The Santo Spirito Projections

 Lost Florence

and my trips


I can only think that Savonarola must have had a vision of the future creation of this website in mind when, in a sermon of the 1490s, he urged the citizens of Florence to call to mind the beauty of their city and told them that this imagined Florence would be more beautiful than the real thing, and that spiritual enlightenment would thereby result.

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 smitten Brits and Americans. The Medici, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, the Pazzi Conspiracy, the lives of artists and their apprentices and Simonetta Vespucci. The usual subjects mostly focus on the Renaissance. 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 filmed. Marco Vichi writes crime novels set in Florence in the 1960s. in Italian, but their translation rate has ground to a halt of late.

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



Ahlgren, Greg  The Medici Legacy
Alexander, Sidney Michelangelo the Florentine
Alexander, Tasha The Dark Heart of Florence
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
Bishop, D. V. City of Vengeance
The Darkest Sin
Ritual of Fire
Boccaccio, Giovanni The Decameron
Bowen, Marjorie The Carnival of Florence
Brown, Dan Inferno
Burns, Richard Sandro and Simonetta
Carcaterra, Lorenzo Midnight Angels
Chaffee, Jessie Florence in Ecstasy
Chalstrey, Jonathan Punch!
Chamings, Matt The Medici Curse
Charnock, Anne
Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind
Cherne, Barbara Bella Donna
Clark, Robert Dark water
Clewes, Howard Epitaph for love
Clooney, Ron Pancardi's Pride
Congreve, William
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
DuMaurier, Daphne My Cousin Rachel
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
Fitzgerald, Penelope Innocence
Forster, E.M. A Room with a View
Where angels fear to tread
Forster, Margaret Lady’s Maid
Frank, Michael Florentine Commission
Freeman, Harold Webber The poor scholar's tale

Gaunt, Richard  Medici woman
Gherardi da Prato, Giovanni Ricciarda (short story)
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
Hauff, Wilhelm The Severed Hand short story
Haybittle, Glenn The Way Back to Florence
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

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
The Orphan of Florence
Kay, Kathryn The Gilder
Kazan, Philip Appetite
The Painter of Souls
The Phoenix of Florence
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 (reissued as A Murder in Tuscany)
The Dead Season

A Darkness Descending
The Killing Room
The Viper
Kephart, Beth One Thing Stolen
Kirby, Seb Take No More

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
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
Storey, Stephanie Oil and Marble: a novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo
Strukul, Matteo Medici ~ Ascendancy
Medici ~ Supremacy
Medici ~ Legacy
August 2021
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
Veneziano, Piero Bianco Alfani (short story)
Vichi, Marco Death in August
Death and the Olive Grove
Death in Sardinia
Death in Florence
Death in the Tuscan Hills
Ghosts of the Past
Vittorini, Elio The red carnation
Wallace, Jane For the best of reasons
Walton, Jo Lent
White, Alana The Sign of the Weeping Virgin
The Hearts of All on Fire
Winman, Sarah Still Life


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
Mallon, Michael The Disciple January 2021
Manetti, Antonio The fat woodworker (short story)
Marinello, Edward A.  Lorenzo
Marshall-Andrews, Robert The palace of wisdom
Martin, Valerie I Give It To You
Mathew, David In Vallombrosa
Maugham, W. Somerset Up at the villa
Then and Now
Meissner, Susan The Girl in the Glass
Miller, Alison Demo
Morelli, Laura The Giant
The Stolen Lady
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
O'Farrell, Maggie The Marriage Portrait
Orgill, Douglas Astrid factor
Palazzeschi, Aldo Materassi sisters
Palmgren, Tristan Quietus
Palombo, Alyssa The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence:
a Story of Botticelli

Pownall, David Hard Frosts in Florence radio play
Pratolini, Vasco Bruno Santini
Family Chronicle
The Girls of San Frediano
An Italian story
Naked streets
A tale of poor lovers
A 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



Tasha Alexander The Dark Heart of Florence
It's 1903 and we are introduced to Lady Emily and her husband Colin Hargreaves - at least I was as I've not read any of the rest of the series. The latter spies for Britain, and unfailing stirs up his wife's lust with a mere glance. The pair are soon travelling to Florence to investigate break-ins at the palazzo inherited by his illegitimate daughter, which may not be as trivial as they seem and may threaten the Empire. Chapter 2 introduces Lina, a daughter of the Portinari family, in 1480 whose grandfather has introduced her to the joys of learning and Neoplatonism, but it looks like the lot of the dutiful wife is her only prospect. 20th century murders ensue, possibly linked to rumours of treasure hidden in the palazzo in the 16th century, which subject Lena's story eventually addresses. The prospect of war in 1903 and the rise of Savonarola in the 1490s combine behind much of the story, and the history of Florence and sundry recognisable locations do sterling atmospheric duty. Recommended.
An earlier novel in the series, Death in the Floating City, is set in Venice.

Richard Badalamente A Cat in Florence
This is a short story available from Amazon for the Kindle for 99p. 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.

D.V. Bishop City of Vengeance
This is the first in the author's series of novels featuring Cesare Aldo, a cop in 16th century Florence. We begin in January 1536 with Aldo escorting a Jewish money lender from Bologna and getting attacked by brigands, whilst developments in Florence include a pretty young man murdered whilst dressed as a woman. Not impressed by the author thinking that Santa Croce would have had pews, and that the Duomo is the dome, this began a little ungrippingly for me, but no further missteps occurred and my perseverance was soon paying off and rewarding me with resilient female characters, many varieties of sexuality, much politicking and punishment, and a plot which echoes, and puts detail to, historical events involving Duke Alessandro de' Medici and his cousin Lorenzino. (Lorenzino's story was to conclude just outside the church of San Polo in Venice - for more see the San Polo entry on my Churches of Venice site.) The author has a thing for smells and nuances of touch too, and doesn't shy away from blood and beatings. Which all goes towards a smooth read which is as flowing and fragrant as the Arno when...etc.

