Saturday, March 31, 2012

I am obsessed with a woman who lived five hundred years ago. For more than three years, I have been researching her life and times, and writing about Anne de Bretagne ( or Anne of Brittany). I planned a trip to France and Brittany to understand more about her by experiencing her world, rather than reading about it. The basic facts listed about her always start with the fact that she was twice Queen of France, having married two kings successively. But that would not have been enough to have set me on this journey that entails serious study of art, religion, symbolism, political and economic history and the variety of factors that comprised life for royalty as well as for others.

It is my curiosity that got me started--I’ve often said that the best thing about this time of my life is my ability to pursue my curiosity. And pursue it I have been doing.

My mixed-media journey started at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, in the Hall of Architecture, which is a vast repository of statuary casts and models that brings together replicas from all parts of the world and centuries of human creativity, from Venus de Milo to the Arc de Triumph. I was on an excursion studying Frank Lloyd Wright, and we were looking at places of artistic as well as architectural interest.

I had separated from the others and was wandering around, fascinated, with my camera. Suddenly, I stopped, then walked slowly around a large sculptural group, taking pictures from all angles. It was clear that it was a tomb; two figures were lying atop a large catafalque, (I learned that word later) surrounded by rows of smaller religious  figures and protected by angels. My imagination was seized by one of the four larger-than life-size, quite representational, figures at the four corners. Looking outward was a lovely young woman, in a marble robe that flowed beautifully in graceful folds.  But the back of her head was the image of an old man. What did that mean?  
The labels shed little light. All I learned was that this was the tomb of François  II, Duke of Brittany, and his wife, Marguerite de Foix, and allegorical figures. The sculpture was credited to Michel Colombe, and it said the original is located in the Cathèdrale St. Pierre in Nantes.
I had to find out more. When I got home I did some research; but found little to explain the meaning of that two-faced figure that so intrigued me. As a writer, I am fascinated by allegory, and have always loved art, so I continued to look into the uses of allegorical figures in art, and found nothing else quite like this tomb, but others that I could see had some relationships.
 I found basic information about the sculptor, about the cathedral, about the Duke. I learned that the tomb had been commissioned by his daughter, known as Anne of Brittany. She became Duchess of Brittany after her father’s death, and twice became Queen of France, upon marrying first King Charles VIII, and then Louis XII. Neither of them is very well known or frequently written about in English. I soon realized that François and Marguerite were less interesting than their daughter, Anne.
Eventually I learned that this extraordinary young woman had participated—and been a key figure in--a momentous period of history that saw the world change: Born in 1477, she had her first child the year Columbus discovered America; Brittany and France were embroiled in alliances and wars amid shifting leadership and national borders throughout Europe; the printing press began to spread information and ideas to the growing middle class; she and her husbands brought the artistic genius of Italy to flourish in France, while building a nation from feudal duchies and states.

Interesting, but I still had no clue about that provocative figure, or why it should be decorating, or watching over, the tomb. It was a busy time for me, and although  I could give my mystery  only intermittent attention, I  could not forget it. I continued to get ideas that I would track down. I My notebook and computer show occasional  notes made over the next few years when something brought it back to me or moved my inquiry forward. 
One day when I was at the Cloisters, looking at the Unicorn tapestries , I heard the docent say  that some authorities think they were a gift to Anne  before her marriage to Charles. Two-headed figures would capture my attention, until I realized they were usually Janus, which didn’t seem to pertain here. My readings in many areas of art, literature and communication would bring thoughts of parables and allegories. What is behind that figure? Finally I was able to identify it as an unusual version of the allegorical representation of the cardinal virtue Prudence—which was usually shown as a three-headed man, signifying  past, present and future. Naturally, the next subject to explore was “the Virtues,” as they were described by Plato and seen in Christian and in pagan religions. New areas kept opening  for my reading  on allegory and images in medieval art.
Many interpretations, but no pertinent answers.…. Why did Anne want those figures, that image, on her parents’ tomb? Or was it that the sculptor interpreted her wishes that way? How much influence would a patron have on an artist?

