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When seeing is not believing

30 August 2003

12:00 AM

30 August 2003

12:00 AM

Waking Raphael Leslie Forbes

Weidenfeld, pp.374, 12.99

Waking Raphael has all the ingredients one could hope for from a thriller set in Italy: corruption, art, religion, food and very nasty, mafia-style murders. Among the characters are a prim English art-restorer ripe for unbuttoning, a bimbo television presenter, a dodgy aristo, and a butcher who sings as he slaughters.

The result is imaginative and entertaining but also highly informative about Italian history and the murky world of the Renaissance (did you know that poor Umbrians sometimes sent their sons to be gelded by the area’s skilled slaughterers in the hope that they might find fortune as castrato singers? In the context of this novel it is information one receives with a shudder).

The novel is set in the Umbrian city of Urbino, in 1993. The mani pulite (‘Clean Hands’) anti-corruption trials are in progress, and more than half the members of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies have been served notice that they are under suspicion. Silvio Berlusconi’s presidency is safe, however, so long as his football team, AC Milan, keeps winning.

Meanwhile, Charlotte Penton has been in Urbino restoring ‘La Muta’, a portrait by Raphael, that city’s greatest artist. The unveiling of the finished work is going to be recorded by a television team as part of a series on Renaissance artists. Then, at the moment the curtain is drawn back, a local woman launches herself at the painting, cutting it with a knife. This strange character is deaf and mute, and no one knows if her grudge is against Raphael or Count Malaspino, who sponsored the restoration and was standing beside the painting.

The plot thickens when the torn canvas mysteriously starts to bleed. A miracle is proclaimed, attracting coachloads of pilgrims from all over Europe and the intervention of the Vatican’s chief investigator of miracles, a sinister priest called Seguita. From the secular world comes Professor Serafini, who is dedicated to proving that most ‘miracles’ are the result of tricks with chemistry.

Forbes uses Urbino’s real architectural labyrinths to give texture to her created Byzantine world and adds mirrors and trompe l’oeils aplenty. Everyone is watching everyone else, but no one knows exactly what they are seeing. One character — a stroke of genius this — works as a ‘living statue’, which means that he can position himself around town without arousing suspicion.

With this sort of material there are all kinds of pleasing parallels to be drawn. Charlotte realises that her own line of work, restoration, is another form of cover-up, while Procopio, who runs the café, argues for the ‘restorative’ powers of home-made ice-cream. Perspective, the great discovery of the Renaissance, is also a theme of this novel. How do we see things, and do we see them right? Forbes’s knowledge of Italian painting makes this novel a rich artistic experience, and there are whole scenes that mimic famous Renaissance tableaux.

The food and art alone make this just the book to take on holiday to Italy —though you may end it feeling relieved not to live there.

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