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As with Venice there's not much native Italian fiction about Florence, or at least not much that's been translated into English. So most of the recommendations are written by Brits and Americans. The Medici, Machiavelli, the Pazzi Conspiracy, the lives of the artists and their apprentices, Simonetta Vespucci...the themes recur and concentrate on the Renaissance. Some science fiction novels too, dealing well with some fascinating what ifs surrounding the life of Leonardo. 


For novels written by a native, dealing with working class life in Florence between the wars, there's Vasco Pratolini, whose works were also much, and mostly moodily, filmed.

Florence now has its own off-topic pages too, dealing with the Santo Spirito façade projections and a page devoted to books of photos of Lost Florence.

 
 
 

 

A-F
Ahlgren, Greg  The Medici Legacy
Alexander, Sidney Michelangelo the Florentine
Allen, Eric The man who chose death
The story of Lorenzo the Magnificent
Badalamente, Richard
A Cat in Florence short story
Barbeau, Clayton C.  Dante & Gentucca: a love story
Barber, Noel The daughters of the prince
Bennett, Laura Gilmour A time and a place
Boccaccio, Giovanni The Decameron
Brown, Dan Inferno
Burns, Richard Sandro and Simonetta
Carcaterra, Lorenzo Midnight Angels
Chamings, Matt The Medici Curse
Cherne, Barbara Bella Donna
Clark, Robert Dark water
Clewes, Howard Epitaph for love
Congreve, William
Incognita
Cooper, Lettice Fenny
Daniels, Laura The Lakenham folly
Dann, Jack
The Memory Cathedral
Dante Alighieri
The Divine Comedy
Day, Richard Cortez When in Florence
Delahaye, Michael Sale of lot 236
De Polnay, Peter Mario
Out of the square
Dibdin, Michael A rich full death
Dunant, Sarah The birth of Venus
Dunnett, Dorothy The Spring of the Ram:
The House of Niccolo 2
Eliot, George Romola
Elston, Catherine Flight to Florence
Eyre, Annette The magnolia room
Eyre, Katherine Wigmore Amy
Ferro, Robert The blue star
Fisk, Alan
Cupid and the silent goddess
Forster, E.M. A room with a view
Where angels fear to tread
Frank, Michael Florentine Commission
Freeman, Harold Webber The poor scholar's tale

   

L-P
Lamming, R.M. The Notebook of Gismondo Cavalletti
Langton, Jane
The Dante game
Leoni, Giulio The Third Heaven Conspiracy
(
aka The Mosaic Crimes)
The Kingdom of Light
Lewis, Sinclair World so wide
L'Heureux, John The Medici Boy
Llorente, Pilar Molina
The apprentice
Lloyd, Kathleen Phoenix in Firenze
Lorrimer, Claire  Voice in the dark
Losowsky, Andrew The Doorbells of Florence

Loupas, Elizabeth The Red Lily Crown

McAuley, Paul J.
Pasquale's angel
McKean, James Quattrocento
McKenzie, Graham A Florentine Influence
Machiavelli The Prince
Manetti, Antonio The fat woodworker
Marinello, Edward A.  Lorenzo
Marshall-Andrews, Robert The palace of wisdom
Mathew, David In Vallombrosa
Meissner, Susan The Girl in the Glass
Miller, Alison Demo
Nabb, Magdalen Death of an Englishman

Death of a Dutchman
Death in Springtime
Death in Autumn
The Marshall and the murderer
The Marshall and the madwoman
The Marshal's own case
The Marshal makes his report
The Marshal at the Villa Torrini
The Monster of Florence
Property of blood
Some bitter taste
The innocent
Vita Nuova
Orgill, Douglas Astrid factor
Palazzeschi, Aldo Materassi sisters
Pownall, David Hard frosts in Florence radio play
Pratolini, Vasco Bruno Santini
Family Chronicle
The Girls of San Frediano
An Italian story
Metello
Naked streets
A tale of poor lovers
Tale of Santa Croce
Preston, Alex In Love and War
Proud, Linda 
A Tabernacle for the Sun
Pallas and the Centaur
The Rebirth of Venus
A Gift for the Magus

 

 

 

 

G-K
Gaunt, Richard  Medici woman
Gilbert, Michael  The etruscan net
Giuttari, Michele
A Florentine Death
A Death in Tuscany
The Death of a Mafia Don
A Death in Calabria
The Black Rose of Florence
The Dark Heart of Florence

Glanville, Brian Along the Arno
Cry of crickets
Kissing America

Griffin, John Florentine Madonna
Grindle, Lucretia The faces of angels
The Villa Triste
The Lost Daughter

Harris, Thomas Hannibal

Heath, Tinney Sue A Thing Done
Hellenga, Robert The sixteen pleasures
The Italian Lover
Hill, John Spencer The last castrato: a mystery of Florence
Hines, Joanna Angels of the flood
Hoffman, Mary Stravaganza - City of Flowers

David
Holme, Timothy Vile Florentines
Howells, William Dean Indian Summer
Hughes, Shirley Hero on a Bicycle
Huston, Nancy Infrared
Jaime, Catherine Leonardo the Florentine
James, Henry Portrait of a lady
The diary of a man of fifty (short story)
Kalogridis, Jeanne  Painting Mona Lisa
Kay, Kathryn The Gilder
Kazan, Philip Appetite
King, Francis Henry The ant colony
Dividing stream

Kent, Christobel  A party in San Niccolo
A Florentine revenge
A Time of Mourning
reissued as The Drowning River
A fine and private place
The dead season

A Darkness Descending
The Killing Room



R-W
Regan, Martin Andrea in Florence Kindle short story
Ricci, Peter Florentine Gold
Roessner, Michaela The Stars Dispose
The Stars Compel
Rushdie, Salman
The Enchantress of Florence
Ryan, Mary The promise
Schachner, Nathan The Wanderer: A Novel of
Dante and Beatrice

Shulman, Sandra Francesca - the Florentine
Sinclair, Ian More and more
Slatton, Traci L. Immortal
Small, Bertrice Bianca - The Silk Merchant's Daughter
Somerset Maugham, W. Up at the villa
Then and Now
Soren, Ingrid Meeting Dante
Spencer, Elizabeth The light in the piazza
Stewart, J.I.M. Avery's mission
Mark Lambert's supper
Stone, Irving The agony and the ecstasy
Swan, Michael The paradise garden
Tennant, Emma Felony
Thomson, Rupert Secrecy
Timperley, Rosemary Mask shop
Townsend, Lindsay
Voices in the Dark

Upton, Arvin Lorenzino
Van Orden, Bianca Water music
Vichi, Marco Death in August
Death and the Olive Grove
Death in Sardinia
Death in Florence
Death in the Tuscan Hills
Vittorini, Elio The red carnation
Wallace, Jane For the best of reasons
White, Alana The Sign of the Weeping Virgin


  

Richard Badalamente A Cat in Florence
This is a short story available from Amazon for the Kindle for 77p. It tells of David and Jenny, a couple on their way from Vienna to Florence for a spring holiday, who are somewhat surprised (he more than she for some reason) when Jenny turns into a cat on the train. The problems this presents in terms of eating, washing, visiting galleries, and other...functions are humourously dealt with. As with most self-published fiction this has unevenness in spades. There's some smart writing and nicely-timed humour, but also some frown-inducingly odd behaviour and weird mistakes, like Jenny saying 'That's the church where the frescoes by Lippi, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi and Giotto are.' Enjoyably strange, then, but a bit puzzling in the actions of the characters and the moral message.



