In this, her first historical novel, Cardillo presents the 16th century Vittoria, Marchesa de Pescara and wife of Ferrante Francesco d’Avalos, a leading military commander in these turbulent times when both France and Spain are fighting for control of Italy and the various states. What apparently attracted Cardillo’s attention was that recently in academic circles creative women of the Italian Renaissance are being increasingly recognised. Vittoria had a reputation as a fine poet – although direct publication for a woman would be a cultural problem and her poems were initially largely dispersed through personal contact. Vittoria’s poems, we are told, explored the nature of her wifely love and loss as a widow, but more controversially explored the relationship between the individual and God. Over her lifetime though the nature of one’s Christian beliefs could be highly controversial as there were demands for the church to be “reformed” to abolish open corruptions. But this had more than a religious dimension as it would feed into wider political discords and power struggles often around papal control – although the risk of the “Inquisition” was not slight either. Cardillo markets this novel on yet another premise however, that Vittoria came to know the artist Michelangelo and acted as spiritual muse to him as he created his “Last Judgement” on the walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

How is this story presented? We have pictures of Vittoria’s life in non consecutive order – as a child, fostered at one of the most cultured courts in Italy led by a strong matriarch; marriage to an often absent husband and then her long widowhood. As a leading aristocrat her life can be tracked in broad brush – although Cardillo adds her own interpretation or picture of the deeper woman (and child before that). Against the more detailed sweep of history in “interesting times” we start to get a hint of the actions and influence of an aristocratic woman when her husband is largely absent. But issues such as this tend to be merely mentioned and not deeply embedded in the tale. Ironically a woman who we are told is at the cutting edge of poetic creativity and deeply involved in the forefront of challenging religious traditions and beliefs of the day is largely presented in relation to the men who were apparently in her life.

The value of this novel could lie in giving the broad sweep of the complexity of the politics of an evolving Italy at this time – an Italy deeply embedded in politics of a wider Europe. It drops a lot of names of people involved in art and writing, but they do not really emerge as clear people. So it could be used as a door (together with the references) to reading about these things and people in greater detail. However, was it possible to see real creative links between Vittoria and Michelangelo? Not for this reader – I was left highly sceptical, uncertain as to what was based on truth and what was crude guesswork.

But the weakest thing about the book is that Vittoria is supposed to be an extremely fine poet. And a woman using her poems as a spiritual beacon in the evolving religious dialogues of the time. Where were the poems? They seemed entirely absent in this novel. Which meant that everything else written had to be taken on trust, not an easy task. It of course also sold the essence of Vittoria seriously short by obscuring her own direct message. Setting aside the occasional hint of a woman with severe emotional or psychiatric problems and indulging in dangerously obsessive practices, I could not see the real woman. A woman who while privileged by wealth and background was also extraordinary in the life she led and the reputation she achieved. The basic tale of her life was there, but not really the woman – a great pity.

Hilary White 3*

Love That Moves The Sun by Linda Cardillo
Bellastoria Press 9781942209546 pbk Nov 2018