With a Gem-like Flame: A Novel of Venice and a Lost Masterpieceby David Adams Cleveland
Common sense dictates that it simply cannot exist -- the "Leopardi Madonna," a glorious treasure by the fifteenth-century master Santi Raphael. All the reference books and reliable scholarship indicate that the painting was destroyed in 1945, when the Allies bombed a Nazi warehouse filled with looted art. Only now the Madonna has reappeared, it seems, in this
Common sense dictates that it simply cannot exist -- the "Leopardi Madonna," a glorious treasure by the fifteenth-century master Santi Raphael. All the reference books and reliable scholarship indicate that the painting was destroyed in 1945, when the Allies bombed a Nazi warehouse filled with looted art. Only now the Madonna has reappeared, it seems, in this stunning, original thriller that uncovers greed and treachery in the rarefied precincts of the art world. Summoned to Venice from America to view the painting, Renaissance scholar and sometime-art dealer Jordan Brooks returns to the city that had enchanted him twenty years before. As he ponders the possibility that a fake was set afire a half century earlier and the authentic work has resurfaced -- or that the actual masterpiece was lost in the conflagration and a magnificent fake has taken its place -- he also contemplates the strange and secret auction which offers him a chance to bid on the painting. Set against the backdrop of Venice in late autumn, when the timeless city's rain-swollen lagoons threaten to swamp all her treasures, the novel limns the path that lands Jordan on the doorstep of his former teacher, Giorgio Sagredo, who has compromised his ideals to sell the Madonna. It leads Jordan, too, into a horde of amoral art dealers eager to make a killing and, more fortuitously, introduces him to Katie, a young American student who has a scent for the truth and a way of turning up at the moment he needs her most.
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Jordan Brooks, once and future time traveler, dealer in art anddreams and other related enthusiasms, a little drunk and jet-lagged alot, dropped his Bean backpack before the exit of Marco Polo airportand stared through bloodshot eyes, aghast.
TRUE DESIRE MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU'RE SORRY
The ingenious LED sign, parading one insipid aphorism after anotherin foot-high red letters, had been installed above the exit area ina web of Plexiglas and steel tubing, a greeting to all Biennale goersmorelike a warning, he thoughtand preview of what awaited themat the U.S. pavilion from conceptualist artist Judy Boltzer.
Jordan scowled and pulled off his sweat-stained baseball cap, swipedat his dirty-blond hair to get it out of his eyes, and swore out loud tohimself that he would nevernever, on pain of castrationset foot inthe Biennale. As he barged through the airport exit to the taxi landing,he was more convinced than ever that he should never have come.
While waiting in the long taxi line, he had to endure the cool gazesof the Hermès-scarved matrons and a younger, flashier crowd, smokinglike demons, in their fluid Armani suits and Versace leather, most likelyheaded for a fashion conference at the Cipriani. On short noticeveryshort noticehis patched blue and gold Kansas City A's jacket, shapelessjeans, and high-top Keds with dangling red laces had seemed theperfect traveling gear. Jordan had always prided himself on an insouciantblend of the practical and the habitual in terms ofbusiness attire,even translated to the occasional exotic locale; but now, increasinglyaware of the sarcastic if disdainful glances of the glitterati, he wavedoff their cigarette smoke and headed for the water bus and Piazza SanMarco.
Once out of the airport channel, the brine-scented air revived himfrom his stupor and he left his seat to stand watch on the bridge,enjoying the swell of the lagoon as the boat picked up speed. Heavoided the landward view, where the tawny smokestacks of Mestreneatly bisected the horizon, craning forward to see what bobbed underthe clearing morning skies, those crooked spires and sensuous domesof the ancient city, love's memory incarnate. His spirits lifted andbrightened on every wave, gathering critical mass as each familiar landmarkhove into sight, dispatching a frisson of pleasure to dispel thelurking anxiety in his growling gut. The churches of Madonnadell'Otto, San Francesco della Vigna, San Zaccariathe very soundsunder his breath in near perfect Venetian dialect were an incantationof pastel gray campi and Istrian stone filigree and a life once so intenselylived it now streaked cometlike toward him. There the caress of a bulbousdome, now a shapely campanile rich with violet shadow, a ray ofsunlight through clouds spotlighting the fairest of all fair cities, whilethe lagoon lay before him in a path of pulsing vermilion-gold.
