July 19, 2024
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‘The Gallery of Beauties’ Is Art, Jewish History And Mystery in One Enthralling Book

Reviewing: “The Gallery of Beauties” by Nina Wachsman. Level Best Books, June 2022. ISBN 978-1-68512-105-1.

It is 1612 in Venice. Diana, a young Jewish widow, is happiest studying religious texts with her father, as she used to do with her late husband. But she dreams of the world beyond the ghetto gates. Suddenly she is faced with a momentous choice. She has an opportunity to leave the sometimes stifling security of the Jewish Ghetto and get a taste of freedom. Yet she loves her home and traditions and doesn’t want to jettison her faith. Can she have both?

In the meticulously researched historical novel “Gallery of Beauties,” author Nina Wachsman tackles the age-old question of how to live as a Jew while also being part of the wider culture. She borrows much of the character depictions from the memoir of Rabbi Leon de Modena, one of the few surviving autobiographies of the time. Many historical details come from Wachsman’s search to document her own ancestry as a rabbi’s daughter who can trace her lineage back to Venice. The story combines two of her creative passions: art and writing mysteries.

Without divulging too many plot twists, Diana’s life comes to a crossroads when she is accosted in the marketplace by an artist who is struck by her exquisite features. He wants to include her in a commission he has received from an English aristocrat to paint the 12 most beautiful women in Venice for a “gallery of beauties.” Through her clandestine trips to his studio, she is drawn into the company of politicians and society figures. She meets a woman who is inclined to further her introduction to society, as she was once helped by Diana’s older brother who left the ghetto and became a corsair, a type of pirate, who dedicated himself to freeing Jews.

Diana finds herself a bystander to several mysterious murders, and is forced to help a ruthless nobleman whose advances she spurned, to avoid bringing repercussions to the entire Jewish community. We feel her delight in the sensuous clothes she wears to her portrait sessions and parties, and her awe in watching paintings take shape with the artist’s vision and skill. The tension is palpable when she gets too close to victims of foul play.

Wachsman said she was drawn to this period, considered the golden age of Venice, since it was a time of relative freedom for women and something of a meritocracy. “Venice was a multicultural environment. Jews had more freedom here than they did in other cultures,” said Wachsman in a Zoom interview.

“The Jews were invited in for economic reasons and placed in a ghetto, which was locked at sundown every night for their own protection. Other than that, they lived in their own sections, as did the Turks and the Greeks, much like New York City’s Chinatown and Little Italy. The main restriction from Venetian society was to separate the Jews, making them wear distinctive clothing, like a yellow badge, to prevent socialization that would lead to intermarriage.”

There was, however, much interaction between the Jewish and non-Jewish populations. In “Gallery of Beauties,” Diana’s father, who is based on Rabbi Leon de Medina, writes poetry, and affluent Jewish families hold cultural salons with concerts and plays that the aristocracy attend.

A key figure in the book is Belladonna, the courtesan who harbors a secret longing to see Diana’s brother again. Courtesans in Renaissance Europe were not prostitutes, but not wives either. They were the mistresses of powerful men; they had freedom and status but were still dependent on the men they chose—who chose them. “At that time, marriages were for money, they were not love matches,” said Wachsman.

“Courtesans were the well-educated companions of the nobility, women they could talk to. Louis XIV of France had many courtesan mistresses and married the last one. Men settled money on them and often had children with them. Wives were property of their husbands and led very restricted lives. Courtesans had freedom but some restrictions in clothing. Only noblewomen could wear certain jewels.” Belladonna was permitted to wear pearls, which put her at a very high rung on the social hierarchy ladder.

“The Gallery of Beauties” is the first of a planned three-book “Venice Beauties Mystery” series. “The Courtesan’s Secret” is due to be released in June 2023. The third book is already mapped out.

A prolific writer, Wachsman has many short stories in publication. The latest, “The Assassin’s Portrait,” which appeared in the August issue of Mystery Magazine, is a twist on Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” in which a man’s portrait ages while his appearance remains youthful. A new yet-to-be-published book, “The Surrealist Circle,” has just won the Claymore Award for the best first 50 pages of an unpublished historical manuscript, at Killer Nashville, an international writers’ conference for forensic experts, writers and fans of crime and thriller literature. The book is about Wachsman’s favorite era in art, pre-World War II German expressionism, which was a period of artistic freedom in contrast to its extremist politics.

Wachsman was interested in both art and writing when she was choosing a career. She graduated from Parsons School of Design and went into advertising, where she was the creative director of a large agency before starting her own firm. Like Diana, she was the deeply religious daughter of a rabbi, who wanted to stay true to Judaism while participating in the secular world. Although it is much easier to stay shomer Shabbat today than in 17th-century Venice, there are still hurdles to navigate. “I was the only Jew in my office who took off for Shavuot,” she recalled. “They thought I made it up! Art was my calling; I didn’t want to give up my traditions but I didn’t want to compromise.”

With her time spent on writing, speaking and book promotion, as well as running a digital marketing firm, Wachsman no longer worries about explaining religious absences. She travels to writing conferences with her husband, and brings food if kosher options aren’t available. She still runs into scheduling issues, but they are more readily resolved. She was asked to speak at the Nashville conference and learned that she was scheduled on a Saturday. She asked to switch. No problem.

“The Gallery of Beauties: A Venice Beauties Mystery” is available now on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble bookstores. For more information, visit https://www.ninawachsman.com. 

By Bracha Schwartz


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