Interview with Melissa Muldoon – Author of “The Secret Life of Sofonisba Anguissola”

The Secret Life of Sofonisba Anguissola

Melissa Muldoon
Matta Press (2020)
ISBN: 9781735176413

Melissa Muldoon is the author of four novels set in Italy: Dreaming Sophia, Waking Isabella, Eternally Artemisia, and The Secret Life of Sofonisba Anguissola. All four books tell the stories of women and their journeys of self-discovery to find love, uncover hidden truths, and follow their destinies to shape a better future for themselves.

Melissa is also the author of the Studentessa Matta website, where she promotes the study of Italian language and culture through her dual-language blog written in Italian and English ( Studentessa Matta means the “crazy linguist” and has grown to include a podcast, Tutti Matti per l’Italiano and the Studentessa Matta, YouTube channel, Facebook page and Instagram feed. Melissa also created Matta Italian Language Immersion Programs, which she co-leads with Italian schools in Italy to learn Italian in Italy. Through her website, she also offers the opportunities to live and study in Italy through Homestay programs.

Melissa has a B.A. in fine arts, art history, and European history from Knox College, a liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, as well as a master’s degree in art history from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. She has also studied painting and art history in Florence. She is an artist, designer, and illustrated the cover art for all four of her books. Melissa is the managing director of Matta Press

As a student, Melissa lived in Florence with an Italian family. She studied art history and painting and took beginner Italian classes. When she returned home, she threw away her Italian dictionary, assuming she’d never need it again, but after launching a successful design career and starting a family, she realized something was missing in her life. That “thing” was the connection she had made with Italy and the friends who live there. Living in Florence was indeed a life-changing event. Wanting to reconnect with Italy, she decided to start learning the language again from scratch. As if indeed possessed by an Italian muse, she bought a new Italian dictionary and began her journey to fluency—a path that has led her back to Italy many times and enriched her life in countless ways. Now, many dictionaries and grammar books later, she dedicates her time to promoting Italian language studies, further travels in Italy, and sharing her stories and insights about Italy with others.

Melissa designed and illustrated the cover art for The Secret Life of Sofonisba AnguissolaEternally Artemisia, Waking Isabella, and Dreaming Sophia. She also curates the Art of Loving Italy Art blog site and Pinterest sitewhere you will find companion pictures for all four books. Visit for more information about immer­sion trips to learn the language with Melissa in Italy, as well as the Studentessa Matta blog for practice and tips to learn the Italian language.

Hi Melissa, Welcome back to Reader Views! Tell us a bit about your latest novel “The Secret Life of Sofonisba Anguissola.”

Set in the sixteenth-century, The Secret Life of Sofonisba Anguissola tells the story of a woman’s passion for painting and adventure. In a world where women painters had little to no acknowledgment, she was singled out by Michelangelo and Vasari who recognized and praised her talent. Gaining the Milanese elite’s acclaim, she went on to become court painter to Spanish King Philip II and taught his queen to paint.

One can’t live such an extraordinary life without having stories to tell, and tell them Sofonisba does to Sir Anthony Van Dyke, who comes to visit her toward the end of her life. During their meeting, she agrees to reveal her secrets but first challenges the younger painter to find the one lie hidden in her tale. In a saga filled with intrigue, jealousy, buried treasure, unrequited love, espionage, and murder, Sofonisba’s story is played out against the backdrop of Italy, Spain, and Sicily.

Throughout her life, she encounters talented artists, authoritative dukes, mad princes, religious kings, spying queens, vivacious viscounts, and dashing sea captains—even a Barbary pirate. But of all the people who fell in love with Sofonisba, only one captured her heart. The painter may have many secrets but the truth of her life is crystal clear from the beginning.

Always a strong, passionate woman with a dream, she was an intelligent artist who knew her self-worth and in the end, as Michelangelo had done for her, Sofonisba passed her brush to a new generation.

Your collection of stories each center around a female artist from Italian history. What inspired you to write about Sofonisba Anguissola?

As a student and art historian, I have always been aware of Sofonisba but only knew what I had gleaned from brief entries in textbooks and dry fact-based internet articles. I became more interested in Sofonisba after finishing my third novel about Artemisia Gentileschi (Eternally ArtemisiaSome loves, like some women, are timeless) and began thinking about a possible topic for my next one.

As my in-depth research progressed and I registered all the places Sofonisba had traveled and the people she had met—dukes, duchesses, kings, queens, Michelangelo, Vasari, even a dashing sea captain—my creative juices started flowing. Soon I was weaving together an imaginative story of how Sofonisba had come to know all these fascinating individuals and demonstrate how she rose to fame and left her mark on the world.