Dan Brown Inferno
There was a lot of sniffy coverage in the months and weeks preceding the publication of this one. I was not myself immune to such prejudice, but the book itself turns out to be not that bad. I read and enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, way back before it became so annoyingly successful, enough to want to read the one before, even. But that was enough. So when the next one got such bad reviews I easily resisted. Inferno is the author's usual travelogue-whilst-being-pursued thing, with Robert Langdon, the non-hunky Indiana Jones, being chased through Florence's tourist traps in the company of a blonde female doctor (who is described as pretty pretty frequently), solving brain-boggling puzzles and telling us big chunks of history. The travel guide content is considerable, and makes you realise how tautness of plotting and minimalness of detail is hardly a Dan Brown thing. But he knows his Florence and his knowledge and opinions are sound, i.e. I tend to agree with them. All the major, and a couple of minor, sights get visited, as our hero and his helper follow a trail of Dante-related clues, leading to something like a plague virus. Conspiracies and deceptions abound, and then half-way through the action moves to...Venice! San Marco is the only location used here, after a speedy boat up the Grand Canal from the railway station, and then we're off somewhere else. The nobody's-who-they-seem theme leads to a suitably ambiguous ending, which might alienate some with its lack of neatness. I'll not plot-spoil. This is an effectively gripping read for...well not the beach maybe, but certainly a shady spot in the Boboli Gardens, or on your flight to Florence.

William Congreve  Incognita
This short novel, from the famous Restoration dramatist, was published in 1692 and is set in the Florence of the later Medici, so it's not written from quite such a distance as most of the novels here reviewed. Once you get past the florid and formal language you're into a plot concerning a couple of noblemen attending a masked ball and falling for two women, but each tells his object he is the other. If you know Shakespeare comedies you'll know how all this mistaken identity stuff goes. But the plot's not what we're here for. If you persevere you're rewarded by some witty writing and oddly memorable scenes, which just goes to show he should have stuck to plays, and he mostly did - this is his only novel. Republished in 2003 by Hesperus Press, publishers of  lost classics in lovable editions.

 

Jack Dann The Memory Cathedral
A novel about a lost year in the life Leonardo da Vinci. What if Leonardo had got the chance to build his flying machines, and to take them East and use them in a war against the infidels. This adventure takes a while to get going, but as the preparatory half-novel takes place in a convincingly-painted Florence of the Medici, us Florence fans will want the preparations to go on forever. Leonardo's loves and intrigues are believable even when you know that the relationships are sometimes invented. The Medici, models and painters are all given lives and flesh, maybe not the ones they actually possessed but they are authentic enough to convince and enthral all but the driest pedant.


Dante The Divine Comedy
One of the real biggies in World literature, you really must try to read this, probably many times, in the hope that one day you'll manage more than a few pages. His mixed feelings for the city he loved, but from which he was exiled, are evident in passages in the Inferno and Purgatory. It's a notoriously brain-boggling  job for any translator - it took until 1782 for anyone to try to render it into English. The best translation of the whole thing is said to be the one by Allen Mandelbaum, which I bought from a bookshop in Florence, to add extra incentive by association, but it didn't work, although I did read more than I had with any other version. There is a new translation of just The Inferno recently out (late 2004) by Ciaran Carson, which sounds temptingly fluid and unfussy and clear, so maybe I'll try again. (I didn't, but in 2011 A.N.Wilson's Dante in Love came along to ease one in, maybe.)

Michael Dibdin A Rich Full Death
The fashion for celebrity detectives had not taken hold when Michael Dibdin wrote this novel, which sees Robert Browning deserting his famously ailing wife for crime-solving. We've had everyone from Dante to a thinly-veiled Henry James playing detective since. The story is told in letters by a Bostonian called Booth and the first murder victim is a woman called Isabel, so there are Jamesian echoes here too. But the author keeps a lot of literary balls in the air, indulging himself in authentic-sounding flowery language, gothick excess and poetic jiggery-pokery. And he gives good period Florence too, from spooky palazzi to overhung alleys. In one especially evocative episode our heroes take refuge from the rain and compare conclusions in the church of Santa Felicita. It isn't named but they are disturbed by some Americans of their acquaintance coming in to admire Pontormo's Deposition. The action surges fruitily on, with Dante's Inferno providing a trail to be followed to a pair of shocking endings. A veritable thrill ride for inquiring minds, methinks.



Sarah Dunant The Birth of Venus 
The story of a girl of good family in Renaissance Florence, who has more spirit than wiles and more intellect then beauty, and who wants to be an artist. A pale northerner arrives to fresco the family chapel and...well, I think you can guess what happens. But there's more. While this is a not-unpredictable tale of a woman in conflict with the harsh constraints of her time and whilst all the bases are covered - art, the Medici, the plague, Plato, religious turmoil, homosexuality, fine fabrics, Savonarola, childbirth - it does its job well and with a few unpredictable twists. With its melodramatic plot turns - and self-conscious mentions of famous faces - it never quite casts off a somewhat overwrought air of being upmarket chick-lit. But it's a fine authentic Florence fix of conviction and readability.

Alan Fisk Cupid and the Silent Goddess
Giuseppe is apprentice to mannerist painter Bronzino and also the model for two of the figures in his famous Allegory with Venus and Cupid. The painting (see right) which is in the National Gallery in London is a beguiling and dense mix of figures and meanings that are far from certain. This novel tells the story of its commission and creation, with the main focus on the apprentice and his attachment to Angelina, the model who sits for Venus. She is a silent beauty whose smiles entrance but whose mind is a thing of mystery.  Bronzino is seen through the eyes of Giuseppe, forced to be the object of his master's lusts when he is not slaking them with his own master Pontorno, and so he doesn't come out of this story well. He's painted as an evil-tempered and vain rapist of young boys, which is not the line Vasari takes, to say the least. The facts of history are played with, of course, but it's a believable tale which never jars or drags, and which is full of convincing inventions and fragrant details, like the mysterious Angelina responding positively to strong smells, whether pleasant or not. The plot is not complex, but there are well-drawn characters that you'll care for and the times are fully and colourfully evoked. 
And did you know that the foot in the bottom-left-hand corner of the painting (right) is the Monty Python intro animation foot?


Michele Giuttari A Florentine Death
Well, I tried, I really did. I managed to get past the flat and cliché-ridden prose, the unconvincing dialogue and the very ordinary characters. Also the fact that the lack of any descriptive talent was doing Florence no favours. I wasn't enjoying the book hugely but I was persevering, for your sake. But then on page 107 the cops recover a Velazquez portrait and our hero is impressed by how its eyes follow him around the room. I'm sorry but, as has been said before and often, life is too short. Also Jane, who managed to finish it, had warned me that the lesbian character gets anally raped later on and enjoys it, and that there's also some gratuitous Thomas Harris-style stuff, what with all the gruesome torture implements and the man-eating wolves. If this sounds like the sort of thing that you'd enjoy then be my guest. But not in my house.
Much was made in the publicity material about Giuttari being involved in the Monster of Florence case, thereby making us feel we have to respect him for his real-life crime fighting. Imagine my joy then, when watching a TV documentary about the case, at discovering that he was, in fact, one of those taken in by the utterly foolish black magic theories. The film mentioned his criminal convictions for lying under oath too, and how he had a journalist arrested for pointing out his stupidity. It's somehow reassuring that my deep dislike for this book is born out by his turning out to be pretty much a dishonest hindrance to the solving of the case.
More about the documentary here
He's written five more novels since, but I'm not tempted.


Brian Glanville  Along the Arno
Three young exiles wash up in post-war Florence. The blurb talks of a lost generation and a web of love, violence and frustration... but I do intend to read it one day, honest.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Thomas Harris Hannibal
The sequel to Silence of the Lambs sees the escaped Doctor Lecter establishing himself as an academic in Florence. With his wine expertise and love of the finest things he's like a dark-side James Bond, and the constant harping on his perfect refinement can get a little wearing. He displays the depth of his knowledge, and so gets to be the custodian of a grand palazzo - just like that - and we get shown some of the sights. The descriptions are loving, the detail convincing, and a corrupt policeman called Pazzi gets done in like his renaissance ancestor, as punishment for trying to help kill the bad Doctor. Florence's own serial killer, the Monster, as featured in Magdalen Nabb's novel, gets a look in too. For his final showdown with Clarice he has to leave Florence, and then the gruesomeness really begins. Engrossing. There is a film too.

