The strands of Eva Jana Siroka’s life’s journey are woven together in the medieval tapestry of her new novel, "Maddalena." The European influences of her youth in the realms of architecture, painting, literature, and religion are palpably present. Emotional resonances of her father’s illness and death color the experience of her characters. The interplay between her academic study of the Old Masters and her own development as a painter functions on many levels: in the novel’s rich descriptions of Medieval art, architecture, and dress; in the imaginative re-creation of actual artists about whose lives little is known; and in the lush paintings she created as illustrations for the novel. These threads all come together in the novel to tell a story about 16th century art patron Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, his mistress, and the painters who surround him.
A Princeton resident and an independent scholar, writer, and art historian, Siroka will give three area book signings for "Maddalena," in Princeton, Newtown, and New Hope (see listings at end). Musing that she was "born in a country that no longer exists," Siroka remembers the Czechoslovakia of her youth as not being insular, despite the Communist government. She honed her consciousness as a sophisticated European in this place rich with history and art. "I grew up seeing art and architecture all around me," says Siroka.
In the Communist world of her childhood, dolls were expensive, oranges couldn’t be had, and chickens inspired long lines, but books were cheap. She read the great European authors, from Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann to the Italian Alberto Moravio and the Swedish Selma Lagerlof. "I imagined things about Finland, France, and Russia," she says. "My picture was broad – not only local authors."
Because many of the books she read were illustrated, this form of expression was natural to Siroka. "I had grown up with a vision of seeing images and reading about them," she says, suggesting how she came to create her illustrated novel, "Maddalena."
When Siroka came to America 40 years ago at the age of 16, her reading taste widened to include North American, British, and Irish authors. She says she was always interested in books that were "not necessarily bestsellers – things esoteric, different." She is currently reading "The Master," by Colm Toibin, which is about Henry James and which, she says, "captivates me with the richness of its language and its endless picture-building of an era. I feel I am walking in his time" – which would be about the 1860s. She might as well have been talking about her own book, "Maddelena," which reflects life in 16th-century Rome, with its rich delineation of dress, art and architecture, social mores, religious practices, and politics.
The artist in Siroka developed organically throughout her life. Her grandfather was a religious Catholic who attended church every day but to the little girl he took with him, the praying seemed to go on forever. "In the church I looked at paintings. I looked until I had memorized everything I could see from where I sat," she remembers.
Siroka started drawing as a young girl and recently discovered a record of her early efforts in letters written to her grandmother, who died a couple of years ago at age 97. "I was surprised at how good they were," she says. When she was a child, her father gave her mother a book entitled "Woman: Eternal Inspiration in Art," with images of women from cycladic sculpture through the contemporary art of Picasso and Matisse. "Whenever I was good as a child, I was allowed to page in this book," she says. "I literally memorized every image." The next step was tracing, which didn’t work that well, and then freehand copying.
She graduated from Hunter College in New York in 1971with a B.F.A. and two majors, art and art history, focusing her academic studies on Renaissance and Baroque art. She earned a master’s from Hunter in 1976, and wrote her master’s thesis on the drawings of a Roman artist in the circle of Raphael, Perino del Vaga, who lived in the first half of the 16th century. But she attributes her growth as an artist to her imitation of Italian Renaissance painters. "My training as a draftsman and an artist came from studying the Old Masters, copying them and trying to do as they do."
At first she copied drawings – what she describes as "the first thoughts of the artists." Drawing, she explains, is how the artists developed the concept and design of their compositions. Artists would sketch a conventional image, say, a crucifix, and begin to develop their own artistic vision through a series of sketches. When satisfied, they would translate their image onto a canvas with oils.
