Siracusa: Delia Ephron

★★★½

It was meant to be such a delightful break. Two American couples, tangentially connected, decide to holiday together in Italy: first in Rome and then in Syracuse in Sicily (‘Siracusa’, the characters call it, to distinguish it from Syracuse in New York). Vivacious Lizzie hopes to rekindle her relationship with her novelist husband Michael, who has withdrawn into his most recent book. Her old flame Finn, now married to uptight Taylor, looks forward to spending time with his irrepressible former girlfriend. And Taylor, prim and self-consciously cultured, looks forward to introducing her precious daughter Snow to the glories of the Old World. Yet our travellers find that Italy exacerbates, rather than heals, their divisions. And worse is to come, for Siracusa will prove the backdrop to a tragic and unforeseen crescendo.

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The Art of Guido Cagnacci: Xavier Salomon

★★★★

Guido Cagnacci is probably an unfamiliar name even to many seasoned gallery-goers. He’s an Italian Baroque artist whom I’ve always liked, despite feeling that I probably shouldn’t. Shouldn’t my inner feminist revolt at the sight of his damp-eyed saints and tragic heroines, with their tumbling auburn hair and exposed breasts? But, despite all that, the man actually did paint some pretty fabulous pictures. In this monograph, written to celebrate the loan in 2017 of Cagnacci’s Repentent Magdalen, from the Norton Simon Museum to the Frick Collection and the National Gallery in London, Xavier Salomon fleshes out the life of this little-known artist. It’s only a short introduction, but it tantalises with its tale of a passionate, innovative and unconventional painter. Come join me – and enjoy a veritable bevy of lovely pictures.

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The Temptation to be Happy: Lorenzo Marone

★★★

I was tempted by this book because I thought it was going to be another heartwarming tale along the lines of The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen or My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, but in fact it was a little harder and more cynical than I was expecting. It’s the tale of Cesare Annunziata, a grumpy old man in Naples, who has lost his wife, alienated his children and failed to make the most of his life. When a young couple move into the flat next door, Cesare plans to remain just as detached and crabby as ever. But fate has other plans, and this miserable old sod finds that, quite against his will, he’s beginning to feel an emotional investment in his new neighbour Emma.

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The Eight Mountains: Paolo Cognetti

★★★½

Mountains exert a powerful fascination on the modern mind. They offer freedom, escape, wilderness, the shrugging-off of civilisation. They promise an elemental battle between humanity and nature. And they hold out the prospect of possession: peaks to be claimed and conquered. In this restrained and elegant novel, Paolo Cognetti tells the story of Pietro, a young boy from Milan whose life will be shaped by a childhood friendship formed in the high valleys of the Italian Alps. A tale of obsession, of fathers and sons, of friendship and of belonging, this is a poignant glimpse of a fading world.

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Call Me By Your Name: André Aciman

★★★★½

First loves are powerful things. They haunt us for years and we can never quite shake off the memory of them, nor the deep ache they seem to cause. The film adaptation of this novel will be released tomorrow and is already causing critical waves, but I’m so glad I came to the book first. It is a poignant, intimate, irresistible story of a love affair which develops during an idyllic Italian summer between the precocious son of a college professor and his father’s visiting student. In one sense, it is a comfortable tale of beautiful, privileged people falling beautifully in love in beautiful surroundings; but in Aciman’s hands it becomes much more than that. Told in seventeen-year-old Elio’s pitch-perfect narrative voice, it’s a catalogue of human desires, flaws, hopes and lost dreams, so sumptuous that it leaves you aching with nostalgia and feeling drunk on beauty.

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Anna: Niccolò Ammaniti

★★★½

One thing’s for sure: Niccolò Ammaniti really doesn’t do upbeat. I remember seeing the film Non ho paura, based on his novel, when I was in Sixth Form and I found it unsettling, powerful and profoundly bleak. The same could be said of this atmospheric novel, set in 2020, which explores a world in which adults have been eradicated by a virus and children are left to fend for themselves. There is more than a hint of Lord of the Flies here, but Ammaniti is interested not so much in the innate savagery of children, as in the power of hope to push us onward, through unimaginable horrors.

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Fraternities and Frescoes: A Week in Arezzo

Arezzo Piazza Grande

Things have been a little quiet at The Idle Woman recently because I was away in Italy last week on the inaugural Arezzo Summer Course. This is aimed at doctoral students, curators and others with a professional or academic interest in prints. It offers the chance to hear from scholars in the field, who present lectures on their current research, as well as including field trips to various collections and print rooms. I imagine the feel will be different every year, depending on the scholars who come to act as ‘professors’, but this year the course was perfectly aligned to my interests. One of its themes was to look at the interaction between music and printmaking – specifically the way that prints were used to record ephemeral festivities, theatrical events and pieces of music like cantatas, which until the late 17th century existed only as part of an oral tradition.

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In Search of Hipermestra

Stefano della Bella: Apollo

Glyndebourne’s current production of Francesco Cavalli’s Hipermestra brings an ancient tale of love and duty up to date, with a powerful contemporary setting. Being a historian, however, I always wonder what it would’ve been like to experience these operas as they were originally performed. What would we have seen if we’d been in the audience for Hipermestra’s premiere in 1658? Fortunately, we don’t have to leave it to the imagination. Extensive visual and written documentation records the costumes and sets. Even more excitingly, the theatre where the opera was first performed still exists and is still functioning. During a recent business trip to Florence, I took some time out to visit the Teatro della Pergola and its remarkable archives, in search of Hipermestra…

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The Four Seasons: Laurel Corona

★★★½

When two young sisters are abandoned on the doorstep of the Pietà in Venice in 1695, they enter the care of an extraordinary institution: part foundling hospital, part secular convent, and part conservatorio. The girls of the Pietà learn to love God through the medium of music, whether by playing an instrument or by singing in the weekly Masses, which draw admiring crowds to the chapel beyond the grille that prevents any of the performers being seen. And the soloists of the Pietà become stars, their talents as well-known as any opera singer’s, even though they must remain screened away. Of these two abandoned sisters, one, the playful and exuberant Chiaretta, will turn out to have a voice that wins her legions of admirers. The other, Maddalena, looks in vain for an instrument that sparks the inner core of her being. But then she discovers the violin, at around the time that the Pietà hires a young priest to help with giving lessons: a virtuoso violinist and budding composer with flaming red hair, named Antonio Vivaldi.

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The Malice of Fortune: Michael Ennis

★★

It’s 1502. Women are being murdered in the Romagna, and their deaths may hold the secret to a mystery that has plagued Pope Alexander VI: the brutal murder of his beloved son Juan, Duke of Gandia. Eager for revenge, he sends an agent north to find out more. The former courtesan Damiata arrives in the town of Imola, the headquarters of the Pope’s second son Cesare, with a powerful motivation to succeed: her infant son is being kept as a hostage at the Borgia court. Yet she isn’t the only one seeking the truth about these murders. Two others are also trying to identify the killer: one is the put-upon Florentine envoy, Niccolò Machiavelli; the other is Cesare’s engineer-general, the Tuscan polymath Leonardo da Vinci.

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