Chambers of Inspiration is published in “Collected”, a weekly newsletter of articles on writing and literature by Royal Literary Fund writers. For full article visit the RFL website.
Chambers Of Inspiration – The rooms that haunt historical novelists
It is one of the mysterious processes of writing fiction that a particular image will lodge at the back of the mind while a thousand others slip away. The image may remain virtually dormant for years until one day something happens that illuminates the reason why it is there. When writing my novel Masque of the Gonzagas the epiphanic image was a hidden chamber in the Renaissance palace of the Dukes of Mantua — part of the Appartamento dei Nani, a succession of tiny low-ceilinged rooms approached by steep stairs that, I was told, one of the Dukes of Mantua had built especially for his dwarfs.
Mantua is almost encircled by water, and the sprawling ducal palace – a virtual town within the city – was expanded over the centuries by successive counts, marquises and dukes during their rise up the aristocratic pecking order. The Appartamento dei Nani was one of the later additions. This suite of miniature rooms was said to have been built by the fourth duke, Vincenzo Gonzaga, who died in 1612. I found the idea of the Duke’s dwarf-friendly apartment beguiling — and then I discovered that Vincenzo was not only the patron of a theatrical troupe of dwarfs but also of Rubens, the poet Torquato Tasso and Claudio Monteverdi, the genius of early opera.
For historical novelists, the initial idea or image that takes them back through the centuries often seems to concern a place. Buildings, in particular, carry their history within their structure, and they bring a sense of the past into the present. Around the time I began writing my novel, Rose Tremain discovered her chamber of inspiration too. Her historical novel Music and Silence, set in the court of King Christian IV of Denmark around 1630, and my Masque of the Gonzagas, set in the Gonzaga court of Mantua during the 1600s, were published within weeks of each other in the autumn of 1999. Both novels dealt with the problematic relationship between musicians and their patrons. Both were initially inspired by the image of a chamber that lodged itself insidiously in the mind . . .