STONE VIRGIN by Barry Unsworth


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A 15-century sculpture of the Virgin links these three alternating stories, all set amidst the mystery and splendor of Venice. Into three men's lives, and over five centuries, the stone madonna brings an equal amount of sexual ecstasy and misery; she's really a bloodless monument to the old whore/virgin complex--a dichotomy still rich in meaning for the rather bloody-minded Unsworth (author most recently of The Idol Hunters and The Rage of the Vulture). Pity poor Girolamo Satta, the luckless sculptor of the unheralded masterpiece. His lengthy letter to his patron begging help--here reproduced in full--reveals both the reason why he's in jail and soon to be hanged and also why his work will later languish in obscurity. It seems he's charged with murdering his model, Bianca the prostitute, whom he's known quite well in the biblical sense, often while she was still in New Testament garb. Small wonder, then, that Simon Raikes, restoring the holy icon in 1972, discovers a strange sensation emanating from it. As he removes the accumulated grime, he grows wildly priapic, aroused even by his grandmotherly landlady. He's especially tumescent, though, for the mysterious Chiara Litsov, an artist's wife, who may or may not provide clues to the statue's unusual provenance. Between the sculptor's and restorer's narratives, Unsworth slips in the erotic history of another rake, the destitute 18-century patrician Ziani, hard at work on his scandalous memoirs, lengthy excerpts of which record his encounter with the madonna. Under her gaze, he deflowered her wealthy old owner's virgin bride. While the main plot--Raikes' exploration in sacred and profane lust--dissolves into a deliberately open-ended mystery, the other two sad stories end in predictable tragedy. Both Girolamo's prison letters and Ziani's death-bed memoirs never reach their intended audiences; they're intercepted by members of the same evil-minded Venetian family that spawned Raikes' heart-throb, the ruthless Mrs. Litsov, nee Fornarini. The book's fundamental implausibility--Unsworth's recreation of supposedly destroyed documents--shouldn't deter readers on the lookout for some lightly instructional, solidly middlebrow fiction.

Pub Date: March 19th, 1986
ISBN: 0393313093
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin