My offering for today’s Analogue Reader installment features an intriguing novel by acclaimed historical novelist Tracy Chevalier, telling the story behind the centuries-old series of tapestries that hangs in a Paris museum to this day.
If you take a peek at my bookshelf, you will notice a common theme in most of the books that I own: historical fiction and period novels. I have always been fascinated with the stories behind some of the most notable personalities, works of art and literature, and events that shaped the world, as we know it. I have also been interested in what life was like many centuries ago, when women were still graceful in their beautiful and elaborate dresses, men were still (mostly) chivalrous and gentlemanly, and lovers still wrote each other poems and love letters.
Very recently, I have added a few art-related historical novels in my bookshelf, one of them The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier. The novel centers around a series of six tapestries which also bears the same title. Designed and drawn in Paris, and woven in Flanders during the late 15th century, the tapestry series has been dubbed as one of the most impressive works of art from the Middle Ages in Europe.
Such antiquated works of art must have interesting secrets and stories behind them, don’t you think? Although we may never know for sure, I believe historical fiction is often the next best thing.
In Chevalier’s story, the arrogant yet charismatic and talented Nicolas des Innocents is commissioned in 1490 Paris by French nobleman Jean Le Viste to design six extravagant tapestries. Intended to hang in his Grand Salle, where the Le Viste family receives visitors, the tapestries are meant to celebrate and display the nobleman’s progressive status in Court.
While Nicolas is, without a doubt, a gifted and talented painter, he is also an impudent libertine, always on the hunt for beautiful young women to bed—even daring to desire his patron’s lovely eldest daughter, Claude.
Originally commissioned to create scenes from the Battle of Nancy, an unexpected twist tasks Nicolas to create something considerably less bloody and violent, something that he is undoubtedly familiar with: a lady and a unicorn. Legend has it that only a fair virgin can tame and capture the wild creature, which will come and lay its head on the maiden’s lap.
After painting his designs for the lady’s seduction of the unicorn, Nicolas must take his work to master-weaver Georges de la Chapelle in a Brussels workshop. Unprepared for the French painter’s enchanting work, Georges and his family are eventually engulfed by the intricate and exhausting project, which, upon its completion, changed and captured the lives of everyone involved in it forever.
If, like me, you’re into historical fiction, especially those set during the medieval times, I’m sure you will enjoy reading this book. Chevalier, who earned herself a name and a following with a previous historical novel, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, nonetheless offers the reader another compelling story in The Lady and the Unicorn. After leafing through this 248-paged story that intertwines history and imagination, I’m sure you’ll be on your way to the Musee de Cluny in Paris to see the tapestries for yourself.
Learn more about the book and the author by visiting Tracy Chevalier's Official Website.