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The Mosaic Crimes
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The Mosaic Crimes

3.0 1
by Giulio Leoni, Anne Milano Appel (Translator)

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Florence, June 1300. The body of an artist, his face covered in quicklime, is discovered next to the mosaic he had almost completed. Dante Alighieri, the newly appointed prior of the city of Florence (and the man who will one day write that exhaustive treatise on criminology, the Inferno), is on the case. It is his first official investigation. Obscure clues


Florence, June 1300. The body of an artist, his face covered in quicklime, is discovered next to the mosaic he had almost completed. Dante Alighieri, the newly appointed prior of the city of Florence (and the man who will one day write that exhaustive treatise on criminology, the Inferno), is on the case. It is his first official investigation. Obscure clues lead him up and down the streets of Florence, following a trail full of intrigue and mystery. Why have seven scholars, each a master of his art, assembled in the city? What was the secret that might have been revealed had the artist lived to complete his work? Was it an alchemist’s formula to transform lead into gold? Did it have to do with Antilia, wild and beautiful, who dances nightly in a tavern owned by a one-armed crusader? Or perhaps with another elusive Beatrice, the heiress to the imperial Swabian throne, whose rumored arrival in the city could upset the political aspirations of Pope Boniface, Dante’s nemesis?
Leoni’s voice is wry and irreverent as he pokes fun at the genius poet and renders Dante a human being—brilliant but temperamental, bumbling but undaunted. An enthralling historical thriller from Italy’s new maestro of crime.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Set in Florence in 1300, Leoni's absorbing historical features Italy's premier poet, Dante Alighieri as sleuth. Master mosaicist Ambrogio, who was at work in a ruined church, is found suffocated and disfigured-his head encased in a layer of caustic quicklime. Dante, plagued with migraines, resentful of Boniface VIII's attempts to consolidate papal power and generally irascible throughout, embarks on a solo investigation. At a seedy tavern, Dante encounters a group of intellectuals known as the Third Heaven, who meet secretly to discuss art and be entertained by an exotic dancer, Antilia. Despite the distraction of the alluring Antilia, Dante conceives intriguing theories of how victims attract killers and how illness serves as punishment for sin. Leoni's first publication in English is a well-researched labyrinth of medieval Italian history and politics. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
With Leonardo da Vinci's recent omnipresence, authors seem to be turning to history primers in search of ideas. Dante Alighieri, poet and author of The Divine Comedy, has emerged as fiction's new go-to luminary (e.g., Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club, Matilde Asensi's The Last Cato). In Leoni's first novel in English translation, set in 1300 Florence, a young Dante is the headliner. Dante is the newly appointed prior whose first official case is the murder of a mosaicist whose design may have been the cause of his murder as well as be the key to solving it. To unravel the murder, Dante insinuates himself into a society of learned men and masters of their crafts (Templars do play a role in the novel, but it really is about Dante). Leoni fills his book with rich details of the political climate and general ambience of Florence at the time, weaving a thoroughly modern crime thriller out of entirely authentic medieval threads. Elegantly written and beautifully translated, the language is descriptive without being flowery, smart without being pedantic. Leoni has another book featuring the further adventures of Dante, as yet untranslated. Recommended for most popular fiction collections. [See Prepub Mystery, LJ 10/1/06.]-Laura A.B. Cifelli, Fort Myers-Lee Cty. P.L., FL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In his second day on the job as prior of Florence, poet Dante Alighieri has no doubt that he can investigate the suspicious death of an architect in the middle of a great project. Ambrogio, a master builder of the powerful builders' guild, had been supervising the reconstruction of an old church rumored to be the site of Florence's first studium, a center of higher learning. His body is found covered in quicklime in front of the mosaic he was in the process of personally completing. No one seems to know what the subject of this allegorical masterpiece was to be, nor exactly who is behind the studium. Dante discovers that seven masters of diverse disciplines, including philosophy, alchemy, poetry and navigation, have been meeting regularly in a tavern of a one-armed barkeeper, where a tattooed Eastern dancer named Antilia exercises a mysterious-and a not-so-mysterious-influence on these ill-assorted scholars. Could the men be involved in research less legitimate than Dante's own poetic and theological pursuits? Plagued by migraines, pedantry and a decidedly judgmental approach to his fellow citizens, along with personal financial and political problems, Dante uncovers a world operating literally and figuratively underneath the Florence he thought he knew. Readers will be either charmed or irritated by debut novelist Leoni's characterization of the poet as a cranky, sometimes obtuse genius. The mystery itself is a bit too abstract to be compelling.
From the Publisher
"[Leoni] succeeds in building a story one can hardly put down and in re-creating a perfect picture of Dante's times."—Niccolo Ammanti, author of I'm Not Scared
" Leoni's first publication in English is a well-researched labyrinth of medieval Italian history and politics."—Publishers Weekly

