Sunday, August 25, 2013

Melbourne Writers Festival: Enquire Within (Friday)

This weekend was the start of one of my favourite times in Melbourne. Melbourne Writers Festival officially started on Thursday night and continues until next weekend and, for book lovers, there is plenty to see and do.

One year I will go to the keynote addresses, which this year were Boris Johnson and Tavi Gevenson, and I will consider doing some of the Melbourne walks or even some of the workshops, but for this year my focus is on attending some of the fantastic sessions that are available to festival goers (it was unintentional that there were so many authors named Sarah in my choices). I am going to seven sessions, with most of those being this weekend. Today I will tell you about the sessions I attended on Friday and then at some point in the next week I will post about my sessions on Saturday, today and next weekend.

My first session of this year's festival was located at the auditorium at the National Gallery of Victoria Art Galley (NGV) and it was a perfect venue to host Sarah Dunant, author of books like The Birth of Venus and her latest book Blood and Bloody, and Carl Villis, paintings conservator at the NGV talking about Lucrezia Borgia and Italian Art.

The session started with Sarah Dunant talking about Lucrezia Borgia, about how the Borgia name has been slandered through history and how if you look past the gossip at what evidence there truly is about her life, you will see a picture of a very different woman than that we usually equate with her name. As part of her talk she showed a picture of a very young Lucrezia Borgia which until recently was thought to be the only known image of her in a painting.

Dunant talked us through how she first became interested in writing about Lucrezia Borgia. Her first three novels, during which she wanted to answer the question of what it would have been like to be woman in the Renaissance, had taken her on a journey from Florence (The Birth of Venus) to Venice (In the Company of the Courtesan) and then to Ferrara. It was at this point that I realised that I had completely missed reading her novel Sacred Hearts. Whilst researching in Ferrara, she came across a tomb slab dedicated to Lucrezia Borgia and praising her piety. Knowing that the woman had ended her life in a convent and was generally considered by her contemporaries (not her enemies) to be both beautiful and pious, how was it that her name is synonymous with poison, murder and incest 500 years later.

In giving us some background to the Borgia family, Dunant explained part of the reason for the level of vitriol against the Borgia family is that they were outsiders, a Spanish family that was trying to infiltrate a world that is dominated by powerful Italian clans. When Rodrigo Borgia was made pope, he was ambitious, determined and had four marriageable children which he was happy to use to build alliances with these families, including 12 year old Lucrezia who is married into the Sforza family. It is when that alliance is no longer necessary and the pope needs to marry Lucrezia into another family that the incest story starts after an annulment is granted on the grounds of impotence, something that the husband vehemently denies. A comment made by a man scorned soon wings it's ways all through the courts of Europe and it takes very little time for the story of Lucrezia being a whore and in incestuous relationships with her father and brother makes it into common usage. Mud sticks.

Sarah Dunant
A second marriage follows, once again for political reasons,  in which Lucrezia gives every appearance of being happy, but once again political alliances shift and her family wants Lucrezia to be married elsewhere, but she fights it. Given that she will not give up the marriage, her husband is murdered, leaving the still young woman to marry again, this time into the court at Ferrara.

Lest it sounds as though Dunant is a Borgia fan through and through, she does make it clear that there is no doubt that Rodrigo is an unashamed womaniser, comparing him to former Italian prime minister Sylvio Berlusconi during the question and answer section of the presentation, and that Cesare was pretty much a sociopath, but that the evidence just doesn't add up to support Lucrezia's vile reputation.

The second part of the session was focused on a painting that is housed at the NGV (click on the link to see the painting) which was for many years the subject of much speculation around who painted it, when it was painted and who the sitter was including whether they were female or male After many years of painstaking research and analysis, Carl Villis has been able to identify exactly who the painter was, and more importantly for the purposes of this talk, that the sitter was in fact Lucrezia Borgia.

Villis talked us through the evidence that he has found to suggest that the painting was done by Dossi Dossi, court painter only at the court of Ferrara during the years that Lucrezia was Duchess, including the type of preparation he used on the canvas, and the shape of the painting which is very unusual for that time in art history. In addition, there were the clues in the painting itself - the hairstyle which identifies the sitter as female, the dagger which seems to be representative of the Roman story of Lucrezia, the myrtle bushes in the background which are symbolic of virtue and beauty as well as the inscription on the painting.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Villis' talk was when he talked about the facial recognition technology that was undertaken by Victoria Police to compare the painting to a bronze medal which was cast for her second wedding. By comparing various points in the faces on the painting and the medal, the evidence confirmed that there was a very high probability that the two faces were portraying the same person. Fascinating, fascinating stuff! Whilst I wouldn't normally buy a non fiction book on the identification of a painting, the presentation was so interesting I will most likely be keeping an eye out for Carl Villis' book on this painting when it comes out.