Giovanni Boccaccio
The Decameron
Having decided that the time had come I started reading the Penguin Classics edition translated by George Henry McWilliam. It's a prose version, due to my aversion to verse, and reads well. There is a newer translation by Wayne A. Rebhorn, but a review speaks of  'lively, contemporary, American-inflected English' which sounds pretty nasty. The book begins with with seven women attending a mass in Santa Maria Novella in Florence on a Tuesday in the year 1348 , the church being almost deserted due to the ravages of Black Death. They decide to flee the pestilence and take to the country, taking three young men with them, and there to tell each other stories. Religion, deception and monk-sex feature in the first few, as you might imagine, and real people like Cangrande della Scala. So far the stories are chin-strokingly interesting rather than side-splittingly funny or mind-blowingly odd. But I'll persevere, gradually, and report back if things change.

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 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 being 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.

Jonathan Chalstrey Punch!
Well, having decided to write a novel about Pietro Torrigiano, the sculptor who was responsible for Michelangelo's busted nose, what would you call it?! This famous event comes only 20 pages in, and so we're into the sculptor's maturity pretty swiftly. The nose-busting took place in the Brancacci Chapel and there are various theories as to it's provocation with Vasari's version, of course, allowing no blame to stick to Michelangelo. But that Torrigiano was a man with a temper on him, and a swagger about him, is undeniable. He fled Florence before Lorenzo de' Medici, a patron to them both, could exact his punishment. Action both military and amorous follows, along with work for Lucrezia Borgia in Ferrara and with Perugino and Pinturicchio in Rome, amongst others. His time spent in London working in Westminster Abbey is famous and well dealt-with here, with an unexpected and vivid appearance by a figure who's been getting much attention in fiction lately. (No spoilers here!) The author knows his history, and his art, and writes good and natural-sounding dialogue. The discussions of art occasionally
sound a bit text-booky, and I could have done with less profanity. But these are minor nit-picks with a novel of effortless authenticity and confidence that's easy to read and like. And the truth to history continues to the last chapters, which see our hero's smashing a statue of the Virgin in a fit of temper, resulting in him facing the inquisition in Seville. The author has a sequel in the works, called Spice, about Juan Sebastian Elcano, an explorer who Pietro befriends in Seville.
To order the paperback of this novel for £9.99 contact the author at



Anne Charnock Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind
This is a novel set in three time periods. The first we read is set in the 22nd Century and has a woman beginning work at an Orwellian institute dedicated to discovering female artists hitherto hidden to history, whilst studying to take esteemed male artists reputations down too. The other two see a present-day artist copier of paintings and his daughter visiting China and the National Gallery, and Paolo Uccello teaching his young daughter art and drawing. If this seems worryingly science-fictional then let me reassure you that the plot does not feature time travel (or zombies or vampires) and the stories of Antonia, Toni and Toniah are mostly to do with family relationships, specifically the father-daughter bond. And art, which dominates the narrative, and all the central lives, specifically in relation to colour, Paolo Uccello, Florence and The Battle of San Romano. A pleasurable, calm and stimulating read, but the narratives did seem to fizzle out at the end, rather than come to any separate points or indeed any common one.

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 below) 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 of Cupid in the bottom-left-hand corner is the foot in the famous Monty Python intro animation?

Penelope Fitzgerald Innocence
The author's career up until this book appeared had been consistently home-based - her novels had all been set in England and based upon her own life. With this one she began to widen her horizons, for what was to turn out to be her final four books. It's set in Florence and tells of the romance between a daughter of the impoverished aristocracy and the doctor son of a southern communist family. It's set in the 1950s, which gives it a post-war setting, but without too much modernity intruding. Florence goes largely undescribed, as you might imagine when the protagonists are living there rather than visiting, and dialogue dominates, but details can prove evocative - it's not just the characters true feelings that sometimes spark through. There are visitors from England, but they don't go to churches or museums, and no-one talks much about art. I found the writing style and lack of a plot trajectory to be uninvolving. The characters are winningly odd and it's written with wit - one grins often - but I was not gripped or impressed.

E.M. Forster A Room with a View
Having read Sarah Winman's Still Life in 2021, a novel which connects with this one in ways it would be a shame to spoil, I realised that I hadn't reviewed A Room With a View, the novel, as I had read it well before I created this website in 1998. I've watched the 1985 film a couple of times since, and the less-essential 2007 TV version less often, and reviewed them both over on the Florence Films page. It's hard when reading the novel now not to picture the actors in the film, of course, but Mr Emerson senior is much more charmless in the book, and Lucy more naive. The tone is also less sunny and the class-conflict stuff stronger going. I have since been to Fiesole, but not to be snogged in a field of flowers, and I have a bit more of an idea about who Alesso Baldovinetti is this time. A witty and thoughtful, but not hard read and unquestionably one of the few real classics set in Florence.

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 Velázquez 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 someone 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, involving gruesome torture implements and man-eating wolves. If this sounds like the sort of thing that you'd enjoy then be my guest. But not in my home.
Much was made in this book's 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 chops. 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.
Wilhelm Hauff The Severed Hand
A macabre little story, about a young trader from Byzantium who deals in exotic fabrics and is also a Paris-trained doctor. Whilst living in Florence he gets a weird summons, acquires a gilt-decorated red leather cape and ends up tortuously sucked into committing a bizarre murder. The Florence detail is sparse (really just a meeting on the Ponte Vecchio) but it's a juicy tale by an author new to me, and worth the five minutes it'll take you to read it. You can find it for free on the Project Gutenberg website.

