The Woman in the Painting by Kerry Postle

Of the major Renaissance artists, I think Raphael is probably slightly less well known than Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. In Kerry Postle’s novel The Woman in the Painting she explores not only the life and work of the man himself but the story of his mistress and model, Margarita Luti. It is thought that Margarita, known as La Fornarina, may have been the subject of Raphael’s painting of the same name and although we don’t know this for certain, Postle takes this theory as the basis for the novel.

We see the relationship between Raphael and Margarita develop through the eyes of Pietro, a young man who, at the beginning of the novel, has just become an apprentice to the artist Sebastiano Luciani (later known as Sebastiano del Piombo). Although Pietro’s duties are limited to cleaning brushes and grinding pigments, he works hard and learns from his master and the more experienced apprentices, but despite knowing that he has been given a wonderful opportunity, he can’t help feeling that Sebastiano’s paintings lack true greatness. Following an accident in the workshop, Pietro is dismissed from his position and thrown out into the street, where he is rescued by Margarita, one of Sebastiano’s models. It is when Pietro is offered a new apprenticeship with Raphael, who is newly arrived in Rome, that Margarita is introduced to Raphael for the first time.

It’s not long before Margarita is sitting for Raphael’s paintings and beginning to fall in love with the artist, but as a woman from a humble background – she’s the daughter of a baker – she is not seen as a suitable wife for Raphael. Meanwhile Pietro is also finding himself attracted to Raphael and the affection he had first felt for Margarita soon turns to jealousy.

I enjoyed The Woman in the Painting, although I think I might have preferred it to have been narrated by Margarita. I felt that the choice of Pietro as narrator held me at a distance from Raphael and Margarita and stopped me from fully understanding their relationship and the emotions involved. The focus instead was more on Pietro’s feelings of envy and resentment and the ways in which he acted on these feelings to try to cause trouble for Margarita and get closer to Raphael himself. Still, Pietro was a complex and very human character and although I didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for him, I couldn’t actually dislike him either.

I didn’t really know a lot about Raphael before I started to read this book, so I found that I was learning a lot from it. The descriptions of the day to day work of the artist and his apprentices in the studio particularly interested me. As recently as 2001, X-ray analysis showed that the woman depicted in La Fornarina had originally worn a ruby ring on her finger which was painted over at some point. There is no historical proof for the explanation Postle gives for this in the novel, but it works in the context of the story. We also see, from Pietro’s perspective, the political situation in Rome at that time and get to know some of the historical figures of the period, including not only Raphael, Michelangelo and Sebastiano, but also Agostino Chigi, Raphael’s patron, and Cardinal Bibbiena, to whose niece Raphael was engaged.

This is the first Kerry Postle novel I’ve read, but I see she has written a few others including The Artist’s Muse, about Gustav Klimt and his model Wally Neuzil. Has anyone read that one and what did you think?

Thanks to HQ Digital for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies

This is the first of Dinah Jefferies’ novels not to be set in Asia. After being whisked off by her previous six books to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, French Indochina and other fascinating settings, it was a surprise to find that her latest one takes place in Italy. I do love reading about Italy, though, and this setting – Rome and Tuscany during World War II – was just as interesting as the others.

The Contessa of the title is Sofia de’ Corsi, who lives with her husband Lorenzo in their Tuscan villa in the Val d’Orcia. Lorenzo works for the Ministry of Agriculture but Sofia knows very little about what his work actually involves, other than that it takes him away from home for long periods of time. The war is in its final years – the story begins in November 1943 – yet life in Italy is becoming more dangerous and more complicated than ever. Much of the country is still under German martial law and although the Allies are advancing and driving the German army back, their progress is very slow. Not only do Italians have the Nazis to worry about, however, but they are also fighting each other, with anti-Fascist partisans locked in civil war with supporters of Mussolini and his Fascist forces.

When James, a British radio engineer, is found wounded near Sofia’s home she offers to give him shelter, but knowing that Lorenzo would be worried for her safety, she decides to keep his presence a secret from her husband. Meanwhile, Maxine, an Italian-American spy, has arrived from Rome to stay with Sofia, having been given the job of gathering information about the Germans to pass on to the resistance and the Allies. But with the Nazi officers stationed in the village beginning to grow suspicious about Sofia’s household, the two women and their loved ones could be in danger.