Tinney Sue Heath A Thing Done
In 1216 Corrado, a fool, finds himself mixed up in a feud that's about to much worsen amongst the more powerful families in Florence, and he's being paid tempting sums to help in this worsening. A wedding is set to be the flash point, and our fool (by this stage working for both factions and knowing far too much) is hoping his death at the hands of whichever faction first discovers his treachery will at least be a quick one. Ms Heath puts no feet wrong in her presentation of a Florentine society both familiar and a bit different, due to being an earlier time than we're used to reading about. The details of the travelling players' lives are sure-footed, sharp and authentic too, with telling detail around their instruments, performance rituals and repertoires. And Florence is not floridly, or self-consciously, described, it's just all around. If you don't know Florence you might crave a bit more description, but if you've read a bit of Florence-set fiction you'll be happy not to have, say, the history of the Duomo retold, yet again. And it's all based on real events, which were the origin of the famous Guelf/Ghibelline conflict. Corrado himself is a perceptive fool, and verily nobody's fool. An intelligent and involving read. And a firm recommendation.
 

Lucretia Grindle
The Lost Daughter
This is the third novel in Lucretia Grindle's series of Florence-centred novels featuring detective Alessandro Pallioti. It deals with the disappearance of the daughter of some typically rich and dysfunctional American parents. She'd been doing a gap year art course in Florence and, it turns out, had also been being groomed on Facebook by an aging member of the Red Brigades, the notorious terrorist band who kidnapped prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978. The novel moves from Florence back to the childhood in Ferrara of the kidnapped girl's mother and on to the kidnapping itself. The author is addicted to the past/present thing, which is far from an uncommon plot device lately, but keeps it fresh. The past becomes the focus of the story, but the continued mystery about the girl's disappearance and fate keeps the tension up, even as events from Italy's history grip the attention. Florence is feelingly evoked, but doesn't feature for much of the length of the novel. But such geographical concerns pale beside the reader's appreciation of the ambitions of the plotting, the utterly believable characterisation and the quality of the writing. I know I've said this before, but on unfortunately few occasions: when you finish this book you do so with the feeling that you've truly read something.  I really must read the others.


Villa Triste
We begin in 1943 with the lives of two sisters who become involved in partisan activities in Florence after the Italians declare themselves no longer allied to Germany and the Nazis invade. We then alternate their story with a modern day tale of murdered old partisan heroes and links soon emerge, of course. This was the first outing for Grindle's detectives Pallioti and Saenz, and established her smart way with the historical/present day alternation. Books dealing with Italy's WW2 history are rare, in English anyway, due to old shame maybe, so this novel taught me much. Historical atrocities and suffering alternate with present-day forgetfulness and the stories merge in a way I didn't see coming. The author's characters tend to be lightly sketched and allowed to gain colour as they go, rather than being vividly painted from the off, so this is a book that gains grip as it goes along. Florence is also just there, rather than extravagantly painted, and wartime details abound. Another example of Ms G's faultless touch.

 

 

  Robert Hellenga
The Sixteen Pleasures

A book about a young American woman called Margot and her first time in Florence.  She's come to help rescue the books damaged in the flood of 1966. It's a fragrant story of  books, buildings, love and frescoes, and the effect the famous flood has on all of them.  In a nutshell,  'swelling' seems to just about cover it.
(Also The fall of a sparrow: a truly affecting tale dealing with love, loss and the whole human thing. A classics lecturer learns to deal with the death of his daughter when a terrorist bomb in Bologna takes her life, and changes those of all of her family. Not Florence-related in the slightest, except a couple of mentions, but a very warm recommendation nonetheless.)

The Italian Lover
And then, 12 years after The Sixteen Pleasures, comes this sequel, in which the original book's heroine is approached by people wanting to make a film of the story told in that book, which in this book was written by her and published in 1975. (My sparse review above is because I wrote it in the first months of this site, and a few years after having read the book.) The action takes place in 1990 and Margot is now 53 and ready for a change. It may come from the film, or it may come in the form of a blues-guitar-playing classics professor whose daughter was killed in the Bologna train bombing. Plots and lives intertwine, with lots of authentic Italian and film-business detailing, and much criss-crossing of the streets of Florence. But it's the emotional involvement that keeps them pages turning - each character's trials and choices make you care about them and how their lives are going to develop. Like life, or a soap, but in a good way, a very good way.

John Spencer Hill The Last Castrato

The first chapters of this novel could once be found here - they got you past some off-putting purple passages and a couple of errors (like calling works by Leonardo da Vinci 'da Vincis', rather than 'Leonardos') and into the story. Hill's detective is another sensitive loner - an unmarried writer of poetry - but from unoriginal soil springs fresh life, with some believable and likeable characters and a sharp plot. There are clever but unobtrusive allusions that'll make you feel smart if you get them. You will know the identity of the murderer pretty early on, though, if you know anything about castrati, and putting the word castrato in the title also spoils what could've been a shocking revelation. The pacing works well by interspersing the murder stuff with the experiences of Cordelia - an American woman who's just dumped her unworthy husband to come to Florence to write her doctoral thesis and rediscover herself. She develops as the plot develops and her story is so perceptively written you might almost suspect Mr Hill of being a Ms.

Mary Hoffman 
Stravaganza - City of Flowers
The first book in the Stravaganza series City of Masks was set in Venice and I loved it. I haven't read the second one, set in Siena, but got this sent to me as an advance uncorrected proof (my first!) to review, after Mary H herself made contact. It has characters from the previous two books, and new ones, hopping back and forth from Renaissance Florence to 21st Century North London. The plot hangs upon the impending  marriage of various members of the fictionalised Medici family and the trouble expected, in the Pazzi conspiracy vein. Florence is very well evoked, fictionalised or not, with some nice changes - like Michelangelo being female - and other 'in-joke' touches for us fans to spot. And the flood towards the end is a scene not soon forgotten. I enjoyed this book but found it less emotionally engaging and more romantic and, if you'll pardon the expression, girly than the first one. (If I had a pound for every time someone blushed...I'd have more than twenty pounds, I imagine. ) But I'm no teenager, and not a girl, and so maybe I'm not this book's target audience. That's not to say there's not plenty to give pleasure to Florence fans here, and it still has the sharpness and humanity I enjoyed in the first one and so gets a warm recommendation. And which of us can say we wouldn't be better people if we were more in touch with a our inner (teenage) woman?

There are now five Stravaganza books, taking in alternative versions of Ravenna and Padua too, with a sixth due in 2012.
See www.stravaganza.co.uk for more info and other stuff to read and play with. 
See The Venice Questions too on this very site, for more about, Stravaganza and Mary H's Venice.

David
It's 1501 and Gabriele is a young stonecutter from out of town, come to Florence to find work and his brother the sculptor. Michelangelo is his milk - rather than blood - brother but is out of town. Gabriele is lucky enough to be taken in meantime by a wealthy widow who is happy to provide him with food and a warm bed, and who wants...very little in return. This little thing is provided warmly and willingly and, though not explicitly, this puts us quite swiftly into territory described on the back cover as Not suitable for younger readers. It's not surprising that the young man that modelled for Michelangelo's should be the object of more than the odd appreciative glance, and so it proves. His dalliances and modelling duties swiftly mix him dangerously well into Florence's complex network of political groupings and spying, beatings and denunciations ensue. There's art too, with wide-eyed visits to the Brancacci Chapel and San Marco. Later Leonardo turns up and things get really bitchy. All Renaissance life is here, then, seen from the point of view of a horny boy learning about life. And at the end of the book there is a definite sense of life lived and lessons learned.

  Nancy Huston Infrared
Lena is a photographer who thinks herself an artist. She's meeting her father and step-mother in Florence to celebrate his 70th Birthday and see the sights and the art. Despite this somewhat sedate setup this is a book that throws a lot at you right from the start - sex, sadism, sexual abuse, power games, the Holocaust, bad parenting, life in the multicultural stews of the Paris projects, the varieties of Jewishness, the life of Pico de Mirandola...it's all here, and within the first 50 or so pages. Depending on what you were reading before it can all be a bit breathtaking and our heroine can be a bit annoying and exhausting. But once you settle in and the sensitive observations start to smooth over the rough sex*, it's a book to savour. Having each of the places visited and works of art seen set Lena's mind spinning on key events and people in her life works surprisingly naturally and well and allows the book to wear its knowledge quite lightly. (Although there is the odd slip-up, like saying that pietra serena is a cream-coloured stone.) So it gives very good Florence, covering all the usual bases - subjects and places and people - but does it with some added odd associations and stories. Lena remains hard to like and blokeishly self-obsessed and insensitive, but I know that this shouldn't matter. And the ending resolves nothing, really, although I know that this shouldn't matter. I hope that my review will tell you enough to decide whether you'll like the book, even though I, on balance, didn't.
*This book was nominated for, and won, the The Literary Review's Bad Sex Award in 2012, Nancy Huston thereby became only the third woman to win in the award's 20 year history.