Glenn Haybittle The Way Back to Florence
We begin in 1943, with an artist in Florence disturbed at work by the noise of bombers flying over, then we switch to her husband, flying one of said Lancasters over Florence. So far so uncommon. We then slip back to 1937 and their relationship beginning, while they are both studying with the crusty and egotistical painter called the Maestro. There is also Oskar, a German Jew and a dancer with a  daughter and Marina. The language has a tendency to be a bit, well, creative, especially in the first few chapters, but it settles down as the focus moves from art to atrocities, but always has a thing for stray sensual stimulations, sometimes in the least likely circumstances. And we get given good Florence, with plenty of evocative period detail, and city settings mostly around San Frediano and along the river. The infamous fascist torture centre in the Villa Triste in via Bolognese and the female prison in Santa Verdiana feature too. The suffering can get pretty relentless, but sadly in 2017 the need to be reminded remains, it seems, and the overall message here seems to be that when humanity, the concept, seems to have been banished, it still has the capacity to return and surprise.
Lucretia Grindle
The Faces of Angels
It took me until Lockdown II in 2020 to get around to reading this one, the author's first Florence novel, and even to realise that I hadn't read it, despite having bought the paperback in 2007 (Amazon tells me) and read the other two in between. It's mostly about Anne, an American woman returning to Florence to lay the ghosts of her gruesome attack in the Boboli Gardens years before, which she only survived when her husband blundered along to save her and got killed himself. She comes back to stoke up a romance begun back then and to study art.  The major early part of the novel sees her doing these things, stirred and screwed up by memories, and disturbed by priests and more murders. Blame it on lockdown-inspired impatience but I found more tedious stretches here than I remember from the author's other books. Like where she does that thing, like in horror films, where long drawn-out scenes create tension and fizzle out to show that sometimes irrational fears are just that. Or the similar long scenes where nothing much happens to progress the plot, and then it suddenly does. Detective Alessandro Pallioti is a memory for Anne, from his investigating the attack in the Boboli, the perpetrator of which died in a car crash soon after. Pallioti doesn't feature much until the long-threatened close-to-home contemporary murder takes place, so it'd be a stretch to call it a Detective Pallioti novel, and it's really more a psychological thriller than a police procedural. (The central character is a bit obsessed with dead WWII partisans too, seemingly for no other reason than to presage the author's later novels.) The longeurs (and tedious concentration on girly frock and accessory details) are more than made up for by the Florence content and art-history frissons - this one is very Florentine, the action centring around Santo Spirito. It's good, but she later wrote better later.

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 the murders of aged 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. Fiction dealing with Italy's WWII history is rare, 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.

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.



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.
And TSH's follow up
Lady of the Seven Suns was just as good, dealing with the life of a wealthy female follower of Saint Francis, and is reviewed on my Related Works

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

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.

  another sensitive loner - an unmarried writer of poetry - but from well-tilled 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.
The second in the Detective Carlo Abati series was Ghirlandaio's Daughter, which I read and reviewed after a visit to Lucca, where it is set, many years after reading The Last Castrato.


Mary Hoffman 
Stravaganza - City of Flowers
The first book in the Stravaganza series City of Masks was set in an alternative Venice and I loved it. I later read City of Stars, the second one, set in an alterno-Siena. But way back when this one came out I got it sent to me as an advance uncorrected proof (my first!) to review, after the author herself made contact. It has characters from the previous two books, and new ones, hopping back and forth from a version of 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 quid, 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 six Stravaganza books, taking in versions of Ravenna, Lucca and Padua too. See The Venice Questions on this very site for more about Stravaganza and Mary H's Venice.

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, on balance, I didn't.
*This book was nominated for, and won, the The Literary Review's Bad Sex Award in 2012, Nancy Huston thereby becoming 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, and 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

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 cook, 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. 


  The Painter of Souls
In which the author moves on from the life of an imaginary cook in Renaissance Florence to that of a real artist, also the uncle of the hero of Appetite, so this is something of a prequel to that book. This one concentrates on the (very) formative years in the life of Filippo Lippi, from his childhood running wild on the streets of the Oltrano through his life as a monk and, eventually, artist in the convent of the Carmine. The imagined personal and researched historic detailing is darn faultless and utterly convincing, and the meetings with the likes of Massacio and Donatello have a winningly genuine flavour. The account of life in the convent and of Fra Filippo's reaction to the work progressing on the Brancacci Chapel and his emotions confronting the images that appear will stick with me, I think, and tweak my perceptions on future visits. This novel may lack the intellectual rigour of A Gift for the Magus, Linda Proud's fictional life of Filippo, but is more concerned with emotion and motivation, and their being confused and mixed, respectively. The art methods are stronger here, too, and the author uses his poetic license to make one of Lippi's old friends the protagonist in one of Florence's more pungent stories, linked to the church of Santa Maria de' Ricci, and also towards the (satisfying) end, where some celebrities appear to surprise us all. The book ends with Fra Filippo's admission to the guild of painters and Masaccio's departure to Rome, the Brancacci chapel left unfinished, to be completed - spoiler alert - much later by Fra Filippo's son. So there's plenty more life to come in the promised later volumes, which are taking a while.

