The Cardinal’s Man: M.G. Sinclair

★★½

This, like Girl with a Pearl Earring, is a novel born from a painting, from a striking face that seems to look out at us across centuries and to spark a shock of fellow-feeling. While Tracey Chevalier’s famous book took its inspiration from the coy glance of a Dutch teenager, Sinclair’s story is inspired by a much more direct confrontation: Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Don Sebastián Morra, in the Prado, dating from 1645. Using this powerful image as a starting point, Sinclair reimagines Morra’s life in a fictional biography that carries us from the bleak shores of Normandy to the glitter of Paris in the time of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. Spain, oddly enough, features less than you might expect. It is an ambitious book, and its championship of this fascinating but obscure figure is to be celebrated; but ultimately the novel is a fantasy, which makes no reference to the few known facts of Morra’s life. Moreover, it never quite manages to overcome some stylistic and compositional shortcomings.

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Royal Flush: Margaret Irwin

★★★½

Back in the winter, I discovered the historical fiction shelf at the Book Barn near my parents’ home in Somerset, and came away with a huge pile of novels from the 1960s and 1970s. One was this book by Margaret Irwin, who specialised in stories about the Tudor and Stuart periods, and who here focuses on the life of Charles II’s little sister Minette. Although Minette features in a number of novels, this was the first time I’d read about her and I enjoyed the novel’s old-fashioned romantic charm. Dense and detailed, it offers a sweep of the most colourful vistas of the 17th century: the lively Restoration court of Charles II and, more importantly, the glittering court of the young Louis XIV.

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These Dividing Walls: Fran Cooper

★★★★

Paris is easy to love, isn’t it? Think of the sleek, chic boulevards and grand buildings; the art, department stores and pavement cafes… But this is only the side of the city that the tourists see. Over on the rive gauche, in a quiet apartment building, a group of mismatched inhabitants deal with another face of the world’s most romantic destination. In these rooms, jumbled cheek-by-jowl and yet rarely connecting, the inhabitants of number thirty-seven live their complicated parallel lives, negotiating the paths of grief, love, loneliness, failure and a growing sense of hatred. For this is a sweltering summer and tensions are rising, directed against a scapegoat ‘other’. In this, Fran Cooper’s debut novel has its finger firmly on the pulse of a world in which tolerance hangs by a fraying thread.

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Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio

Valentin: David with the Head of Goliath

(Musée du Louvre, Paris, 20 February-22 May 2017)

Around 1610, a French teenager arrived in Rome, hoping to study as a painter. His name was Valentin. Although he was just too late to meet Caravaggio, his artistic formation took place in a community beholden to the sharp contrasts and uncompromising realism of the older artist. Valentin would become known as one of the most gifted of the ‘Caravaggisti’, but this exhibition gives him credit as someone who was able to develop and transcend his sources. We move from rowdy Roman taverns, full of cardsharps, fortune tellers and impromptu concerts, to face-to-face encounters with brooding saints. Every room testifies to this underrated painter’s flair and intensity.

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Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman: Gary Kates

★★★★½

A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade

When I reviewed The Chevalier back in June last year, I was interested in the life of the Chevalier d’Eon but didn’t know much beyond what I’d read on Wikipedia. Since then, life has played one of its serendipitous little jokes on me. I was recently asked to give a lecture on the Chevalier in my professional capacity, which means that I’ve spent the last month poring over books written both by and about him. My experience has emphasised exactly how inaccurate The Chevalier is (horribly!), but has also revealed the full complexity of this utterly fascinating life. And, if you want to get the facts, this book is the place to start.

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Four Princes: John Julius Norwich

★★★★

Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe

Over the years I’ve assembled a variety of John Julius Norwich’s history books, because he conveniently writes on precisely the topics that fascinate me: Byzantium; Sicily; the Normans in Italy; and so forth. However, although I’ve dipped into all of these books, I’ve rather shamefully never finished any of them, having been distracted for various reasons from savouring Norwich’s sublimely elegant prose. This new history, shorter than the others and full of a delightful liveliness, has the honour of being the first Norwich that I’ve read cover to cover. Taking the unusual format of a group biography, it focuses on the dazzling first half of the 16th century, when four men between them bestrode Europe like colossi. It’s an extremely accessible introduction to the period and the men in question.

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Académie Royale: Hannah Williams

★★★★½

A History in Portraits

Published in 2015, this lavishly-illustrated book offers a engaging study of the Académie Royale, from its foundation in 1648 until its abolition in 1793 as part of the intellectual readjustments of the Revolution. While the Académie’s meetings and statutes are well-documented and have furnished much research over the years, Williams seeks to go beyond a simple chronological history of a great institution. Instead, she interrogates the Académie’s values and networks by reconstructing the lived experience of its members, as far as possible, through an examination of the Académie’s collection of official artists’ portraits. It’s an ambitious idea, but the book pulls it off remarkably well and is all the more appealing for its spirited accounts of machinations, alliances and rivalries in the corridors of the Louvre in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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The Red Sphinx: Alexandre Dumas

★★★★

Now that Christmas is almost upon us, we can start planning reading lists for the New Year. For those who love derring-do, intrigue and swashbuckling, there’s a treat coming up in January: a fresh new translation of a little-known sequel to The Three Musketeers. Although the musketeers themselves don’t appear, there’s a handsome young hero, a beautiful heroine, battles, plots and, bestriding everything like a colossus, the Red Sphinx himself: the shrewd Cardinal Richelieu.

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Goddess: Kelly Gardiner

★★★ ½

Occasionally history renders fiction almost unnecessary. This was especially true in the case of Julie d’Aubigny, who blazed her way through Parisian society in the final years of the 17th century. She was a striking, swashbuckling, cross-dressing contralto; a lover of handsome men and beautiful women; a formidable duellist; and the toast of the Paris Opéra, where she was better known under her husband’s surname as Mademoiselle de Maupin.

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De Vouet à Watteau

Le Brun: Flora

Un siècle de dessin français: Chefs-d’oeuvre du musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon

(Musée du Domaine départemental de Sceaux, until 12 February 2017)

I should have written about this some weeks ago, but the exhibition is still on for about a month and I’d love to flag this to anyone who might have a chance to see it. While the museum at Besançon is closed for restoration, some of its treasures have gone on tour, including a portion of its superb collection of works on paper.

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