Monday, March 21, 2016

The Botticelli Secret, by Marina Fiorato

As travelogue and art detective mystery in the vein of Dan Brown, this book is both light-weight (in the sense of being a beach read--not too taxing) and a heavy-weight (in that it clocks in at over 500 pages.) It's well-written enough that it passes pleasantly, although it suffers from a Pot-Boiler Syndrome.

Pot-Boiler Syndrome is a term I just made up to describe a book that adheres to the conventions of a pot-boiler plot, with gruesome murders and near miss disasters to keep the stakes high for the protagonists, that has a central puzzle that leads the characters to Important Discoveries and fuels the plot development--but at the end, simply makes no sense.

Let's start with a plot synopsis, shall we?

The story is set in Florence, Italy, beginning in 1482. The narrator is a 16 year old prostitute named Luciana Ventra, who is beautiful enough to be asked to model for the figure of Flora in Sandro Botticelli's famous painting Primavera.
Flora is just right of center, in a dress covered with flowers.

For reasons, she is cheated of her fee, and ends up stealing a cartone, a miniature version of the larger work, small enough to roll up and hide in her bodice. She leaves the studio, and by the time she makes her way home, the bodies have started piling up.

First, she actually hears as the older prostitute with whom she shares a hovel is murdered. She flees to her wealthy patron (the one who recommended her for the painting) and he's murdered too. Improbably, she has met a handsome young novitiate from the monastery of Santa Croce that she believes might help her, so as she asks him for help, another monk is also murdered. So that's three deaths in only a few hours.

Luciana and her monk, Brother Guido, determine the deaths are related to the cartone, and their only chance at safety is to solve whatever secret is hidden in the painting.

What follows is a whirlwind tour of the major cities of Italy. First they flee to Pisa, where Brother Guido is the nephew of the current ruler. (The ruler is also murdered that night.) They discover the existence of a massive navy, built secretly, and they are captured and forced to go with the fleet to Naples. In Naples, they meet King Ferrante, who drags them to Rome, where they meet Pope Sixtus IV, holding court in the newly completed Sistine Chapel, and then back to Florence, where they attend the wedding of Lorenzo Pierfranco de' Medici, the nephew of the the Lorenzo "Il Magnifico" de' Medici, and the recipient of the Primavera painting.

Periodically, the two protagonists unroll the miniature, and try to solve the clues. The figures mostly stand for various Italian cities, the number of flowers in Flora's skirt has numeric significance of some sort, the names of the flowers falling from Chloris's mouth spell out a word. . .time and again, the details of the painting give some clue to a vast conspiracy of great importance. If only they can solve it in time!And if only Brother Guido weren't going to be a monk, then they could fall in love!

The eventual conspiracy turns out to be a plot to unify the peninsula into a single political entity: Italia. Who all is involved? Oh, just Rome, Florence, Naples, Milan, Pisa, Venice, and a place I had never heard of before (and can't look up because the book is back at the library).

Which raises several questions. First of all--if the leaders of all those city-states have agreed to unify, isn't that a done deal? I mean, if they all agree to terms, and a name, and a single currency, and a single leader (Lorenzo is not "Il Magnifico" for nothing, you know?), what is left to do? Why do they have a giant navy (seriously--thousands of ships?) and why is Leonardo da Vinci building his war machines underground in Milan? Who are they planning on attacking?

Late in the book, it seems that question has finally occurred to the author, and it turns out that it's--Genoa? Because The Seven (very inventive conspiracy name, isn't it?) somehow knew that one city wouldn't join in, so they were building up their armaments in order to attack Genoa.

How did they know this? According to the plot, the Doge of Genoa had no idea this was going on under his nose, and he had to be convinced in the short few hours before the navy attacked from the sea while the army came over the mountains. Which Luciana and Brother Guido managed to do (don't ask) just in time! And the conspiracy was defeated! Italy did not unify! Huzzah!

So, the next obvious question to ask is--was that a good thing? Fiorato devotes about two sentences to the glorification of "the independence of the city-states" and that's it. The conspiracy goes down in flames (literally)(Brother Guido puts a torch to the Navy and it all burns immediately) and the conspirators are forced to sign a treaty that is the kept secret so no one will ever know. (Why?) But what if Italy had unified in 1483, instead of 1870? What would have been lost? What might have been gained? That's 400 years of history where Italy might have been a major player--and it's not clear why it was so important to Luciana and Guido that this conspiracy be foiled. Rather it seems that "well, there's a puzzle here, and a bunch of murders, so it must be bad. Therefore we should stop it."

Raising yet another question--who was doing all this murdering? And why was he so bad at hitting his actual targets? The immediate answer is that there is a really tall, creepy looking leper, who follows Luciana around Italy, and even ends up nearly killing her in the finale in Genoa. He is apparently in the employ of Il Magnifico, but why does Il Magnifico need her to be murdered? And why isn't this leper assassin ever able to actually get to her. It's not like she's trained at avoiding attempts on her life. And part of his creepiness is that he's silent--the disease has literally destroyed his ability to speak. So who was talking to Luciana's roommate and then killed her?

