The Botticelli Secret | Stand-Alone | ISBN 9781848547988 | Hodder Paperbacks, 2012 | 1.5 out of 5 Points
“When part-time model and full-time prostitute Luciana Vetra is asked by one of her most exalted clients to pose for a painter friend, she doesn’t mind serving as the model for the central figure of Flora in Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece “Primavera.” But when the artist dismisses her without payment, Luciana impulsively steals an unfinished version of the painting–only to find that somone is ready to kill her to get it back.
What could possibly be so valuable about the picture? As friends and clients are slaughtered around her, Luciana turns to the one man who has never desired her beauty, novice librarian Brother Guido. Fleeing Florence together, Luciana and Guido race through the nine cities of Renaissance Italy, pursued by ruthless foes who are determined to keep them from decoding the painting’s secrets.”
This book is over the top. Absolutely and completely over the top. I love historical fiction and I love the Italian Renaissance so of course I went for “The Botticelli Secret”, thinking I was in for a treat. Everything about this book seemed promising. I liked the idea of a prostitute first person narrator and the plot centring around the secret behind Botticelli’s “Primavera”. The book is based on a real conspiracy theory which I thought was a cool idea for a historical novel. So in concept “The Botticelli Secret” sounded like something I was destined to love. I really didn’t love it at all though.
ISN’T IT FUN TO BE POOR?
I was really intrigued when I found out “The Botticelli Secret” had a first person narrator who was a prostitute in Renaissance Florence. I felt like this was a nice diversion from all the noble ladies that usually get to be heroines in Renaissance fiction and I was looking forward to learning about the day to day life of a prostitute in Renaissance Italy since I didn’t know a lot about this topic beforehand. I didn’t know anything about it after reading “The Botticelli Secret” either though. Luciana being a prostitute was so badly done from start to finish that I nearly didn’t bother to read past the first few chapters at all. According to Marina Fiorato being a prostitute was the dream life back in the 1400s.
Luciana is still in her teens, only sixteen, and has been a prostitute since she was still a child but she’s really into her job because she really likes sex! Never mind she lives in a leaking shed by the river, has barely any money and her colleagues keep dying of horrible sicknesses! She gets to sleep in the nice beds of rich old men who pay to have sex with her! Lovely! No, let’s not be facetious. But for real. What was going through Marina Fiorato’s head when she decided to have her lowly prostitute main character rave about her life in poverty that forces her to sleep with every man who is willing to pay? I’m all for sex positive fiction, especially sexually and bodily autonomous women in historical fiction but this is just unrealistic and careless. I’m pretty sure being a poor teenage prostitute in the late 1400s wasn’t fun at all. According to Fiorato there are absolutely no drawbacks to Luciana’s life though, everything is dandy and it’s really fun!
At best it’s questionable to display teenage prostitution as fun and some kind of dream job, even when it happened about 500 years ago. But it’s also just really unrealistic and, quite frankly, stupid. If you’re going to write a poor character in historical fiction, don’t pretend it’s the best life anyone could wish for and nothing is ever bad about it. Why make her poor if you’re not going to write about what it actually meant to be poor back then? Luciana could well have been some rich man’s luxurious mistress, lavishly enjoying a somewhat privileged life. She behaves like one. But the author chose to make her an average prostitute, living on the streets and dependent on men paying for sex every day. But sure, it’s so much fun for Luciana, she just loves it, let’s move on.
THE ALLEGORY OF SPRING AND OTHER FUN PASTIMES
I think I could have overlooked Luciana’s unrealistic background if the rest of the book had made up for it but it didn’t. One of Luciana’s regular clients sets her up with an artist friend of his because the artist is looking for a model for his next painting. This artist is Sandro Botticelli and the painting is “Primavera”. Luciana is meant to model Flora, standing to the right of Venus, but Botticelli refuses to pay her so Luciana steals one of his sketches for “Primavera” and runs off. But then people around her start getting murdered and she realises someone is after her. She then needs to work out what it is about the painting that makes people kill to get the sketch she stole back. I love this premise. I really do, it’s such a cool idea for a story, even though it has its drawbacks.
