Have you ever moved in close to one of those early Renaissance panels with the gold leaf and really looked at the layers and colors and textures of it? The way the gold has a red undercoat, and how little dents and whorls are stamped over the gilding and deep into the wood? How the halos over the saints’ heads glow and catch the light?
Clearly Laura Morelli has spent many hours absorbing the features of such panels and delving into how the artists achieved their results. Then she filled a book with such loving detail.
I just finished reading The Painter’s Apprentice, the new book by Laura Morelli. You may remember that I raved about The Gondola Maker, her first novel (November 5, 2014). This new book is set in Renaissance Venice during the plague of 1510. Parts of Cannaregio are barricaded to protect others from the pestilence raging near Sant’Alvise, and heavily-laden boats ferry plague victims to the lazzaretti to pray for health or release from their suffering.
Morelli’s narrator Maria worries about her father and cousin who are stuck behind the barricades while she has been apprenticed to a painter. She worries about more than just these two members of her family–though I won’t tell you more than that because I don’t wish to give away too much. The way Morelli unravels her story reminds me of when I tease my cats with a toy mouse on a string, pulling it ever so slowly along so that they are entranced and cannot look away. That’s how I felt being drawn into the story.
Morelli doesn’t give away too many details too early on; instead, she takes her time building up the characters and their backgrounds just like her painter builds up layer upon layer of gesso and pigment to create depth and complexity. Her characters–Maria, her aunt in a convent, the painter and his wife, a greasy boatman, a servant she must share a bed with, the guild leader–are multi-dimensional and keep showing us new sides of themselves. I often felt like I was peering in through a window into a studio or house or cloister without the inhabitants knowing I was there.
For instance, I had never thought much about how or where Venetians of times past did their laundry, but this scene is brought to life with all its steam and heat and soapy smells. Morelli does the same with tanneries along the Zattare, with their stinking vats and animal skins spread out on sticks, or the sick rooms on Lazzaretto Vecchio, the dead hauled out wrapped in linens.
This book could be set nowhere but Venice.
The novel also has this timeless quality because Morelli’s narrator so often refers to the others around her as the painter, the painter’s wife, the gastaldo, boatman. Characters are fully realized but at the same time a sort of Everyman, so that their world swirls around Maria.
After I finished reading The Painter’s Apprentice, I wanted to know more about Morelli’s research process and her sources. She provides a link on her website where she names such familiar historians as Patricia Fortini-Brown, Guido Ruggiero, and Monica Chojnacka, John Julius Norwich, and Dennis Romano. I have to admit that I spent some time geeking out reading her book list, and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Venice: A Documentary History 1450-1630, which she says is full of primary sources. Then to my delight this week, I found a copy of this book at my local used bookstore!
I imagine that Morelli has spent hundreds of hours researching in order to create the authentic Venice that comes across on her pages. And I know she also has an in-depth knowledge of current Venetian crafts people, as she has written a book about them as well, titled Artisans of Venice. She turns her scholarship into an immersive, rich world.
If you visit Laura’s website, you can also download her short story “Bridge of Sighs.” I”m looking forward to sliding back into her historical Venice when I need my next Venice fix.
Find out more about her books at her website.