As with my previous novels, my goal is to bring art and Italian personalities to life and shed light upon them so that a contemporary audience can relate to them in a personal way; I wish to inform, entertain and inspire further investigation.

What was Sofonisba Anguissola most famous for?

Sofonisba Anguissola is most famous for being one of the first critically acclaimed female portrait painters of the sixteenth century. It was highly unusual for a woman to be recognized professionally in male-dominated art circles. But due to her father’s encouragement, Sofonisba received a classical education and apprenticeships with local painting masters in her hometown of Cremona, near Milan. Her early training helped hone her sharp mind and served to level the playing field.

Aided by her father’s social connections and his desire to see his daughter succeed, Sofonisba was introduced to Michelangelo in her early twenties. Delighted by her sketch of a boy bitten by a crayfish, Michelangelo took her under his wing, offering to critique her work and offer advice. Il Maestro then introduced her to his friend Giorgio Vasari who was so impressed with her paintings that he included her in his book, highlighting the most influential artists of the 16th-century.

Sofonisba, who traveled throughout Italy in her youth, became a celebrated portrait artist in Milan and later the court painter for Philip II of Spain, where she taught his queen, Catherine de’ Medici’s daughter, to paint.

Was Sofonisba Anguissola the actual inventor of the “selfie” painting self-portraits back in the 16th century?

Sofonisba painted many portraits of nobles and royalty throughout her life-time. She also created many self-portraits—twelve that we are aware of, but perhaps there were more as many of her paintings were destroyed in 1734 in a fire that swept through the royal palace in Spain. Her interest in self-study and the transformation of her physical and intellectual self that she depicted on canvas is remarkable. Still, Rembrandt would be lauded and recognized as the first artist to do this in the next century.

This idea of creating portraits and self-portraits (aka “selfies”) demonstrates a significant shift that arose during the Renaissance. During this time, humanist ideas and the importance of depicting people and nature became the focus of art instead of medieval philosophies that focused on men being subservient to religion and the divine world.

Sofonisba’s self-portraits are directly related to this new, fresh, humanistic direction. In her portraits, she focuses not only on the changing aspects of her physical appearance but she also broadcasts a sense of personal pride for her talents, education and accomplishments. For instance, in each painting she made of herself, she gazes out at the viewer as if to challenge the notion that women are objects but rather active beings ready to take on a new role in society. She depicts herself in the act of painting, holding classical textbooks, or standing in front of a clavichord. She makes it very clear she is an accomplished woman equal to her painting masters and others in her social sphere.

You ventured away from your typical delivery method with “The Secret Life of Sofonisba Anguissola.” Why did you decide to tell Sofonisba’s story in this manner?

In my past three novels, Dreaming SophiaWaking Isabella, and Eternally Artemisia, I weave a contemporary theme with one from the past. I feature a modern-day heroine who is “visited” or connected to famous artists and personalities from Italy’s rich historical tapestry.

In Dreaming Sophia, through highly imaginative daydreams, the heroine talks to characters from the past—Eleonora de’ Medici, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Lucrezia Borgia, even Sophia Loren. In Waking Isabella, my heroine has a connection with Isabella de’ Medici and “channels” the Medici princess while she is filming a documentary during a summer spent in the Tuscan town of Arezzo. In Eternally Artemisia, my heroine, an art therapist, believes in parallel lives and time travel and can connect with Artemisia Gentileschi. Through this bond, we learn the artist’s story.

In my latest novel, instead of telling two parallel stories and shifting historical time frames, I decided to focus on one heroine, set in the sixteenth century. I felt Sofonisba’s story was rich and elaborate enough, with lots of twists and turns, to develop a tale entirely based on one female lead character. Still, the novel’s arc is a wide one as it takes the reader on a journey from when Sofonisba was a young girl in Cremona to old age in Genova, and we meet many interesting personalities along the way.

The story opens with her talking with Anthony Van Dyck, the Flemish portrait painter who visits her and to whom she tells her story and divulges the secrets of her life. This storytelling method allowed me to explore Sofonisba’s character in a more personal and intimate way, revealing her private thoughts and her innermost yearnings.

As with your previous heroines, Sofonisba Anguissola faced many challenges due to the period in which they were born. How did Sofonisba pave the way for female artists?

Sofonisba paved the way for future female artists by setting a shining example for others to follow. She was a lively spirit, well-educated, enjoyed adventure, traveling, and dancing… but most of all, she dared to pursue a career and envision a different kind of future for herself than was the norm for women in the sixteenth century. She was a virtuous and humble woman. Still, she believed in her self-worth and talent and was proud of her education and accomplishments, and wanted the world to recognize them as well.

Sofonisba was independent, which was also unusual for women of her day and age. For years, she lived far away from her family in Rome, Milan, and later as court painter and lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Spain. She didn’t marry until well into her thirties, desiring instead to establish herself as an important and respected painter. Despite the passage of time and her advanced age, she never surrendered her brush; she continued to travel and paint well into her eighties, always improving her skills and encouraging and inspiring other artists.

Sofonisba benefitted greatly from her father’s influence. Was this unusual for the era? Can you tell us a bit about him?

What sets Sofonisba apart from most sixteenth-century women is that she was a highly educated woman, well-versed in the classics, history, music, and literature. Her father, Amilcare, was inspired by Baldassare Castiglione’s book Il Cortigiano and encouraged all his daughters to cultivate and perfect their talents. At an early age, Sofonisba’s father recognized her gift for design and painting. He furthered her artistic education by allowing her to study with prominent artists in their home town of Cremona, which also helped to fuel her independent spirit.

Later Amilcare encouraged her to travel to Rome and facilitated an introduction with Michelangelo. The 83-year old artist was so enchanted by her innate drawing abilities that he took her under his wing, coached her, and introduced her to Giorgio Vasari. The latter wrote about her in his book, which highlighted the most talented artists of his generation.

“The Secret Life of Sofonisba” includes healthy doses of intrigue, romance, betrayal, love, war, politics – truly something for everyone. Which storyline did you have the most fun writing?

I thoroughly enjoyed writing the book’s middle section, which takes place in Madrid during Sofonisba’s days as court painter in Spain. Very little is known about the time the artist spent at the Spanish court, other than the fact that she spent several years there, became a lady-in-waiting and confidant to Queen Elisabeth of Valois and taught her to paint.

As I was doing my research, I was fortunate to happen upon a compilation of Queen Elisabeth’s original diary entries put together by Martha Walker. It opened my eyes to the antics of court life and the disturbing character of Philip’s son Don Carlos. As it is well-documented that Sofonisba painted a portrait of the “mad” prince, I knew full well she would have been privy to Don Carlo’s troubling behavior.

It also pleased me to incorporate a bit of spy-craft into the plot, as espionage and intelligence gathering were very much a part of covert court life during the sixteenth century. The whole premise of spying, coverups, and unconventional lifestyles fit nicely into the theme “the secret life” of Sofonisba and untangling the true story of her life.

What was the most challenging part of the story to write?

In this particular novel, there was a lot of historical information I needed to impart to keep the reader apprised of critical events and the political climate for the story to ring true and make sense. The challenge for me was to find a way to communicate these necessary details in an interesting manner and avoid “information dumps.” For example, in a “light way” I needed to paint a picture of the tensions between Spain and England, the discord between the papacy and the church of England, the unease in the Netherlands, and the corroding feudal system in Sicilia. I also wanted to set the stage of the Spanish court and introduce the character of Don Carlos in such a way to convey all the bizarre things he said and did without detracting from the overall story of Sofonisba. It took several drafts to get the flow.

Did you learn anything about Sofonisba that surprised you?

I loved discovering that Sofonisba, late in her life, fell in love with  sea captain named Orazio, five years her junior during transport from Sicily on her way home to Cremona. When I learned they married against the wishes of her brother, and went on to live happily together for over forty years and that that Orazio inscribed the most beautiful and romantic epitaph upon her gravestone, I instinctively knew there was a remarkable love story to be told—not only Sofonisba’s love for art but her love for the man who captured her heart.

Talk about your writing process – what does a day in the life of Melissa Muldoon look like?

A day in the life of Melissa Muldoon is spent in her home office in Austin, Texas, with two beagles at her feet, a cup of espresso on her desk, typing away on her Mac computer—aggravating the carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrists. When I am in the throes of writing, I rise early, although not a morning person, and work well into the wee hours of the night—I find that is when I do my best writing.

Once I have an idea for a story, I literally live in my office in front of two oversized glowing computer monitors during the writing process. I begin my novel with a twenty-page hand-written draft, which I turn into a 100-page typed outline detailing each chapter. This initial phase takes about a month. While doing this, I’m also researching everything from 16-century corsets to footwear, to add to my story’s believability and accuracy.

