Monday, 19 October 2009

The Italian Connection

Two of my favourite Art/Lit authors are Carolyn Coker and Iain Pears. Pears is the author of the acclaimed international bestseller, "An Instance of the Fingerpost". This is a murder mystery, set in Oxford in the 1660's, and may be of particular interest to mathematicians, dealing as it does with calculus and cryptography. As algebra is not my long suit, I much prefer his novels featuring art historian Jonathan Argyll and Flavia di Stefano of Rome's Art Theft Squad.

The pair first meet in "The Raphael Affair", when Jonathan is searching for a long-lost Raphael in a tiny Roman church. Their collaboration continues in seven more books set in Rome, Venice, Siena and Florence. The stories are engrossing, the Italian settings are beautiful and I have learnt a lot about the Italian master painters while enjoying a good read.

Carolyn Coker's protagonist is Andrea Perkins, also an art historian. She lives in Boston and makes a living as an art restorer. Andrea sometimes goes abroad on various assignments – the books are mostly set in Italy: Florence, Ferrara and Venice, although there are a couple that take place in London and Los Angeles.

The first in the series is "The Other David": a rare “lost” portrait by Michelangelo has surfaced, of the same model that he used for his statue of David. Is the painting the real thing or the work of a super-forger? It is Andrea Perkins’ job to find out.

In "The Vines of Ferrara" Andrea is at the castle of the suave Count Geoffredo Gonzaga. Andrea is there to repair a crumbling fresco and retouch a set of fabulous fifteenth-century tarocchi -tarot cards. The castle was built as a summer retreat for Lucrezia Borgia … the perfect venue for a few murders!

I have just finished reading "The Hand of the Lion", in which Andrea is hired by the Committee for the Preservation of Venetian Art. She finds herself involved in a spectacular art theft, a kidnapping and a murder, all in the romantic setting of crumbling palaces and languorous gondolas along the Grand Canal.

I can hardly wait to get hold of the next one!

Homer Goes to Italy

Jane Langton's charming Homer Kelly series are often plotted around art related themes. Homer and wife Mary both teach at Harvard and they are very good at getting to the bottom of mysteries. I particularly liked "Murder at the Gardener", "The Thief of Venice" and "The Dante Game" for their art themes and vividly described settings.

In "Murder at the Gardner", paintings by Botticelli,Titian and other masters grace the palatial walls of Boston's Gardner Museum, placed there as decreed by the inflexible terms of Isabella Stewart Gardner's will. She stipulated that the whole collection should be auctioned off "should any changes or unwelcome disturbances occur". Of course all manner of "disturbances" do start to happen, including tadpoles in the courtyard fountain and ghostly music in the galleries. The hapless museum director desperately tries to hush it all up, but his efforts are foiled when the first body is found.

"The Dante Game" takes us to Florence, where Homer Kelly has gone to teach at an American school in a crumbling villa. The author has a keen eye for the architectural and cultural richness of Florence as she centers her plot around the pope's visit to a Florentine cathedral.

The scene of "The Thief of Venice" is Venice rather than Florence, but the atmosphere of the city is equally evocatively described, as Homer settles in to study Renaissance manuscripts, and Mary sets out to see the city. The plot deals with the discovery of art treasures hidden by Venetian Jews during World War II.

These civilised, literary novels are delightful - I also like the elegant line drawings by the author, which accompany the text.

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