 28th Alyson Richman, The Mask Carver’s Son, March 28th Maureen Gibbon, Paris Red (new release), April 11th M.J Rose, The Witch of Painted Sorrows (new release), April 25th Lisa Brukitt, The Memory of Scent, May 30th Lisa Barr, Fugitive Colors, June 27th Nancy Bilyeau, The Tapestry (new release) July 25th Andromeda Romano-Lax, The Detour, August 29th Frederick Andresen,The Lady with an Ostrich Feather Fan, September 26 Laura Morelli, The Gondola Maker

Join Facebook group “Love of Arts in Fiction”!