By: John Dorfman
The Bellini Card
By Jason Goodwin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25
Perhaps it is just coincidence. Or maybe deeper forces are at work to cause two novels built around paintings by Giovanni and Gentile Bellini to be published at the same time—and by the same publisher. It’s not entirely baffling, though; if one were writing a novel about the fate of an Old Master painting, one would do well to pick a Venetian one.
Of all the schools of Italian painting, the Venetian is the most sensual and the richest in color, full of pageantry expressing the glory of the Venetian state. And of course, decadent, intrigue-ridden Venice is an inexhaustible subject for a fiction writer; there’s always something new on the Rialto, and it’s usually juicy and sinister. As for the Bellinis, they were the first family of Venetian art.
Jason Goodwin is a British writer who has set a mystery series in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, with the role of detective filled by Inspector Yashim, a eunuch—no kidding—who has attracted the sultan’s favor and been promoted from the seraglio. In The Bellini Card Yashim goes to Venice at his monarch’s request, his mission to find and buy a fabled portrait by Gentile Bellini of the sultan’s great ancestor Mehmet II, who conquered Istanbul for the Turks. (The painting is real, and now resides in the National Gallery in London.) It’s 1840, and Venice is long past its prime, suffering under Austrian rule. In the palaces along the Grand Canal, impoverished nobles look for ways to survive—including selling the art they have guarded for centuries.
The plot of this mystery is incredibly convoluted—when a character says, toward the end, “I don’t get it,” the reader might well sympathize. At first it isn’t Yashim who goes to Venice but his friend Palewski, the Polish ambassador to the Sublime Porte; for political reasons Yashim can’t risk the trip. But when the corpses start piling up in La Serenissima—art dealers, collectors, runners—the canny eunuch has to step in. Far be it from this reviewer to spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the reason all these people have to die has more to do with political infighting in the Ottoman ranks than with a passion for painting. But the Bellini beckons throughout. It doesn’t turn up until the end, and then only for a moment.
Goodwin is knowledgeable about Ottoman history and culture—all levels of culture. (Foodways are particularly meaningful to him, and this novel almost qualifies as a Turkish cookbook.) His insights into the close ties between Venice and Istanbul greatly enrich the narrative. Gentile Bellini, who served as an informal ambassador to the Ottoman court and showed Turkish artists how the new Western realism was done, is the perfect artist to embody this inner kinship, which transcended religion and political strife.
The Bellini Madonna
By Elizabeth Lowry
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25
Elizabeth Lowry’s book also has to do with the 19th-century Veneto and a Bellini, but the resemblance ends there. The Bellini Madonna is not a mystery but a somewhat overwritten literary novel bent on plumbing the depths of human depravity—sexual, moral and, one supposes, cultural. Whether or not it succeeds, it certainly boasts a thoroughly unpleasant cast of characters. The narrator, Thomas Lynch, is a disgraced Irish art historian fired from his American college for sexual improprieties with students.
While combing through archives in Germany, he comes across some hitherto unnoticed letters written from Venice by Albrecht Dürer that describe Giovanni Bellini—by far the greater of the two brothers—painting one last Madonna, a highly irregular Madonna shown without her son, after the Crucifixion, broken by grief. This dark, modern-seeming (and fictitious) psychological study has been missing for centuries, and Lynch finds a clue indicating that it might be hiding in an old English country house, the long-ignored possession of an impoverished gentry family with Venetian connections.
Lynch insinuates himself into the household, and while he makes no progress in locating the painting, he makes plenty of headway with the daughter of the house. Of course they fall in love, a sick kind of love that includes much sadism and masochism. Meanwhile, the addled professor stumbles across more old documents, this time a diary kept by the Victorian-era collector who brought the Bellini to England. Here a subplot is spun out that includes the poet Robert Browning and that mirrors the action of the present day.
Different as these books are, they share one trait: They are not about art so much as they are about unfulfilled longing. In these pages artworks tantalize but do not really materialize.