The Phoenix of Florence
After the food and art variety of the above two books it's a bit of shock when this one plunges us straight into period crime territory, with some gory deaths on the Ponte Santa Trìnita in the Florence of Grand Duke Francesco de' Medici - the late-16th century. But as dim light begins to shine on the perpetrators Onorio Celavini, our policemen/narrator, turns out to be not all he seems too, and the story leaps back a few decades to his childhood, and the events that formed and drastically changed him. For me to too closely detail this would be a definite spoiler, but suffice it to say we delve deeply and fruitfully into issues of self-creation and sexual identity as we follow our hero through his time spent as a mercenary soldier fighting the French and the Turks, in Flanders and at Lepanto. Which means more action and blood than previously, and less time spent in Florence, but we do return there for a good third of the book. The Florentine locations cluster around Onorio's house near the Ognissanti, his workplace of the Bargello, and Santa Trìnita, with a couple of candle-lit funerals at night, which I presume is an authentic detail. A church called Sant'Ambrogio is mentioned too, but the real church of that name is over the other side of town so this may be some use of a poetical licence. We're well into the power and intrigue of warring families and factions by the end. And revenge. There's a lot about the ill-treatment of women here but, in the end, we reach a non-clichéd place. A good read indeed.

Christobel Kent

A Party in San Niccolo 
Well, after a pretty lean period for new novels set in Florence in 2003 came 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 fiction 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 at first 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 present 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.

The Viper 6
This one sees Sandro back on the force to help investigate a triple murder connected to a hippy commune in the hills which was, way back in the 60s, a formative experience for our young hero. Luisa, his wife, who's given up her day job, has her reasons for feeling and getting involved too. And Giuli, now Cellini's partner in the private detective business, has her own problems. In fact everyone has problems here, everyone is damaged, haunted, sick and/or dying. The novel is full of too much of everything, for me, especially in the plotting with its constant shocks and twists. We all like to be challenged and stimulated, but this one just left me emotionally breathless. I've mentioned the centrality of female concerns in past reviews, and here Luisa's leaving her job means less frock talk, but there's still a good amount of gynaecology. In Florence the action is mostly on the Oltrano side, and out south into the hills, with some popping over the Arno to posher locales and ospedali. I'll just add the overly fevered and gothic evocations of run-down huts and farmhouses, making all the buildings just as haunted as the people. I'm just off for a lie down. Oh, I forgot to mention that this is billed as the last Sandro Cellini novel, which is probably for the best.

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.  


Valerie Martin I Give It To You
The blurb for this novel says that it's 'about who owns a story', but that's highfalutin tosh. A writer gets to stay in the guest lemonary of a Tuscan villa, where the owner, Beatrice, tells her stories from her family's recent past. That's it, and it's enough. The guest gets around nearby Tuscan towns, including Siena, in a car she's also rented, but there is little description. The stories are the thing, and many happen in Florence, although much time is spent in Boston, where Beatrice goes to study and marry. We are in Florence for the changing fortunes and constant carnage of the last war. This book is very American in the way that it reads like biography as it deals with matters mundane and emotion-wrenching in equal measure, with the resulting feeling of authenticity. It feels very real, so that you might find yourself wondering why, if it's all made up, it isn't made more exciting. But as it's all about that life/fiction dichotomy one tends to go with the smooth narrative flow, and enjoy it.

Lauro Martines & Murtha Baca
An Italian Renaissance Sextet: Six Tales in Historical Context

The names above denote the collector/annotator of the works and his translator. The authors of the tales are as follows, and I've chosen to review them together as there is much common ground in considering them. The three tales (they're all short) set in Florence are all primarily interesting for what they tell us about Florentine society during the Renaissance - first hand, as it were. The chief lesson is that Florentines loved playing practical jokes (buffe) on each other, and that in doing so they displayed disturbing levels of cruelty. The stories also conform to the structure of The Decameron, in that they show the love of telling stories in turns in competition. Spoiler Warning - as the interest lies mostly in what the stories tell us about their times I here reveal more plot details than usual.

Ricciarda by Giovanni Gherardi da Prato tells of a beautiful young woman, Ricciarda, who is left a widow but brings up her children to be praiseworthy and virtuous. She marries her daughter well to a rich young man but on their wedding night the daughter seems, to her new husband, to be enjoying the experience far too much. He suspects her chastity and trouble ensues. The mother invites him to her country house just beyond the San Frediano Gate and there throws a basketful of ducklings from her window into the moat. The husband is shocked but observes that the ducklings soon learn to cope with their sudden dunking, nature takes its course, and Ricciarda's point is made. To which she adds that if her daughter had not been virtuous surely she would have gone to great lengths to conceal, rather than reveal, the fact. Good point!

Bianco Alfani
by Piero Veneziano
tells the story of a cruel and somewhat tedious trick played on a dissolute and somewhat corrupt warden of the Stinche prison, called Bianco Alfani. His associates lead him to believe that he's been elected to high office in a distant town, only for him to bankrupt himself travelling there with an entourage to discover the deception and return to poverty and ridicule. The story is presented as part of a competition to decide who tells the best tales. But the competition is made moot by the fleeing from the plague and a consequent death. They sure had a weird sense of humour in them days.

by Lorenzo de' Medici
is set in Siena, not in Florence, but the identity of the author qualifies it for a mention. Giacoppo is a man of forty with few brains but with a beautiful wife who is twenty-five years of age. She is called Cassandra and is enamoured of a Florentine called Francesco. The two would-be lovers hatch a scheme whereby Francesco pretends to get married in Florence, hires a whore to pretend to be his wife, brings her back to Siena and gets her to lure Giacoppo into illicit sex. When Giacoppo goes to confession the Franciscan friar he regularly visits, who has been got at by Francesco, tells him the only way to make amends is to let his own wife have sex with Francesco. The story's blatant anti-Sienese and anti-clerical elements, along with its naughtiness, means that Lorenzo would have shown it only to his inner circle, in the same way as wealthy men of the period would only show their erotic paintings to certain men friends. It's arguable that whereas we are shocked by the cruelty of the jokes in the other stories the humour we find in the attitude towards the Sienese and Franciscans would have been more shocking than chucklesome to Florentines at the time.

