Interview with Carol Cram about The Towers of Tuscany, Medieval Art, and Creative Women

Today, we have an interview with Carol Cram, author of The Towers of Tuscany. You can view my review of her book yesterday, HERE. Enjoy!


Hi, Carol. We are happy to have you join us today at Oh, for the Hook of a Book! We are pleased to be featuring your book, The Towers of Tuscany. How has life been treating you in 2014? I know you live in Canada, have you been battling cold and snow like us in Ohio? Until this week, we thought it would never end. I am looking forward to spring finally arriving!

Carol: I’m delighted to be here! Life has been awesome so far in 2014. Up here in British Columbia we’ve had a very mild winter (unlike the rest of Canada) and as I write the birds are chirping and my magnificent magnolia tree is in full bloom. I live on a small island (Bowen Island) that is a 20-minute ferry ride from Vancouver – rather like the California of Canada!

Erin: That sounds just fabulous and inspiring. Shall we sit on the porch in some large rocking chairs with a cup of tea and chat? What kind of tea will you be having? I’m going for one of my favorites, Earl Grey, today.

Carol: I’ll have Chai tea if you have any; otherwise, I love Earl Grey as well!

Erin: Oh, yes, Chai. I like that too. I’ll pour you some. Let’s get started then with discussing your book and your life. I can’t wait to learn more.

Q: Your novel is about a female artist in 14th Century Italy. Who is she? Where or how did the inspiration for Towers of Tuscany ignite?

A: As far as we know, there were no female artists in 14th century Italy. We do know that nuns in convents illuminated manuscripts and artisans in northern Europe created embroideries and other textiles. But as far as history tells us, women did not work on the panels, altarpieces, and frescoes that adorned the churches and palazzos of the period. Mind you, painters of the period did not sign their work so even if a woman had painted, we would not know. Painting in the 14th century was done in workshops overseen by a master, and was very often a family affair. The painter (the maestro) trained his sons, worked with his brothers, and brought his nephews into the workshop. I got to thinking that a master painter who had a daughter and no son could well have trained her in his workshop. He would have done so in secret because it is likely that the local guild would not approve of a woman painting. Like fathers through the ages, Maestro Antonio Barducci adored his young daughter. When his wife died, he naturally taught his daughter and took her with him to fulfill his many commissions around Italy. I consulted with Dr. Efrat El-Hanany, an expert in the art of the period who teaches at Capilano University in North Vancouver, and she felt that the existence of a woman painter in the 14th century, while not likely, was certainly plausible. That’s all I needed to get going and invent Sofia!


Q: Tell us how you developed Sofia’s character? She is strong and independent in a time that was frowned upon. How did you formulate her personality?

A: Although woman during this period had virtually no political power, it is unrealistic to think that they were powerless. We didn’t invent strong women in the 21st century! Then, as now, women took care of their families, ran large households, played active roles in helping with the family business, and had influence over their husbands and neighbours. For example, a woman such as Monna Guiliana, the wife of Luca Manzini, the painter Sofia lives with in Siena, has tremendous influence over her husband, and Sofia’s sister-in-law Caterina is beloved and trusted by her husband. On the other hand, women definitely had fewer opportunities, particularly women of the upper classes. I started with the premise that strong, intelligent women had always existed and then thought about how they might have coped during a time that, thanks to plague, famine, and frequent wars, was harsh for everyone. I also think it’s important to remember that just because opportunities were limited for women in the middle ages (and even today in certain parts of the world), it is not necessarily the case that all women were meek and mild. Far from it! Bad things happen to my Sofia but often as a result of her own choices. She is definitely not a victim.

Q: What types of art did Sofia produce? I read about the altar pieces and panels, but did she produce painting of any other kind? Do you have any photos you can show us?

A: In the novel, Sofia also paints armor—tedious work that she loathes. In the first half of the 14th Century in Italy, the rise of the merchant class resulted in a great deal of surplus wealth which in turn facilitated an explosion in the demand for art. Panels, frescoes, and altarpieces adorned churches, chapels and civic buildings; private devotional panels and frescos were created for wealthy citizens; and banners, furniture, book covers, and armor were decorated with painted designs. I have an art guide that readers can refer to as they read The Towers of Tuscany. They can access the guide from my Web site at My Author Notes also include links to pictures of the art that inspired many of the scenes in the novel.

