I’ve just finished reading Marina Fiorato’s new novel, The Madonna of the Almonds, which will be out on 14 May. It is a love story above all, but there is so much more as well. It’s set in Italy in the 16th century, about a young widow, Simonetta di Saronno, struggling to save her home, who meets the artist Bernadino, a protege of Leonardo da Vinci.
I was fascinated most of all by the artist Bernardino Luini who is employed to paint frescos in the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Saronno, just at the time when Simonetta is trying to cope with the death of her husband at the Battle of Pavia. Little is known of Bernardino’s life. He was born around 1480/82 and died in 1532 and I enjoyed how Marina wove descriptions of his paintings into her story. Now I want to go to Saronna to see the actual paintings and to the Monastery of San Maurizio in Milan where his frescos adorn the church walls.
Bernardino was so captivated by Simonetta’s beauty that her face is the face of every female Saint, every Magdalene and every Madonna that he painted. Simonetta at first resists Bernardino’s advances but of course eventually falls in love with him, causing scandal in the local community. Bernardino has to leave Saronna for Milan, leaving Simonetta to fend for herself. With the help of a Jew, known as Manodorata (because of the golden hand replacing his own hand that had been chopped off by the Spanish Inquisition) she discovers how to make a delicious liqueur, Amaretto, from the almond trees, the only crop growing on her estate. The persecution of the Jews forms a chilling strand in this book as Manodorato flees from his burning house with his two young sons, unable to rescue his wife from the flames.
Interwined within the story of Bernardino and Simonetta’s story are many tales of the Saints which inspire him to paint the frescos, seeing them in his mind’s eye as he listens to their stories told to him by the Abbess, Sister Bianca. Eventually he returns to Saronna determined to marry Simonetta if she is still free. But there are yet more obstacles to be overcome …
I love the story-telling aspects of this book, its rich descriptions of art and the detailed history of the period. I love Italy, history, art history and almonds, especially Amaretto, so this book just could not fail to delight me.