After the story arc has been established and the chapters organized, I begin writing freely, permitting myself to explore plot twists and get to know my characters, allowing their personalities to emerge and “talk” to me. When I have completed the first draft, I obsessively attack the story front to back several times, rewriting and re-blocking scenes. Every time I make a new pass through the manuscript, I enhance dialogues and add more details and things I’ve learned from further research.

After about three months of continuous writing, sometimes 8-10 hours a day, I take a break and send out the manuscript to first readers and make changes based upon their feedback. The polishing and refining continue for several more weeks until I relinquish my work to my editor and final proofreader. When the novel is finally back in my hands, I’m still re-reading and editing some more—it seems the work is never finished and my computer and ideas are never turned off!

Have there been any significant changes to your process since you wrote your first book?

Since producing my first three novels as audiobooks, I have discovered reading aloud and recording my in-progress story and then listening to it has helped me self-edit my work more effectively. It allows me to critically analyze the storyline and each sentence and check for flow and consistency. I can read something silently ten times over and still miss a typo or gloss over a phrase thinking it is beautifully crafted. But when reading aloud, I am more in tune with the rhythm of the words and can catch errors and things that need more flushing out or development.

What is the most challenging part of the artistic process for you?

One of the most frustrating things about the artistic process is accurately capturing a scene I clearly envision in my head in words. Sometimes I write an entire chapter and think it is perfectly accurate and precisely describes what I want to say. But the next day, upon re-reading, it’s like an alien has written the chapter. I have to get tough and rewrite the scene all over again. In the first draft, I also write quickly and fluidly and tend to head-hop, so I need to rein myself in and rewrite scenes only from my heroine’s perspective. But re-writing these head-hopping incidents always serves to improve the overall story. 

How has the global pandemic, among other things, affected your writing and/or marketing efforts this year?

Aside from not traveling, experiencing new things, and meeting new people, the global pandemic hasn’t stopped me from writing or my other creative pursuits. I have always worked from my home office and spend long hours in front of the computer so, life is relatively normal in that regard. In these uncertain times, writing this novel about Sofonisba has been a gratifying and fulfilling experience. It is a great escape and comfort to lose myself in a new world that I have created and become friends with my characters. When I write, the exterior world ceases to exist for hours on end, so this novel has given me a much needed outlet.

I do miss book fairs and meeting my readers in person. Still, through the internet, I am reaching out, making new connections I might not otherwise have made, and discovering new book marketing avenues, and growing my social media accounts. The computer is a powerful tool and allows me to continue uninterrupted my creative work.

“The Secret Life of Sofonisba Anguissola” just hit the market, congratulations! Do you typically allocate time to market before starting on your next project or do you multitask?

I have spent the entire year writing my novel about Sofonisba. At the moment, I am ready to bask in the glow of finishing another book, and I want to take the time to appreciate the work and research that went into creating it. Besides writing this new novel, I have also spent time marketing my other three books and turning them into audiobooks (all available on Audible/Amazon.) I worked with a talented actress who read my books and brought them to life! It was like creating mini-movies… she is so expressive, and it was so much fun to hear her dramatic renditions. I plan to take time now to focus on marketing Sofonisba and getting her into the hands of people interested in Italy, art, artists, and intriguing adventures

Where do you go from here? Do you have any other writing projects you’re working on that you’d like to share? What can your readers expect to see next?

I always seem to have a creative project up my sleeve. In the coming year, I will focus on my dual Italian/English language blog ( and my Art history blog: The Art of Loving Italy ( While I want to take a short break from novel writing—it is an all-consuming process for me—I still have to admit I’m already noodling around another concept for a fifth novel, set in Tuscany during the WWII war years.

But, once the pandemic is under control and traveling is an option again, I will most definitely be returning to Italy in 2021 in June and in September with my small group language immersion programs. I will be spending a lot of time there with friends, re-storing my creative juices, and living la vita bella!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you for this interview! Thanks also to those who will read my novel or have read my previous ones. I hope the adventures of my heroines, and especially those of Sofonisba, will keep you entertained. I sincerely appreciate each moment you spend turning the pages and getting to know all my characters. When you finish the novel, please consider leaving a review on Amazon and Goodreads. I check all reader comments, and they inspire me to continue writing, and they also encourage other readers to discover my novels. Look for all my stories also in print and as Audiobooks.


For more information visit Melissa’s author webpage: & Amazon Author page

To find Melissa on her other Social Media platforms please visit Linktree where all Social Media links are conveniently compiled for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Youtube, Goodreads and her other websites (

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