Are there too many novels about missing Old Masters? Anyone who reads Jason Goodwin’s The Bellini Card might be forgiven for thinking so. It’s about a search for a portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror which was supposedly painted by Gentile Bellini during his visit to Istanbul in 1479. It relentlessly assembles all the standard fixtures and fittings of the sub-genre: exploitative forgers, dodgy art dealers, even dodgier descriptions of Venice, a blonde contessa who allows her hair to fall ‘in golden sheaves’ before she fences with our hero (who has the rare distinction of being an Ottoman eunuch detective, which alleviates the rich diet of cliché a little) and reveals that she has Something to Hide. And yes, the blonde contessa also somehow manages a sex scene with the eunuch: ‘“Don’t stop,” she breathed softly’ – oh please do, I groaned loudly – ‘her wild golden hair flying across the pillow.’ The painting (is it a fake? Is it the same as the heavily restored portrait of Mehmet that’s now in the National Gallery?) is, of course, destroyed at the moment our hero thinks he has finally obtained it. Like most of the book, that scene (a dam bursts and the picture is washed away along with an exotic assassin) reads like bits of old screenplay cobbled together into a novel in the hope of its being turned in due course into another screenplay which will make its author shedloads of money. There are some odd Eastern recipes thrown in to lighten the mix, since our hero likes to cook: ‘In the frying pan he sautéed garlic and cumin seeds. The oil was hot; before the garlic could catch he dropped in the sliced liver and turned it quickly with a wooden spoon.’ Goodwin, it seems, knows that we deserve something a bit more nourishing than the plot, which is 100 per cent cumin-coated tripe.
Elizabeth Lowry’s The Bellini Madonna, mercifully, is set not in a Venice that’s trying to be a fake Canaletto but in a ‘17th-century manor house with Victorian accretions’, which a few pages later acquires ‘two sweeping Georgian side elevations’, and later still has ‘tall Gothic windows’. The hero and narrator is an art historian called Thomas Lynch, who is perhaps a little too much like someone you might already have met. He’s been sacked for gross moral turpitude from an unnamed American college, and is excessively in love with adjectives as well as with himself: a sort of art-historical Humbert Humbert with traces of Clive Linley, the self-obsessed composer in Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam. He also has an Irish Catholic background replete with sodomitical priests and echoes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This upbringing has made him unable to separate a love of art from sexual desire. He is on the search for a lost late Giovanni Bellini (Gentile’s more famous brother).
This genre of fiction depends on imagining almost possible pictures, and you immediately know that The Bellini Madonna is a good example of its kind because its missing painting sounds like one that Bellini might just have painted in his final years, when his colours became more luminous and his subjects increasingly unconventional. It’s an ageing Madonna without child, conveying the sorrow of the Virgin for her lost son. The picture is a wrinkling alternative to Giovanni’s very late nude Young Woman Holding a Mirror, or a late revision of the anguished Madonna in the Pietà from the 1460s which is now at the Brera. Lynch knows about the lost picture from a letter Albrecht Dürer supposedly wrote during his second visit to Venice in 1506:
Then I realised that the lady herself was no longer young, but well past the age of childbearing, and that her narrow brown face had the finely quilted texture that you see on the faces of ageing women in hot countries. Her robe was leaden black and the dress beneath was neither blue nor red, but a souring white. Yet it was not this that had troubled me. No, my discomfort stemmed from the hard, hollow gaze which met mine. It had the anguished persistence of a suffering thing, as if the paint, mask-like, concealed a breathing body.
Sadly, Dürer’s real letters and diaries are more concerned with what art sells for than what it looks like, but the painting makes the imagined Breughel that is the object of pursuit in Michael Frayn’s Headlong seem too obviously an invention, and Goodwin’s portrait of Mehmet an outright sham.
