Venice 1576, a city destroyed by the plague, where Sebastiano da Canal has been a boatman all his life, employed by the writer Arentino, artist Titian and now Tullia Buffo, a famous Courtesan returned to the city. He is the keeper of secrets, and scandal. He also holds a grudge against Titian’s son, who he blames for the destruction of his family, and who has returned after the death of his father.
Tullia Buffo, once a famous courtesan, has also returned to Venice to find her house ransacked and herself without money. Tullia sets out to set herself up again, make her house a place of knowledge, music and ultimately passion, and regain her place as the most renowned courtesan.
New York 2011 Aurora is a maid for a rich couple under investigation by the police. The highlight of her job is being able to look up at painting of Saint Sebastian, that hangs in their hallway, that reminds her of her mother in Cuba whom she was separated from at five years old.
London 2011, Terry Jardine, a famous actor, is struggling after the death of his mother. He visits the National Gallery to see Titian’s The Man with the Blue Sleeve, which is where he told his mother that he was gay, and a painting that speaks to him of his death.
As they deal with the problems in their lives, their stories cross time and continents but all come back to Venice and Titian.
I actually don’t know where to start my review as this novel just blew me away. It is beautifully written, and researched with a cast of characters that drew me into their lives. There are many voices in this book; Aurora and Alberto in New York; Terry and his new love Ludovico in London; Sebastian and Tullia in Venice. At first it may seen that their stories are unconnected, but like a great painting their stories are like layers of paint that are gradually built up that eventually combine to make a masterpiece. Their different stories are told with great understanding and empathy, you feel invested in their lives, and care about where their future. It is two of Titian’s paintings that connect these characters, The Man with the Blue Sleeve that hangs in the National Gallery London, which I am very fortunate to have seen, and The Resurrection of Saint Sebastian. Victoria Blake’s writing brings these paintings to life, the detail of the quilted sleeve, its rich colour and the sumptuous cloth and Saint Sebastian’s pain, the detail of his face, the expression are all brought to life. The paintings also represent that art transcends time, there is four hundred and fifty years between the timelines but still Titians art is able to touch peoples lives no matter where or when you are. Titian painted a couple of works featuring Saint Sebastian, but for the book it is there version taken from a polyptych, I have included images of both of these paintings at the end of my review.
Another theme is families; in particular those effected by the death of a family member that marks their lives; Terry and his mother, Aurora and her husband, Sebastiano and his father, Tullia who has lost children and her mother. These characters are very much defined by what has happened, but turn to Titian’s paintings as a solace, a place where they can turn in grief.
Most historical fiction based around Courtesan’s in Venice tells of a city of fun, Carnivale, of Masks and parties, but the only masks in The Return of the Courtesan are the masks of the plague doctor. Venice is now a dark place, decimated by the plague, it is a shadow of its former self; thousands died and many of the upper patrician class left to try and escape. What is left is a city of ransacked houses where anything of any value has been stolen, it is dangerous to walk the streets after dark due to thieves. In contrast the Venice of 2011 is a tourist haven, full of people taking in the wonderful architecture and art the city has to offer, a city of love and dreams.
I found The Return of the Courtesan to be an erudite novel, as sumptuous as the paintings it describes. It covers love, death, family, the power of art, human survival instincts, and also is part mystery. It is written with knowledge, empathy and great detail to the plot and characters. I can not praise this book highly enough, it is certainly one of the best novels I have read this year, which is quite an accolade as I have been privileged to read some wonderful books this year.
I should add the note that this book was previously published under the title Titian’s Boatman, a title I much prefer.