“Primavera”, Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1482, tempera on panel, 202cm x 314cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
For instance I didn’t really buy that Luciana was meant to model for “Primavera”. We don’t know everything about this painting but we do know that it was probably commissioned by the Medicis. I think it’s safe to say that “Primavera” wasn’t just something Botticelli painted for fun in his free time. It must have been commissioned by someone rich and important. So why would Botticelli even consider letting a prostitute model for it? It doesn’t make any sense. A lot of art historians are convinced the model for Flora was either the wife or fiancée of one of the Medicis or famous noblewoman Simonetta Vespucci. Whoever posed for Flora though, it’s a safe bet that she was a noblewoman and not some random prostitute.
I didn’t buy the conspiracy theory at all either which is double sad because it’s actually a real one. But the way it was presented in the novel just made it seem so farfetched that I literally thought it was made up. Basically it’s about “Primavera” being a map and all the characters being clues to places in Renaissance Italy where other clues are hidden. The problem really isn’t this theory. It’s really interesting and after I’d read up on it after finishing “The Botticelli Secret” I really considered it. But the way it is presented in this novel it just falls flat. It’s because it’s way too easy for Luciana to figure out the puzzle. The girl can’t read and knows absolutely nothing about art or high society but she just figures out each character’s secret without problems.
I’ve included the painting in my review to explain what’s wrong with that: Look at the Three Graces holding up their arms. Take a good hard look at these three women intertwining their fingers while dancing. Have you done this? Okay. What do you think it means?
Here’s what Luciana had to say after looking at the sketch of the painting: She notices noble women don’t dance like these women do and that the way they hold their arms up looks like the tower of Pisa. Let that sink in please. She just knows this all of a sudden, she doesn’t even take a few minutes to think about it. This prompts her to go to Pisa to uncover the next clue and then the rest of the book is exactly like this. Luciana discovers a clue, the meaning of the clue just pops into her head and she goes to the next place. This was so freaking frustrating. How the hell would a poor prostitute know what noble women dance like? How would she just get the idea that the arms of the girls form the tower of Pisa? It doesn’t make sense at all and Luciana discovers the solutions to the riddles way too easily. There is absolutely no suspense.
VENETIAN MYSTERY BABIES
I don’t want to just nag and quibble but sadly I didn’t like much about this book. The descriptions of Renaissance Italy were really nice and vibrant and overall I liked Marina Fiorato’s writing style a lot, even though it sometimes felt anachronistic. There’s just something off about a 1400s woman using the word “fuck” and the puns Luciana makes just wouldn’t make sense in Italian even though they’re funny in English. I can suspend my disbelief here because it’s an English novel and all but it kept disrupting the flow of the story. But overall the writing style was really nice and Luciana’s voice was great. She’s feisty with a lot of bite and I genuinely laughed at some of her sarcastic remarks.
But there was just too much about this book that bothered me. Did I mention it was also very predictable? Right in the beginning we learn that Luciana doesn’t know who her parents are. She was found as a baby floating into Florence in a Venetian glass bottle. So the heroine is a poor girl, forced into prostitution with mysterious parents from fabulous Venice she knows nothing about. Guess what happens in the end. Just guess. I’m not going to spoil anything for you but I can tell you your first guess is probably right. I was really disappointed because I hoped the solution to this mystery wouldn’t be what I was thinking it was from the very beginning but it turned out I was right. The idea behind the plot is really nice and original but the way the story plays out is somewhat generic and not much fun to read.
“The Botticelli Secret” was a real disappointment for me, especially after reading really good books set in the same era like Guiseppe Furno’s “Vetro” (sadly not translated into English). It was predictable and inauthentic, the conspiracy theory wasn’t presented too well and felt unrealistic and there was barely any suspense since every riddle and mystery was solved on the spot by Luciana in the most ridiculous way. This book could have been great. The idea is great, the real conspiracy theory woven into the plot was great, the idea of a poor prostitute as a narrator was great and the writing was beautiful and vibrant with just the right amount of humour mixed in. But for me, it fell flat. I can only suspend my disbelief so much. A poor sixteen year old prostitute who loves her job, solves complicated riddles that baffle art historians to this very day in the matter of minutes and is randomly asked to sit for a painting commissioned by the Medici family is just too much, no matter how lovely the descriptions of Renaissance Italy are.
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