Release date: May 2009
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long
Last summer I had a beach holiday in Turkey and went armed with many books as I intended to spend the entire week lolling by the pool and reading. And I did. And this was one of the books I took with me and with which I spent a happy pool side couple of hours:
The Glassblower of Murano-This story told with one of my favourite devices, flipping backwards and forwards in time from the Venice of Vivaldi up to the present day. Corrado Manin is a glass master on Murano island who, unknown to the Ten who rule Venice, has a secret daughter in the Ospidale founded by Vivaldi. In order to protect her he sells his methods and his soul to the Sun King, Louis XIV of France who wants his expertise in the building of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. This is a betrayal which will ultimately lead to his death in the dark alleyways of Venice. Centuries later his descendant, Nora Manin, fleeing from an unhappy marriage comes to the city to become an apprentice on Murano and learn the art of glass blowing. This book is such a good read, once started I was absorbed. Any book set in Venice will appeal to me and this was no exception. Death, betrayal, love, passion all set in my most favourite city in the world. Great stuff. Loved it.
I was delighted, therefore, to receive an email from Beautiful Books asking if I would like to read Marina Fiorato's next book The Madonna of the Almonds. Well, yes I would please, and it duly arrived and last weekend sat down and totally lost myself in the magic of Italy once more. I do love Italy and all things Italian, food, wine, history, music and am a total sucker for historical novels set against this background.
The book is set in 16th century Tuscany and Simonetta has been widowed as her dashing and much loved husband Lorenzo, has been slain in one of the feudal wars between the Italian states. Her grief is exacerbated by the discovery that there is no money left, Lorenzo has spent it all on luxuries and kitting himself and his knights to fight gloriously. Both young and not looking ahead but just enjoying their love and life, it is now up to Simonetta to find a way to make money. She has an orchard of almond trees, owned purely because they happened to be there, and never used in any way except to eat the almonds as they fell from the branches. These turn out to be the source of future income but she does not realise this until she is helped and befriended by Manodorata, a dangerous friend to have as he is a Jew, expelled from Spain and despised and feared by the town. Simonetta needs to find some ready money in order to start a business venture and agrees to sit for a painting of the Madonna by an artist Bernadino who has been engaged to paint murals in the church, Bernardino is a dashing, handsome womaniser and a non-believer, experienced and cynical he is astonished to find that he is gradually falling in love with Simonetta as they get to know each other through the close intimacy of the sittings. When they eventually kiss and give way to their love, they are seen by Lorenzo's squire who, devoted to his dead master, denounces them in church in front of a visiting cardinal and Bernardino has to flee for his life. Simonetta retires to seclusion in her house.
It is during this period of misery and loneliness that Simonetta creates the almond based liqueur that is to restore her fortune:
[O]nly now did she add a handful of almonds, peeled to the white quick, as luminous and firm as bone. As the steam rose and settled into diamond drips she tasted the water clear juices that fell ...she ground the almonds down and added virgin oil until the paste was thick and smooth...now after the boiling there was a taste of almonds...The resulting liqueur was named Amaretto.
Meanwhile Bernardino had taken refuge in a closed order of nuns in Milan where he has been commissioned to paint their church. It was dangerous for him to venture out in case he was arrested and so he spent his time inside the walls of the convent, oddly content with his quiet life. Here he meets the Abbess and he, in his turn, forms a friendship that will change his life. The Abbess sits and watches with him as he paints and tells him the stories of the saints he is depicting and time passes:
Bernardino became used to the rhythms of the Canonical hours, Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline. They sounded like footsteps...breaking into a trot at the close of the holy day. And yet there was never any rushing here, no hurrying, no urgency.Gradually he finds his faith returning and with this, comes peace. After two years apart from Simonetta he decides, after encouragement from the Abbess, to return to Tuscany and make her his wife. She has now been a widow for three years and there is no harm, no scandal attached to their love any more. So Bernardino makes his way back to Saronna and finds his love in the almond groves "Simonetta took him in her arms laughing and crying" . O how lovely I thought, a happy ending. But but but, there is a second strand to this story, the story of a peasant girl and her meeting with a soldier home from the war, badly wounded and lost, which runs parallel to that of Simonetta and Bernardino and which posts a real threat to their happiness........
I enjoyed the Glassblowers of Murano very much but I liked this one even more. What I love about historical novels is that they are vibrant with colour. Clothes are rich, velvets and lace in glorious shades, all is luxury "their walls were covered in rich tapestries, they patronised the finest arts and musicians, their board groaned with the finest meats and pastries, and their handsome forms were clothed in costly furs and velvets. Simonetta's yards of copper curls were bound up with ropes of pearls and the finest coifs of jewels and silver thread". And then the place names "....years of struggle between state and state, Guelfs and Ghibbellines, Milan, Venice, Genoa, the papal land, all became pieces in the game of bones between powers...".
Do they have a happy ending? Well, you will have to read this simply gorgeous book to find out. I have a bottle of Amaretto in my cupboard and after I had finished reading the Madonna of the Almonds, I had a small glass. Delicious.
Looking forward to the next one. Book, that is, from this delightful author. Not the Amaretto.....