Lastly, and most famously, comes The Fat Woodcarver by Antonio Manetti, supposedly based on true events. Manetti was an architect as well as a writer and wrote a biography of Brunelleschi, whom he knew, and who is responsible for cooking up the practical joke in this story. Grasso, a skilled woodcarver of spotless character is, through a complicated stratagem, led to believe he is actually a man called Matteo.  Brunelleschi breaks into Grasso's house, using only a knife (thereby adding to our conception of his many abilities) and when Grasso himself comes home shouts through the door at him in an impersonation of Grasso's voice, even being overheard telling off Grasso's mother for staying away so long. He is then dragged off to jail for the debts of Matteo... The lengths that the likes of Brunelleschi and Donatello go to are incredible, and all because Grasso failed to attend one of their group's dinners. The tortuous plotting gets, frankly, pretty tedious and the level of cruelty is baffling to modern minds.

If the issues interest you you can do a lot worse than get hold of this volume. Personally I found the stories more dryly interesting than truly likable, and the pseudo-psychobabble commentaries left me quite coolish.


W. Somerset Maugham Up at the villa
This short novella was filmed in 2000, starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Sean Penn, but was controversially padded with subplots. It concerns a widow living picturesquely in a villa overlooking Florence, loaned to her by friends, who is about to marry an older man who has admired her since she was a girl and he was a colleague of her father. In his absence she has an unfortunate (if historically resonant) encounter, leading to an inconvenient body, and is helped by the attractive rogue amongst the Brit expat society. The tale becomes a pondering of choices, and what one values and needs in friends and lovers, packing a fair amount of wisdom and thought-provocation into its 83 pages. Florence is more of a backdrop than a location, viewed as it is mostly from villa terraces and the hills above, but there's just enough description to make it a solid presence. A proper good read.


Magdalen Nabb

Death of an Englishman 1
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.

Death of a Dutchman 2
Nine years (!) after reading the last Marshall book I miss him, and so figure it's long past time to go back and fill in the gaps. And it's so easy to slip back's July, Florence glows, the heat is stifling, the family are summering down south, a bitter and lonely old woman is phoning with yet another imagined crime and soon there's a body which looks a little like a suicide, but not very much. Here the involvement of the Misericordia provides telling insights into their work. There's stuff about Italian burial procedures that clears up a few things too, as well as insights into the jewellery trade. The plot develops through conversations, as ever, rather than shoot-outs or interrogations. There is some suspect-tailing through the Boboli, over the Ponte Vecchio and into the Piazza della Signoria, where a storm of biblical proportions brings darkness and dampness. Which is a bit Dan Brown, but decades before his Inferno. Also very unBrown is the effortless ease of the writing. Detail and atmosphere are faultless, as ever, and the city is described lovingly, but safely this side of tourist travelogue. A sudden burst of gunfire and a pointless death towards the end seem to have been pasted in from a different book but, that disturbance aside, this is as excellent a humanity and Oltrarno fix as ever.

Death in Springtime
Death in Autumn
The Marshall and the Murderer
The Marshall and the Madwoman



The Marshal's Own Case 7
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. The humanity shines through too, with believable emotions and convincing characters.

The Marshal Makes his Report 8
The Marshal at the Villa Torrini

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 11
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 12
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

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 14
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


Maggie O'Farrell The Marriage Portrait
Lucrezia de' Medici, the daughter of  Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence, who later became Grand Duke of Tuscany, was married off to Alfonso d'Este, Prince of Ferrara, in July 1558. He was 34, she was 13.  He went to Paris, she remained in the Pitti Palace.  Only when Alfonso became Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, did he leave France and come and take her to Ferrara with him, in February 1560. On the 21st of April 1561 she died, of "putrid fever", which historians believe was pulmonary tuberculosis. Suspicions that she was poisoned persist, but are now thought to be just loose talk. From these facts this novel spins an imaginary life for Lucrezia which is fanciful and tempting. There's grim reality and a rosy tint mixed, in the life, the relationships, and the marriage. Lucrezia's character is well conjured and her life convincing in its details, sights, and smells. Timelines are juggled, so the wedding in Santa Maria Novella and the first night play out together, and both are memorably written. After Lucrezia's short childhood in Florence the story moves to Ferrara, via a couple of Alfonso's country properties. Memorable episodes take place in the Castello, including around the terrace of orange trees (see right). Liberties are taken with the history, from the larger story down to details like the names of Alfonso's sisters - changed here as they actually had the same names as two of our more central characters. Art plays a central role in this story - both that created by Lucrezia and of her. It's what you'll remember this novel for, and stay with you it will. You'd be forgiven for having high expectations of the author of Hamnet, and you'll not be disappointed.

