The past decade has seen a spate of art historical fiction set in Italy, some of it well researched, some juicy, some pretty awful. Here is the shortlist of ten readable books set in Italy, with a historical or art historical element (any time period). They are listed in no particular order.
1) Sarah Dunant: In the Company of the Courtesan describes the imagined history of a set of lascivious images known as “i modi”, which are brough to Venice by a courtesan escaping the Sack of Rome.
2) Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus: A Novel is actually quite historically accurate in its details of Savonarolian Florence, although its female heroine is rather modern in her outlook.
3) The Ruby Ring by Diane Haeger is a “historical” romance about the love affair between Raphael and his peasant “model”.
4) The Rule of Four: Students discover a text that really exists (Hypnerotomachia Poliphili), and dumb it down for us to read.
5) The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga: a mud angel book restorer (Florence after the great Flood of 1966) comes upon a book of erotic engravings and sonnets, and has an affair.
6) Any book in the Iain Pears series with Flavia di Stefano of Rome’s Art Squad (for mystery lovers- written by an art hisorian): Books by Pears
7) The SECRET BOOK OF GRAZIA DEI ROSSI: It’s been a while since I’ve read this one but I remember being enchanted by it as an undergraduate, as it addresses Jews in Mantova and Isabella d’Este.
8) Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery (also in the same series, Blood From a Stone, Doctored Evidence, Uniform Justice, and soon to be published Dressed for Death).
9) The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland is surprisingly well researched and presents a relatively balanced impression of the artist’s life.
10) Umberto Eco’s murder mystery set in a 14th c Italian monastery: The Name of the Rose