The Madonna of the Almonds by Marina Fiorato


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Amaretto. Wondrous stuff. I’m not that keen on amaretti biscuits because I don’t like things with nuts in them, but amaretto liqueur – ah, now that’s a different story. There are various different brands of it, but I assume that, when most people think of amaretto, they think of those posh bottles (designed by a Murano craftsman, apparently) with the square tops. That’s Disaronno, so called because it comes from the Lombard town of Saronno, about 15 miles from Milan and 40 miles from Pavia.

The Renaissance painter Bernardino Luini, thought to have been a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, painted, amongst other things, various frescoes in a church in Saronno. According to legend, whilst he was working there in 1525 (the year of the Battle of Pavia), a young widowed innkeeper acted as his model for his depictions of the Virgin Mary, and, wanting to give him a present but unable to afford to buy him anything, she steeped apricot kernels in brandy and so invented amaretto. All right, it probably isn’t true, but it’s a nice story!

This book is based on the story, but, instead of the woman being an innkeeper, Marina Fiorato’s got her being a noblewoman who was widowed by the Battle of Pavia and left in a huge amount of debt, and agreed to do the modelling because she needed the money … except that she and Luini fell in love and eventually got married and, presumably, lived happily ever after. She also invented amaretto as a way of making money.

Entwined with this is the story of her dead first husband, who didn’t actually die at Pavia but was seriously injured and lost his memory (the sort of thing that was always happening to people in Dallas and Dynasty, except that that was generally after a car crash rather than a battle), fell in love with and married the girl who rescued him, and then suddenly got his memory back on their wedding night and remembered that he was already married … whereupon he went back to Saronno, found out that his first wife had remarried, decided it would cause too much upset to make himself known, and went back to his second wife … and then they presumably lived happily ever after as well.

Mixed up in the middle of all this is the tale of a Jewish family who’d been expelled from Castile and moved to Lombardy, but then found themselves being persecuted again when the Spanish took over the Duchy of Milan – by a fictional Spanish Cardinal, that was, not by Charles V (who was actually Charles I of Aragon and Castile, but the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, just to confuse matters further). And a lot of stories about saints. And a lot of psychological stuff about Luini’s troubled childhood and issues with religion.

So it’s all rather a mish-mash. On top of that, some of it was written in a rather 18th/early 19th century style. “She privily hoped that” and that sort of thing.   That kind of works if you intend the book to be a pastiche and write like that all the way through, but not otherwise.  And some of it was rather like the Gothic/melodramatic tales from that era. Our heroine was left in so much debt that she even sold her bed and slept on the floor.  And went out hunting for squirrels for dinner, as you do when you’re a Renaissance noblewoman.  Then there were some appalling spelling mistakes. Maybe they were only in the Kindle edition, but they still shouldn’t have been there.

So I really don’t know what to say about this!   Some of it was excellent, and some of it was laughable. It’s not easy to find books which are set during the Italian Wars but don’t revolve around either the Borgias or the Medici, and the author’s attempts both to cover the issue of the persecution of Jews at the time and to draw attention to the generally overlooked Bernardino Luini are very praiseworthy, but a lot of it was just … strange!   Very mixed feelings about this one.

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