Colours of Siena review – debut novel by Chiswick author Judith May Evans

Images above: Judith May Evans; Colours of Siena

A tale of love and adventure set in the medieval landscape of Tuscany

I’m having a bit of a run of medieval history novels at the moment, as I am going to Carcassonne at the end of this month and am just getting in the right frame of mind by reading Kate Mosse’s books The Burning Chambers and The City of Tears, set against the backdrop of the religious wars in the Languedoc region of France.

Like Kate Mosse’s award-winning best-sellers, Judith May Evans’s book Colours of Siena brings to life the atmosphere of medieval Europe. Her focus is Tuscany and the vibrant artistic life of Siena. Her story is also a family saga, told through the narrative of a young woman seeking to break out of the conventional constraints of the time, and I think it deserves to be as successful.

Clara desperately wants to be a painter, at a time when women were not allowed to paint. As a servant in the household of a merchant rich enough to commission paintings for the family chapel, she comes into contact with artists, who were Tuscany’s medieval equivalent of rock stars.

But medieval Siena was a dangerous place, with the rivalries of the noble households spilling over into fighting in the streets, the ever present threat of war with Florence and the indiscriminating pestilence which devastated medieval Europe, the Black Death, and Clara’s life follows a succession of twists and turns as she is banished from the city she grew up in to the country village of Monteciano, not knowing if her path will ever again cross that of Ambrogio, the artist with whom she has fallen in love.

Image above: Siena at sunset; photograph by Antonio Cinotti

Colours of Siena is a really good read – a page-turner as you follow Clara’s fortunes, but also evocative of the time. Well researched enough to reference the sights and smells of Siena, the notable figures and the main events, but wearing its scholarship lightly.

So many books about the period get bogged down in descriptions of the gruesome methods of torture used in those days, which I find a bit hard going. Judith avoids all that, providing a gentler read.

Judith lived in Chiswick for thirty years, working at a high level in the corporate world, before she left that world and took herself off to Tuscany to learn Italian and write books. She was member of a Chiswick NCT group whose children attended Strand on the Green and Chiswick Schools and she was a church warden of St Michael’s Elmwood Road.

When the company she worked for was sold, she saw an advert for a writing course in Tuscany, based in the village of Monticiano and the historic city of Siena. It was love at first sight. She learned Italian, made the village her writing home for the next sixteen years and still visits regularly.

Images above: The Tuscan village of Monteciano 

“I bought a house in Italy in 2003,” she says, “and thought to write a book to bring visitors to ‘my’ village in the same way Frances Mayes drew visitors to Cortona with her book Under the Tuscan Sun.

“A fragment of stained glass at my local church had recently been identified as the work of renowned medieval artist, Pietro Lorenzetti. I already knew his younger brother, Ambrogio, painted frescos at the nearby Abbey of San Galgano, and that both had studied under Duccio, the father of Sienese painting.

“As I delved further, I was astonished to learn of the huge festival put on by the Siena state in 1311, parading Duccio’s painting of the Maestà – the Virgin in Majesty – around the Campo before its installation in the city cathedral.

“The crowds, the colours – I wanted that spectacle in my book. And I wanted a female protagonist, who could connect with the artists. From that was born my heroine, Clara, with a visceral love of colour, which conventions of the period made it difficult for her to express.”

Judith (known as Judith Evans when she lived in Chiswick, but clearly there’s another Judith Evans in the publishing world, as she is known now as Judith May Evans for her books) is currently working on the second of a trilogy set in Siena and the surrounding area.

Colours of Siena, published by the Conrad Press, is available to buy in Waterstones.

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