The restoration of a famed Raphael canvas reveals matters far more scandalous than hidden brushstrokes in Forbes’s magical Italian idyll.
British art expert Charlotte Penton has come to Urbino to supervise the restoration of La Muta, one of the few portraits to remain in Raphael’s hometown. Because Charlotte’s reserve comes across as snobbery on television, her commentary’s being put into the mouth of Donna Ricco, a well-endowed, good-hearted, empty-headed Canadian girl who’s slept with exactly the right people to get the job. But the rivalry between the two women is only the tip of the paintbrush, as a local wild woman called La Muta reveals during a reception when she attacks the painting with a knife. Although La Muta, who hasn’t spoken for 50 years, misses Count Dado Malaspino, the worldly hotelier widely believed to be her target, her assault on the painting draws miraculously real blood—and a pair of dueling experts intent on debating the miracle. Professor Andrea Serafini, of the Italian Commission for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, is a professional debunker; Monsignor Seguita, a forensic pathologist from the Vatican, a professional authenticator. Their ceaseless debate, however, misses the real mystery Charlotte and Donna focus on. Whatever her target was, what was La Muta’s connection to the Nerruzzi pig-farming consortium, the shadowy force behind a recent epidemic of violence in the bucolic town, and why was she so intent on inflicting damage for wrongs that may go all the way back to the closing days of WWII and the destruction of the village of San Rocco? Their investigations prove once more that “nothing is ever simply itself in Italy.”
As in Fish, Blood and Bone (2001), Forbes uses the conventions of the romance and the thriller, transforming and discarding them at will, to illuminate the mysterious connections between past and present and bring a pair of ardent and uncommonly appealing heroines to life.