Henry James The Diary of a Man of Fifty

A short story in which a man (of fifty) returns to Florence, from which city he fled twenty-five years before, from a relationship with an alluring woman that would, he thinks, have only made him miserable had he remained. He meets a young man in a similar situation, but the woman concerned is the daughter of his long-dead lost love. Old ground is gone over, new facts emerge, and history fails to repeat itself, maybe. A subtle and complex little tale, which subtly whiffs of Florence, without too much sight-seeing.


Philip Kazan Appetite
Nino is a butcher's son - his father has a shop on the Ponte Vecchio - with a rare gift. His ability to taste is as hyper-developed as his uncle Filippo's ability with colour. His uncle is living in busy disgrace in Prato with a nun, so is not able to return to his sister's, Nino's mother's, deathbed. He makes it later, though, and takes Nino off to visit Verrocchio's studio, where he meets Botticelli and Leonardo and ... look I know that this sounds like a recipe for cringe-making name-dropping but the author uses these encounters well to develop character and themes. Using his spooky strong sense of taste Nino becomes a chef, and comes to the attention of Lorenzo il Magnifico himself, of course. Given all the above, and the comparisons to Perfume, you'll not be surprised when I stress the feast for the senses that this book conjures up, and the Florentine detail is strong and impeccable too. The plot - the young Nino's rocky progress as a chef and his thwarted love for his childhood playmate, who becomes betrothed to a rich fool for dynastic purposes - is hardly the most original, but you forgive this for the flavours and smells. The considerable content devoted to Florence's churches and their art, which is often painted by Nino's mates, is also a draw. Less of a draw are the copious details of meat and tripe preparation, which as a veggie I found myself skipping. The story is overall very tasty, though, and meaty in a good way, and the author is exceptionally good with motivation and mental states. 

 

 

Christobel Kent

A Party in San Niccolo 
Well, after a pretty lean period for new novels set in Florence comes a real gem. There's a murder, or two, but this is not really a crime novel. It's more a book of characters and the way their lives connect, which is a major theme in crime novels, of course, but the story here isn't of police and procedure. The main character is Gina, an Englishwoman who's finding motherhood a little limiting, to say the least, and escapes to stay in Florence at the austere home of an old school friend and her austere and disturbing architect husband. The first murder victim is a friend of her hosts' daughter. As Gina socialises and shops and goes to stay in the country the death and the subsequent investigation intrudes on, and affects, the lives of the people she meets in different ways, and these people in turn meet others...  The young people contemplate their messy lives as the old people look back at their messy pasts. As the week progresses, the plot thickens as preparations are made for the party of the title  (uncannily echoing the plot of Mrs Dalloway which I read just before this book.) Florence and its tacky high life and lurid low life are described and evoked with telling detail and conviction, and the characters convince and breathe. An exceptionally good book.
 


 

A Florentine Revenge
And there's no dip in quality here, just an impressive shift of territory. This one slips effortlessly over into crime-novel concerns, with the murder of a man suspected of murdering a child years earlier keeping pace with the initially seemingly disconnected lives and clients of a British tour guide and a woman working in a swanky frock shop. It was often a bit over-girly for me, to be honest - lot's of lingering descriptions of posh frocks and shoes, and the appearance and glamour of the female characters generally, especially the rich man's wife, whose smallness and cuteness is emphasized every time she appears. There's also an an annoying reliance on cliff-hanger switches between the different characters' stories, with these tense hands-around-throat moments too often turning out to be red herrings.  But these are small criticisms of a novel whose converging strands drag you in, and Florence is - cliché alert! - a character in itself here, so lovingly are its glowing art and gloomy streets evoked. The dark and smelly underbelly of the city is just as well evoked as the shiny and tourist-infested surface. Truly a Florentine and narrative treat.


A Time of Mourning
1

And here, with the introduction of her own detective, the author plunges properly into crime-series territory. The detective is called Sandro Cellini, he's an ex-cop (he appeared in A Florentine Revenge) but he's only just decided to become a private investigator, so this is his first job, or first two jobs. He's initially asked to look into the suicide of an elderly architect, whose wife cannot believe he'd do such a thing. Later he's drawn into the novel's other strand - the disappearance of a flirty art student, which her less worldly flatmate spends a fair few chapters investigating before the girl's mother calls on Sandro. The strand with the searching student is enlivened by her learning some rather sudden life-lessons as she finds out all about her friend's life. There's also more of the girly and fashion stuff which I couldn't relate to in the Florentine Revenge and the reliance on cliffhanger chapter endings remains too. But only the need to eat and sleep stopped me reading this book, as it sweeps you in and along in effortless fashion - these are undoubtedly human beings here undergoing these life-churning events and you care what happens to them. The Florence it gives us is good and darkish and real, although the Santo Spirito/Boboli locations are not exactly fresh for Magdelen Nabb fans. But for the slightly grimier side of Florence and the dusty parkland where murders can happen where you gonna go? Lots of rain too, and a climactic flood of almost-biblical proportions which brings up all the 1966 stuff again.
 

  A Fine and Private Place 2
The second Sandro Cellini novel finds him underemployed and not overjoyed at his wife's improving career, involving as it does her spending more time on trips with her smooth tanned boss. Following a teenage girl whose parents are suspicious isn't making for job satisfaction, when an accident up at an artistic retreat in a castle provides Sandro with a job more demanding. We see life at the prison-like castle first through the eyes of a new employee called Cate. The picture painted of the festering atmosphere of suspicion and artistic nerves within is authentic and clammy. It's like a country-house murder mystery, but with characters even more brittle, but breathing and believable, as we expect from CK. The air fairly seethes in the guest rooms and the kitchen, with the hints and suspicions of the first 100 pages then becoming revelations and twists. The winter setting adds festive sparkle to Florence and a sharp snowy bleakness to the more rural settings. The long sequence of theories and confrontations leading to the truth at the end is a bit farcical, but you will, nonetheless, be unable to stop reading until the end, even if that means reading until 1.00 in the morning, says the voice of experience. Also: in this novel a character claims that the term for what one suffers when one misses Florence is 'dome-sickness'. I'd not heard this one before, and I suspect that it's made up (especially as it's said here to have been coined by Ghirlandaio, in whose lifetime the Duomo was freshly built) but I like it!

The Dead Season 3
We begin by being introduced to our central characters: a beaten-up body on a roundabout, a woman called Roxana in a dead-end job at a small bank, and Sandro Cellini, involuntarily house-hunting. Cellini's detective business isn't exactly thriving, and it being a particularly dead and hot August doesn't help, so a pregnant woman whose man's disappeared counts as things looking up. Roxana in the bank has noticed that a regular - from the local porn cinema - hasn't been in to bank his takings today too. Are these things linked?  As ever with Ms K the concentration here is on lives rather than deaths. And if I add that Cellini's wife is recovering well from her mastectomy, that the bank worker has a mother with borderline Alzheimer's, and that Cellini's assistant, Giuli, has got a new boyfriend and is feeling ill in the mornings you'll know that it's (dare I say?) female matters that again dominate. No bad thing, of course, but the strands can feel a bit smuggled in, bearing in mind that this is ostensibly a crime novel. When the body is found and the plot knots start to get truly tangled, though, the domestic details recede somewhat, only for the whole lot to come together in a rush of action and weather at the end. Florence breaths heavily and hotly all through, although this is a dingy and sweaty underbelly Florence, empty and gritty, rather than the gently glowing tourist version. You'll recognise the locations and the life-concerns and not dare resist caring and being swept along.