His room at the Danieli was stultifying perfection; as well it mightbe at five hundred bucks a night. But something was wrong. He surveyedhis magnificent cell, another in an inexorably expanding galaxyof luxury accommodations, and then went from wall to wall and tookdown the cloying reproductions of Canaletto, Guardi, and Marieschi,stacking the pictures in a corner. Then he checked out the Muranomirror over the inlaid rococo bureau for a brief condition report: astretcher mark or two on the unshaven cheeks, minor craquelurearound the slate blue eyes, a little cupping along the once firm line ofthe chin, but the widow's peak nicely stabilized. Not quite the barrel-chestedcleanup hitter on Yale's 1972 championship club, nor the wide-eyedgraduate student of Venice days past, much less the wunderkindof the mid-eighties art spiral, but nothing a haircut and shave and anew suit couldn't cure. He threw open the French doors overlookingthe tourist-choked Riva degli Schiavoni, and his eye went immediatelyto the white-columned façade of San Giorgio Maggiore, presiding benignlyover the Molo.
"Giorgio ... Giorgio," he said to himself like a mantra, the repeatedname shifting the unstable ballast in his roiling stomach. He moanedand bit his lip and made a precipitous dash to the exquisitely marbletiled bathroom, where the two bottles of oak-softened '94 Amaroneconsumed that morning somewhere over the Alps between Munich andVenice made a quick exit. With a final spit, he flushed the toilet,grabbed his backpack, and headed for the door.
Once he was aboard the Number Five vaporetto, the familiar dieselrumble soothed his nerves, and he resolved to let the passing scenereturn him to happier grad-student days. Notwithstanding, the obscenenippled cupolas and scrolling excrescences of Santa Maria della Saluteseemed now, more than ever, a reminder of life's contemplated infidelities.Not to mention Fortuna's brazen ass presiding over the perineumof the Dogana, which elicited another uneasy smile as thevaporetto made the turn into the cloacal expanse of the GiudeccaCanal, trunk line for Lido ferries and rusty tankers headed for Mestre.And there, just ahead, the shores of Dorsoduro, where he'd spent almosttwo years while researching his PhD on the Lombard/family ofsculptors. That blessedly esoteric life was reflected back to him in everyconfiguration of shadow and light: all those glorious days of poking hisnose into a thousand pigeonshit-encrusted entablatures and mustychapels, returning bone-weary in the evening to his tawdry pensione,where he'd have to put up with a bespectacled menagerie of threadbareacademics from Oxbridge, feuding art students from the East Villagewith their various hangers-on and strung out girlfriendsfellow aestheteswho'd foresworn mammon for the yet unvanquished shores ofthe doomed cityand, of course, Barb, his Barb, her lovely birdlikecries of purest joy as she discovered the newest wonder of the age ofAquarius, multiple orgasms.
He got off at the Zattere stop, utterly chagrined to see how littleanything had changed. Maybe a bit more weedy growth daubing theupper pilaster of the Gesuati church, an added impasto of pigeon droppingson the façade statuary, but the same cruddy oil barges mooredoff the quay, and good old Nico doling out drooling ice-cream conesto the schoolchildren hurrying home for lunchall as if the scenepainter had only stepped away from his canvas to grab an espressotwenty minutes before, much less twenty years. No bell-bottoms insight, the magazines and newspapers in the quayside kiosk updated, nodoubt: but mere details. And anchoring the reality of return, the smellsof briny sewage on stone, calcified cat's piss in the passing calles, andbaking pizza from the waterfront trattorias.