In the 1980s, when Siroka started to paint, she began by copying Old Master paintings. Even as her own style developed, she says that her painting always reflected the influence of other artists. Her choice of artistic mentor varies, depending on whether her subject is flowers, figures, or a landscape. In the image of herself at the easel on her home page at www.evasiroka.com, for example, she is combining the styles of Titian and Picasso in her depiction of the rape of Leda. And when her daughter was 12 and requested a portrait of herself as Madonna, Siroka copied a 19th-century French painting. The large four-by-six-foot foot canvas – now displayed in her home, along with dozens of her own elegantly-framed paintings and drawings – shows her daughter reclined on a sofa with an imaginary castle in the background.
In 1977, she moved to Canada, where she lived for 20 years. At Queens University at Kingston, Ontario, she was an instructor in art history and worked in the slide room with images. She married, had two children, and started showing her own work. Many of her paintings depict women and paintings of women play a part in the thematic development of "Maddalena." One of the opening scenes, which involves a painting of St. Magdalen, foreshadows the struggle throughout the book between religious stringencies and sexual desire:
"Bright light shot into the cardinal’s bedchamber through the shutters moving in the morning breeze, across his silvering beard, past a curio cabinet, to Titian’s Penitent Magdalen, bathing the saint in her naked glory.
"Every morning, Alessandro admired the beautiful woman in the painting and could do nothing about the arousal he felt. Every morning, Padre Carlo, a man made lean by a life of forced piety, dressed his master, little twitches around his eyes betraying his disapproval."
A third theme in Siroka’s life has been her interest in flowers and gardening, and her stunning garden at her Princeton home, which she started from scratch eight years ago, is a testament to her 29 years as a certified master gardener. Siroka first came to Princeton to work on her Ph.D. at the university, where she studied with David Coffin, a Renaissance architect historian. Although she had toyed with the idea of writing her thesis on the history of garden architecture, she eventually decided to study with Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann. He was specializing at that time in the artistic community during the reign of the Hapsburg emperor Rudolf II, a great patron of art who lived in the Elizabethan period. Rudolf suffered from a mental illness, possibly schizophrenia, says Siroka, and he "lived in the illusionary world of art that numerous artists at court created for him, depicting him as a god." The center during this rich artistic period was Prague, an area to which she had a close affinity.
After completing her obligatory coursework, Siroka went to Rome, where she researched the activity of artists born north of the Alps, who came to Rome to study Italian Renaissance art. "The Alps are a huge geographic divide," she says, "and in the 16th century, you didn’t fly over them." She had many questions for which there was little historical record – What did it mean to cross Alps? Did they travel alone? Did they work along the way to make money? Who did they see in their travels? Where did they stay? She tried to imagine the answers to them in "Maddalena."
One of these artists, Berti Spranger from the Netherlands, entered theservice of the powerful Farnese. "When it came to the patronage of Farnese, I knew it would be a focus of the story, because of who he was," says Siroka. He was the richest man in Rome, vice-chancellor of the Apostolic Curia, archpriest of St. Peters, and the grandson of a pope; however, the Farnese archives burned, and any letters, documents, diaries are gone.
Another character, the Netherland merchant Adrien Floris, was inspired by a brief mention in a biography of Spranger by Karel van Mander. Van Mander also implied that Spranger worked primarily to support the pleasures in his life. Later, when he worked for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, he painted many explicitly erotic images depicting mythological stories. Because educated people would have read mythology and considered it noble prose, it had a "cloke (sic) of respectability."
Siroka ended up doing her dissertation on the graphic work of another artist, Hans Speckaert, who becomes a relatively minor character in her novel. The two pieces of documentary evidence on Speckaert she found revealed that he had been paralyzed and that he didn’t pay hisguild dues. "I tried to figure out why he was paralyzed, and the first thing that came to mind was falling off scaffolding," she says, "and that became part of the story."
The idea for a novel set in 16th-century Rome developed during her research there. "When I lived in Rome," she remembers, "I lived in parts of the city that hadn’t changed at all. I was awed by the fact that I walked in the streets where the artists lived and worked." Then she had the eerie feeling that "the artists were with me," and she decided to create a novel around them.