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

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The Mosaic Crimes

By Leoni, Giulio


Copyright © 2007 Leoni, Giulio
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0151012466

Florence, June 15, 1300, toward midnight
HE HAD filled several sheets of paper with his fine script, and now the candle on the table burned low. Several hours must have passed since he had started writing his account. He broke off to read over what he had set down.
 He felt drained. A migraine pounded in his temples, and sleep was still a long way off.
 "Of course, this is how it is. The opposite theory defies reason and the facts," he muttered, passing a hand across his forehead.
 On the table stood a pitcher and two goblets. He poured water from the pitcher into one of the goblets until it overflowed, spilling to the ground, where it formed a puddle and then a little stream that trickled along the irregular bricks until it seeped into a crack and disappeared from view.
 "It flows downward. It must flow downward," he said aloud. And the ghost that stood before him nodded in agreement.
OUTSIDE, something broke the perfect silence of the night. Heavy steps approached his door, accompanied by a metallic din like the rattling of tin plates--or naked swords. His hand flew to the dagger that he always carried with him, in a pocket concealed inside his garment.
 Armed men at his door, at that hour of night. How much time had passed since the curfew bell had sounded?
 His eyes sought a sign, any sign that would restore his sense of time, but the dark skybeyond the narrow window showed no trace of dawn. He rose and extinguished the candle, then crouched beside the doorjamb, holding his breath.
 Outside, the clanking continued, a sound like soldiers milling about. His hand tightened around the handle of his weapon. He heard two dull thumps at the door, and then a harsh voice calling his name.
 "Messer Durante?"
 Dante Alighieri, poet of Italy and now prior of Florence, bit his lip, uncertain what to do next. San Piero should be under the watch of the priory guards, especially at night. The ceremony in which he had been formally invested had just taken place two days ago. Were those scoundrels betraying him already?
 "Messer Durante, are you in there? Open the door."
 He must not hesitate. Perhaps his powers were required for the public good. He hastened to don the stiff square biretta cap with its long veil, and put the gold signet ring engraved with lilies on his index finger. Then, after carefully arranging the folds of his garment to resemble a Roman toga, such as he had seen on the statues in Santa Croce, he lifted the latch.
 A short, thickset man stood before him, dressed in chain mail that fell to below his knees. Over it, instead of the usual tabard with its emblazoned lily, he wore a coat of armor made of metal plates joined by leather thongs. His head was encased in a cylindrical helmet, like those worn by crusaders. A sword was strapped to his shoulder, and two daggers made a fine display on his girdle.
 "What do you want, you rogue?" Dante spoke harshly. "It is forbidden to go about the city at this hour. Only brigands and pickpockets dare to violate the curfew, and they pay for that on the gallows," the poet went on in a threatening tone. The man at the door was dumbstruck. Despite his martial appearance, he did not seem like a dangerous sort. Even so, Dante kept his eyes fixed on the man's hands: one held up an oil lamp; the other hung unarmed at his side. He would be easy to attack, Dante thought. An inch-wide gap between his helmet and the collar of his chain mail exposed his neck. His open visor, though harder to reach, offered passage for a mortal thrust.
 "I am the Bargello," the man finally said. "I am here because of my official function. And because of yours, given that they have appointed you prior and that we will all be dependent on you for two months." His voice was plaintive, though he pulled himself up to his full modest height.
 Dante leaned toward him, trying to read the features obscured by the helmet. Through the cross-shaped visor he glimpsed a prominent nose and small, close-set eyes, beady like a rat's. Now he recognized him: it really was the Bargello, Captain of the Guard for the Commune. A thief in charge of other thieves.
 He released his grip on the hilt of his dagger. "And what sorcery might bring our official functions together?"
