Damian Dibben’s previous novel, Tomorrow, was a fascinating and unusual story of an immortal dog searching for his master across two centuries (it was better than it sounds, honestly!). I was curious to see what his next book, The Colour Storm, would be like, but it turns out that it’s a much more conventional historical novel this time. It’s also a very good one; although the subject reminded me of another of my recent reads, The Fugitive Colours by Nancy Bilyeau, the setting gives it a very different feel.
The Colour Storm is the story of the Italian painter Giorgio Barbarelli, who lived and worked in Venice during the Renaissance. He was a real person, as are many of the other characters in the novel, and you may already be familiar with his paintings – if not, you can easily find images online of some of the pieces attributed to him which will give you an idea of the quality of his work.
At the beginning of the novel, Barbarelli – or ‘Zorzo’ as he is called throughout the book – is finding life difficult. Work is becoming hard to find, the competition from other artists is fierce and Zorzo’s debts are increasing. He’s responsible not only for himself, but also for his team of young apprentices and assistants, so he urgently needs to find some way of gaining commissions from rich clients. An opportunity arises when a wealthy German merchant, Jakob Fugger, arrives in Venice and is said to be looking for an artist to paint an altarpiece for St Peter’s Basilica. When Zorzo hears that Fugger also possesses a new colour, a pigment known as ‘prince orient’, he becomes even more determined to bring himself to the merchant’s attention.
In an attempt to win Fugger’s favour, Zorzo agrees to paint a portrait of his wife, Sybille – but as he becomes closer to Sybille, he finds that he has become involved in a conspiracy which could have huge implications for the people of Europe. And then, while Zorzo is still considering his next move, a new threat arrives in Venice…the plague:
Only the poorest folk, who have no choice but to go to work, are continuing as normal, but they’re wary, treading more carefully than usual. Many cover their faces with their sleeves or improvised masks and everyone keeps their distance. From behind closed windows and shutters, Zorzo’s aware of families pressed together, restless shadows, watching and fretting as to whether this episode will pass – as most do – without significant horror, or if this one will be severe.
Still very relevant, isn’t it? The plague plays a part in the later stages of the novel, but before that we follow the story of Zorzo’s search for the prince orient and his entanglement with Jakob and Sybille (also real historical figures). We are given some insights into the workings of an artist’s studio in Renaissance Venice and there are appearances by other famous names from the art world, including Bellini, Titian, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. By focusing on the dark side of life in 16th century Venice, Dibben creates plenty of atmosphere, and although the parts of the book that concentrate on Zorzo’s relationships with Sybille and her husband interested me less, I found this an enjoyable read overall.
Thanks to Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 4/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.
This is book 30/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.