Barbara Mujica, author of the acclaimed historical novels frida and Sister Teresa turns her eye to 17th-century Spain and the court of King Phillip IV in her latest book, I Am Venus, published earlier this month by Overlook. Chronicling the scandalous affair between the great Baroque Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and the young model who became his Venus, Barbara Mujica vividly reimagines the great artist’s rise to prominence, set against a 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 forbidden love between an artist and his muse. Barbara Mujica joins us today on the Winged Elephant to discuss the research and inspiration behind her latest novel. Welcome, Barbara!
OP: How would you describe your novel? Is it a book for fans of historical novels, or fans of Velazquez and Spanish history. Who will it most appeal to?
BM: I Am Venus is aimed at the general reader. Fans of historical fiction will find plenty historical atmosphere. I did a lot of research on food, clothing, homes, leisure activities, and other aspects of 17th-century life, but the novel doesn’t presuppose a particular interest in the Spanish Golden Age. Similarly, fans of Velázquez will find lots of information about his training and artistic development, his use of color and form, and his relationship with mentors. However, you don’t need to be a Velázquez fan or an expert in Spanish history to enjoy this book. The story is rich and entertaining because Velázquez and his contemporaries were fascinating people living at a fascinating time.
OP: As in your previous novel, frida, you show an uncanny ability to portray the life of an artist – both inside and outside the studio. What experience do you have with the lives of artists?
BM: I have always been enthralled by artists. My husband is an architect with extensive training in art and art history, so I have spent much of my adult life hearing about artists and visiting museums. Furthermore, I work in a period—the late Renaissance—when painting and sculpture were flourishing in Europe, and so art history is part of my intellectual background.
BM: First of all, Venus is an enigma. We don’t know the circumstances under which this painting was produced, so I was really able to let my imagination run wild. Second, this painting was created during a time of religious repression when nudes were forbidden, and the Inquisition persecuted painters who produced them. The fact that Velázquez painted the Rokeby Venus and got away with it makes for a very enticing plot.
OP: Has the historical identity of the model for The Rokeby Venus ever been established? Can you talk a bit about your creation of her for the novel.
BM: The real identity of the model is explained at the end of the book, so I think I won’t spoil the fun. I will say that due to the way the painting was composed, there has been a lot of conjecture about it, which leaves the writer a lot of leeway.
OP: Velazquez’s wife, Juana, is a fascinating character in the story. How much of her is imagined, or based on historical research?
BM: Her identity is historical. She was the daughter of Velázquez’s painting master, Francisco Pacheco, and the mother-in-law of his apprentice, Mazo. However, we know very little about her life. I have done a lot of research on 17th-century Spanish women and, in fact, much of my scholarly writing is on that subject. From my readings of women’s letters, stories by 17th-century women authors, treatises on women by moralists of the period, and historical studies on women, I constructed a feisty, down-to-earth character who, like some of the real women I’ve studied, bucks the cultural norms of the period. Both she and Velázquez are deeply human characters, flawed, emotive, and capable of both wonderful and reprehensible deeds.
OP: I Am Venus contains many parallels between 17th century Spain and the modern world – political unrest, economic crisis, ongoing wars, scandal and hypocrisy, religious fanaticism. Do you think readers will see and understand these connections, and was it something you were aware of before writing the novel?
BM: I have taught 17th-century Spain at Georgetown University for many years, and I’ve always been struck by how much that period resembles our own. Spain was deeply in dept, yet continued to spend, borrowing money from foreign creditors. It was engaged in multiple wars that drained the economy. Taxes and unemployment were high. Veterans who returned from the Thirty Years War were unable to find jobs and sometimes didn’t get their pensions. Politicians and priests preached morality, yet engaged in lechery. Mores were changing. I don’t think readers can help but make connections. I think there are lessons to be learned from I Am Venus. In a sense, it could be seen as a cautionary tale.