Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Vanishing Point

I read Louise Hawes' account of the 16th century Renaissance painter, Lavinia ("Vini") Fontana, and my mind was full of adjectives: colorful, rich, luscious, dramatic, hungry, passionate, and romantic--in every sense of the word. Hawes uses historical facts-- Vini's father (Prospero) being a prestigious portrait artist and her marriage to one of his students--to name two, as the scaffolds upon which she constructs this novel. With imagination, Hawes shows Fontana overcoming emotional, societal, and familial obstacles in order to realize her passion: to study and practice art.

This is not only a story of how a young girl finds her place in the male-dominated art world, but Hawes' attention to historical detail makes this a great book for classroom study of the Renaissance period. The relationship between her parents which shows her father's despair over not having produced a male heir, tarrot cards and superstitious beliefs, the role of the church--each one of these are seamlessly woven into this rich tapestry. And through it all, there are wonderful threads of images about art, music, puppets, appetite, approval, love, secrets, dreams, and the vanishing point itself.

In this section, Vini analyzes her first drawing and thinks,
"Father would have hated the lack of perspective. 'Remember the vanishing point,' he is always telling his students. 'Objects become smaller as they move toward the horizon.'....

"The vanishing point, Vini thinks as her father drones on. The place where things get so small they disappear. Perhaps she and Mama seem that small to Prospero....” (p. 21)

Hawes' expertise in art history and as a young adult author shines in this book that female readers of all ages will enjoy. Notice how she draws from both skills in these descriptions of Vini painting her father and his apprentice, Paolo:

"She has transferred her drawing to one of the canvases Paolo has brought. She needs only to lay in the colors in a few more places. It is almost alive.

She likes the shadow, the tongue of purple she has added behind the pair of walking men, and the mist from the fountain in the foreground, each drop of water like a pearl....

"But something is wrong with the way she has shown Paolo ...

"She tries a layer of chalk under Paolo's face and hands, hoping to nurse him to life, to find the gift he can bring to the painting. She adds more linseed oil, as Paolo has taught her to, managing to keep the paint moist, moving. It is like a language she has always known, the play of light and dark." (p.51-52)

I closed the book with chills and tears in my eyes. I felt not unlike Vini when she left her beloved puppet shows, "She turns from the stage, brimming with a sweet, not unpleasant sadness, which she nurses all the way home." (p. 7)

Read this book and savor the words, the textures, and the symbolism. For further information, read an interview with Hawes, or download a study guide, or see some of Fontana's paintings. (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Self-Portrait at the Spinet


Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Wow! I want to read this!

Thanks for reviewing.

Carol Baldwin said...

You'd love it!

Jean said...

This book sounds absolutely delicious!


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