During the question and answer section that followed, there were correlations made between the bad PR or spin that the Borgias received and the idea of modern celebrity where we love someone until we don't any more and how it is difficult to rehabilitate a personality once the mud slinging starts, about the Borgias TV series (which Dunant isn't a fan of), about how authors have to make a psychological decision on a character based on the evidence they have available and more. I seriously could have listened to these two speak for another hour quite easily and there was so much more content in what they did say that I haven't even touched on yet in this post!

Of course, after hearing this absolutely fascinating talk I had to go and look at the painting for myself, housed in a part of the gallery that I didn't previously know existed even though I have visited the building many times before.

Sarah Wendell
The next session I attended was Digital Women, which featured Jane Caro and Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches Trashy Books. Whilst this was a very different topic from the session I have recounted above, it was again very interesting, focusing on the power of digital women specifically as it relates to women and how it gives women a voice.

Part of the reason that the digital world is so empowering for women in particular is that it removes the gatekeepers that are still present in many traditional media environments whereas digitally women, and other outsiders, can directly access, participate and influence the conversation. Jane Caro gave examples of appearing on panel discussions where there are so often a token woman, but very unusual to have more than one. Statistics reveal that once there is more than about 30% women representation then the males begin to feel quite nervous.

Sarah Wendell was able to talk about the idea of shaming by relating it to the offline experience of many romance readers who are told that they shouldn't read romance, that there is something to be ashamed off or hidden, mainly because it relates to emotions, relationships and, yes, sex. What the online experience for romance readers, who have long been early adopters of social media tools, is that once a voice and community becomes strong is that shame is able to bounce back, not least of which is because the individual reader is no longer alone, and they know this. She also talked about how, for people outside of the romance community, writing the two books that provide commentary on romance gave the Smart Bitches more legitimacy but to those within the community they were just an added bonus.

It was interesting to hear of examples of when social media shows the force it has become. Jane Caro has recently compiled a book called Destroying the Joint which came about from the furore late last year when a radio shock jock here basically said that putting women into positions of power in Australia was basically "destroying the joint". The backlash on social media was pretty much immediate and led to boycotting of the advertisers on the radio program. It was also a time which proved that when both men and women talk about something being unacceptable then it is enormously powerful.

Jane Caro
The conversation then moved onto the power of social media to reach other people with a common interest and often that can be quite subversive. As an example the panel talked about the It Gets Better Youtube campaign that reached out to young gay people who were feeling suicidal about being outsiders. Because the message was on social media and so could be received without being filtered through school teachers or parents who might have made their own moral judgements against homosexuality and therefore blocked that kind of emotional reinforcement that the young person required.

During the question and answer section of the session topics that were touched on included things like how to make money in the digital world as well as the more negative aspects of being active online, including the dramas which envelop different parts of the blogosphere on a semi regular basis. In response, Jane Caro talked about the fact that whether it be online or not, people don't often attack those that have more power than themselves, it is usually people who are their equals or lessers who they feel threatened by and therefore need to attack. In order to stop the dramas,  people need to feel more confident within themselves so that they are not threatened. One thing that I found interesting was that both Jane and Sarah talked about the need to engage with people who have different opinions (not trolls who shouldn't be engaged with) but not because you are necessarily trying to change the other person's mind but mainly because other people will be watching and listening who could benefit or be influenced. We should also remember that women are not an amorphous lump with only one thing to say, but many individual voices.

Stay tune for my recap of Saturday's session which includes more from Sarah Dunant, another Sarah (this time Sarah Turnbull) and more.

Currently Reading:

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

Up Next

The Garden of Happy Endings by Barbara O'Neal

What I Wish I Had Time to Read Next

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant


  1. Now that is a long post ;) I'd be more interested in going to a keynote address at a writers' festival if, perhaps, the speakers were actually professional writers rather than celebrities. I was disappointed when these two became the faces of the festival...

    1. I think Boris has written a book! lol

  2. Thank you for your detailed writing about the Writer's Fesitval. Had I been more organised I should have thought to have come across the ditch to Melbourne from Hobart and enjoyed this. Will definitely have to keep this in mind for next year or whenever it will be on again. I look forward to hearing more about it. Pam

    1. It would be be a fun trip to do one year Pam!

  3. These both sounds like fantastic talks - I've got so much from them just reading your thoughts. The Borgia book sounds great - I have another Sarah's [Bradford] biography of Lucrezia on my TBR already, but that would not stop me adding another!

    1. I am hoping to get to read the Borgia book soon. I just have to fit it in somehow!

  4. Thanks for sharing your experiences Marg!



Related Posts with Thumbnails

  © Blogger template Simple n' Sweet by 2009

Back to TOP