The Pumilio Child: Judy McInerney

★★

Over the past year, while working on Mantegna, I’ve often though it a shame that there aren’t more novels about him. He had the kind of life that cries out for fiction and so, when I stumbled across this novel on Netgalley, I couldn’t resist. But I didn’t get on with it terribly well. It isn’t just that I found it hard to engage with it as a piece of historical fiction – though I did – but I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by the numerous errors, which could have been avoided by a ten-second check on Wikipedia. Perhaps this warrants a discussion about the purpose of historical fiction. We can get into that later, because (you won’t be surprised to hear) I have strong opinions about it. Perhaps it also warrants a discussion about whether you should read novels set in your specialist historical period. But the most remarkable thing is that I’ve actually ended up feeling sorry for Mantegna who, while one of the most unpleasant, litigious and self-conscious artists in history, does not deserve this. I should warn you that this is a long one and there is much ranting. I’d suggest you make a cup of tea first.

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Mantegna and Bellini

Mantegna: Presentation in the Temple

(National Gallery, London, 1 October 2018 – 27 January 2019)

Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was not used to being refused. She was one of the most enlightened and demanding patrons of the Italian Renaissance, a well-educated woman who appreciated antique sculpture as much as the work of her brilliant contemporaries. However, in the years around 1500, Isabella found herself rebuffed by not one but two of the greatest painters of the day. The first was Leonardo, whom Isabella pursued in vain in the hope of getting a painted portrait (she eventually made do with a portrait drawing). And the second was Giovanni Bellini, whom Isabella approached via her Venetian agents. She invited him to contribute a picture to her famous studiolo – her private study, where she displayed a bevy of sophisticated allegories – and her instructions were that Bellini should paint an historia: a picture based on historical, mythological or allegorical themes. Bellini, very politely, declined. Isabella’s agent wrote to explain: it wasn’t that the elderly painter (Bellini was about sixty-five at the time) wanted to spite Her Ladyship, far from it. He just baulked at the thought of painting something so different from the devotional pictures and portraits which were his strength. Besides, the agent added, Bellini didn’t wish to set himself up against Andrea Mantegna, who had been the Gonzaga court artist for forty years.

You can understand Bellini’s wariness. Mantegna was an acknowledged master of the complex, esoteric allegories that Isabella and her courtiers so loved, and a difficult man to boot; but this was more than a case of professional discretion. Bellini and Mantegna were brothers-in-law. For more than fifty years, they’d been aware of each other’s work, borrowing ideas and motifs, experimenting with the same themes while developing strikingly distinct styles. But their rivalry had so far been a friendly one, and Bellini had no desire to affront his famously irritable brother-in-law. It is this strange relationship – a little-known connection between two of the greatest Renaissance artists – which forms the topic of the National Gallery’s autumn exhibition, and it’s one which is particularly close to my heart: I’m co-curating this show, alongside three wonderful colleagues, and we’ve been preparing it for two long years. Finally, the opening day is almost here, and I thought it was high time to give you a sneak peek. (Get a cup of tea first. It’s a long one.)

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The Return of Martin Guerre: Natalie Zemon Davis

★★★★

In 1560 Jean de Coras, judge of the Parlement of Toulouse, found himself faced with an extraordinary case which had come up on appeal from the court at Rieux. A woman, Bertrande de Rols, claimed that the man with whom she had lived for four years was not, in fact her husband Martin Guerre, but an impostor. The husband himself denied the charges and claimed that his wife was being unwillingly coerced by his avaricious uncle, who hoped to get his hands on the family inheritance. This alone would have offered de Coras an intriguing case, but the complex tale of Martin Guerre presently developed an unexpected twist that elevated it into one of the most fascinating courtroom dramas in history. Natalie Zemon Davis’s reconstruction is a classic of modern historical writing, offering an irresistible glimpse of the social and sexual mores of the Renaissance.

