I Am Venus

  • Bárbara Mujica
  • Overlook Press
  • 304 pp.

Through the voice of an unidentified nude model, this historical novel explores the life and loves of 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velazquez.

When looking at Diego Velazquez’s exquisite “Las Meninas,” you first focus on the glowing little princess standing at the painting’s center. But quickly, the eye wanders to the other figures depicted: the titular ladies-in-waiting, a grinning dwarf, a man silhouetted in the doorway. Cast in shadow but still prominent is the artist himself, confidently holding a brush in front of a canvas. And then, at the back of the painting, if you look closely you can see figures reflected in a frame. The King and Queen of Spain. They might be standing where you do, regarding the painting as you are. Or they might be posing for Velazquez. Or they might be simply a painted portrait.

Such indirection and mystery, combined with a hearty dash of confidence, is part of what makes Velazquez a master artist. Barbara Mujica captures that intrigue with finesse in her charming novel, I Am Venus. Ostensibly, the novel is about the secret identity of the woman who posed nude for Velazquez in approximately 1650, a time when the Spanish Inquisition might punish both models and artists for such lewd acts. But as the mysterious narrator, the model for Venus, tells her story, we realize this is not a story of her life but rather a portrait of Velazquez and a meditation on love.

The story begins with the narrator’s vivid memory of reclining naked on a divan with her back to the painter. She could hear the cacophony of Madrid’s street, below, and feel the intimacy of the sunlight on her bare skin. But her mind raced with her fears of damnation and death, either of which the Inquisition could bring upon her for this act of modeling. Now, years later, she vows to tell her story, perhaps out of pride in her once-fresh beauty, and she promises us she will imagine that which she did not witness — a literary sleight of hand that allows Mujica to keep the identity of her narrator secret.

The anonymous narrator flashes further back to another scene of the flesh, but this time one less poetic. Velazquez’s wife Juana is birthing their first child and moaning in agony. Velazquez, meanwhile, is smoking in his studio, thinking not about childbirth but rather the commission he has just received. Hours later, when he learns that he has a daughter (who his father-in-law and teacher has gone ahead and named), he essentially shrugs and continues the painting he was working on. Velazquez is a polite but indifferent father and husband.

At least at first. But over the years, he comes to love his daughter and, at times, relish making love to his plain wife. Still, his ambition drives him away from his family and into the Spanish court in Madrid. He hones his painting skills and his network of connections, and eventually maneuvers his way into King Felipe’s good graces. But the young artist does not only attract the attention of the regent. A young lady of the Court, Constanza, is smitten with him. And once his family follows Velazquez to Madrid, his wife’s slim and pretty maid, Lidia, continues her flirtations with him. Soon, both appear in his painting, “The Expulsion of the Moriscos.”

Velazquez painted during Spain’s Golden Age, when riches from the colonies were flowing across the seas and the Crown struggled to hold on to its European territories, especially in the Low Countries (today’s Netherlands and Belgium). Mujica sprinkles hearty doses of history both large and small into her story, giving readers tastes of the tragedies of the colonies, the silks of a Court ball, and the misbehavior of Spain’s romping nobility. As with her previous novel, Sister Teresa, she has done some heavy lifting in the research department. But this slimmer volume moves more easily through the details while still leaving fans of her meticulous writing much to savor. There is little narrative urgency to I Am Venus, but the characters and rich sense of time and place make the book a very enjoyable read. 

Velazquez’s “Venus at Her Mirror,” featured on the novel’s cover, displays the luscious curve of a nude woman’s back while she regards her face in a mirror. The mirror, though, does not seem correctly angled to show her face as it does, and the face there is obscured.  It is as though Velazquez is signaling to us that he will not reveal the model’s identity, not directly. Mujica’s novel likewise makes good use of misdirection. For as the narrator says, “After all, what is art but a play of mirrors, an illusion?” An illusion, yes, but one that touches us and teaches us just a little bit more about what it is to be human and to love.

Carrie Callaghan is a member of the Washington Independent Review of Books Editorial Board.  Her short stories, including historical fiction about Spain, have appeared in “The MacGuffin,” “Silk Road,” “Floodwall,” and elsewhere. She lives in Silver Spring, Md. with her family.

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