I Am Venus by Bárbara Mujica

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Who are you, Venus? Who are you, Diego?


I Am Venus chronicles the relationship between the great Baroque Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and the woman who became his Venus. Author Bárbara Mujica vividly reimagines the great artist’s rise to prominence, set against the backdrop of political turmoil and romantic scandal. Narrated by the mysterious model who posed for Velázquez’s only female nude, “The Rokeby of Venus,” I Am Venus is a seductive historical novel of the love between an artist and his muse.

The year is 1619, and Diego Velázquez is a rising star at an art academy in Seville run by his father-in-law. But even as his young wife builds him a family, the painter finds himself yearning for a larger canvas, and soon his ambition lands him at the court of King Philip IV, where his star quickly rises, even as Spain finds itself plunged into military defeat and domestic chaos.

But as he gains nobility and privilege, Velázquez encounters the sinful decadence that defines the regime. As he finds himself torn between loyalty to family and the easy seductions of power, Velázquez decides to take on his riskiest painting yet, which could, in a stroke, land him in the claws of the Inquisition.

I Am Venus is a sweeping story of scandal and passion, and a vivid recreation of a corrupt kingdom on the brink of collapse. Reminiscent of Girl with a Pearl Earring, it is a thrilling novel that brings to life the public and private worlds of Spain’s greatest painter.

My two cents
Rokeby Venus
(from Wikipedia)
Great paintings, or portraits in general, are often the cause for much speculation and much imagining. Think the Mona Lisa. Or more recently, the photograph of the Afghan girl on National Geographic's cover.

I am Venus One draws its inspiration from controversial female nude by Baroque Spanish painter, Diego Velázquez. Entitled The Rokeby of Venus (La Venus del espejo), this would have surely meant excommunication during the Spanish Inquisition.


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Self portrait
(From Wikipedia)
This has a natural draw for art lovers wanting to know more about Diego Velázquez and the Baroque art period. I've never studied art formally so I found myself Googling Diego Velázquez and was amazed to learn that his work has inspired the work of realists and impressionist artists I am more familiar with, including Manet, Dali and Picasso.

The story paints a picture of an artists' life in Spain during the reign of King Philip IV in the 1600s. There are many art references and historical figures featured in the storyline and in the paintings mentioned.   I was unfamiliar with all of them yet I found it quite easy to follow along, though I did resist the urge to Google every person or art piece mentioned!

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Told from the viewpoint of an old woman, the mysterious "Venus" of the painting, she weaves us a story of Velázquez's life: starting out as an artist, struggling to gain recognition, and eventually becoming lead artist in King Philip IV's court. "Venus" bases this retelling of Velázquez's life on her own observations as well as acute insights and information from others, including politicians, courtiers, ladies-in-waiting, servants, and even prostitutes.

Las Meninas
(From Wikipedia)

The narrator also lets us in on his domestic life. He is married off to the daughter of his well-to-do mentor, which was typical of the time. His wife Juana and eventually his children lead a quiet life of silent heartache, since they take a backseat to Diego's passion and ambition to make it big in the King's court.

With beautiful models posing for her husband and making their way into his paintings, Juana is sure that her husband has had many flirtations - are these real or imagined?

This is all set against Spain in the 17th century, with a king and his royal court mired in extravagance, powerplay, corruption and voracious sexual appetites, juxtaposed against a disillusioned, suffering and poverty-ridden country.

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So who is "Venus"? There are many allusions as to the identity of the woman in the painting but this entire novel is a mystery awaiting your reading. I enjoyed how this mystery unfolded, and the author kept me guessing and speculating throughout. I personally found the revelation very plausible, satisfying, and tragically romantic.

***

Uh-ohs: This is told in first person. While the voice is easy to follow along to in the beginning chapter, as the storyline becomes much more complicated, the voice shifts were often strange and jarring. It was rather offputting and interfered with the otherwise smooth flow of the reading.

There are quite a number of lesser characters with smaller stories that may distract you no end -- these  actually made me feel like ... where is this going? Can we get back to the main story please? For example, there's the back story of Juana's old faithful, Arabela. Then there's the whole alleged flirtation and side story of the housemaid who keeps appearing throughout. And that's just the tip of the iceberg!

Verdict: The muse of artist Diego Velázquez's painting tells us the story of her painter. This is an art mystery that will entice art and historical aficionados to learn more about Diego Velázquez's life. With its beautifully descriptive writing and historical insight, I am eager to look for more of Mujica's work.

About Bárbara Mujica
Boca 2012Barbara Mujica is a novelist, short-story writer, essayist and professor at Georgetown University. Her latest novel, I Am Venus (Overlook Press), explores the identity of the model for the famous Rokeby Venus, the only extant female nude of seventeenth-century Spanish painter Diego de Velázquez. Her previous books include the critically acclaimed novels Frida, based on the relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Sister Teresa, about the life of Saint Teresa de Avila, both published by Overlook. A play based on the latter is currently being developed by The Actors Studio in Los Angeles.
Mujica has won numerous prizes for her stories, which have appeared in magazines and anthologies. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The Dallas Morning Star, and hundreds of other publications.

A Professor of Spanish at Georgetown University, Dr. Mujica writes extensively on Spanish literature. She has twice been named one of Georgetown’s most influential professors by the Academic Council.
Since her son, a U.S. Marine, returned from Iraq in 2008, Mujica has devoted much of her energy to serving transitioning veterans. At Georgetown she is faculty adviser of the Georgetown University Student Veterans Association (GUSVA) as well as Associate Facilitator of the Veterans Support Team, a coalition of faculty, administrators, and students. Recently she has begun writing about issues pertaining to student veterans. For more information please visit www.barbaramujica.com.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.


Unknown
Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Overlook Hardcover (June 13, 2013)

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3 comments :

  1. Historical fiction set in the 17th century art world sounds like a good read! Hope you enjoy it!

    :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. really interesting read! and i always learn something new!

      Delete
  2. First person narration can be difficult but it sounds like it didn't detract from the beauty of the story in this case. I'm glad you enjoyed the book! Thanks for being on the tour.

    ReplyDelete

 
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