Q: Of course it was unusual during this time period for a woman to aspire to anything other than producing male heirs, but have you come across other women from then that produced anything of artistic value?

A: There are no records of women painters in 14th Century Italy, but certainly women have produced art through the ages. Here’s a link to an article on Wikipedia about women artists. Famous examples include Helena of Egypt in the 4th century BC and Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th century. As mentioned earlier, women also created illuminations and were active in the textile industries, particularly in northern Europe. For example, the famous Bayeux tapestry is an embroidery stitched by the needlewomen of Kent in England in the years following the Norman conquest in 1066.

Q: Did you do a lot of research for your novel? Did you find anything that surprised you?

A: I read quite a few books, consulted with some experts in the art of the period, and traveled to Italy where I spent a great deal of time looking at the art of the period and just wandering the medieval streets of San Gimignano and Siena. One of the coolest things I found in my research was a museum called San Gimignano 1300 in San Gimignano, the Tuscan city of towers where much of the novel takes place. This museum includes an incredible scale model of San Gimignano as it appeared in the year 1300. I took numerous pictures of the model so that when I returned home to Vancouver, I could imagine Sofia walking through the narrow streets and painting in her tower room. Here are some pictures of the scale model.

towers 2towers 1

 San Gimignano still has 17 towers, but in its heyday in the 14th Century, over 70 towers were jammed into the same space occupied by the town today. Here are some pictures of San Gimignano and the gorgeous Tuscan countryside.

carol with towerscountryside gimignano


Q: Medieval Italy seemed to be so vibrant with the arts, from art to music to writing. What are some of the favorite things you like from the time period? Did you put any into your novel?

A: I love the style of art of the period, particularly frescoes that showed secular subjects. The vast majority of the art of the period was religious. However, some painters were starting to depict architecture, daily activities, and regular people, particularly in frescoes. Sofia actually paints a view of the towers of San Gimignano at the end of the novel. Landscape paintings were extremely rare during this period; however, painters were starting to experiment and I wanted to make my Sofia one of those painters. Her painting is inspired by a real painting done by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the 1340s. Here’s a picture of it. Sofia’s painting would have been similar to this—very stylized and, in my opinion, just wonderful!

painting cram

Q: You live with your husband who is a painter. Did he influence your book or assist you with the art elements in your book? It sounds like you both are a very creative team!

A: My novel was published in January; it’s now April and my husband Gregg has just made it to Chapter 10! He loves the novel and is incredibly supportive, but he is not a reader of fiction. That’s okay with me. It’s quite wonderful that my biggest fan is someone who doesn’t actually read my work—or at least takes his time doing so! When I was writing the novel, we discussed the art of course, but I was writing about a period with which he is not that familiar. He is a contemporary painter working in the tradition of surrealism and is most knowledgeable about painting in the 19th and 20th centuries. Readers can check out his work at On the other hand, just living for over 30 years with a painter is a major influence. I’ve watched him work, listened to him talk about his challenges with materials and getting the painting “right,” and spent many hours helping him catalog and sell his work. I also paint a bit myself. And really, the creative process is similar in all the arts—the frustrations and the joys.

Q: What other novels do you think you’ll write? Do you have any other strong women in mind or more books of an art history theme?

A: My goal is to develop a series of historical novels with an arts twist. Each novel will focus on a particular art genre—painting, music, theater, etc. My next novel (working title: Vienna Nocturnes) is about a six foot tall concert pianist and composer named Isabette Grüber. The novel opens in Vienna on March 29, 1827, the day of Beethoven’s funeral and follows Isabette as her career intersects with Schubert and Chopin and she copes with numerous challenges that threaten her livelihood, her passions, and perhaps even her mind. Stay tuned!

Q: What is the best way for you to spend a relaxing day without work or writing?

A: As I mentioned earlier, I live on a beautiful island and so to relax I like to go for walks in the forest and enjoy views of the ocean. I also enjoy doing community work as president of our local arts council (the Bowen Island Arts Council) and I love to travel and to plan trips when I’m not traveling. My next big trip is to Vienna, England, and Scotland in September. In Vienna I’ll do the last bits of research for “Vienna Nocturnes” which I plan to release in November 2014. I’ll also be researching my third novel which is set in Bath and London in 1809 and revolves around the theatre.