In one month, several things converged in my life. Two courses of study that had occupied me for the past two years had ended.  I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Medieval section with a friend and was frozen by three small  three-dimensional figures: one was a two-faced image; the others were four-inch bronze discs showing the faces of Queen Anne and King Louis XII.  I told my friend of my fascination with both the two-faced figure and with Anne.  She urged me to go on with my investigation. Then I learned that my ongoing editorial job had come to an end. That was it. Now I could spend the time to research and write about my obsession.

I had to find out about Anne of Brittany. The same bare information appeared wherever I looked. I could find only two books about her published in English. (My high school French is not up to research into original materials.) I located a copy of the 1917 biography, and read its stilted language, full of adulation for the admirable young woman who had such an interesting, challenging life. Then I found the 1967 version written for teens, in less formal language, with descriptions of gowns and coronations, but few more facts. In the process, I had been consulting an increasing variety of histories of France, of the Middle Ages, Medieval period, and early Renaissance—politics, arts, daily life. So much was now available on the Internet; I rarely had to leave my computer. But I did. I was able to check out many of the sources listed in  bibliographies, and to order books from the library. My curiosity was  in high gear but it was not satisfied.

Anne was just 12 when she became Duchess of Brittany; and 14 when she married King Charles VIII and became Queen of France. A widow at 21, she married King Louis XII and again bore the French Queen’s crown. She was highly educated and prepared for royalty; she was a leading patron of the arts.  Despite two controversial political marriages that resulted in loving relationships, despite  nine pregnancies; despite loyal supporters and important adversaries, despite devotion to the church and generous philanthropy; Anne failed at  the primary purpose of the Queen of France: no son of hers became King.

I am in thrall to modernity. I know that I could not have done the research or written my novel without the electronic tools that I use constantly to augment the serious reading I do. See a reference or a point that needs checking? I wouldn’t guess how many Google searches I’ve done, how many Wikipedia articles I’ve consulted for quick answers or background to  a specific question. By now, I can read Wikipedia articles and websites in French even better than the on-line translations.  They may lead me to  a reference to a book or article I want to consult, or to an out-of-print volume that Google has digitized  about my period and characters. The language is stilted and the facts often in conflict or wrong, but still, I’ve unearthed some useful tidbits. Any of these may lead me to hours of reading, and may confirm or question what I had before.

The books on my shelves are now two-deep --I’ve broken my resolution not to buy too many books and increasingly am tempted by  e-readers. I have spent hours reading ‘analog’ old and new books, which I can obtain after electronic searches and requests of the New York Public Library.  I am so fortunate to be in New York!  I’ve been permitted to borrow many of them; the library has tracked them down electronically and sent them to my local branch for me to pick up. The older, rare and more expensive volumes are available for me to consult at the main reading room, where I am permitted to bring my Netbook computer…an indispensible investment for this work.  I feel privileged  to be allowed to use the Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum and the Rare Books collection of the JP Morgan Library and Museum . I had a fantastic bonus when I was at the Morgan: before being admitted, I had had to submit a list of the books I wanted. Then  the wonderful librarian, realizing that I was researching Anne de Bretagne, brought me additional rare facsimile material that I didn’t know was available. They also have a valuable Book of Hours that was commissioned by Anne de Bretagne for her son. It is completely digitized and available online for me to study, page by page, as long as I want to, right from my desk. My French is  not up to reading academic books or articles, but when I am consulting a French art book at one of the libraries, my online French dictionary will find a translation. I admit that not everything is in New York but my computer is! Amazing collections from major libraries and museums are now digitized and accessible to me, many from home (some require me to be in my library to use their links.)