A Darkness Descending 4
We begin with an unhappy young mother and a meeting in a disused church of a broadly green political group heartily sick of the existing order.  The latter, truly timely, phenomenon is personified by Giuli, Cellini's assistant, adopted by him and his wife from a life on the streets and now mixing the political with the personal. Then Cellini's old partner's daughter decides it's time for a change of life.  Matters move at a leisurely pace for the first quarter of the book, following the collapse of the green group's leader, and its hard to see where a crime might fit into these seemingly unconnected strands, mostly concerning women and their life choices. The focus is on the Oltrano district, the default area now for books about the lives of real
Florentines. the Piazza Santo Spirito having the requisite real-lifeness in spades. The other plot centre is the area around the Botanical Gardens, San Marco and the University. As I say the strands seems too disconnected to become an eventual weave, but the Adam and Eve references build up, and a pleasingly unpredictable ending looms. The story is concerned far more with women than criminals, as ever in this series, but the grip on our (and the characters') emotions is as sure as ever.

The Killing Room 5
Sandro gets a day job as head of security for a the Palazzo San Giorgio, on which the paint is still wet from its conversion to luxury flats for the rich and nasty. His predecessor gets murdered, a dog disappears, a body is found in a suitcase and various characters are introduced who seem somewhat unconnected but... At the same time Giuli looks like losing her day job, as she is accused of shooting up on the job, and Sandro's wife gets assigned to looking after the shopping needs of the rich and nasty females. The crime-story structure is stronger here, with the personal-political and fashion-trade aspects less dwelled upon this time, initially. And then there's that melodramatic title. The action is still Oltrarno-centric, though, with the converted palazzo located up the hill on the left after you cross the Ponte Vecchio. The poisonous atmosphere in the palazzo is well evoked, with the reek of a grim past and a venomous preset keeping everyone suspicious and twitchy.  The twists and revelations mount up towards the end, but so do the emotion-tweaking bits. Well up to scratch.

Jane Langton The Dante Game
This starts off a little florid in the writing department, but the style settles down as the plot kicks in. It's an old-fashioned, but good, read with good older characters and mostly feckless younger ones, and a heroine of somewhat overdone traffic-stopping beauty. Homer Kelly is Ms Langton's 'hero' - I put him in inverted commas because he does very little except gradually come around to believing the emotionally involved character's conviction that there's bad stuff afoot and he gets to talk to the police quite a bit, for no readily apparent reason. But I liked it: Florence glows from the pages, the plot twists involvingly, and Dante's Divine Comedy is woven into the plot nicely and enlighteningly. The author provides us with some very nice view sketches too.

Giulio Leoni The Third Heaven Conspiracy
(aka The Mosaic Crimes)
A rarity in four ways, this book is set in Florence, before the Renaissance, is written by an Italian and features Dante as a detective. Our pompous hero/poet is charged with solving the nasty murder of a mosaicist in a ruined church just outside Florence, a church with a gaping pit where the nave should be. His investigation takes him all around medieval Florence and takes in secret societies, papal intrigue, corruption and heresy. There's catacombs, flashes of female flesh, dark deeds and violence too, all adding more than a little gothic spice. You might initially think it Da Vinci Code-inspired, but it was published in Italian in 2004, before most of the fuss, if not all of it. The translation preserves the superiority of the writing here, as well as its unbreathless  pacing and maturity. The cover will remind you of An Instance of the Fingerpost, with Iain Pears' book also being a closer comparison in ambition. References and resonances abound, in amongst much philosophical, mystical and theological discussion, and even a couple of in-jokes. I felt undrawn to Dante, and a little underwhelmed by the somewhat undramatic ending, but it's an enthralling and wordy ride while it lasts.
There have been two more 'Dante the Detective' novels in this series translated into English. The Kingdom of Light has a Florentine setting, but The Crusade of Darkness takes our hero to Rome to, of course, uncover dark secrets.



 

Pilar Molina Llorente The Apprentice
A children's book, telling of a 13 year old apprentice painter and his discovery of a terrible secret in the attic.

Andrew Losowsky The Doorbells of Florence
To see this book is to want to take it home. It's a lovely little thing, full of photos of various doorbell plates in Florence with florid red hand-lettered headings giving the addresses. The cover too is hand-lettered and desirable.  The doorbells vary in class, decorativeness, and shine and in the state of their name labels. There's a story attached to each set of bell-pushes and these vary in length from a half-page to three or four pages. In the way of these things some tales make you smile. some make you frown, and some make a quick small impression. The stories are mostly what you might call quirky, and more often than not closely connected with doorbells, rather than just using the names on the labels, with an odd link which resolves itself at the end.  The cumulative effect is positive, impressive, and will leave you with some tales lodged away for next time you catch sight of odd doorbells whilst walking in Florence.

Paul J. McAuley Pasquale's Angel
What if...Leonardo's machines worked and had been put into production, so that the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution happen at the same time. A murder leads Pasquale - a young painter, of course - into dark plots and the trail leads to the man himself. Good strange stuff.

Graham McKenzie A Florentine Influence
The story begins with Alan, an art lover and dabbler in art-history scholarship, staying in Florence, casually visiting the sites and occasionally meeting up with friends. So far so relatable-to. His spending the pondering time available to the lone traveller dwelling on his past relationships with women and having present-day paid-for gay sex is maybe less characteristic of my similar trips. He returns to San Francisco to lose it a bit, and resort to psychotherapy and encounters in a local gay strip club. But there's more compassion than raunch to the latter, in keeping with the novel's, and the character's, general tendency more towards thought than action, which is always better than the opposite, in a book anyway. The relationship, with a married woman, which most haunts him gets some sort of resolution, but the lack of pat answers is par for this good old-fashioned novel of thoughts and feelings. And regrets.  

 

Magdalen Nabb
 

Death of an Englishman
The first of the Marshall Guarnaccia series, so it's odd that he spends most of the book bedridden with a stinking cold. An Englishman is found murdered in his flat near the Pitti Carabinieri station. Trainee Carabiniere Bacci on a between-terms placement finds himself more involved than he might've been, it being nearly Christmas and the Marshall being laid up. The nervous rookie cop is not exactly an original creation, and the two Scotland Yard detectives that turn up to help investigate are not much fresher - the boss an upper-class foreigner-hating snob, his junior a working class lad. But we get good winter Florence (the action centres around the crossroads and piazza in front of the San Felice church), prejudices are confounded, real life is experienced, odd characters come good, and a solution I didn't see coming makes for a satisfyingly ambiguous outcome. For readers then new to the Marshall's ways this must have been an enigmatic and mouth-watering introduction.

The Marshal's own case
This one begins with the Marshal suffering some hot and crowded shopping for the new term's supplies with his wife and kids. The concern with children continues, with the worried mother of a missing son - in his 40s admittedly - and more stuff about the Marshal's own two. But then the dismembered corpse of a what appears to be a young woman turns up  and we're plunged into the world of Florence's transsexual prostitutes. We learn, as the Marshal learns, about the vicissitudes, and downright dangers, of their lifestyle, and very
educational it is too. The humanity shines through too, with believable emotions and  characters.

The Monster of Florence
Marshal Guarnaccia is placed on a team digging up an old serial killer case, but his appointment seems more political than practical. This is a departure for Ms Nabb, being based on a true case (also touched on in Hannibal above) and brain-boilingly convoluted. The 1oth in the Marshal series but, like the best car tyres, the old gripping power is still there.

Property of Blood Soho Crime 2001
The book opens with the first-hand testimony of of a kidnap victim, which is full of more than you ever knew about the techniques and small bits of business involved in the business of kidnapping. We then meet the family of the poor woman, who is not as rich as they think, and we begin to doubt for the life expectancy of anyone relying on this lot. Except we're reading her account of her ordeal so she must make it, you think. There's less of the Marshal's own domestic life this time, although the family is still a big theme. It follows the previous novel The Monster of Florence in being a bit harsher than the Marshal books used to be, but the characters and details and grip are all still there. 