I mean, sure, she had this miniature reproduction of the paining, but the painting itself was put on display at the big wedding? So it's not like they were really trying to hide the content.

Which raises yet another question. Why the hell would Lorenzo--or anybody--sit down with a painter and give him all the details of what is supposed to be a massive secret? And have him PUT ALL THE INFORMATION about it into it? Do you think that the King of Naples is just going to forget why all those ships are sailing into port? Is the Pope going to get distracted and forget the date of the attack? Why does Lorenzo need to have the flowers spell out the word "faro"--to remind him to go climb the lighthouse in Genoa in order to watch the naval battle?

It's not like Botticelli has any role in the conspiracy, other than painting the picture, and so why risk an information leak? I mean, not even that somebody might steal the miniature, but that Botticelli himself might let the information drop. And if you can figure out a plausible reason why all the information had to be encoded into a painting, why put it into a painting being given to Lorenzo Pierfrancisco? Shouldn't it go to the actual conspirators? Or somebody who has anything at all to do with the plan?

Which is ALSO the basis for yet ANOTHER question--how did they keep all this a secret? There had to be hundreds and hundreds of ship builders, and sailors, and suppliers for the navy alone. There was an army as well (from Milan, I think) which means again--armor and weapons and Leonardo's war machines required materials and builders and training. Literally thousands of people had to know at least some of what was going on. How is it that nobody ever let any of it slip? Only Luciana and Guido ever caught wind of it?

And if you are Seven clever conspirators, why do you all wear identifying rings on your thumbs? It's not like Lorenzo and Ferrante and Ludovico Sforza and the Pope wouldn't have recognized each other and needed the equivalent of a secret handshake to identify themselves to each other. In fact, the rings ONLY served (as far as we saw) to tip of Luciana and Guido who was and was not in on the plot.

When you try to reconstruct the plot itself (rather than how the protagonists learn of it), it just doesn't make any sense that the ringleaders would act that way.

Which is the big problem with the book, but there are little details that popped up that were just bad research on the author's part. In Florence, there are several moments where Luciana looks at the city and notices some of the main features. She comments on the filed marble patterns on the Duomo--the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore--marble that wasn't installed until after 1870, when Florence was briefly the capital of the newly unified Italy.

Il Magnifico hosts King Ferrante and his wife in the "Medici palace" which she describes as having a "toothed tower." Well, no, in 1482, the Medici were living in the Palazzo Medici, near the church of San Lorenzo. The building with the tower was the Palazzo dei Signoria--it wasn't inhabited by a de' Medici until Pope Clement (himself a de' Medici, son Giuliano who was murdered by the Pazzis) established Florence as a hereditary dukedom some 30-40 years later.

There is a awkward tendency to drop as many names and cameo appearances as possible. So while the characters are awaiting their audience with Pope Sixtus IV, in the Sistine Chapel, a helpful exposition character explains that Botticelli painted the wall frescos (along with some other Florentine artists and their workshops as well) and that "soon," Florence's own Michelangelo Buonarroti will come to paint the ceiling.

Except in 1482, Michelangelo was about 7 years old. . .so not only was it not going to be "soon," no one would have any idea of who he was or that he was going to be an artist.

Do you wonder what happened to the doomed passion of a Florentine whore for a Franciscan monk? Can a man and a woman save Italy from a massive conspiracy (that goes all the way to the top!) without falling in love?

Well, of course not! In fact, it turns out that Luciana is actually the daughter of the doge of Venice! She was sent away to escape some other plot (never really explained) and put in a convent in Florence to be kept safe. She ran way from the convent by accident, but since she was 12 by then, and still couldn't read, its not clear it was a very good place to be anyway. As the daughter of the doge (except "doge" is not a hereditary title, we are told, and is only held for a few years before being rotated, so basically she wasn't the doge's daughter when she was born?) she had been betrothed to the heir of the ruler of Pisa, who happened to be Brother Guido's cousin. A venal, gluttonous, homosexual cousin, whose weak chin was possibly the worst flaw of all.

BUT! He conveniently was at the mountain battle during the attack on Genoa (which was NOT set up at all as something he would do), took an arrow to the leg and conveniently died of gangrene. Off stage. So that on her wedding day, Luciana walks into the church and sees her Guido as the groom! (And nobody bother to tell her.) As for him, Guido had not yet taken his final vows, and when he found out the Pope was part of the conspiracy, he lost his faith in the church so now he gets to marry her! And they get to be rich and powerful and nobody ever tries to assassinate them and they all live happily ever after the end.

I mean, that happy ending kind of came out of nowhere and happened really really fast, but whatever. That's the kind of novel it was.

The most interesting parts are the art detecting--what CAN you see in that picture? And there were some interesting places they ended up during their adventure--Roman catacombs, the Pantheon, the major public buildings of Naples and Venice. . .b ut the thing that got them moving from place to place was ridiculous.

So maybe a B+ read if you aren't asking for internal consistency, believable characters, etc. If you know much about Italy, this will read like a seek=and =find came of locating all the errors of history.