Tristan Palmgren Quietus
Although this novel is stronger with the science-fiction than with the Florentine content, its pages spent in Florence, in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, are so authentic and memorable as to deserve a place here, I think. The plot initially deals with an anthropologist from another world studying the plague, and the way the people in 14th century Europe dealt with it, and a monk in a monastery outside Florence, and how he's dealing with it. The stories merge, of course, and there's much subtle subtext around how the monk sees the (female) anthropologist and her seemingly limitless power, and the nature of the supreme power he had formerly seen as confined to the divine. There's a goodly chunk of narrative devoted to his return to his family in Florence which, as I say, believably evokes the grimness of the times. The scale and technologies of the civilisation doing the studying are mind-boggling and its gradually-revealed ulterior motives propel the plot nicely. The twists and levels of bogglement maybe pile a bit too high, and the ending spirals on a bit too, but this is a book that surely leaves impressions on the mind.

David Pownall Hard Frosts in Florence

This is a radio play, a monologue written specially for Paul Schofield, in which 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 right). Then things calm back down again to the fallout and 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.


Alex Preston In Love and War
Appearing alphabetically and appropriately next to Pratolini, this novel is also set in WWII Florence. Esmond Lowndes is the son of prominent British fascists, good pals with Oswald Mosley, sent to Florence to set up an English-language radio station meant to bring the Brits and the Italians closer together. His being caught in the arms and bed of his best friend and kicked out of college also makes a spell abroad advisable. His hereditary fascism quickly gets undermined by the mindless brutality of the blackshirts and the sticky passion of his attachments, but whether his suddenly developed sensibilities are why he changes or that he's just an immature boy whose decisions are led by his lusts, is a moot point. The novel has lots of this mootness - there is ambiguity in a lot of the characters, mostly cosy ex-pats, which usually clears up as the torturing begins and the Jews begin to shipped out, but the plot path is a little well-worn - his earlier gay tendency falls away as some impressive women come along to help him grow up. When one of them falls pregnant just as the couple also acquires a dog some predictable plotting ensues, providing as it does some somewhat clichéd sacrificial victims. And then there's the evil local blackshirt leader who crops up regularly to commit each new atrocity against Esmond's friends, and who doggedly resists attempts to get given his just deserts until finally... This taint of the trite Hollywood script makes a fulsome recommendation impossible, but this is an eminently readable novel if you forgive the unspecial plot, and it does give good Florence locations and covers a period in the history of the city that doesn't get fictionalised often, casting a different, if often ugly, light on some familiar places.


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 history book 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 that 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 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 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 the area 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 although it is called The Botticelli Trilogy really tells of the life of Tommaso de' Maffei, lived in the circle of Lorenzo de' 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 war fixation is 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.

Death in the Tuscan Hills
The fifth novel begins only months after the last. Bordelli has quit his job and spends his days in a country farmhouse that he's bought, walking, cooking, reading Dostoyevsky and indulging in some late-life gardening, that we get told about in maybe too much detail. Or maybe detailed instructions about how to prepare chicken-shit manure is your thing. The action of the previous book has left him with more recent demons, that now haunt him every bit as much as his wartime ones still do, and no longer having the law at his disposal he decides to take it into his own hands, to punish those left unpunished. He also gets a visit from the Contessa who lives in the castle on the hill, who still doubts that her lawyer son actually committed suicide fifteen years ago. So our hero is keeping busy. He's trying to quit smoking too, but his attitude to women remains period-appropriate - a thing of wistful and lustful gazes, cowardice and confusion. (And, as ever, none of the women or little girls go undescribed as to their appearance, and all are pretty.) Florence still looms large, despite Bordelli's move to the country - he still reminisces and visits enough to make the city the centre of the novel. The tide-marks and smell of heating oil remain from the flood, as normality only slowly returns. Our hero remains good company and a lovable sap, in many ways, as he juggles with morality and anger and his needs. An effortless readable and well-translated novel of pleasingly grey areas.
The Italian title of this one translates as The Force of Destiny - not tourist-bait enough for the English language market, obviously.

Ghosts of the Past
This one, number six, was allowed to keep its very Bordelli Italian title,
and is set just before Christmas 1967, so only months after number five. Inspector Bordelli is still living in the country, but commutes into Florence in his Beetle. He's also still pining like a schoolboy after his lost love, still giving up smoking and still lusting after every young woman he encounters, even ones he passes on the street. He's now nearing retirement age and so this drooling only gets more creepy. And again every woman is pretty, without exception, except if she's old. The case involves a widower of wealth found murdered with a duelling epee. The safe and the window have been left open, despite the cold, and a jewel box is missing. Bordelli and ask lots of questions and don't get far Then Bordelli discovers old friend Bruno Arcieri in a bar, in a very poor state, and takes him home, where Arcieri tells the story, in the third person and in a much smaller font, of how he came to be sunk so low. Capitano Arcieri is more a spy than a policeman, and is the creation of fellow-Florentine author Leonardo Gori, whose novels seem not to have been translated into English. Arcieri's side story, plotted by Gori but written by Vichi, recurs, alternating with the slow central murder investigation. The admiration of always-pretty women continues too, but if you can excuse this the story told, and the stories told by others along the way, makes for some good reading. In  a crucial episode Bordelli is lead by a reluctant married woman into San Remigio (see left) and thence into a confessional for secrecy. Florence is conjured by addresses and street names rather than any descriptive passages, but the lives and characters conjured up have authenticity.
This sixth Bordelli novel came out in 2018 and there's not been another one translated into English since, although there are now twelve of them in Italian, plus two short stories set in the 50s. It would be a shame if we get no more.

