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Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers' Favorite
Born into an artistic family in Bologna, Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) is gifted with skills beyond her years, skills that demonstrate her talent at a very early age. Her father, Giovanni Andrea Sirani, has a prosperous studio, but at first, he refuses to train his daughters. Elisabetta’s sisters were also talented, but not as talented as she was. His opinion of women mirrored that of many men, not just in the seventeenth century, but throughout time: “What point is there in spending the time training a girl? A woman can never come close to the genius of a man when it comes to art. … A woman’s brain just isn’t capable.” Without a son (until later) to carry on the work in his studio and with declining health, Giovanni is finally forced to allow his daughter to use her talents to keep his studio prosperous – the very survival of the family demands it.
Kelly Evans’ historical fiction novel, Unfinished: The Inspired Life of Elisabetta Sirani, is exactly what the title suggests: ‘inspired.’ The plot follows the makings of a fine artist, albeit a woman, in seventeenth-century Bologna. Beginning with the first signs of a blossoming talent at a young age, the story follows Elisabetta and her sisters as they learn the art and create a lasting legacy of Sirani masterpieces. Throughout her life, she was overlooked for being female, not taken seriously enough, misunderstood, and even copied. But, she was admired and her patrons included nobles and royals all over Italy. The author has created a masterpiece of her own, rivaling the compelling artist novels of all time: Irving Stone (The Agony and the Ecstasy), Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring), Susan Vreeland (Luncheon at the Boating Party), and many others. The history and the knowledge of art in this era have been well researched; the characters, especially Elisabetta’s character, are well developed; there are engaging and educational descriptive narratives of both settings and works of art, and the dialogue helps ease the mounting tensions and move the plot along. Absolutely brilliant!