I have to confess that before I read The Tuscan Contessa I knew very little about Italy during the war, so I was pleased to find that a timeline is included at the front of the book, outlining the key events from the Italian perspective. This helped me to understand what had been happening in the months prior to the beginning of the novel and how there were so many different groups all working with or against each other: the German occupiers, Mussolini’s Blackshirts, the Partisans and communists, Allied soldiers and SOE spies. It’s not surprising that Sofia and her friends are never quite sure who can and cannot be trusted and who might be about to betray them. One thing I really liked about the novel is the way Jefferies shows that there are good and bad people on all sides of any conflict and that both friends and enemies can be found where they are least expected.

Although there are plenty of male characters, all with significant roles to play in the novel, the focus is mainly on the women and the decisions they have to make to keep themselves and their families safe. I liked Sofia but the other characters felt less well drawn and I even found myself confusing some of them with each other. I didn’t feel that I ever truly got to know and understand Maxine, which was a shame because her storyline should have been the most exciting and compelling, as her work took her into some very dangerous situations. It seemed that the characters sometimes took second place to the history unfolding around them, which made the story less emotionally gripping than it could have been.

This is not one of my favourite Dinah Jefferies novels, but I’m still glad I read it even if just for the knowledge I’ve gained of 1940s Italy!

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest novel, A Brightness Long Ago, is a prequel to 2016’s Children of Earth and Sky but although they are set in the same world and share one or two characters, each book also works as a standalone. I think this is probably my favourite of the two, although I enjoyed both.

Like most of Kay’s novels, A Brightness Long Ago takes place in a land which closely resembles a real historical setting – in this case, Renaissance Italy. Our narrator is Guidanio Cerra of Seressa, a city which, with its lagoon and canals, clearly corresponds to Venice. Guidanio is looking back at events from his past, beginning with his time at the court of Uberto of Mylasia, a cruel tyrant who once ‘sealed an enemy in a cask to see if he might observe the soul escaping when his prisoner died’ and who has become known as the Beast due to his treatment of the young girls and boys he summons to his chamber at night. As the son of a humble Seressan tailor, Guidanio knows it is a great honour to have been given a position at Uberto’s court but he quickly discovers what sort of man he is serving and so he is not at all sorry when the Beast is assassinated one night by the latest young woman who has been brought to his rooms.

Her name is Adria Ripoli, the Duke of Macera’s daughter, and she is acting on the orders of her uncle, Folco Cino, a leader of mercenaries. Having witnessed Adria enter Uberto’s chamber to carry out the assassination, Guidanio helps her to escape before she can be captured. He expects never to see her again, but as chance would have it their paths do soon cross again and Guidanio finds himself drawn into the conflict between Folco Cino and his rival mercenary commander, Teobaldo Monticola, two powerful men whose actions could determine the fate of Batiara (Italy).

A Brightness Long Ago explores some of Kay’s favourite themes, such as chance encounters, the spinning of Fortune’s Wheel, and the idea that the small decisions each of us make every day of our lives could have wider repercussions, affecting not only our own future but the future of others too – in other words, that everything we do matters. These are topics that Kay returns to again and again in his novels but they seemed particularly dominant in this one and that was my only slight criticism of the book – not the ideas themselves, but the way the authorial voice is constantly reminding us that ‘things matter’. I would have preferred a more subtle approach, I think! Anyway, the writing was still as beautiful as I’ve come to expect; as some of you will know, I choose a quotation from every book I read for my end-of-month Commonplace Book posts – I will have a difficult choice when I come to put this month’s post together as almost every sentence in this book was worthy of being quoted!

The 15th century Italian (or Batiaran) setting was already familiar to me from Children of Earth and Sky, but even if you haven’t read that book, if you have any knowledge of Renaissance Italy you will probably be able to draw parallels between some of Kay’s characters and members of the Medici, Borgia and Sforza families, among others. There’s a dramatic horse race – one of the most memorable set pieces in the book – inspired by the real life Palio race which has taken place in Siena for centuries, and the fall of Sarantium (Constantinople) is also covered. The different names Kay uses for these people, places and events, along with the two moons in the sky – one blue and one white – mean this book can be classed as ‘historical fantasy’, but there aren’t really any other fantasy elements in the story at all. That’s not a problem for me, but if you’re new to Guy Gavriel Kay and hoping for something with magic and wizards, I would recommend starting with Tigana instead.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Amours de Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough – A book for the Persephone Readathon

This week Jessie of Dwell in Possibility is hosting another of her Persephone Readathons. My choice of book this time proved to be very different from any of the other Persephones I’ve read, for several reasons. For one thing, it is one of only a few Persephones written by a man. With an original publication date of 1858, it must also be one of the oldest books they publish – the majority are from the first half of the twentieth century. Finally, it is written in verse, something which filled me with trepidation as I’m not really a fan of narrative poems (although, to be fair, I haven’t read all that many of them).