And then, at the turning of the Rio Foscarini, a few steps more, andthere was the Campo Sant' AgneseSinger Sargent's for all eternitywiththe same little green bench and carved wellhead and willowy mimosatree. "Oh, Barb." His blurted sentiment surprised him, after allthe guerrilla warfare of the recent divorce, seeing her there on thatgreen bench as she'd been, map spread across her knees, face nearlyhidden by long stringy auburn hair. She'd been studying internationallaw at the Johns Hopkins Center in Bologna, went to Venice for aweekend visit ... and stayed for over a year. They were married thefollowing fall.
"Dio mio, Jordan!" The mascared eyes bobbed and widened behindthe thick lenses of her bifocals. "Un miracolo! No sooner I buy hisbook and he walks through my door." A plume of cigarette smoke rosefrom the overflowing ashtray at her elbow and the older woman pushedherself up from the reception desk stacked with guests' bills.
"Signora Grimani," said Jordan, lowering his backpack and givingthe platinum-haired woman a peck on her rouged cheek, "you haven'tchanged a bit." He coughed and fanned the smoky air.
She popped her lips at his blatant lie and shook her topaz-ringedfingers in a gesture of having scalded herself. "I'm worse than Methuselahwith the arthritis, but youyou!" She reared back to get him infocus, pinching his cheek; seeing the red laces translated into a comicscissoring of her chin. "What can I say? A great writer!"
"What did you say about a book?"
"You naughty boy." She patted her bouffant hairdo. "Why haven'tyou written me, now"she made wings with her hands to indicate thepassage of the years"your daughter was bornyes, a card at Christmasperhaps."
"Jennie, yes, she's almost a teenager now." He looked around at thereception area of the pensione: the leaded bottle-glass windows overlookingthe Rio San Vio, the sitting room stacked with abandonedguidebooks, stinky from the stray cats that did their business there. Hewrinkled his nose at that most distinctive of smells. "Nothing changes."
"Everything changes, Jordan. Venice is ruined. You Americans makebombs and the poor people come here without homes. A terriblething."
"You wouldn'tI know it's short noticehave a room, wouldyou?"
"A roomfor you?" Signora Grimani smiled a beatific smile andreached under the counter to produce a large art volume, still shrink-wrapped."For un famoso scrittore?" She indicated the title on thecover, emblazoned with a photograph of a marble cherub, I Lombardi,and then his name, in smaller black letters. "If the Bauer Grünwald,"she snarled, "will not take you, then I will. We will make a cancellation."
He stared, incredulous, at the gorgeous Milan printing on the receptiondesk. "Jesus, the Italian translation; I don't believe it." Rumorsof interest in a translation had been abroad for years. He thought ofthe piles of unopened correspondence in the corners of his MadisonAvenue gallery, neglected over the year of divorce proceedings. Anythingfrom Yale University Press? Had Barb even bothered to forwardhis mail once she'd kicked him out of the apartment?
Excerpted from With A Gemlike Flame by David Adams Cleveland. Copyright © 2001 by David Adams Cleveland. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Copyright © 1997 Howard Schultz and Dori Jones Yang.All rights reserved.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Glad I did not pay full price for this book. It has an interesting premise, and could be good story. But the main character is so whiny! I got sick of hearing about him! I felt like telling him to "grow up already." After about 1/2 way through, I found I really did not care any more about the story line. I wanted to know about the painting, not this irritating guy's love life.
With a Gem-like flame is definitely one of the most sophisticated and wonderfully scripted novels I have read in a long time. Just like with any other novel of course it has its downfalls, but overall the expertise with which Cleveland sculpts his novel of a lost masterpiece is truly outstanding. At first the novel is hard to get into, but once past the opening hurdle, the novel pulls you in, bringing you into the lives of Jordan Brooks and many other characters. A wonderful art historical fiction book for anyone!