The Bellini Madonna effectively blends historical fact and fiction with a compelling modern-day story. How did the idea for the novel come to you? What is your background in fine arts?
I don’t have any formal fine arts training I’m afraid, just a love of pictures and an interest in different kinds of representation. I think a lot of writers are fascinated by and a little envious of the effects achievable by the visual arts. In a picture you get a total and apparently spontaneous impression, whereas the written word (in the European languages at least) takes the eye on this rather laborious journey from left to right—if only we had that painterly power to put it all across at once, to show rather than to tell!
I began to jot down ideas for The Bellini Madonna while I was in the last stages of a doctorate in English at Oxford. I was supposed to be doing a thesis on the development of the short story as a genre, but my heart wasn’t in it. I longed for the long-distance seduction of the novel; more specifically, like most unhappy students of other people’s fiction, I wanted to write my own. While avoiding my thesis I’d got into the habit of reading almost anything frivolous and unrelated, particularly mysteries and Gothic novels—the sort of book in which secret passages, hidden diaries and lost treasures are on the menu. For years I’d kept a postcard of Giovanni Bellini’s enigmatic Madonna of the Meadow propped up on my bookcase. One day, while I was guiltily turning the pages of another mystery (I always kept the phone off in case my supervisor inconveniently thought of ringing) it occurred to me that I had the ingredients for a detective story. What if Bellini had gone on to paint a later, lost Madonna even more disturbingly beautiful than this one, and what if this missing painting suddenly turned up? I’ve always liked the tantalising possibility—borne out, from time to time, by chance discoveries that make the newspapers—that there might be a few masterpieces out there which have somehow escaped the art market over the centuries to lie hidden in private collections. Why not start here? I knew that I wanted to create the sort of book I liked to read; one which, if possible, had all of the ingredients of a Gothic page turner: the crumbling mansion, the skulduggery, the fraught chase—and, of course, the art. So it all began as pure escapism. The Renaissance, or literary theory? There was no competition.
Perhaps the least apparent historical influence on the novel is Henry James’s novella The Aspern Papers. Browning, James, and their hostess in Asolo, Katherine de Kay Bronson, all figure in your novel, but only Browning and Mrs. Bronson appear as characters. Do James and his novella exert a more subtle influence?
The spirit of James hovers over the whole, I feel. There’s the old faded house, the proximity of the deep past; the concupiscent narrator—in The Aspern Papers, James’s narrator, who comes to Venice to search for some hidden letters once written by the great poet Jeffrey Aspern, is guilty of literary concupiscence, whereas Lynch’s is of the artistic as well as the more usual fleshly sort. They both set out to seduce a helplessly complicit woman who might just be able to deliver the treasure they seek, only to back off spectacularly at the end just when it’s in their grasp. What I admire most in James is his complex moral geometry, not just in The Aspern Papers, but in almost every story by James you care to think of. A typical Jamesian story contains an ironic inversion at the end: by remorseless degrees his characters are led to adopt the opposite of whatever position they start out with. James knows, like no one else, that you’re not going to want what you’ve always wanted as soon as you get it.
Another historical figure of note is the exiled and imprisoned queen Catarina Cornaro, who was forced to give up her kingdom after the death of her husband. Cornaro is intriguing; can you elaborate on the connection between the queen, her secretary Pietro Bembo, and his work Gli Asolani with the larger themes of The Bellini Madonna?
Catarina Cornaro is one of many trapped female figures in the book. She is another disappointed and powerless woman: like the Madonna, Mrs. Bronson, Anna, Giulia. They are not artists (like Browning, Dürer, Bellini) or even commentators on art like Lynch, not creators but procreators. They’re endlessly talked about by the men, but essentially overlooked (except by Bellini, of course. He can see quite plainly that the Madonna’s capacity for love, her role as the mother of Christ, was her life work, an achievement equivalent to that of any artist).
The question that Lynch, through his obsession with the Bellini and his celebration of physical beauty, is really asking is: is there a transcendent meaning to the physical world? Art and religion both come from the same impulse, the impulse to transform, to get beyond, to find such a meaning. So, arguably, does romantic love. Bembo’s Gli Asolani, the book that no one in the novel has read, is a celebration of courtly and idealised love on a grand scale (and it’s dull, believe me. The appropriate critical response is given by Browning in the loggia at La Mura: ‘Who can’t in a moment convert his lady love into Aurora, or a rosebush, or a silver fountain? Or a thousand other metaphorical flim-flams?’ And Bellini, who is, I hope, always a touchstone for artistic integrity in the novel, dismisses it too). Set in the garden of Catarina Cornaro’s castle in Asolo, the theme of Gli Asolani is the refinement of worldly love into a higher love that elevates the human spirit. It reflects the young Bembo’s belief in an ideal beyond contingency and the imperfections of the daily world of the senses, and in the power of poetry to express it. All that nonsense (which is roundly praised in the newspaper review of Puppi’s book on Bembo found by Lynch). This idealised Platonic tosh is what Browning and Bellini ultimately repudiate—they’re cowed, in the end, by the sprawling enormity of creation and their inability to contain it in their work. I hope that The Bellini Madonna, in spite of—or perhaps through—its surface finish and its interest in the detail of things, repudiates it, too. Though there’s an irony, perhaps, in trying to write a highly crafted book about the pointlessness of loving art and its ideals as opposed to people and the physical world.