I was absorbing all this fascinating information, generating questions  (often of myself) as I went along,  and trying to gain  a sense of how I would handle this challenge. I spent  about eight months putting  together the basic facts, but  reaching answers to  all my questions wouldl take much longer. Here I am in the 21st century; shaped by a society so different from Anne’s:  it  is diverse and democratic  and respects the pursuit of knowledge; women are treated and considered completely differently than  in Anne’s time; we are blessed with a growing wealth of information, new theories of history and art , advances in science and medicine;  a world  that values intellectual growth and individual development. Unlike Anne’s earlier  biographers, I want to write a modern book; a good story that is also analytical.  I  want to tell  the story of Anne’s life, in the context of her time and setting, so as to give perspective on contemporary lives.  These people were experiencing the onset of the Renaissance! How did the time and place shape their  attitudes –toward religion, medicine, parenthood, marriage, art, learning, warfare, royalty? I would have to find a way to put into a modern perspective both the facts and the understanding I was gleaning about this unique young duchess/queen who, while representing her time. And I would have to decide how to handle the many details and facts--even dates-- that remained in conflict after all my reading. My constant frustration at the inconsistent dates listed in the histories was alleviated when I found that calendars have been changed several times since her period; that years and ages were reckoned differently, and that the attempt to impose uniformity did not come until after her time. For Anne and several other characters, I couldn't even be sure of when they were born! To say nothing of other controversies regarding people, antipathies, motives, and allies. Some books talked glowingly of the happiness of Anne and Charles when they married; others said she was virtually kidnapped!

I would have liked to be a scholar; to write a definitive biography; but my French isn’t good enough to research whatever original source material has not made it into English language books. But with the information available to me, I can write an interesting novel, that reveals and incorporates the issues that make it so compelling. I  would tell the story of Anne in her time, based on actual historical events, but not  write a history book.

I’ve always been a reader; there is usually a novel by my bedside that I read for pleasure, and piles of books  next to every chair, with a notebook on top, that I read for background and information. At some point, I realized that my recreational reading had shifted to  historical fiction. First I would search for books about early France (and learned that most of them start with François I, who reigned after the death of Anne and her husband Louis. Books of the turn of the 15th century usually were about the Tudors in England or the Borgias in Italy. And frequently I would find that I could not read past a few pages: the writing was banal! The text would vary from detailed descriptions of gowns and people’s glances and heavy breathing  to sword play. But then Wolf Hall came out in America. I was blown away. Hilary Mantel had crafted an absorbing story about real historical characters; with insight, depth, and  skill. Then  Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff was published, to great acclaim. That was another case where the author crafted a wonderful biography despite not having definitive source information; yet she was able to call on the known facts and her broad research. Both of those works left me inspired and frustrated. I would love to write like that, but I know I am not as skilled as they. But better to aim for quality than settle for something I have no respect for. I would write what is known as ‘literary’ historic fiction. My aspirations are high. I gave up on bodice-rippers and focused on really good books that offered professional inspiration as well as an engaging  story.

So I knew most of what I want to say and what I want to leave the reader thinking about. But the question of how to say it was still to be resolved. I want to evoke compassion and sympathy toward a queen who lived five centuries ago. Because  many of my sources were based on just a few early histories, and some facts were in conflict, my research did not reflect as broad a perspective as I would want  and did not even mention or question some of the points  that are of interest to contemporary readers. Not even all nobles in northwestern France or Brittany would think alike, I am sure. Indeed, I knew there were many conflicts. I would have to make assumptions and fill in a lot of areas that to us are significant  but would not have been considered by early male historians who focused on politics and war  or even the 19th and 20th century women authors, who dwelt on romance, fashion, and ceremony. I want my reader to feel engaged in this story, to relate to the lives of Anne and her world, despite the fact that that world is so different. 

Anne was a woman, as well as a Queen, whose emotions should be understandable by the reader, even though the institutions and conditions she knew  are so different from ours.  My notebook was filled with ideas and false starts. And then it came to me. The people in Anne’s life would tell her story from their own points of view, sometimes not typical of their time. I had already made family trees and long lists and short bios of family, nobles, artists and religious leaders with whom she interacted. Some had fascinating stories themselves. Most significantly, the use of a variety of people would allow me to illustrate aspects of the time more sensitively than an all-knowing and -judging authorial  voice.