Colombina, or how a story wove itself from art and mist

Sometimes a story appears whole and perfect in a writer’s head and all they have to do is write it down. Unfortunately, that almost never happens to me, and Colombina is no exception. Writing it was a meandering process of trial and error, trying to fit different pieces together without a clear image of the finished picture in my mind. But in the end, some magic must have been involved because, once the pieces found their proper places, the story shone.

It started with a writing prompt: write a story from the POV of a magical object. A sword or a ring or a lantern would have been an obvious choice, but I didn’t want it to be obvious. I wanted an object that had power on its own, even without the magic, an object that could transform its owner. As it was almost the Carnival season (the Carnival tradition is religiously observed here), it crossed my mind that my narrator could be a mask.

Mead Schaeffer, Forbidden Lover

Just as I started thinking about masks, I came across Mead Schaeffer’s Forbidden Lover. It is an eye-catching illustration, pretty and borderline kitschy, but what is important is that there’s a story in it. You look at the masked lovers and you think, “Who are they? Why is their love forbidden?” And that’s how Caterina and Domenico were created.

By this point, it was clear that the story had to be set in Venice, which was a wonderful challenge for my inner art historian. The canals, the gondolas, the mist – those were the staples. But what particular details could one highlight in a city that is filled with magnificent works of art?

First, I needed a church. Santa Maria della Salute presented itself as an ideal choice: you can approach it by water, it’s famous enough for the readers to know it or find it easily, its style corresponds with the story’s setting and one can easily imagine it appearing from the fog, imposing and beautiful.

After the church, I needed to choose a palace and, honestly, it could have been any of the amazing buildings on the Canal Grande. But I chose the Palazzo Dolfin Manin because it’s one of my personal favourites and because it was designed by Jacopo Sansovino, who created some of the greatest Venetian landmarks.

Alvise Manin is an imaginary character, but he owes his name to the Manin family, who owned the palace in the 18th century.

The interior of the palace was decorated by Tiepolo, but his art did not fit the mood of my story, so I chose a different painting for Manin’s study. The Toilet of Venus or Venus with a Mirror is a popular subject and there are wonderful examples by Bellini and Titian, who are both locals. However, their goddesses are absorbed with their own images and pay no attention to the viewers. I needed a goddess who could meet the eye of the viewer. For that purpose, I chose Rubens’s version. I don’t specify this in the story, but I held it in my mind as I wrote.

Peter Paul Rubens, Toilet of Venus

The question of Caterina’s costume was also a challenge. I didn’t want her mask to be generic, it had to turn her into someone else. I needed a stock character: vivid, recognizable, fitting the story. Commedia dell’arte offered a solution. Colombina is a comic servant, a perky maid, clever and resourceful – a perfect character for Caterina to turn into in order to save herself. But also, perhaps a little less noticeable, hidden in the shadows, I used the motif of the hopeless lovers, Gli Innamorati, for Caterina and Domenico. And of course, Caterina’s father is the head of the household, Il Dottore, and Alvise Manin is the rich old fool, Pantalone. Basically, you have the whole cast of the Commedia dell’arte on stage here.

Writing about all these elements now, I’m surprised that I managed to weave them all together, but some of that work was unconscious. My previous knowledge, my interests, things I’ve read somewhere. I am very happy that it all clicked together. I hope the readers will enjoy the story as a whole and also wonder about the historical details.

In the end, I must add a disclaimer: this is a fantasy story in which I tried to make the real details as accurate as possible. If I have made any mistakes, I apologize for them.

Oh, and there was a wonderful review in the Locus

Colombina” by Jelena Dunato is told from the perspective of a sentient mask that attracts a young woman to pick it up. Follow­ing the beats of commedia dell’arte it identifies the core drama of the woman’s life and the key players within, and helps her avoid the clutches of a lecherous Pantalone and run away with her Harlequin. It’s very cleverly done, and the mask has a great voice.

Karen Burnham