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(Photo by Candace Braun)

"A BLANK CANVAS": Princeton author Eva Jana Siroka recently published her first book, "Maddalena," based on the Catholic Inquisition in 16th century Rome. Ms. Siroka compares her book, her illustrations, and her garden, to a "blank canvas that needed to be filled." Shown here is Ms. Siroka in her garden on Cedar Lane, which was nothing but dirt when she first bought her home.

European Author, Artist Fills "Blank Canvas" With Her Work

Candace Braun

European-born Eva Jana Siroka has said that she became an art historian before she was old enough to read.

She recalled that she would pick up a book and figure out the story by examining the illustrations: "Some people look at the beginning or the end of a book: I look at the illustrations."

An artist, writer, and art historian, Ms. Siroka recently combined her talents by writing and illustrating a book, Maddalena, the first in a trilogy set in 16th-century Rome.

Ms. Siroka chose to focus on the Catholic Inquisition, not only because of the 2,000 years of history that Rome had already seen at the time, but because of the way the society lived: "The corruption of these people caught my attention."

The story is based on Allesandro Farnese, the Vatican's most powerful cardinal at the time. Although he apparently had many mistresses and an affair with a 16-year-old boy, the lack of documentation about the women in his life led the author to mix factual details with fiction to tell her story.

"I wanted to create my own heroine," said Ms. Siroka, which she did through the character of Maddalena, one of Allesandro's mistresses.

In her story, Maddalena, the Jewish daughter of an apothecary, uses her wits and her education to rise above her rank in society. After converting to Catholicism, she becomes Allesandro's mistress, but is condemned to death when their relationship is discovered. After her life is saved, she becomes a healer and a "noble spirit."

"It's fiction bordering on fable," said Ms. Siroka, adding that she wanted to create an extremely powerful heroine.

Most women of the time were "instruments of men," said the author, adding that they were made to be pious and obedient mothers and wives.

"They lived in a way that many of us never would have wanted to live," she said.

The original manuscript ran to more than 1,000 pages: "I spent a lot of time editing it, because I wanted a lot of people to read it and enjoy it."

Ms. Siroka incorporates many different aspects of Rome at the time into her book, including the arts, music, culture, religion, and science.

While the character of Maddalena is mostly fictional, much of the book is based on fact, said Ms. Siroka.

"I spent an inordinate amount of time checking and cross-checking facts....My book is much more than a love story," she said, adding that several chapters discuss the wars between Catholics and Protestants. Religion is "the thread that binds together the history of 16th century Rome," said the author.

A Work in Progress

The story of Maddalena has been in the works for the last 40 years, said Ms. Siroka, who has seen, studied, and lived in many places, including Rome itself.

Born in Bratislava, a city "deep in history and culture," Ms. Siroka, 55, is now celebrating her fortieth year living in the United States. She and her family came here from communist Czechoslovakia.

"I'm celebrating the privilege of coming to this country. It opened up a world that wouldn't have been possible in a communist country."

Soon after her arrival she attended Hunter College, CUNY, where she did a double major in studio art and art history, which she later followed up with a doctorate in art history from Princeton University.

Ms. Siroka was married and teaching art history at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, when she decided to come to Princeton for her doctorate and live here on her own for two years. Once her two children were grown, she and her husband decided to move here permanently eight years ago.

Along with her writing, she is also an artist, and has had exhibitions in galleries and privately-sponsored shows in Canada.

In her home many of her works are framed and hanging on the wall. Maddalena also features many of her illustrations.

Ms. Siroka said that she mostly learned how to draw and paint by studying masters like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo: "I simply copied their paintings until I learned to draw like them."

When asked whether she prefers writing or painting, Ms. Siroka said she most enjoys her role as an artist.

"It's a process that's faster and more satisfying," she said, adding that she can work on a painting day and night for four to six weeks and be finished, but writing a book is a much more involved process.

The drawings in Maddalena were created in pen and ink with a quill pen, and then filled in with watercolors. Limited edition copies of Ms. Siroka's prints can be purchased at Image Arts in the Princeton Shopping Center.

Along with her many other talents, Ms. Siroka has also been a Master Gardener for 29 years. When she came to Princeton almost a decade ago, the ground outside her home was literally dirt. Starting from scratch, she now has a lusciously green, colorful garden filled with different kinds of flowers that bloom at various times of the year.

The garden is an extension of herself, like her art and her book: "The book was like everything I do in my life; it started out as a blank canvas."

Maddalena is available at local bookstores, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders. For more information on the author or her works, visit www.EvaSiroka.com.


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