Anyway, Amours de Voyage follows a group of people who are visiting Italy during the political turmoil surrounding the fall of the short-lived Roman Republic in 1849. Their story is told in the form of letters written in hexameter verse and divided into five cantos. One of the letter-writers is Claude, a young man who is spending some time in Rome as part of his ‘grand tour’ and keeping a friend, Eustace, updated on everything he has seen and experienced. It seems that so far Rome has entirely failed to impress him:

Rome disappoints me much; I hardly as yet understand it, but

RUBBISHY seems the word that most exactly would suit it.

And then:

What do I find in the Forum? An archway and two or three pillars.

Well, but St. Peter’s? Alas, Bernini has filled it with sculpture!

I love Rome and ‘rubbishy’ is certainly not how I would describe it, but Claude is the sort of person who appears not to like or admire anything or anybody. This includes his fellow tourists, particularly the Trevellyns, who find Rome ‘a wonderful place’ and are ‘delighted of course with St. Peter’s’. This is Claude’s initial impression of the Trevellyns:

Middle-class people these, bankers very likely, not wholly

Pure of the taint of the shop; will at table d’hote and restaurant

Have their shilling’s worth, their penny’s pennyworth even:

Neither man’s aristocracy this, nor God’s, God knoweth!

As he gets to know the family better, however, he changes his opinion slightly and the tone of his letters to Eustace starts to suggest that he has fallen in love with Mary Trevellyn. Through Mary’s own letters to her friends Louisa and Miss Roper, we learn that although her own first impression of Claude was that she thought him ‘agreeable, but a little repulsive’, she is also beginning to change her mind:

Yes, repulsive; observe, it is but when he talks of ideas

That he is quite unaffected, and free, and expansive, and easy.

Unfortunately, before a romance has time to develop, violence breaks out on the streets of Rome and the Trevellyns leave the city just before it becomes besieged by the French. Claude has no intention of fighting for or against the Roman Republic (he doesn’t have a musket, he tells Eustace, and even if he did, he wouldn’t know how to use it) so he sets off in search of the Trevellyns instead. Due to bad luck and a series of misunderstandings, they keep missing each other as they move around Italy. Will Claude and Mary ever be reunited – or has the opportunity been lost forever?

I found Amours de Voyage much easier to get through than I had expected; it hasn’t become a favourite Persephone but it was still an enjoyable one and the rhythm, structure and colloquial language make it very readable. Despite Claude being such an annoying character, the way his story plays out is quite sad and moving as he begins to regret not speaking to Mary and telling her how he felt while he had the chance. Mary could have made the first move, but she knows that Claude ‘thinks that women should woo him; Yet, if a girl should do so, would be but alarmed and disgusted.’

The poem’s historical background is interesting too. Arthur Hugh Clough himself was in Rome in 1849 during the siege so was writing from personal experience, which explains why the parts of the poem that deal with the conflict – such as Claude’s account of witnessing a priest being killed and Mary’s description of Garibaldi riding into the city – feel vivid and authentic. I know nothing about Clough as a person other than the little I’ve been able to find online so I don’t know to what extent the rest of the story is autobiographical or how much of himself he put into Claude’s character.

Amours de Voyage endpapers

Because Amours de Voyage is in the public domain, it is available as a free ebook from sites like Project Gutenberg, but the Persephone edition has an introduction by Julian Barnes, illustrations, and gorgeous endpapers, taken from a woven dress silk from 1850. It isn’t a Persephone that gets much attention, so if you’ve read it (in any format) I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Voice of the Falconer by David Blixt

This is the second volume in David Blixt’s Star Cross’d series, combining the history and politics of 14th century Italy with characters and storylines inspired by Shakespeare. I read the first novel, The Master of Verona, in 2012 and it won a place on my ‘books of the year’ list that year, which gives you an idea of how much I loved it. I really hadn’t meant to let so much time go by before continuing the series, and I worried that I might have trouble picking up the threads of the story again, but as soon as I started to read Voice of the Falconer things fell back into place and I felt as if only five days had passed since reading the first book rather than five years!

Voice of the Falconer opens in 1325, eight years after the events described in The Master of Verona. Pietro Alaghieri, son of the late poet Dante, has been living in exile in Ravenna, entrusted with the guardianship of the illegitimate heir of Cangrande della Scala, the ruler of Verona. The child, Cesco, has already been the target of several assassination attempts so it has been decided that he should be raised in secret, with as few people as possible aware of his location. When news of Cangrande’s death begins to circulate, however, Pietro must hurry back to Verona to ensure that the eleven-year-old Cesco receives his rightful inheritance – but as other members of the della Scala family also have their eyes on the throne of Verona, this won’t be an easy task. And now that Cesco’s existence has been revealed, his life could be in danger again…

Cesco, who was only a baby in the previous novel, has developed into a wonderful character – even if you do need to suspend disbelief to accept that a boy of his age could be so intellectually advanced, quick-witted and talented in every way! I loved the little circle of friends and protectors who surround him, too: Morsicato the doctor, Antonia the nun, Tharwat the Moor and, of course, Pietro himself. The characters in the novel are a mixture of those who are fictitious and those who are based on real historical figures, such as Cangrande and the rest of the Scaligeri family. If you don’t know the history, I would recommend not looking things up until you’ve finished the book; if you just let the story carry you along, there will be one or two surprises in store for you as there were for me.

I won’t say too much more about the plot, then, but I do need to mention another very important aspect of the book…the Shakespearean connection. In The Master of Verona we witnessed the beginnings of a feud between Pietro’s two friends, Mariotto Montecchio and Antonio Capulletto. In this book, we meet Mariotto’s young son Romeo and Antonio’s baby daughter Giulietta (Juliet), as well as Giulietta’s cousin Thibault (Tybalt); obviously there is still a long way to go before the tragedy of the star-cross’d lovers is played out, but the foundations of the story have now been laid. I also had fun spotting other characters from Shakespeare’s plays such as Shalakh (Shylock) from The Merchant of Venice and Petruchio and Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, but if you have no knowledge of Shakespeare I don’t think it would be a problem at all – it’s just another of the novel’s many layers.

In case you can’t tell, I enjoyed this book as much as the first one! I am looking forward to visiting Renaissance Italy again soon with the third in the series, Fortune’s Fool…and certainly won’t be waiting five years this time.

The Last Son’s Secret by Rafel Nadal Farreras

This novel by Catalan author Rafel Nadal Farreras apparently enjoyed a lot of success when published in its original language in 2015 and is now available for the first time in an English translation by Mara Faye Lethem.

The story is set in the Puglia region of Italy where, in the small town of Bellorotondo, the names of twenty-one members of the Palmisano family are engraved on a memorial to the First World War. Vito Oronzo, the last Palmisano man to die in the war, leaves behind a pregnant wife, Donata. When the child – a boy whom she names Vitantonio – is born, Donata is so afraid that her son will succumb to the curse of the Palmisanos that she takes desperate measures to secure his safety.

The Last Son’s Secret follows little Vitantonio through his idyllic childhood in rural Italy, growing up alongside Giovanna Convertini, the daughter of his father’s best friend who was also killed on the same day in 1918.

They took dips in the stone laundry trough, caught crickets in the garden, ran through the fields as the farmers cleared the dead leaves from the olive trees, and they ate dinner together at the kitchen table. In the evenings everyone gathered on the threshing floor and sat in the cool air: the grown-ups sang and told stories and the children played hide-and-seek until they were so worn out they fell asleep on their aunt’s lap.

Elsewhere in Puglia, however, life is not so pleasant. A neighbour’s six-year-old son is sold into child labour, while in the nearby cave houses of Matera families live in extreme poverty. Further afield, Mussolini is rising to power and Europe is on the brink of war once more. Eventually, Vitantonio, Giovanna and their friends will be forced to take sides. Will the Palmisano curse strike again or has Donata done enough to protect her son from his father’s fate?

