A Rare and Curious Gift
Pauline Holdstock
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A Rare and Curious Gift

Pauline Holdstock
W.W. Norton
355 pages
February 2005
rated 4 of 5 possible stars
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Sixteenth-century Tuscany enjoys an exceptional flourishing of the arts, aglow with artistic opportunity for painters, sculptors and artisans. Though there are few with the courage to follow this muse, even women are encouraged in the craft of painting.

The outstanding female artist in A Rare and Curious Gift is the talented Sofonisba Fabroni, a young woman trained by her father. Her talents actually surpass those of her teacher; Sofonisba is of independent mind, absorbed by her love of painting, intuiting the very nature of color, shape, form and emotion.

With her father and a few other artists, Sofonisba attends clandestine anatomy classes at the home of Paolo Pallavicino, the resident artist of a local patron. In the dark of night, these artists sketch the wonders of the human anatomy as Paolo dissects cadavers by lantern light. Such studies are forbidden, but the urge to uncover the connections of body to spirit dominate the times, a furious quest for the causality of life itself.

Sofonisba is the beneficiary of a gift: a piebald young slave girl, Chiara, whose skin is mottled with patterns of black and white, an object of curiosity and fear. In such superstitious times, the slave girl is looked upon with disfavor as the Devil's charge. After a tragic fire on the first day of an annual saintís festival, the slave becomes an omen, bad luck visited upon the town: "The wings of devils shall carry you to Hell. And the woman shall go first." These times are not kind to women, nor slaves.

After the chaos of the festa, the villagers yearn to set things right with their Maker, confirming His majesty over the natural world, and Sofonisba and Chiara are thrown into the maelstrom by circumstances beyond their control. But at the heart of all is the lecherous Matteo Tassi, unable to govern his own concupiscence. Consequently, Sofonisba will suffer for participating in a man's world, her talent both a gift and a cross to bear.

The author illustrates her characters with agonizing precision, exposing the carnal cruelty of men who believe they can access the union of body and spirit, their ignorance shielded by artistic endeavor that allows the egotistical destruction of a simplicity they fail to comprehend. Their pursuit of beauty and pageantry fosters extreme, inhuman behavior, all in the name of monstrous curiosity.

This astonishing novel flays the hypocrisy of the artistic community that demeans the worth of women and ignores licentiousness from noble men, the quest for knowledge that destroys innocence in its hubris. As cadavers are examined for their secrets, the author excises the shriveled hearts of ruthless men in pursuit of art. This novel is fascinating, complicated and shocking, a masterful rendition of sixteenth century societyís superstitious and carnal arrogance, the corruption of the intellect in pursuit of artistic curiosities. Not for the faint of heart, this novel will challenge your perceptions and prick your conscience, "as beautiful and terrible as the world."

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Luan Gaines, 2005

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