In 1856, sculptor Joanna Ellenschild abandons New England, where women are excluded from serious artistic work, for the creative freedom and abundant marble of Rome. Rebuffed by the circle of American artists there, Joanna accepts the friendship of an Italian sculptor, Raphael Vittorio, who introduces her to the sophistication and decadence of the art world. Arguing that her values are provincial, he involves her in sexual trickery, then abandons her. Though shes ravaged by regret, her talent burgeons in the culture of the Eternal City and shes finally accepted by the sorority of expat artists. When she meets Kenyon Wade, an almost clairvoyantly sensitive American, she begins to fall in love with him despite herself. The story of Kenyons past weaves in and out of the story of Joannas growing success and plays out against the background of 19th century Rome where freedom and decadence, culture and class, sex and religion, fame and jealousy do constant battle. Their romance seems assured until a scandal, initiated by Vittorio, rocks the city and, seemingly, all possibility for their relationship.