Friday, July 25, 2014

Love Italy? New books explore art, depravity, politics and narrow streets

Crinkled map of Florence in hand, Dianne Hales traces the route Mona Lisa may have ridden on her wedding day in 1495, the convent where her sister may have been assaulted, and the studio where she likely sat before "Leonardo's attentive gaze." In "Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered (Simon & Schuster, $28), Hales, a tenacious, curiosity-fueled prize-winning journalist, sweeps us up in her fascination with the mysterious woman she learned was, in fact, a real woman. Lisa Gherardini was born in a converted wool shop in 1749 and married the truculent Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo. And that smile? "Consciously or not," Hales writers, "We see in Lisa what we want to see -- mother, lover, daughter, fantasy, soother, seductress." A fascinating read if you're interested in art, family dynasties and dynamics and the customs and habits of daily life in 15th century Italy.

Another take on that smile is Renaissance scholar Alexander Lee's in "The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty" (Doubleday, $29.95). He says the mysterious Mona Lisa smile hides a  world of power politics and anti-semitism during this time of sex, scandal and suffering. "Its cities were filled with depravity and inequality, its streets thronged with prostitutes and perverted priests and its houses played home to seduction, sickness and shady backroom deals and conspiracies of every variety." It's an October release.

“Pisa doesn’t appeal to me,” says John Keahey in "Hidden Tuscany: A Well-Known Region's Unknown Places" (Thomas Dunne Books, $26.99). So Keahey heads for the "narrow streets of western Tuscany villages buried deep in the foothills of imposing mountains," as he combines travelogue with deep history, present-day conversations and mouth-watering descriptions of cheese, pasta, sausage and bread. He also includes off-the-beaten-path literary anecdotes, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley's bizarre cremation ceremony on the beach at Viareggio after he drowned at sea in 1822. Extremely readable.

"The Lost Botticelli," by Paul Stephano (HIP Apollo, $15.95) is a thriller about -- you guessed it -- a lost Botticelli painting. His editors read an early version of the manuscript and wanted more dead bodies and less Renaissance history, according to an online  interview with Stephano. So Stephano delivered up the bodies, and cut the history. Now he says the novel (which the publisher is comparing to "The DaVinci Code") will have to stand on its own. Stephano says he is "quite shy" and his English is not good enough to discuss the book in public. Release date: early September.