When the novel opens, Velazquez is living in Seville with his wife Juana, daughter of his teacher and mentor, and is starting to receive recognition for his talent. He resolves to go to Madrid to court, intent on becoming a court painter and courtier in Felipe IV's decadent and bankrupt court. Amazingly, despite initial setbacks, his dreams are realized and he is soon not only the favored painter, exclusively painting the King's portraits, but also a more and more influential courtier as well. But his success isn't without personal cost. Told mainly through the first person voice of the woman brave enough to model for his nude Venus picture despite the Inquisition's many watchful eyes, the novel is not only a recounting of Velazquez's life as history records it but also a picture of the domestic life of all those under his roof. His successes and their impact on the women in the house, from pride to shame, anger to adoration, are all neatly laid out by his mystery Venus whose identity can be guessed at but which isn't revealed until the end of the novel.
As well as Velazquez's life, the novel is crammed full of historical information about King Felipe IV's court, the political machinations, the people surrounding and encouraging the king, the international and religious maneuverings, the wars and the poverty resulting from such, and the licentiousness of the nobles despite the enforced morality of the Inquisition. But these outside influences touch Velazquez and his family very little, insulated by his position at court as he is, always continuing to draw a salary even when the court is bankrupt and so many others are going without. Instead the major influence on Velazquez is his wife and her moods. Juana is jealous and unhappy, depressed after her infant daughter's death, clinging and critical, and yet she loves her husband.
Mujica has drawn the world of 17th century Spain and the contradictions of that time and place very, very well. Her depiction of the filthy and wounded soldiers ignored, reviled, and hurried past by the wealthy and highborn is particularly effective. And she doesn't shrink from a realistic portrayal of His Most Catholic Majesty Felipe IV and his legendary appetites. She doesn't really address the Inquisition and its reverberations throughout daily life though. It is, of course, invoked as the reason that the nude must be painted in secret and must be a reference to the classical Venus rather than just a life study and our narrator is certainly worried that her identity will be uncovered and she will pay the ultimate price for posing thusly for her love but aside from the occasional reference about her worry, the Inquisition seems to be nowhere in evidence regularly. Perhaps this is because the dissolute court had the influence to keep the inquisitors at bay but then why the worry of the muse in posing for the most favored Velazquez?
The novel is really more about Velazquez the man and the times he lived in than about the scandal surrounding this famous work of art. There is a bit about his technique and the way that it evolved but overall this is a domestic novel about a courtier who was also a famous artist and whose regular life and obligations to the court dictated much of his output and its content, even to the point of making it impossible for him to find time to practice his craft. Velazquez himself is portrayed as distracted, rather unemotional, determined, and ambitious. Juana comes across as querulous and the reader finds it hard to discover sympathy for her despite her husband's infidelities, real and imagined. And in the end, the eventual revelation of the model for Venus is not a surprise as the narrator has been dropping clearer and clearer hints as she tells of the distant past. Over all, the story is an interesting one but sometimes the history sits uncomfortably heavily on a more personal, domestic tale.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.