Some Bitter Taste Soho Crime 2002
There's a return to smaller scale domestic crime in this one. It's August and it's broiling out on the streets of Florence, again. The Marshal is visited by a woman who thinks someone's been in her flat, and he visits an elderly wealthy Englishman who's final days seem wrapped in a strange sadness. Then there are the Albanian prostitutes. All these strands and themes connect in ways sometimes subtle and rarely obvious. But the Marshal's as grumpy and self-doubting as ever, and the whole thing is just so real - with no pat answers and no trite happy ending.

 

The Innocent   Soho Crime 2005
Returning to the familiar Florence of Ms Nabb’s Marshal, especially after a three year gap, is like relaxing into a good warm bath, except when the bath turns out to be a hyacinth-choked pond in the Boboli Gardens with a woman’s body in it. Gruesome death in a familiar setting being even more disturbing than in strange locations of course. Having the crime committed in the Boboli and the suspects amongst the residents of the Oltrano district also makes this an even less geographically varied affair than usual. But the themes are the familiar ones of family and guilt and greed, with the Marshall’s family both a refuge from and reflection of the larger concerns. And there are excursions to Rome, even if we only hear about them afterwards. The author has dabbled with serial killers recently and here she taps into the scary watery imagery of recent Japanese horror films, with an especially spooky dream sequence full of such scenes. As undisappointing as ever.





Vita Nuova Soho Crime 2008
It's sad to be reviewing the final Marshal book, but I'm happy to say it's a real gripper. The plot concerns sex workers from Eastern Europe and begins with the murder of the daughter of a man profiting muchly from their misery. With the help of a journalist the Marshal learns much, and experiences more than he'd like. As things get murkier the Marshal's emotional state dominates the story, as he tries to cope with it all without his wife, who's away on family business. There's a lot of stress on the mental states and, indeed, illnesses of the characters, and illness generally is here all around. This is as near as I get to a one-sitting read, with the opening (learning) third of the book followed by the compulsion of the Marshal's misery in the middle third and then the operation that brings things to an end. Not a happy end, of course, but a memorable one, of course.

A view of the Arno by Lorenzo Gelati
 

David Pownall
Hard Frosts in Florence

This is a radio play, a monologue written specially for Paul Schofield and was rebroadcast on Radio 4 on the 9th April 2008 as a tribute to him. A troubled Michelangelo returns to Florence for the last time to see his statue of David...


 

Vasco Pratolini A Tale of Poor Lovers
It's taken me a shamefully long time to get around to reading anything by this author. He's that rare thing - an actual Italian author who wrote about Florence.  His works are set during the first half of the 20th Century - he's famous for writing about the resistance to fascism before and during WWII and the real working class people of Florence. Pardon me, then, for expecting a heavy and dry read, and not the very readable (almost-soapy) tapestry of real lives that the book serves up. It deals with the crimes, loves, hatreds, plots and shenanigans of various characters living in the Via del Corno, where Pratolini lived. Central are the guardian angels:  four young women born in the street whose fates help propel most of the plots. The supposed underlying subject is the brutal methods used by the fascists here, and in Italy as a whole. The book itself doesn't name a translator and some sources suggest it was Pratolini himself, with help from his wife and another writer. The book doesn't read like a translation at all, so a mighty fine job was done. It's also said that not all of the original novel was translated, and that some of the more pro-communist passages particularly were omitted. It's not until about half way that there's the full-on fascist night of violence - the 'action scenes' as you can imagine in a film. This features a hairy motor-cycle chase around the city which ends with a dramatic death on the steps of San Lorenzo (see film screen grab left). Then things calm back down again to the more female concerns - ever-loving women and always-feckless men. The daily-life detail holds the attention, with festivals, fairs, food and smells and such all reeking of reality. But if it was an easier read than I'd expected I have to say it was also surprisingly less substantial than I was anticipating too. Not a masterpiece, but enjoyable and readable and giving good Florence.
 

Linda Proud

A Tabernacle for the Sun
Another fine novel dealing with the Florence of the Medici, this time from the perspective of Tommaso de' Maffei, a young apprentice scribe of possibly noble birth. He idolises Lorenzo de Medici and yearns for Florence, until his home town of Volterra becomes a pawn of politicking between Florence and Rome. His feelings following the massacre evolve as he is passed from one mentor figure to another, until he joins the Medici circle. His emotional, intellectual and spiritual development take us through a procession of famous people and events with a freshness and perception that sees off any tendency towards mere name-droppery. There's a deal of discussion of philosophy here, but you come away feeling enlightened rather than bludgeoned. The consistent nature of harmony and pleasing proportion, from painting through architecture to music is a common and convincing theme. Leonardo's being anonymously accused of buggery and The Pazzi Conspiracy get a run through again - the writing of the latter leaving it more vividly in your mind than any factual account could, of course. Thinkers this time get a bit more of a look in, but painters dominate, through their familiarity if nothing else, and Simonetta Vespucci glows once more. Another treat for fans of Florence in the 1400s, and a book with that indefinable numinous something.

Pallas and the Centaur
This is the middle volume of the Botticelli Trilogy, so named for the thread of the artist's life and works that runs through the series, not because the books are about him. Tommaso de' Maffei again narrates, but not solely this time. In the aftermath of the Pazzi conspiracy the Pope has excommunicated Florence and war is imminent. Lorenzo de Medici sends his wife and children out of Florence for their safety. He sends Angelo Poliziano with them to tutor his children, but his teaching lacks the blind piety required by their mother and conflict ensues, and it's all pretty symbolic. Meanwhile the life of Poliziano's sister Maria, who knows nothing of why she's been confined to a convent and thinks herself an orphan,  takes turns that will lead her to... This is again historical fiction of seemingly effortless authenticity, and again the concentration is on thinkers and the wisdom passed on by the written word rather than the more usual travails of the artists. There's a bit more up-front feminism this time too, although the low expectations of women at this time is a pretty much unavoidable theme. The Florentine locations are evocative, and concentrated in the west of the city - in the Palazzo Medici, of course, in Santa Trìnita and behind San Paolino, near Santa Maria Novella, where Botticelli lived. Another involving treat, then. Some may find the book too full of talk and lacking in action, but fine conversation and the discussion of weighty matters always beats the physical stuff in my book.


 

 



The Rebirth of Venus
This volume opens with Tommaso de' Maffei living in London in 1505. He's now in his forties, working as a tutor and mixing with the minds gathered around John Colet, the Dean of St Paul's. His journal of life in London and his return journey to Italy is interspersed with the story of his life in Florence after the Pazzi Conspiracy 20 years earlier. This period takes in the rise of Savonarola and Lorenzo il Magnifico's decline, much turmoil, and deaths natural and unnatural; as well as lots of philosophical conflict and fervent discussion. As before it's good to see the rebirth of classical philosophy that was so central to the renaissance actually getting the airing it deserves, and not just as concepts dropped in to spice up more common tales of the lives and dirty-laundry of the artists and the Medici. We do meet Michelangelo and Botticelli and the gang, but again in a natural passing way. I don't know if Botticelli's personal hygiene habits actually were such that a friend might push him in the Arno to clean him up, but I believe it now. This book provides a long and deep immersion in the Florentine renaissance that very few other novels provide. The emotional lives of our narrator and the other characters mostly take second place to their intellectual development, but lives are also touchingly lived and we believe in them all. Emotions take greater prominence towards the end, though, with both time-scale's stories involving visits to Venice which are short but piquant. The earlier visit features a cameo by Giorgione and in the later one Tommaso manages something of a cure for his melancholy, with the help of Bellini's San Zaccaria Altarpiece (which sounds convincing to me) and in the company of Dürer. 'Like being there' is a cliché often used but very rarely so deserved. This is a special book.

