Elizabeth Borton de Trevino's I, Juan de Pareja
Book review by Shannon Duncan
Ever found yourself wishing you could just step into a famous painting? Now you have that chance, and it will be a journey you will never forget.
"I, Juan de Pareja was born into slavery..."
So begins the tale of the slave belonging to the brilliant Spanish painter, Diego Velázquez.
Juan's duties included stretching the canvases and mixing colours, ready for his master to use in the production of his famous portraits.
Juan enjoyed his life in the Velázquez household, where he was treated not as a slave, but as a member of the family.
Only one cloud darkened his sky, Spanish law barred slaves from learning or practising any of the arts. He would never be allowed to paint.
There was nothing that Juan wanted more than to learn his master's art. Eventually, out of desperation, he decides to teach himself and begins to paint in secret.
Immediately Juan's skill shows itself and his delight is only dimmed by his nagging guilt and the thought of what might happen when he is found out.
I, Juan de Pareja is a masterpiece. Its exciting historical setting is captured in glorious colour. At the opening of the seventeenth century, Spain was the richest and most powerful empire in the world.
Beyond her borders, Europe was still ablaze with the flame kindled during the Renaissance. Art, music and science flourished; it was a time of great discovery and the birth of new ideas.
This is the world that Juan de Pareja and his master knew and the one that Borton de Treviño describes in the first person in her 1966 Newbery medal-winning book, as if through the eyes of de Pareja himself.
Although much is known about their world, only fragile threads of information survive about the two painters who stand silent, side by side. Artists wrote very little about themselves and so all that are left are legal documents, such as records of birth, marriage and death, and of course their works of art, which give us tantalizing glimpses of their character.
From these shreds of evidence the author resurrects these two men. At the back of the book she takes time to list the facts and sources she used.
Alongside the artists themselves, many important characters walk through the pages of this story, monarchs, clergy and nobles, but they are portrayed almost as portraits, lifelike, but not living. Their presence does not distract the reader or detract from the story.
The equality of man comes through very strongly in this story, shown by the friendship between master and slave, king and subjects. The author also shows by comparison that an honourable and upright slave is of greater worth than a corrupt freedman, a poor but generous friar than a cruel pope.
In this story time is fluid, at some times it flows slowly and whole pages may be devoted to a single day, while at others years may slip by with little more than a mention. This can be confusing sometimes, but also adds depth and an interesting perspective to the story.
Unless the reader is used to older classics, the style of English used may be a challenge. It is incredibly beautiful, but is certainly not everyday language.
For anyone that enjoys a challenge, I, Juan de Pareja is a beautiful book, one that will remain in your memory for years after reading it, the rewards far outweigh any difficulties. Although it is recommended for children from the age of ten, because of the style of English, it may be enjoyed more by slightly older children.
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