Jo Walton Lent
This is a novel about Savonarola, who is mostly referred to as plain Girolamo, which prevents one's preconceptions clouding attitudes, I suppose. But other characters get oddly named too. Pico della Mirandola is always called the Count, Poliziano is just called Angelo and, most bizarrely, Lorenzo the Magnificent is called The Magnificent Lorenzo, which makes him sound like a music-hall magician. The fact that much is made of the weird blue light emanating from Lorenzo on his deathbed indicates that we're not in the realm of dry historical accuracy here, as do the descriptions of the Bosch-like demons plainly seen by Girolamo as he exorcises the (fictional) convent of Santa Lucia in Oltrarno. Our hero's powers of prediction and other abilities are closer to Harry Potter than Saint Anthony, which also serves to dilute our idea of him as a fun-hating and art-destroying miseryguts. The author is known for her science fiction, but we enjoy a bit of liberty-taking in the interest of story-spicing, and the overall authentic detailing and pungent atmosphere cunningly conjures fifteenth-century Florence and, for example, life in San Marco surrounded by the frescoes of Fra Angelico. The years pass quite quickly, with lessening stress on the magic, and our hero remains an amiable character. The Bonfire of the Vanities is oddly dealt with with just a chapter meeting where the brothers are brainstorming what to do to add some entertaining distraction to diffuse tensions during the upcoming Carnival festivities. They having dismissed the possibility of a processing giraffe and fighting a greased bear one of the friars suggests a bonfire of vanities, inspired by the example of San Bernardino. Eventually Savonarola is persuaded. Which chucklesome discussions presents him, I'm sure you'll agree, as less than the rabid ascetic killjoy we're used to. And then, half way through the book, our hero suffers his well-known fate.

What happens next would definitely count as a spoiler if I were to tell you. Suffice to say we're in the realm of alternate history here, with touches of Groundhog Day. But it's all done with a sure foot, conviction, gusto and a firm grasp of history and theology. Truly an intelligent and enjoyable voyage into the different.
  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 (of blessed memory) 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.

The Hearts of All on Fire
This new adventure for crime-fighting lawyer Guid'Antonio Vespucci and his nephew Amerigo begins as the family celebrate Saint John's Day in 1473. The festivities, and the book, centre on the Vespucci-dominated patch of the Ognissanti district in Florence. Our hero is soon investigating two deaths, one related to despicable acts, the other worryingly close to home. As in the author's previous novel there are romantic-fiction tinges here - more meaningful glances, sudden blushes and lustful caresses than I'm used to - but, also as before, these can be forgiven as the smells and sights are so richly evocative, and the characters effortlessly believable. This is a largely artless book, though, although we bump into Leonardo, and there is some background discussion of the planning for the decoration of the Vespucci chapel in Ognissanti, this book is concerned more with domestic life, politics, personalities and plotting, and dogs. There are even two dogs that are central characters. An historical romance, then, but one with teeth.


Sarah Winman Still Life
The recommendations promoting this novel were so fulsome and gushing, stressing how good it would make you feel if you read it, that I approached it with a fair amount of scepticism, which was swiftly dashed by the engaging opening and the extremely pungent picture painted of Florence in 1944, as the Germans retreat north. Evelyn, an elderly lesbian art-historian, meets cute with a handsome young soldier called Ulysses, as hidden altarpieces are found and admired. The changed Ulysses returns to London and his feckless and magnetic wife Peg. They live by a canal in Hackney that sounds very much like Haggerston, the locality of my birth. Here, as in Florence, an odd mixture of characters mix well and make sense, displaying native wit and sensitivity, mostly. You might find the chirpy positivity a bit wearing, but I have a low threshold for that kind of stuff and I coped. Back in Florence Piazza Santo Spirito becomes the centre of things and Pontromo's Deposition/Pieta in nearby Santa Felicita becomes a recurring motif. Most of our time is spent on the Oltrano side of the Arno, although we do venture over the river, often to collect people from the station, especially during the almost unbearably vividly-evoked time of the 1966 flood. Lives are lived, sexualities discovered, and choices made, as the decades pass. This is a book which makes you feel good, and indeed has many scenes that seem written to feature in an uplifting film, but that doesn't stop it being a special read and heartily recommendable.

Even more partial and sparse than my Venice non-fiction page, but there's some good stuff here.
I've also made a separate page for books of photos of
Lost Florence


Diana Athill A Florence Diary
The author has previously written mostly memoirs, of her life in publishing. This 40-page diary of a trip to Florence in 1947 was recently discovered, we are told, and gets introduced by the author herself with reminiscences of holidays past. She travels by train, via Paris, and visits all the usual galleries and churches in Florence, except the Uffizi. The blurb talks of a 'time long lost', and talk of the small amounts of money spent is fragrant, of course, but apart from the grubbiness of some frescoes and the ease of access to places that now require queuing and paying this is a portrait of a timeless place. There's much more wide-eyed amazement - at the sights and the friendly and handsome Italian men - than fresh perception, although Athill was 30 when she made the trip. As its publishing date indicates this is more a book to fill stockings than broaden understanding, but is a pleasant diversion for Florence fans.

Ross King and Anja Grebe
Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743
A large and luscious coffee-table book, but with text by a real writer of art history.  There's a USP here too -that it contains a colour image of every painting in Florence. This ambition results in quite a lot of little images, as you can imagine, but there are big pictures too, of the more famous stuff, and some nice fold-outs. The restriction to paintings only in Florence leads to a little skewing of history - Michelangelo gets just a tondo in here, as it is the only one of his paintings remaining in Florence, but personal fave Domenico Ghirlandaio features impressively well, as does personal blind-spot Fra Bartolomeo. I suggest skipping the two prefaces, which are pretty bland and more tourist PR than art history. Mr King's Intro and his chapter introductions and site overviews are the real thing though - enlightening and very up to date, with references to follow up too. Amongst the recent developments he covers is the evidence of influences from the East (on Brunelleschi, for example) and the North, and the debunking of Vasari's meet-cute legend about Cimabue's discovery of the young Giotto. The individual painting captions are by Anja Grebe. I found a mistake on my first flip-through - Hugo van der Goes' famous Portinari Altarpiece is said here to have been sited in Santa Maria Novella whereas, as we all know, it was painted for the church of Sant'Egidio in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. The similarity of the name of the hospital and the wrong church, and the fact that the Ms Grebe's texts have been translated from the German, may provide an excuse, but it's far from the only error. These texts are readable, though, and can be informative. Having to have small images to fulfil the USP isn't too annoying, and seeing a whole apse-wall of frescoes as postage stamps certainly gives a different perspective. And to balance this the big images show how consistent and sharp the images are. One of my faves, Giottino's Lamentation (see left) for example gets a full page and a double-page detail that's positively revelatory. A book that's both pretty and stimulating, then.