 "A crime has been committed in the church of Saint Jude, at the new walls." The man hesitated, unsure of himself in the presence of the prior. "A crime that . . . perhaps requires the presence of the Commune's authority," he added nervously.
 The Bargello, with difficulty, loosened the straps of his helmet and wrenched the heavy armor from his head, which emerged damp with sweat.
 "We do not know anything yet," he said. "But it would be best if you came to see with your own eyes."
 "Tell me first what happened."
 "Well, something . . . strange, unnatural . . ."
 Dante began to lose patience. "Let me be the judge of what is or is not strange. Omne ignotum pro magnifico, as our elders used to say. Everything surprises us, if we lack knowledge of it." He clapped him on the shoulder. "You are certainly not the man best suited to judge whether something has occurred in accordance with nature or against it. Only attentive study and full awareness of what is, together with a knowledge of what is not, entitle the learned scholar to draw the line between the ordinary and the marvelous. There is a passage in Lucan, in that regard, which you should ponder."
 "Yes . . . I understand," the man said doubtfully.
 "So then, tell me what is, not how it appears to you."
 The Bargello wiped the sweat from his face. "A man. Dead. At Saint Jude. Inside the church. Killed, I think."
 "And why do you want to involve the Commune, the highest authority, in such a matter? Is finding and arresting criminals not your job?"
 "Yes, of course . . . but. . . . Well, I would prefer that you come see with your own eyes. I beg you."
 This last request seemed to have cost him a lot. Dante looked him straight in the face.
 "One does not see with one's eyes, Bargello, but with one's mind. It is my mind that you require. You as well as all the other blind men. But you did well to turn to me. And thank Saint John the Baptist, the protector of us all, who willed that I become prior, if the circumstances are as grave as you represent."
 "Will you come, then?" the man repeated anxiously. "There is water on the ground here," he added, pointing at the floor. Dante did not answer. He turned his gaze to the slice of sky beyond the window opening, staring at the stars, reading their patterns in the celestial vault. A strange way to begin his charge as helmsman of the Commune. These ill omens were making him uneasy.
 He roused himself, abruptly raised his head and picked up the gilt cane he had set down on the chest. "Come with me," he ordered, preceding the Bargello out the door.
 They crossed the portico that led past the doors of the convent's other cells. Dante thought about his five fellow priors, who must certainly be sunk in the turbid sleep of weak minds, populated by the specters conjured by lust and gluttony. Then he stopped, arresting the Bargello with his hand. "Why did you come looking for me?"
 The other cleared his throat. He seemed embarrassed. "Because they tell me that you know letters better than anyone. You are a poet, are you not? You have written a book."
 "And in what special way could I, a poet, be of help to you?"
 "There is something odd about this death."
 Dante decided not to take offense. What could he possibly say to this idiot?
 "They say that of all the priors you are the most suited to . . ." The Bargello hesitated.
 "Suited to what?"
 "To . . . to look into secret matters." The captain of the guard spoke those words in a particular tone, one of both admiration and suspicion. To his simple mind, secrets must seem the antechamber of crime, the poet thought. Perhaps the man considered Dante himself a potential criminal. When his term of office was over he would have to watch out for this Bargello. But for now he seemed sincere in his desire for a learned man's help. He nervously wrung his hands, rhythmically shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
 Dante started walking again and the Bargello followed him in silence.

2004 Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.P.A., Milano
English translation copyright 2006 by Anne M. Appel

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Excerpted from The Mosaic Crimes by Leoni, Giulio Copyright © 2007 by Leoni, Giulio. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

GIULIO LEONI won the Premio Tedeschi for best new crime novel in 2000. He lives in Rome.

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