The Madonna of the Almonds by Marina Fiorato c2009 as reviewed by Gail M. Murray
This novel is written by the same author who created the riveting Glassblower of Murano. The Madonna of the Almonds is set in a small village of Saronno near Pavia (south of Milan) during the Renaissance. The idea came from the legend of the celebrated liqueur Amaretto di Saronno which reveals the love between a widow and artist Bernardino Luini (student of Leonardo da Vinci). Bernardino Luini was revered as a great artist of Renaissance Lombardy; his work so accomplished it was attributed to Leonardo himself. Luini’s frescoes include the sanctuary of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Saronno and Monastero San Maurizio in Milan. Simonetta exists in his frescoes mentioned above.
The novel traverses between Simonetta the white skinned red haired lady of Villa Castello awaiting return of her lord from the wars and peasant girl, Amaria, who finds a man wounded and mute in the woods and nurses him back to health. Two parallel love stories ensue and we discover the reason behind them and the true identity of Selvaggio in the final chapters.
We see the young Luini as the master paints the wife of Signore Francesco del Giocondo i.e. The Mona Lisa. He has gained a reputation by the time he meets our impoverished heroine. Her late husband having spent his entire family fortune on war; she is forced to dismiss her servants at Villa Castello, kill her own game and sit for frescoes as a Madonna. Though talented, he is crude and irreverent. The two are at loggerheads till passion engulfs them. ”Bernardino looked at Simonetta and knew he had been born to paint her…..He could not think of her as the Queen of Heaven; she was flesh and blood to him. Despite her ethereal manner. For the first time he looked at a woman and truly saw her, not as an empirical model of beauty but as a living, breathing woman.” (p89)
Simonetta seeks out the Jewish Manodorata for help with her villa. They develop a father daughter relationship. Here Fiorato touches on the Jewish experience in Renaissance Italy. Prejudice and violence against Jews is ripe. Simonetta saves the villa and creates work for the villagers by creating her “sweet new amber elixir….liquid alchemy.” (p227)
Both main characters grow in depth as they live apart: Luini as he works with the nuns and Simonetta as she creates the Amaretto. They re-unite and there are some sensuous love scenes and an edge of your seat twist ending. A pleasant read in a long ago time in Italy. Reply