Ross King The Bookseller of Florence:
Vespasiano da Bisticci and the Manuscripts that
Illuminated the Renaissance
The subject of this book might initially look a little small-beer for an author who has previously written reputable books about Brunelleschi's Dome, Leonardo's Last Supper and Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, but it fascinates as well as pushing a fair few currently hot buttons. The dissemination of lost ancient learning through the diligent searching of cobwebby shelves in obscure monasteries, the thanks due to the Muslim world for the preservation of this knowledge, as well as illuminated manuscripts themselves, are all trending topics, you might say. Add to this some innovative typesetting nuns, from the convent of San Jacopo di Ripoli, and many mouths will be watering. The action centres on the Street of Booksellers (now part of Via del Proconsolo) the street in which we find the Bargello and the Badia, and the cast takes in Poggio Bracciolini, Niccolò Niccoli, Leonardo Bruni, Pico della Mirandola and Angelo Poliziano, amongst other humanists. For this book is another valuable contribution to our understanding that the Renaissance wasn't just about architecture, painting and sculpture. An eclectic range of subjects are covered - Florentine worthies, classical authors, condottiere, patrons and popes - but they become parts of a well- and fruitfully-connected narrative. The story's main strand is how the transition from hand-made to machine-printed books affects and illustrates the times. Familiar events and people pass, but they are viewed from the perspective of the bookseller Vespasiano and his business. This mixture of the familiar and the fresh is entertaining and enlightening. And appropriately the book is a lovely piece of work in itself.



  Allison Levy House of Secrets:
The Many Lives of a Florentine Palazzo
Beyond the handsome cover there are several annoying hurdles to be leapt before I can get into enjoying this one. Firstly the title: why does every pop-history book and TV documentary have to contain the word 'secret'. Call me picky but there can't be actual secrets involved, or they wouldn't be secrets! Also this is a book about the Palazzo Rucellai but the title keeps this fact a secret! This means that if you do a search on Amazon for Rucellai this book doesn't appear. Duh! Presumably it's a marketing thing, trying to attract the curious general reader rather than telling interested parties what they can expect. Then there's a short Preface full of so much fulsome touchy-feely psycho-babble that we seem to be threatened us with becoming intimate with the palazzo and its inhabitants rather than learning about them and keeping them at arm's length. We are encouraged to 'see built structures as social partners, equal players in the theaters of life and death.' Very un-British, and not just the spelling! Luckily the actual chapters settle down a lot and the history is readable. The intimate details of the author's relationship with her own older local patrician are thankfully, and surprisingly, withheld, and so become quite interesting interludes. The Rucellai family, Alberti the architect, their lives, and their works in the same vicinity get thoroughly introduced and discussed. I hadn't realised that San Pancrazio - site of the Rucellai chapel and Alberti's famous Tempietto - backs onto the Palazzo Rucellai, as getting from one to the other takes time and turnings if you're not a crow. The patchwork-building nature of the book makes for enjoyable variable reading, but can seem somewhat random at times.  

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.

John Ruskin Mornings in Florence
It's September 2018, and having begun listening to an Audible recording of Vasari, and started appreciating his strengths rather than his failings, here I am reading Ruskin and finding him to not be so much of a prig as I thought. I'm reading Mornings in Florence, in a handsome paperback bought on my last trip, and I got to the bit where he says of Santa Croce ...the ugliest gothic church you were ever vaultings at all, which I've long quoted on my site's Santa Croce page. But reading on, beyond the famous quote, he goes on to say that though the design is not beautiful by any means it deserves, nevertheless, our thoughtfullest examination, and tellingly observes that the Franciscans' churches were meant for use; not show, nor self-glorification, nor town-glorification and that they had no intention of showing how high they could build towers, or how widely they could arch vaults. Which all makes the man sound much less harsh and grumpy than the initial quote does. But beyond this the pickings are slim - the mornings then repeatedly see returns to the Spanish Chapel in Santa Maria Novella with only the odd spark of interesting oddness and spleen-venting amongst the unfascinating theological observations and subject-listing. He deals with the sculpture panels up Giotto's Tower in exhausting detail. Another slim-picking enhancement of a famous quote, though, is with regard to the Ghirlandaio frescoes in S.M. Novella, which he says are simply good for nothing. He goes on to compare two of Ghirlandaio's scenes with a similar pair, that he says are by Giotto, in the Cloister of the Dead. His dismissal of Ghirlandaio's refinement in the face of the simple piety of the Trecento 'Giotto' frescoes is positively, and revealingly, Pre-Raphaelite!


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

In this book 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 lovely portrait (see left) and on the walls behind the high altar in 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 in novels and non-fiction - see above - but it gets run through here again, nicely and readably. Politicking, romance, murder, religious intrigue, philosophical enquiry, sudden 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 then. 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