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The Towers of Tuscany

“The Towers of Tuscany” by Carol Cram

Published on… 16 December 2014
Published as… Historical Fiction

Carol Cram’s Guest Post

Tell us about researching Italy of the 14th century

I think the key to researching a period for an historical novel is to maintain an open mind. The Towers of Tuscany was my first historical novel. When I started writing it, I often got bogged down in details. I’d spend hours combing through books and the Internet in search of a specific detail, only to be often frustrated. I soon learned the art of reading research materials with my mind relaxed and at the same time alert for finding nuggets of information I could embed in the narrative. For example, I read a primary source about laws governing the management of the Campo (the principal piazza) in Siena and discovered that a law on the books in the first half of the 14th Century prohibited the eating of figs in the campo. What a great detail! I included it in the novel as an example of the control exerted by the civic government over the populace. This tiny detail foreshadowed the reference in the novel to the much more serious law prohibiting a woman to dress as a man. The existence of this law plays an important role in the plot.

My research consisted of many, many hours flipping through academic texts related to the period (I LOVE university libraries!) and searching out primary sources. Two favorite sources were Boccaccio’s Decameron, particularly for his description of the plague in 1348, and Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte. This second source played a huge role in teaching me about painting practices in the 14th Century. Written in the late 14th Century by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, Il Libro dell’Arte is an amazing handbook for painters. Cennini advises painters about all aspects of the trade—from grinding pigments to making sizing from goat’s hooves to using gold leave to build haloes. He acknowledges the need for painters to have “passion and enthusiasm” for their work. A painter in the 14th Century did not consider himself an “artist” as we would use the word. A painter was a craftsman who served a long apprenticeship to learn the skills of the trade. Painters were also businesspeople who, with their painted panels and frescoes, made important contributions to religious and secular life in the 14th Century.

In addition to reading books and poring over source materials, I spent a great deal of time just looking at reproductions of the paintings and frescoes of the period. The historical novelist can learn a great deal about the dress, customs, and physical appearance of people by studying the art. All of the paintings referenced in the novel are real and still exist. or are based on paintings from the period. For more information about the art that influenced Sofia and The Towers of Tuscany, readers can check out the Art Guide on my Web site:

Over the past two decades, I’ve visited Italy several times on family trips, but in 2011 I made a solo trip to Tuscany to research The Towers of Tuscany. I spent many happy hours wandering the streets of San Gimignano and Siena, where the novel takes place. I also visited several art galleries, most memorably the Vatican Museum in Rome, the Uffizi in Florence, and the Pinoteca in Siena. The goal of my trip was to soak up atmosphere, which is not difficult to do in Tuscany. In San Gimignano, I also visited San Gimignano 1300—a museum that includes a scale model of how San Gimignano looked in the year 1300. What a gift to an historical novelist! I spent an amazing morning examining the model from all angles and talking with a lovely young guide who good-humoredly answered as many of my questions as she could. Readers who visit San Gimignano should put San Gimignano 1300 high on their list of things to see:

During my research trip to Italy, I took just one day off to enjoy a wine tour of Tuscany (highly recommended – see my blog for details!).

Researching Tuscany in the 14th Century proved to be an exhilarating experience. I loved “reading between the lines” of academic texts to explore the motivations and beliefs of the people. The goal of an historical novel, to my mind, is to bring history to life and to see the connections between people in our own time and in the past. Some readers have expressed relief because they are not women living in the 14th Century. However, the plight of Sofia in The Towers of Tuscany is still shared by many millions of women today. I think historical fiction can remind us that not everyone in our world is fortunate enough to follow their passions and dreams without fear.

About the Book

Sofia is trained in secret as a painter in her father’s workshop during a time when women did not paint openly. She loves her work, but her restless spirit leads her to betray her extraordinary gifts to marry a man who comes to despise her for not producing a son.

After Sofia’s father is crushed by his own fresco during an attack motivated by a vendetta, Sofia realizes she must escape her loveless marriage. She flees to Siena, where, disguised as a boy, she paints again. When her work attracts the notice of a nobleman who discovers the woman under the dirty smock, Sofia is faced with a choice that nearly destroys her.

Meticulously researched settings and compelling characters are united with a strong heroine in this rich portrait of medieval Italy.

Buy the Book at Amazon or Barnes & Noble

About the Author

Carol Cram Author Photo
Carol M. Cram is the author of The Towers of Tuscany, an historical novel about a woman painter in fourteenth century Italy. In addition to writing fiction, Carol has enjoyed a great career as an educator, teaching at Capilano University in North Vancouver for over twenty years and authoring forty-plus bestselling textbooks on business communications and software applications for Cengage Learning. She holds an MA in Drama from the University of Toronto and an MBA from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Carol is currently focusing as much of her attention as she can spare between walks in the woods on writing historical novels with an arts twist. She and her husband, painter Gregg Simpson, share a life on beautiful Bowen Island near Vancouver, Canada.

~* Website *~

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