Originally the manuscript was close to 1,000 pages. When Siroka decided to shorten the story, Maddalena became more of a center. Maddalena was originally Rebecca, the daughter of a Jewish apothecary, who converted to Catholicism in order to become the mistress of Farnese. "I wanted to have a woman who was different," Siroka says. Rebecca was distinguished both by her Jewish upbringing and her good education, which was uncommon in her social class; usually the educated women were those of noble birth whose family wealth allowed them to be tutored and to pursue unfeminine activities. Generally, women of that era were expected to be obedient, religious, and good mothers.
Although Siroka knew Farnese was a consummate womanizer, especially in his younger years, she says: "I wanted Alessandro to fall in love with a very special woman, where the feeling was so strong that it didn’t matter if she were a Catholic, Moslem, or Jew, or had light or dark skin." Of course, Rebecca had to convert to Catholicism to become his mistress, and the universality implied by Farnese’s interest in a Jewess stands in contradistinction to historical developments that featured Catholics massacring Muslims and Protestants.
The painting on the front cover of "Maddalena" is Siroka’s own and was inspired by Titian’s painting of St. Magdalen, which was actually owned by Farnese’s brother-in-law. In the latter part of his life, Titian painted a second version for Farnese in which St. Magdalen was attired so as to look respectable. During this time members of the Roman Catholic church resolved to mend their ways, abide by the laws, and become more pious. "Images were not to incite erotic feelings in anyone, above all members of clergy," Siroka says.
As she read about the popes in the first part of the 16th century, Siroka "realized how corrupt and amoral these people were." It made her rethink contemporary religious issues. She believes that although the church today has undergone many changes, it still sticks to many outdated dogmas, for example, "issues concerning celibacy that lead into practices that are alarmist – clergy involved in pedophilia and homosexuality, issues completely against the teachings of the Church."
Not only does "Maddalena" bring together Siroka’s interests in art and history, it also includes elements of her own personal emotional experience. During the time she was writing, her father was gravely ill and paralyzed, and she used his physical state to describe Farnese’s infirmities. "I relived that in the book; I felt like I was describing it from firsthand experience," she says. Her experience of her father’s death was also incorporated. "When I lost him, I felt an incredible vacuum in my life – having lost something I didn’t know I had." In the last pages of the book, when Maddalena dies, Berti reflects similar feelings: Where are you going? How can I live withoutyou? There I transpose the loss of my father."
"Maddalena" is the first volume of a trilogy. Siroka has already begun the second volume, which will cover Spranger’s life in the Rudolfine court in Prague, finishing at the beginning of the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants. The third volume will be about the Swedish Queen Christina, an intellectual who was born in a Protestant country, then abdicates, moves to Rome and becomes a Catholic.
When Siroka describes the creative process, she uses gardening as a metaphor. When she moved to Princeton, a house renovation destroyed her lawn and she faced a blank garden, just as she, as a novelist or an artist, faces a blank sheet of paper or canvas. "I started with a couple trucks of soil, and created a controlled garden for the beauty of the eye and the soul." This is exactly what she intended to create, through a controlled mixture of text and illustration, in her book, "Maddalena."
Booksignings for "Maddalena," with Eva Jana Siroka, Tuesday, July 26, 7 p.m., Chestnut Tree Books, Princeton ShoppingCenter, 609-279-2121.
Also, Friday, August 5, 7 p.m., wine and cheese reception, Newtown Bookshop, 2829 South Eagle Road, Village of Newtown Shopping Center, Newtown, 215-968-2400.
Also, Saturday, September 10, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., Farley’s Bookshop, 44 South Main Street, New Hope, 215-862-2452.
For more information visit www.evasiroka.com. Giclee prints of some of Siroka’s paintings for "Maddalena" are available on the web site and at Image Art Etc., in Princeton Shopping Center. 609-924-8544. www.iaetc.com