Working art into literature

Apollo and Daphne, TiepoloAs an undergraduate in a school that didn’t have minors, I unwittingly almost triple majored in art history. I’d accumulated so many classes in it that by senior year I was just shy a couple.

In the end, living in Italy, I (only half jokingly) claim it’s the most important subject I ever studied. After all, here in Italy we’re blessed with some of the most beautiful art in the world.

Even if I don’t set out to do so, I often find myself sneaking art I love into my writing. Two of my short stories feature Italian art in a prominent role.

One of my stories, Caves, uses a cave fresco of Santa Lucia in the story, and another set in Orvieto, Bitter Harvest,  includes Signorelli’s masterpiece, the Last Judgement.

Tiepolo, Daphne and ApolloBut my current work-in-progress includes a painting by Tiepolo (1696-1770) with its own role in the book. I love mythology, so it’s not strange that I would choose this wonderful depiction of Apollo and Daphne.

This stunning  painting is not, as I claim in my book, in the Bath, England student living quarters of a Jane Austen seminar, but instead in the Louvre Museum of Paris, where I’ve seen it. (Although I would much prefer to be like my protagonist, Janet, and be fortunate enough to have this painting hanging in  my bedroom.)

Apollo and Daphne, berniniThe painting exerts a powerful influence on my protagonist, and begins to get her thinking about metamorphoses. After all, the painting depicts the moment in which the wood nymph Daphne begs deliverance from the Sun God, Apollo, who is pursuing her. Tiepolo has depicted the moment in which the leaves burst from her fingers as she transforms into a laurel tree.

Tiepolo’s painting was, in turn, inspired by lithographs he probably saw of the masterpiece of  Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).

Apollo and Daphne, BerniniBernini’s Apollo and Daphne is today in Rome’s spectacular Galleria Borghese. I’ve seen it countless times, but I’m always thrilled to go back and visit  it once more. The coils of Daphne’s hair and the delicate leaves sprouting from her fingertips make it impossible to believe this was once a lifeless block of marble.

So for me, it was a lot of fun to incorporate this milennia-old myth with some of my favorite artwork and to have given it a prominent role in my story.

And you, writers? Do you see certain interests working your way into your manuscripts, even when you don’t plan it that way? Favorite places, art, music, etc?


  1. Claire 'Word by Word' on April 26, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Love that you did all those papers at university. I’ve often thought about studying again and though creative writing and literature appeals, it is the humanities and art history that beckons, the craft one continues to practise, but the stories behind those paintings, the depth of knowledge, the symbolism, the history offers continuous learning, pleasure and mystery.

    In my stories, travel is a constant feature, in that I find myself writing about places that have stayed with me and can imagine them as if I were back there, just like dreaming, it takes a long time before my writing self catches up to where I am physically am. It seems to lag in past locations and they most often feature once I have moved on. But I aspire to plunge into eras I have never lived and times I have never known. 🙂

  2. kimberlysullivan on April 26, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks so much, Claire! I will certainly be your ideal reader of travel is a constant theme in your fiction. : ) And yes, I agree that art often has such incredible stories behind it. Even the stories behind how Cardinal Scipione (of the Borghese Gallery) acquired his art through ruthless means is a story in itself.

  3. Nicola Layouni on April 26, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    Hey, Kimberly. Interesting post. 🙂

    I have a thing for all aspects of ancient history. Not that I claim to be an expert by any means. An eager amateur, you might say. Episodes of ‘Time Team’ where the archaeologists are unearthing Viking or medieval middens have me squee-ing in delight.

    I think spending so many weekends re-enacting the C12th in the wonderful castles we have this side of the pond (Warwick & Conwy were my favourites) fanned the flames of my enthusiasm.

    So now you know why my Martha is under siege in her medieval castle!

    • kimberlysullivan on April 28, 2013 at 6:05 pm

      Hi Nicola! This post was just my chance to be nosey and learn where everyone gets his/her ideas. Now I know why Martha is under siege. I’ll be checking in with you for our next UK castle tour!

  4. chantelrhondeau on April 27, 2013 at 6:49 am

    I love how you have art in your writing. And you already know that as a critique partner fortunate enough to read your books right now and not have to wait until they are published, I think Janet’s story is something extra remarkable. Can’t wait until I can buy your books! So much talent!

    As far as my interests making their way into my books, I think the topics dearest to me always find a way to creep in there. 🙂

    • kimberlysullivan on April 28, 2013 at 6:10 pm

      Thanks so much, Chantel…although it’s way too kind to say, especially since you have the patience to read all my pre-revised work. You said it perfectly – I think the topics we love do tend to ‘creep up on us’ as we’re writing.

  5. Julia on April 27, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    Kimberly, I love the stories in which you include art. I tend to include art too in some of my stories. I love art and I believe art and literature are interconnected. Check my latest blog post when you have time. It is about art and I think you will enjoy it.

    • kimberlysullivan on April 28, 2013 at 6:12 pm

      Agree about the interconnections between art and literature, Julia. Headed over to see your post!

  6. fayenorth on April 28, 2013 at 1:37 am

    I’d love to see Apollo and Daphne – I’ve seen photos but haven’t been to the Galleria Borghese yet. Such a beautiful sculpture. And my interests do find their way into my writing, the travel, art and music as you mentioned, and beautiful gardens. They inspire!

    • kimberlysullivan on April 28, 2013 at 6:15 pm

      Hi Faye! You’ll love the Galleria Borghese. And the stories about how the art was acquired are almost as impressive as the art itself. Ooh, gardens sound like great inspiration, too!

  7. wordfoolery on April 30, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    Thanks for posting the images, Kimberly. That sculpture is brilliant and is now on my To See list. My interest in gardening often creeps into my writing (especially herbs) and I struggle to set stories inland because I love the coast.

    • kimberlysullivan on April 30, 2013 at 5:09 pm

      I guarantee you’ll love it, Grace. My second favorite Bernini is also in this museum – Persephone and Hades. You swear that his fingers really are pressing into her skin, and it’s all marble. Ooh, I share your love of the coast! I have to set a story there soon.

  8. Catherine on April 30, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    How beautiful! More things on my Rome list! I think I’ve forgotten more than I ever studied about art history and I confess I haven’t been to a gallery for a long time. Although we did go to see the Greek sculptures at the British Museum last time. I am also in love with the Assyrians!

    • kimberlysullivan on May 6, 2013 at 7:42 am

      Ha! Your Rome list grows longer and longer. You won’t even have time to visit our writing group. : )

  9. […] Apollo and Daphne played an important role in one of my novels (not the Bernini statue version, but the Tiepolo painting believed to have been based on it). I wrote about it here . […]

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