An Interview with Lisa Vihos, Author of The Lone Snake: The Story of Sofonisba Anguissola, and Sarah Sadie
An Interview with Lisa Vihos, author of The Lone Snake: The Story of Sofonisba Anguissola
Lisa Vihos has had a long interest in the connections between visual art and words. In 2019, she published Van Gogh Dreams (HenschelHAUS Publishing) a collection of poems by 31 poets that was reviewed here in The Ekphrastic Review. Earlier this year, her historical fiction, The Lone Snake: The Story of Sofonisba Anguissola (Water’s Edge Press), was published. She recently met with fellow-creative Sarah Sadie, who asked some questions about her process.
SS: I’m delighted to be involved in this conversation with you, Lisa, around your book. How did you first learn about Sofonisba Anguissola? What do you think made her so compelling to you?
LV: I first learned about Sofonisba (or Sofi, as she eventually made herself known to me) in 1995, when I received an assignment from New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams. I found an excellent biography about her that had been published not long before. That book, Sofonisba Anguissola: The First Great Woman Artist of the Renaissance by Ilya Sandra Perlingieri became my bible for the narrative. Here was a story of a woman who lived to be 93 in the late Renaissance, and who had a father so forward thinking that he made sure all his daughters were educated. Sofonisba took that education and ran with it. I felt compelled to explore all the twists and turns in her life and to use the facts of her biography to form the basis of imagined motivations, conversations, and relationships. It took me a while, I must admit. I thought about her story for years and had many false starts in trying to write it. But eventually, in 2017, I committed myself to the process and by 2022, the book finally came to be.
SS: Give us some context. What was Sofonisba’s role in the history of art, in her time and place?
LV: Sofonisba was born in 1532 in Cremona and so she was coming in at the tail end of the High Renaissance. At that time, there really was not any opportunity for women to pursue art. But her father saw she had a propensity for drawing (this is something I enjoyed imagining at the opening of the story) and he sought artistic training for her and younger sister, Elena. Her father made sure to promote Sofonisba’s talent and he set her up with different teachers, including Michelangelo. In 1559, she was called to the Spanish Court by Philip II to teach the young Queen Isabel to draw and paint. As a woman, Sofonisba was not allowed to paint religious or mythological subjects. Instead, she pursued portraiture. She was the first woman artist to be famous in her own lifetime and she was happy to see others like Lavinia Fontana and Artemesia Gentileschi follow in her footsteps. I imagined her to be this quietly determined person who saw the beauty and goodness in all things and just kept pushing herself forward to do more. The novel is about her quest to make sure that she would not be forgotten. For a long time, she was in fact lost to history, but in the 1990s, with Perlingieri’s research and the resulting book, the beauty and magnitude of Anguissola’s work rose up once again.
SS: This is a novel of historical fiction. How much research did you have to do? How did your background in art history help you with research and with telling the story?
LV: I used mainly the book by Perlingieri until much later in the process when a book called Sofonisba’s Lesson by Michael W. Cole came out in 2019. My background in art history gave me a grounding in the time period. I also consulted many books about the Renaissance in general, Philip II, the history of the printing press, Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna, and other luminaries of the time. I read parts of The Courtier by Castiglioni, and parts of Cennino Cennini’s handbook for painters. I read Dante’s Inferno, something I had always wanted to do. I ended up incorporating only a small part of that into the story, but it’s there as part of a larger world view. Some nights when I was writing, I would go down rabbit holes on the Internet learning about the flora and fauna of Italy, or surnames that were popular in Genoa, or I would listen to Sicilian folk songs to help me better envision certain characters and the things that shaped them. I’d say my research was an organic, messy, and extremely enjoyable process.
The best thing I did was travel to Italy in the fall of 2019 and visit all the places (except for Madrid—which I had visited long ago) where Sofi lived. Being in Milan, Cremona, Genoa, Rome, and Palermo added a lot to my sensory repertoire about what her life might have been like. It was so important to see the difference in setting between Cremona and Genoa, for example, and to be in Rome, looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or to stand under the dome of the Pantheon. I also got to discover many things I had no idea about, for example, that cactus grows on the island of Sicily. I was able to locate Sofi’s tomb in the church of San Giorgio dei Genovesi in Palermo and to just sit there with her for a while. All those things added a layer of depth the story that I could not possibly have gathered from books or the Internet.
SS: You write some characters from factual history while others are fictional, most notably Paola and Francesco. How did they help you tell the story you wanted to tell?
LV: It was important to me to tell the story of Sofi’s entire life, from childhood past her death. I also wanted her to speak in the first person. So I had her speak her stories out loud to two scribes (first Francesco and then, Paola) who fell in love with each other along the way. They lived beyond Sofi and could provide a perspective on her life after she was gone. In this way, I could suggest to the reader that when Sofi painted The Chess Game in 1555, she was perhaps the first person to have ever painted a genre scene, long before the images of card players and drinkers that are so famous in 17th century painting. Because she was kept out of the mainstream of the male-dominated art world, she had to forge her own innovative path.
SS: What are some of the lessons we might draw from her experience and practice, for ourselves, as contemporary creators?
LV: Her last name anguis sola means “lone snake” in Latin, and in the story, Sofi struggles with this meaning of her name. She learns through her long life that she is not alone, and that she in turn supports younger artists coming up after her. I hope that creatives today recognize that while we must do most of our work on our own, there is always room for community, for collaborating with and supporting others on their artistic journeys. In this way, we move the needle forward together toward a better, more enriching and inclusive world. I think Sofi would like that.
SS: What comes next for you?
LV: Good question! I am basking in the fact that something that took me so long to complete is finally done and making its way in the world. I hope to get back into a more regular practice of writing poetry again. I have lost my poetry focus a bit and want to work on that. I do have an idea for another novel, though. But we’ll see. One step at a time.
Sarah Sadie Sarah Sadie lives and writes in Portage, Wisconsin, in a lovely home that serves as retreat, respite and inspiration for a fluctuating and vast community of writers, artists, and creatives of all types. As a creative living guide and coach, she helps writers and other creatives find time and focus for their best work. Her poems have been published in journals, anthologies, and book form. You can find her at www.patreon.com/sarahsadie, where she sends a small “pome” out into the world every Tuesday.
Lisa Vihos has published four poetry chapbooks and edited three poetry anthologies. She has received two Pushcart Prize nominations and numerous awards from the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. She has been a five-time guest blogger for The Best American Poetry online, a founding editor of Stoneboat Literary Journal, and is the Sheboygan organizer for 100 Thousand Poets for Change. In 2020, she was named the first poet laureate of Sheboygan where she hosts the podcast Poetry on Air for Mead Public Library. The Lone Snake: The Story of Sofonisba Anguissola is her first novel.
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