A Gift for the Magus
This book is something of a prequel to the trilogy above, which is called The Botticelli Trilogy but which really tells of  the life of Tommaso de' Maffei, lived in the circle of Lorenzo Medici. This time we do have a book about the life of an artist - Filippo Lippi, to whom Botticelli was apprenticed, probably. The contemporary Medici this time is Cosimo, just returned from exile, who's here a most important, if less constant, presence. So this time out it's the artist's own sordid and spiritual life, with the emphasis stronger on art than philosophy. There's more sex too, due to our hero's famous nun-seducing activities, and subsequent son. His (mentioned by Vasari but probably apocryphal) capture and enslavement by Barbary pirates gets its full narrative due too, and theories as to how this might have inspired his art are aired with some fashionable, but not unconvincing, Islamic-influence ideas bandied about. Lippi comes across, initially at least, as a self-centred and insecure grouch, but his personality softens on us as we get to know him and understand his insecurities. The nature of goodness is a central consideration and gets much considered. Can a weak and sinful man still be a seemingly divinely-inspired genius? As ever Linda P mixes fruitful philosophising with easy and well-paced plotting so our minds are broadened and we barely notice it as our emotions are so fully engaged. Another special one.

               

 

Salman Rushdie The Enchantress of Florence
It's been a while since I've read anything by Salman Rushdie - I enjoyed Midnight's Children way back then, but since then he's become an author more read about than read for most people, me included. I had to read this one, for obvious reasons, but it's not exactly made me kick myself, I have to say. It's a long story of many stories, mostly involving larger-than-life rulers of vast empires and women who are all the most beautiful in all the known world. Telling these stories, and participating in many, is Aragalia, a Florentine and a soldier. His own story features Florence of course, for a few pages, with the usual suspects and events -  the Pazzi Conspiracy, the Medici, Simonetta Vespucci  - and Machiavelli is his mate. And that's about it for Florence - the book is not about an Enchantress of Florence in any real big sense. About a hundred pages from the end there's an episode where the enchantress (or one of them) comes to Florence with the returning hero Aragalia, but the action is mostly not set in Florence and the novel's central characters are Aragalia and the Mughal emperor who is being told the tall stories, mostly. These far-fetched stories and the allusions and all the East/West business and the ease of the writing make this a not unenjoyable read, it's just that it's rambling quality does lead to it rambling on a bit, and then all the lists of names and the confusing relationships and time-shifts and all the women being sexy and the men being strong...well it gets a wee bit repetitive after a couple of hundred pages. Not a hard or tedious read, then, but also not a book that's that easy to recommend wholeheartedly.



Elizabeth Spencer
The Light in the Piazza
and Other Italian Tales
The other Italian tales in this collection number six, but The Light in the Piazza is the longest, amounting to a novella. It's an unusual tale, of an American woman visiting Florence with her daughter who is twenty-six but, following a childhood accident involving a blow to the head, is much younger mentally. A touching and real relationship develops between her daughter and a charming local, to the mother's delight and disquiet. Is she foisting her disabled daughter off on uncomprehending foreigners, or is she wrong to even think of denying her daughter the love and life she should be free to expect, and certainly desires? The writing style is a little dated and the contemporary (1950s) setting is strongly evoked, and certainly not common for Florence-set fiction written more recently which is overwhelmingly historical in setting. This is real writing, though, and thought-provoking stuff which stirs up many an issue. It was filmed in 1962 and in 2005 became a hit Broadway musical.
 

Irving Stone The agony and the ecstasy
This novelisation of the life of Michelangelo reads like one of the many recent historical novels detailing the lives of artists and thinkers from the Renaissance, but it came out in 1961 and part of it was made into a film in 1965 . The first third deals with Michelangelo's apprenticeship and early life in Florence. The apprenticeship was with Ghirlandaio and the early life was dominated by the patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici. There's much detail with regard to stone - choosing, cutting, sculpting - and it's said that Stone put himself through much practical experience to get the detail, even apprenticing himself as a sculptor. And it shows. There's also a lot of quease-making detail when Michelangelo starts investigating anatomy, using corpses. Then we move to Rome, with smellable descriptions of the squalor, neglect and dilapidation of the city at this time. Then it's back to Florence to work on David. Stone is keener on atmosphere and feel than precise topographical detail, in Florence and Rome, but he evokes the time and the people with faultless ease. It's an easy read, but not a short one.
11/2011 I'll admit to taking a break half way through, but I intend to return to it and finish it sooner rather than later. I'll revise this review then if need be. If this note remains months (years?) later, you'll know that I've been weak, so weak.


Rupert Thomson Secrecy
A favourite author, a favourite city and a plot promising considerable strangeness - it's hard to see how this one could fail. Gaetano Zummo, a sculptor in wax, arrives in Florence in 1691 at the invitation of Grand Duke Cosimo III. Zummo is famed for his teatrini - tableaux featuring small figures shown dead and dying of various afflictions, the plague mostly - but the Grand Duke wants him to try something new, something strange. Zummo comes weighed down by a past, real and suspected, which maybe explains his permanent state of paranoia. Florence drips, looms and sparkles about him, and the characters in the street and the court are mostly odd and memorable, and often somewhat opaque. We here have a Florence which often approaches the Gormenghast-ly in its almost gothic sensuality, but manages to retain its reality. The action mostly centres geographically around the Grand Duke's palazzo's gardens, where Zummo has his workshop (a.k.a. The Boboli Gardens) and across the Ponte Vecchio and up into the old mercato and ghetto - an area long since demolished. These unmappable grimy alleys are where Faustina works in her uncle's apothecary under the sign of the question mark. The story, especially in it's resolution, maybe lacks the eccentricity of the characters and atmosphere, but a wayward plot might have derailed or defocused the whole thing, I suppose. Something different, then, and something fine.

 


 

Marco Vichi
 

Death in August
The words 'odd' and 'eccentric' both have positive connotations in my book, and they both apply nicely to this one. It's the first in a series featuring Inspector Bordelli. There are more, but this is the first to be translated, from the Italian. So that's the first oddity - a crime novel set in Florence written by an actual native. The Inspector himself seems at first to be less than unusual: he's a cranky middle-aged bachelor, trying to give up smoking, and fantasising about women. But the people he meets and the conversations he has have a tendency to oddness and eccentricity that's refreshing, as are the flashes of humour. And as is par for the territory the book is more about the Inspector's life than police procedures. The setting is Florence in the 1960s because, the author has said, this allows him to drive a VW Beetle. Also the plots can thereby be mobile-phone free, and our hero's many reminiscences about the war are more  understandable. The locations are rarely gushingly or glowingly evoked, mostly we get just the address, but that's what you expect from a book written by a resident, I suppose. The writing (or maybe it's the translation) can get a bit clunky at times, but not often, and this detracts only minutely from a quirky and enjoyable tale.


 

 

Death and the Olive Grove
The second in the series is a good deal darker, as plots involving child murder can't help but be. One of Bordelli's crim friends, coincidentally also short in stature, has disappeared too. He had talked of a body up by Fiesole and some subsequent investigation had led to a dead doberman, which later disappeared. The 60s setting, the VW Beetle, the lip-smacking food and the quirkiness are all still strong, and our hero is still disgusted at his own smoking, but this does get more than a bit tedious. And smelly. Also on the downside there's some sloppy sexism, with all the young women being beautiful, with uniformly beautiful body parts, all the older women retaining their looks, and all the old women being annoying busybodies. Bordelli's best pal Rosa, the ex-tart-with-a-heart, is in danger of becoming a bit of a doormat too, as she cooks for him at all hours and massages his shoulders while he tells her about his new, young (and beautiful, of course) conquest. The mood is depressed and rainy and tense, and Bordelli his still wracked by grim war memories. But the plot is full of enough twists and red herrings and surprise connections to keep us entertained and happily turning them pages. Also like the first book Florence is here the Florence of a resident, rather than a tourist - all around but not exactly lyrically described.