Thomas Lynch has a very distinct voice and background. Describe your relationship to Lynch as a character of yours. How does his narration style relate to your writing style? Do you sympathise with his greater struggle?
Lynch is vain, lazy, pretentious, unprincipled, amoral, licentious. Frightened, arid, alone. In this he’s utterly human. The more frank he is about his own bankrupt nature, the more I’m willing to forgive him. Ideally I’d like the reader to feel most compassion for him when he is at his most loathsome and blinkered. In his voice I aimed deliberately at a prose that is worked, that would draw attention to the act of observation—because Lynch, though clever and perceptive in many ways, really can’t see.
At the end of their lives both Browning and Lynch renounce art. Elaborate on what distinguishes art that is worthwhile from art that distracts from life. Is originality alone, as Browning seems to suggest, enough?
Actually, worthwhile art is often full of distractions, don’t you think? In trying to be true to life, art has to be true to its distractions, its messiness. Not too obviously shapely, in other words.
Browning at last rejects the illusion of control afforded by words, accepting the ultimate powerlessness of art to say anything very real about the world, which remains intractable. How should the artist approach the world? Dürer, like Lynch, explains too much (as Bellini tells him, ‘Your art has too much rhetoric about it’.) Both pursue pattern, allegory, order. Lynch in particular is selective in his search for meaning: he talks, he does not look. He idealises, as bad art idealises. He does not easily accept what is human, banal, ragged. And his childhood seduction, of course, occurs over beguiling words in a room called Rhetoric (the Jesuit schools really do christen their classrooms in this way.) Browning comes to see how futile it all is—and so does Lynch. ‘Knowledge without love is lifeless,’ says the elderly Browning, once a cocksure young man, now close to death and bewildered by the meaning of his life’s work. The final word belongs to Bellini: ‘You must love this flower because it is a flower, this tree because it is a tree.’ Or as Browning exclaims: ‘Language! What piss! A book is just a book. A flower is just a flower.’ In other words, stop telling stories. Shut up and live.
You write evocatively about a wide variety of settings. Are there any locations in the story that you haven’t personally visited? Are there any real estates that served as inspiration for the sprawling Mawle House?
I’ve been to Venice a number of times, though it’s a place that still eludes me—it’s so hard to approach it without preconceptions. When I started writing the book I hadn’t been for many years. Just before I started the final draft I had a crazy compulsion to go to the Veneto at once, now, this very minute, and make sure that everything was ‘really’ as I’d described it. There followed a frenzied weekend at a hotel in Asolo from which I attacked Venice, Treviso, Bassano, etc. in turn, like a surveyor. After one nightmarish evening crossing Treviso on foot at dusk with a measuring tape, I realised that I was writing fiction, and was allowed to make things up.
Is Mawle real? About as real as Venice. Mawle contains elements of an actual house not many miles from where I live, and I did go to just such a sad and squalid Open Day there once as the one in the book. But this place probably has a website and a gift shop now and could be doing very well, thank you, so it would be unfair to name it.…
What authors or books are you most influenced by? Were any especially inspiring in working on The Bellini Madonna?
Apart from James, there’s a hefty debt to Nabokov there—Nabokov is the unparalleled creator of unreliable narrators. His Humbert Humbert has such an exquisite sense of mortality. I’m drawn to writers who celebrate the glorious trivia of daily life while acknowledging that we’re all on the way out: Chekhov, Bellow, Woolf, Dickinson, Borges. But I still think Woody Allen sums up the whole ars longa vita brevis problem better than anybody when he says, ‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.’
Anna asks (page 198): ‘Do you believe that people can change, Dr. Lynch? Really change, in themselves… for always?’ How would you answer this question?
Really change? Lynch’s answer would be, ‘My dear girl, of course not.’ That’s the answer implicit in the novel, anyway.
But the question is a bit of red herring because I don’t think people are ever one thing for any length of time, let alone always. The human personality seems to be such an unpredictable, even unfixed, entity—as James’s Amerigo puts it in The Golden Bowl, ‘everything is dark… in the heart of man’. We’re all capable of anything, given the appropriate conditions.
This interview first appeared in the Picador edition of The Bellini Madonna (New York, 2010)