I enjoyed The Last Son’s Secret; despite it being set during the two world wars, it’s not as depressing as it might sound – the likeable main character and the messages of hope and optimism are enough to counteract the darker aspects of the plot. The depiction of life in Italy between the wars is beautiful and I could easily imagine I was there in Bellorotondo, harvesting olives, picking cherries and planting flowers in the garden of the Convertini palazzo. I particularly liked the descriptions of Matera, where Vitantonio hides out for a while at the beginning of the war.

The Second World War chapters are also interesting to read, and I couldn’t help thinking how rarely I have read anything that looks at the war from an Italian perspective. This is certainly the first time I have read a fictional portrayal of the chemical disaster caused by the release of mustard gas during the sinking of the American ship John Harvey in the port of Bari.

The Last Son’s Secret is a surprisingly quick read, but it did take me a few chapters to really get into the story. This is probably because it begins with a long chronicle of the deaths of the Palmisano men, which I expect was intended to be a quirky and unusual opening to the novel but didn’t quite work for me. Also, while Vitantonio’s story was moving at times, I don’t really think I would describe it as the sweeping, heartbreaking epic promised by the blurb. Maybe some of the emotion was lost in translation – although in general I did think the translation flowed well and I had no real complaints about it. If any other books by Rafel Nadal Farreras become available in English I would be happy to read them.

This is Book 3/20 for my 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

The Vatican Princess by CW Gortner

Since putting together my recent post on historical fiction covers, I seem to be feeling more critical than usual of the covers of the books I read.  I really don’t like this one as not only is it (almost) one of the faceless women covers I highlighted, but there’s nothing about it to suggest the darkness and intrigue usually associated with the Borgias.  Fortunately, though, I did enjoy the book – with a few reservations.  

Set in Renaissance Italy, The Vatican Princess is narrated by Lucrezia Borgia – seductive, manipulative and a well-known poisoner.  Or was she?  Actually, in this version of the Borgia story, she is none of those things.  CW Gortner is very sympathetic to Lucrezia’s situation, portraying her as a vulnerable young woman used by various members of her family to their own advantage and to further their own ambitions.  The novel opens in 1492, with Lucrezia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia, bribing his way to the papal throne as Pope Alexander VI (the second book I’ve read this month featuring a papal conclave).  Lucrezia is only twelve years old but that’s old enough to be useful to her father in securing political alliances and, with this in mind, Rodrigo marries her off to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro.   

Lucrezia’s marriage to Giovanni is not a happy one and although it will eventually be annulled and she will marry again – twice – this period of her life forms the largest portion of The Vatican Princess.  It’s a very eventful period and one with plenty of mysteries and controversies, providing endless possibilities for an author to explore.  Why did Lucrezia enter confinement in the Convent of San Sisto while the annulment of her marriage was negotiated?  Did she have a secret son?  Who murdered her brother, Juan?  And was Lucrezia really involved in an incestuous relationship with her other brother, Cesare?  Gortner offers answers, or at least theories, to all of these questions, while showing Lucrezia in a generally very positive light and suggesting that she had much less control over her own fate than is often thought.    

As our narrator, Lucrezia is engaging and easy to like, but I couldn’t help feeling that she was a little bit too innocent and too good to be true – and this made her less interesting to read about than she should have been.  I thought the ambitious Rodrigo was portrayed well, but Cesare needed more complexity and Juan was purely evil with no nuances to his character at all.  However, I was intrigued by the other main female characters in the book: Lucrezia’s mother, Vannozza; the Pope’s mistress, Giulia Farnese; and Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, Sancia of Aragon.  I would be interested in reading more about all of these women, as they have not featured very heavily in the few other fictional accounts of the Borgias that I’ve read so far.       

This is the second novel I’ve read by CW Gortner and although I did enjoy it (and always love a Renaissance Italy setting), I preferred the other one, The Last Queen, which was about Juana of Castile.  I would like to read more of his books, but I don’t really feel drawn to his Tudor mystery series – published as Christopher Gortner – or his recent novels on Marlene Dietrich and Coco Chanel, so that would leave either The Queen’s Vow (about Isabella of Castile) or The Confessions of Catherine de’ Medici.  Have you read either of those?  Which should I read first?     

As for the Borgias, maybe I’ll have another attempt at reading Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant soon.  I struggled to get into it the first time but am happy to try again!