Set in Renaissance Italy, Victoria Strauss’ Passion Blue may be geared toward teens, but with its page-ripping intrigue and riveting glimpse of life behind the convent walls, even older readers are sure to swoon. When 17-year-old Giulia Borromeo, the illegitimate daughter of a count and a seamstress, becomes orphaned and learns she’s to be sent to a convent, she consults an astrologer for a talisman to help secure her dreams of a husband other than Christ. But in the convent, Giulia finds she must choose between a workshop of female painters who share her gift for creating art and a handsome artist who promises to help her escape her cloistered fate. In her author’s note, Strauss alludes to the effect experiencing art during childhood trips to Italy had on her, piquing our interest to learn more about the background to this masterful novel centered on painting.
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What aspect of Renaissance art are you most drawn to?
Of course, I love the paintings themselves, and the [15th-century] period is the one that I love the most. But I’ve always been fascinated by the actual painting techniques, you know, because the painters did everything: They created their own colors; they created the surfaces to paint on. I appreciate the craft as well as the artistic aspects of it. I can’t even draw stick figures; I’m just completely not an artist. But I think there’s something in all artistic pursuits that’s similar in a way, so even though I myself can’t paint, I think that I can feel Giulia’s passion because I feel the same passion for my writing.
How did seeing those original paintings in Italy as a child open up the world for you?
It’s hard to say. Just seeing how beautiful they were and how alien they are. Either they’re depicting an imaginary world with their mythological themes or a world that no longer exists. That’s a window into the past and into someone else’s artistic perception. I always wanted to get close and see the brushstrokes, and I wondered how the frames were made. I can remember going to an exhibit where they showed the process of cleaning and restoring a Renaissance painting, and they showed all this stuff that was underneath the paint. I can remember just being transfixed by that.
When we look at artistic objects, we see a finished product; this is true with books, also. You have a finished product when you’re looking at what you read, but what’s hidden is the creative process that produced it....I’ve always been fascinated by that, and I think that shows in the book. Partly what this book is about is the hidden processes that result in visual works of art.
One of the processes you describe in great detail is paint making. Was creating the color “passion blue” as difficult as you portray here?
It would have been very difficult and very exacting. These paint recipes really were like industrial secrets today; they were incredibly closely guarded. There was espionage, and people did steal them, so that all is very authentic. One of the challenges was trying to convey how important that was, because from a modern perspective, we might go, A paint color: Why is that such a big deal? But I tried to portray why it was a big deal and how it that could come to be such a bone of contention between Humilitá and her father.
Was the role of astrologers as prominent then as you suggest in the novel?
Yes. Astrology was very important up until the 18th century, when it became somewhat discredited. Astrologers were consulted regularly for birth charts, or if you wanted to plan an event, they could do a horoscope for you to see when would be the most auspicious time. And it was an important profession that—contrary to what many people now think—was not in conflict with Christianity, even though in many ways you would think of it as a pagan system, since those are its origins. It was all integrated into the Christian system, and archbishops would consult with astrologers. It was an important and influential profession and very scientific for the time. Astrologers had to understand the heavens; they had to take precise measurements from the stars. The astrologer’s astrolabe is essentially the same used by mariners.
Your depiction of life in the Italian convent here is fascinating. I wasn’t aware of the role class played within the convent itself.
Yes, that was something I didn’t know and discovered in doing research. The convent was sort of a warehousing system for unmarried noblewomen, with different servant nuns and noble nuns. I think some historical novels try too hard to teach a lesson, or else they show off the research. I wanted to unfold a world in a much more organic way, so that the reader is immersed in it rather than being pulled out of the novel and told here’s a little nugget of information.
What do you hope readers take from this?I hope readers find a story that takes them away, carries them along and that they really enjoy. I’m not trying to teach a lesson; I’m not trying to educate anybody. I just wanted to tell a wonderful story and immerse readers in a different time and place. I think that’s always my goal with writing—to paint a picture with words and hope the reader dives into it. Readers take from things what they take, and you can’t always control that as an author. I’m often surprised by what people say about my books; often they find things I didn’t even know were there. My ambition always is just to engage the reader and hope they close the book and say, This is a wonderful story.