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Madonna of the Seven Hills: Jean Plaidy

★★

Lucrezia Borgia: Book I

I’ve always felt I should read Jean Plaidy’s books. She’s ubiquitous in the historical fiction sections of bookshops and libraries, and she writes about periods that I find interesting. It was only a matter of time. Last winter, I went slightly wild at the Book Barn and came away with a pile of her novels, which I’m only now starting to tackle. I chose to begin with the first of her two novels about Lucrezia Borgia, which may have been a mistake, as it hasn’t done much to win me over. Over-seasoned, two-dimensional and extremely dated, it feels like stepping back in time for all the wrong reasons.

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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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Michelangelo & Sebastiano

Sebastiano: Christ Carrying the Cross

(National Gallery, London, 15 March-25 June 2017)

The current National Gallery exhibition is a lovingly-crafted feast for the mind, focusing on a remarkable, though somewhat one-sided friendship. This is the tale of a talented young painter in search of new opportunities, who manages against the odds to become friends with the most difficult, most demanding artist of the age. Our painter is amazed when this great maestro decides to collaborate with him. But that collaboration must come at a price: the young man departs from the style of his youth and devotes himself to assimilating the master’s aesthetic. But what happens when the friendship sours? This is a story worthy of a novel, full of ambition, envy, manipulation and exploitation, Renaissance rivalry and tragically one-sided devotion. And some truly beautiful art.

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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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In the Name of the Family: Sarah Dunant

★★★★

A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias

This is the long-awaited sequel to Sarah Dunant’s wonderful Blood and Beauty, which takes up the story of the Borgias once again in the final years of their dominance in Italy. At the beginning of 1502, it seems that nothing can stand in the way of the family’s influence, which creeps its way across Italy, subduing its rivals with a blend of charm and violence. Charm comes courtesy of Pope Alexander VI’s lovely daughter Lucrezia, who is making her way cross-country to be married to her third husband, Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara, and using her journey as a way to captivate the Papal States with her elegance, grace and sweetness. Violence, predictably, sits in the hands of her dangerous brother Cesare who prowls around the borders of their state, ears pricked for dissent or weakness. And, while this remarkable family strengthens their grip on Italy, a young diplomat in the Florentine Second Chancery follows their progress with quiet admiration.

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Thomas More: John Guy

★★★★

A very brief history

I’ve always wanted to like Thomas More, largely thanks to Hans Holbein’s magnificent portrait. It offers such an appealingly naturalistic image of the man. More is intense, slightly homely with that overlarge nose, his eyes crinkling at the corners and his mouth quirked benevolently at the corner. He hasn’t shaved: his jaw is scattered with soft grey bristles. The red velvet and fur-trimmed cloak look incongruous: you get the impression he’s indifferent to worldly finery, his mind resolutely fixed on higher things. We almost forget the artist’s craft: we treat the portrait as a photograph, a direct record of the man. But art isn’t like that. And nor is history. The problem is that history has left us so many Mores – the principled objector; the humanist; the saint; the idealistic author of Utopia; the burner of heretics. How can we find our way through the mire? Fortunately this short, lucid and lively book offers a crash course in all things More – and our guide is one of the world’s foremost Tudor historians.

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City of God: Cecelia Holland

★★

A Novel of the Borgias

I’m on a bit of a Borgia kick at the moment. Having just finished Sarah Dunant’s new book In the Name of the Family (the post will go live on the 18th, nearer its publication date), I moved on to Cecelia Holland’s vision of 16th-century Rome. The Borgias are at the apex of their power, with Alexander VI on the Papal throne, his daughter Lucrezia being offered in marriage to the d’Este in Ferrara, and his son Cesare driving the fear of God into the Romagna at the point of a sword. As Italy shifts under the weight of their dominance, a sharp-eyed envoy at the Florentine embassy begins to wonder whether he can use the Borgias as a stepping stone to his own fortune. As a roistering story of the Roman underbelly, full of dark alleyways, abductions and subterfuge, this should have been an absolute stunner… and yet it’s oddly stilted and unsatisfying.

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