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Madonna of the Almonds by Marina Fiorato

I was delighted to meet Marina a couple of months ago as I had so enjoyed her debut novel, The Glassblower of Murano, which I had blogged about last autumn here. She’s a real character! – half-Italian with a mass of red Titian hair, a northern accent and sense of humour to match. I was equally pleased to receive a review copy of her new book, and lovers of well-researched historical romances will not be disappointed.

It’s set in Lombardy, specifically Saronno – home to the famous liqueur Amaretto, and the story behind the creation of that exotic tipple is the inspiration for the novel. In the early 1500s a church in Saronno commissioned frescoes from one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s students – Bernardino Luini. Luini needed a model for the Madonna and it’s said that a young widowed innkeeper posed for him – and became his lover. To thank him, she created Amaretto from apricot kernels steeped in brandy, and the legend was born.

Bernardino Luini is real – his work can be seen in museums around the world, and his frescoes of the Madonna in Saronno, and the Saints in a Milanese monastery exist. The latter in particular are said to be particularly fine and equal in skill to that of his master Da Vinci. Apart from his art, not much is known of his life, so Fiorato has been able to weave a rich narrative involving him and the Amaretto legend.

The author has made the widow of this tale a young noblewoman, Simonetta, forced into straightened circumstances after her husband’s premature death in battle. With no money in the coffers, she may be forced to borrow money from a Jew, but in Manodorato, she finds a friend rather than foe who persuades her to try to make some money rather than borrow. She reluctantly agrees to pose for the painter, a known philanderer and unbeliever, but he falls in love with his muse and she begins to have feelings too – but she’s still meant to be in mourning. A stolen kiss leads to their denouncement in front of the visiting Cardinal and Bernardino has to flee. Simonetta retreats to her villa where she finds a still and experiments with the almonds growing in her orchard – and we know where that will lead!

The main story is set against a period in history where the Jews were being subjugated wherever they settled, extra-marital relationships would likely end in execution, and corrupt cardinals had their fingers in many pies. Yet (renaissance) art is a powerful redeemer; and having escaped to an abbey in Milan, Luini starts to paint frescoes of the Saints – martyrs all, and finds himself and what he must do in their agonies.

Marina has created another richly imagined world and this made for an immensely satisfying comfort read – a summer bestseller for sure. Her first novel had Venice as a co-star; here art fulfills that role admirably and should I go to Milan, I’d love to see the Luini frescoes. The only irony though is that although we strongly associate Amaretto with almonds, the current liqueur is ‘Nut-free’! (8/10)

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