Q: Where can readers and writers connect with you best?

A: On my Web site at Readers can sign up to receive my newsletter and leave comments on blog postings. Readers can also follow me on Twitter @carolcram and email me directly at I love corresponding with readers and will do my best to respond to emails and comments.

Erin: Thank you so much for coming by today, Carol. I appreciate so very much your time in answering these questions. I love books that speak to the art history of past time periods, and especially, I like books featuring strong female protagonists. Thank you for writing it!

Carol: It was a pleasure to be here. Thanks, Erin, and have a great day!

The-Towers-of-TuscanyTowers of Tuscany, Synopsis~

Publication Date: January 23, 2014
New Arcadia Publishing
Formats: Paperback, Ebook

Genre: Historical Fiction

Set amid the twisting streets and sunlit piazzas of medieval Italy, the Towers of Tuscany tells the story of a woman who dares to follow her own path in the all-male domain of the painter’s workshop. Sofia Barducci is born into a world where a woman is only as good as the man who cares for her, but she still claims the right to make her own mistakes. Her first mistake is convincing her father to let her marry Giorgio Carelli, a wealthy saffron merchant in San Gimignano, the Tuscan city of towers. Trained in secret by her father to create the beautifully-crafted panels and altarpieces acclaimed today as masterpieces of late medieval art, Sofia’s desire for freedom from her father’s workshop leads her to betray her passion and sink into a life of loveless drudgery with a husband who comes to despise her when she does not produce a son.

In an attack motivated by vendetta, Sofia’s father is crushed by his own fresco, compelling Sofia to act or risk the death of her soul. The choice she makes takes her on a journey from misery to the heights of passion—both as a painter and as a woman. Sofia escapes to Siena where, disguised as a boy, she paints again. When her work attracts the notice of a nobleman who discovers the woman under the dirty smock, Sofia is faced with a choice that nearly destroys her.

The Towers of Tuscany unites a strong heroine with meticulously researched settings and compelling characters drawn from the rich tapestry of medieval Italy during one of Europe’s most turbulent centuries. The stylishly written plot is packed with enough twists and turns to keep readers up long past their bedtimes.

Praise for The Towers of Tuscany~

“The Towers of Tuscany is a delightful escape to the Siena we all love. Carol Cram has crafted a delicious story about a strong woman torn between her secret past, her love of painting and the forbidden charms of her rich patron. Hard to resist and highly recommended!” – Anne Fortier, Author of The Lost Sisterhood and the New York Times bestseller, Juliet

“Carol Cram’s lush descriptions and intriguing characters bring this dramatic tale of medieval Tuscany to life. If you love Italian art, a feisty heroine, and a page-turning plot, you will adore this novel.” – Deborah Swift, Author of A Divided Inheritance

The Towers of Tuscany has all the elements of a wonderful historical novel―a talented, frustrated heroine, a treacherous, feckless husband, and a promise to a dying, much loved father who orders the heroine on a dangerous mission. Carol is a first rate storyteller. The research is well done. Every chapter displays a fine knowledge of painting technique of the 14th century, and customs and mores of the age. The details of dress, fabric, food, are flawless. The clever dialogue and fast pace make the novel zing along.” – Roberta Rich, Author of The Midwife of Venice and The Harem Midwife

“Sofia will set your heart racing as she attempts to find what we all, in our own ways, strive to seek: love, resolution, and artistic freedom. The legacy of this story will leave you yearning for more.” – Cathleen With, award-winning author of Having Faith in the Polar Girls’ Prison

Buy the Book

Amazon (Ebook)
Amazon (Paperback)


Author Carol M. Cram, Biography~

Carol CramCarol M. Cram has enjoyed a great career as an educator, teaching at Capilano University in North Vancouver for over twenty years and authoring forty-plus bestselling textbooks on business communications and software applications. She has an MA in Drama from the University of Toronto and an MBA from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Carol is currently focusing as much of her attention as she can spare between walks in the woods on writing historical novels with an arts twist.

She and her husband, painter Gregg Simpson, share a life on beautiful Bowen Island near Vancouver, Canada.

Author Links


Tour Schedule:

Tour Hashtag: #TowersofTuscanyTour

The Towers of Tuscany_Tour Banner _FINAL 2

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