 

  Death in Sardinia
The third Inspector Bordelli book sees him investigating the murder of a loan shark, a loathsome individual he'd unsuccessfully attempted to investigate a few months previously, being seen by Bordelli as a Porsche-driving blight on his home patch around San Frediano. It's set in the weeks before Christmas, so the Inspector visits each of the loan shark's clients to make them a gift of their no-longer-due promissory notes and find out which of them committed the murder. All the usual elements are present: it's 1965, the women are all stunningly beautiful, even if they're only 17, Rosa continues to blend into the background, like all the female characters, Bordelli's still giving up smoking and obsessing about the war... There's also a fair amount of period detail, like the surly youth listening to the Rolling Stones and people clustering around the few TVs to watch Italian celebs we've never heard of. Also his deputy has been shot and is convalescing in Sardinia, which is the reason for the slightly confusing English title, the novel having originally been called Il Nuovo Venuto (The Newcomer). (And talking of losing in the translation...on page 137 Bordelli and his psychoanalyst friend go and sit in the latter's garden in his iron pagoda. That should be pergola, surely.) Bordelli's travels around Florence are precisely mapped, road-name wise, but without much topographic description. The festivities play their part in the plotting and, it being Christmas, the characters gather at various social functions and tell each other depressing and gruesome stories of the war. As you did. Bordelli remains an engaging character, though - quirky even - and this is an easy and entertaining read. The ending is even quite moving.

Death in Florence
In the fourth Bordelli book it's 1966, it's raining hard, his latest woman has just left him, the war still haunts him and a young boy has disappeared, so our hero is looking no nearer to giving up smoking. But at least his deputy's back, with a limp and his VW is still reliable, as is Rosa the doormat, despite his treatment of both. With all the pieces in place the story of the missing boy swiftly heads where Bordelli dreads and it's off down Florence's mean streets, with the usual lack of description, and even out into the country. The rural focus adds flavour, the flavour of mushrooms mostly, with much moody walking through fields and such, and with much more descriptive writing lavished on the landscape than the city gets. It's all a bit action-free until about half way, when, well, it's 1966, so no prizes for knowing what happens, and here we get some fine writing and lots of fragrant detail. On the downside some of the dialogue is still a bit stilted and our 56-year-old hero's constant immature mooning over much younger women is not sweet or endearing. I know that this is written by an Italian male, rather than by an Anglo/American woman like we're used to, but still. The plot picks up pace towards the end and the book finishes brutally and a bit abruptly. It would be good if there were female characters who were not beautiful and/or victims, but at least the plot seems to be taking the series into new territory for the next one.


 

Alana White The Sign of the Weeping Virgin
The action of this book takes place during the summer of 1480. Guid'Antonio Vespucci and his nephew Amerigo return from a two-year diplomatic mission to France to find Florence ever more resentful of Lorenzo de Medici and suffering much from his conflict with the Pope. To the very real consequences - the excommunication of the whole city, the shortages and poverty brought about by isolation, and the drying up of commissions from Rome for Botticelli - have been added a painting in the Ognissanti church weeping 'real' tears for the God-deprived Florentines and the disappearance of one of the city's renowned beauties, supposedly murdered by ravening Turks. It's these last two events that Guid'Antonio (that's him on the right, from a fresco painted for the Sistine Chapel by Ghirlandaio) and Amerigo are set to investigate. If they can reveal them both as hoaxes then Lorenzo's grip on power will become that much less threatened. So here we have more of a mystery novel than, say, Linda Proud's fuller treatment of exactly the same period and characters above, but still a book full of historical detail and authentic atmosphere you can relish and almost bathe in. On the downside the author does overwrite occasionally, and we are always told how pretty the women are. This last tendency, and the fact that Lorenzo's magnificent abbs get a few good airings, once when he takes his shirt off to wipe down his sweat-drenched torso after some farm labour, make for a bit of an air of romantic fiction. But much worse than this could have been forgiven for the historical detail and the smooth presentation of same; of which the most revelatory, for me, was the fact of Florence then being divided into named districts. It turns out, for example, that the area where the Hotel Unicorno (which I've stayed in often) is situated was once the Unicorn district. And I love the nifty way that she works Botticelli's mysterious piece of text in his fresco of Saint Augustine (Where is Fra' Martino? He fled. And where did he go? He is outside Porta al Prato) into the plot. The mystery keeps you reading keenly until the end too, as it should.






There's a new separate page for books of photos of
Lost Florence
 

Lisa McGarry The Piazzas of Florence
This is undoubtedly a more-than-usually attractive little book. The cover is a a lovely textured sandy/terracotta-coloured thing and the printing is high quality with some very tasteful maroon detailing. Add to this a foldout watercolour map for each piazza, and a ribbon bookmark in another fine rich terracotta shade, and you have more than enough visual appeal to make you pick the book up. Thankfully there's also more than enough substance in the text too to stop you putting it down. Taking each of Florence's piazzas in turn the author then gets to hang stories, observations and history around each one. So the Piazza de' Pitti features details about Ms McGarry's life, this being where she lives, as well as plenty about the Pitti Palace, the Boboli Gardens, and the area's famous residents. Similarly the Arno gets dealt with when she writes about the piazzetta in the middle of the Ponte Vecchio and the Medici when she writes about Piazza San Lorenzo. The mix of history, local knowledge, architectural notes and personal-life details make for a warm and winning mixture and an easy read. Small ointment-flies for me are the boring printed annotations on the maps - the type not the text - which somewhat spoil their watercolouriness, and the fact that she doesn't include my favourite piazza - Santissima Annunziata - although it does get a page in the Piazza San Marco chapter. But against this must be placed the burning desire to visit Florence again that reading the book stokes up, and the fact that it's made me dislike less the characterless Piazza della Repubblica. And she knows her gelato too. All in all an attractive, characterful and thoughtful introduction (or refresher) for Florence fans of all degrees.

 


 


Niccolò Rinaldi Secret Florence
Having been most impressed with the London and Venice volumes in this series (and what with me being London-born and a pretty seasoned traveller to Venice I pride myself on having been a pretty picky judge in both cases) hopes were high for this one. And they were not dashed. It's a fascinating guide to odd places and odd aspects of familiar places, and a source of explanations of the downright arcane.  It fulfils the role of readable armchair guide but also repays taking with you.  Being in the happy position of being able to test it by taking it to Florence I can report that it fulfils the purpose of prompting detours and also of answering questions like 'what is that?!' I picked it up a few days into my trip and it hoovered up most of the puzzles from the previous few days. It identified a newly-restored tower, provided background to the damn stupid lovers'- padlock-leaving phenomenon, and identified a weird new building visible on the horizon from San Miniato. There is something of a house style developing with this series, with the author here sharing the fascination displayed in the Venice volume with marked stones, odd statues, plaques and other mysterious and missable traces. There's also a refreshing freedom of any flinching from the scatological. But no mention of the urinal set into the outside wall of a building (see photo left), in the Oltrarno near San Frediano, that I spotted in the early 90s, although it may no longer be there.

 

Gert Jan van der Sman Lorenzo and Giovanna
Timeless Art and Fleeting Lives in Renaissance Florence

In this book the author (an art historian) attempts something a bit different. Instead of looking at art and the people involved, he looks at the people's lives and their subsequent relationships with the art. Not a revolutionary approach, I suppose, but tempting enough to make me give this a go. (The gorgeous illustrations helped too.)  The result is a book that can be classed as interesting rather than essential. Giovanna degli Albizzi marries Lorenzo Tornabuoni, so uniting two of the most powerful families in Renaissance Florence. Their marriage is short, but Giovanna is famously painted by Ghirlandaio, in a superb portrait (see right) and on the walls of Santa Maria Novella. Studying Ghirlandaio seems to have been the author's way into the documents that inform the book, but the Ghirlandaio 'content' is pretty sparse, which was a bit disappointing, this artist being not exactly the most written-about of the Renaissance masters. The lives of the Medici and those in their circle is not exactly a rare subject - see above - but it gets run through here again, nicely and readably.  Politicking, romance, murder, religious intrigue, philosophical enquiry, sudden death...how can it fail?
 
 

 
A.N.Wilson Dante in Love
This book begins winningly with an observation that Dante's Divine Comedy is a book that most people get no further than barely beginning, and some not even that far, maybe just as far as the buying. So it's not just me. The author then goes on to explore in readable chapters various aspects of Dante's life, contemporary events in Florence, his obsession with Beatrice, the literary precedents, etc. It's all very readable and sets out to send the reader back to The Divine Comedy well prepared and nicely enthused. Let's hope. Meanwhile this book in itself gives good Dante detail and good Florence, and may just tell you all you'll need to know.

 


 

                                                                     
Venice // Florence // London // Berlin

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