There are, however, too many moments when you have to reach for the word ‘inevitably’ as you describe Lowry’s plot. Inevitably, there is a rival art historian on the trail of the Madonna (short and Italian to the narrator’s tall and Irish). Inevitably, the narrator wheedles his way into a great house, where, inevitably, it’s late summer. But Mawle House is populated by an engagingly unusual group of people who are all more than the sum of their slightly too decodable literary parts: a young-seeming 40-year-old called Anna who cooks vilely (no recipes here) and seems dimmer than she turns out to be; her surprisingly charming daughter; a gigantic crude gardener who does the full Chatterley with the mother. The gardener’s Oxfordshire accent when he is talking about cows produces a splendid passage: ‘“They do be calving in spring, and keening all summer long. Keening and keening after their season. But,” Harry folded his arms philosophically, “that’s Nietzsche for yer. Nietzsche has ’er own way.”’ It’s a great joke in itself (and ‘philosophically’ is a fine touch) but it works particularly well because the gardener is talking to the narrator, who is something of a wannabe Nietzschean Superman. Regrettably – and inevitably, I suppose – there is a blonde Italian contessa in the background, though she plays reassuringly little part in the plot.
Through a fog of grappa and obsession, Lynch sets about befriending ugly Anna, while suspecting that she may be in cahoots with her mother, the blonde contessa, and possibly also with the rival art historian. In a leather trunk covered with dust, concealed in a hidden room in Mawle House (don’t groan: the art-hunt novel is a sub-species of Gothic, in which the plot is generated by the endless multiplication of rooms in a strange house; you just have to go with it), Lynch discovers the diary of James Roper, Anna’s great-grandfather. This describes a trip to the Veneto in the company of Robert Browning and the love of his late years, Mrs Bronson. The diary explains that Roper married into the Italian family which was given the Bellini Madonna by the artist in the 16th century in lieu of a debt. It’s written in a style that’s perhaps suspiciously close to that of the hero (as he says, ‘the tone was dismissive, independent, cocksure; in a word, masculine’), but this isn’t simply a sign that Lowry has a limited range of idioms. Lynch is caught up in a plot similar to the one he reads about. Roper is tricked into thinking that’s he’s raped an innocent Italian girl whom he then marries; in fact she is already pregnant by someone else.
In the present, meanwhile, Lynch sees in plain Anna the outlines of the ageing Madonna he’s searching for, and is lured by the love of the beautiful into desiring a fading, and (we later discover) pregnant and moderately deceitful woman. ‘From the start my feelings for her were contaminated by – yes, I can’t deny it: indivisible from – my lust for the Bellini Madonna.’ That relationship, full of deceptions and material aspirations on both sides, makes the novel as jolie laide as Anna herself – almost beautiful, but too suspicious of human desires ever to allow them to be pure. The creditable avoidance of the ‘disgraced and cynical academic finds love and is redeemed’ cliché may leave the ending slightly flat, but at least the Bellini Madonna is not destroyed in a flood or blown up in a badly serviced Land Rover.
The story of obsessive rival scholars pursuing the same piece of antiquity in egomaniacal and acquisitive zeal against a backdrop of Browning inevitably recalls A.S. Byatt’s Possession, but it’s a comparison from which this book does not always emerge the loser. Browning brings with him a string of allusions to ‘My Last Duchess’, and these bring into focus the main questions on which The Bellini Madonna is meditating: how can we be said to ‘love’ art, and in what ways do human appetites (for money, drink, sex, rivalry) block or contaminate our desire for the beautiful? Are connoisseurs necessarily cruel? Or, to put that another way, is human nature really human Nietzsche after all, even when it seeks the idea of the beautiful? Instead of tackling these questions head-on, as Byatt on a not particularly good day might have done, Lowry lets them work their way through the characters’ relationships. The distrustful liaison between Lynch and Anna gives us a vision of ‘fleshly weakness’ and a genuinely painful sense of human unreliability, even when it seeks consummation in the permanence of art.
There may be a few too many creaks in the oak panelling and in the plot of The Bellini Madonna, but you could say the same of Northanger Abbey, of which it is a distant though less sportive descendant. Mawle House is, after all, partly in the style of Strawberry Hill House, Horace Walpole’s Gothic architectural fantasy. The Bellini Madonna is a first novel, and like a lot of first published novels, including Austen’s, it’s trying to assemble its own voice through pastiche of a literary form that has a well-known repertoire of conventions. The narrator’s ironical description of what he’s up to fits the book’s combination of enthusiasm and irony very well: ‘I laughed wickedly. “Oh, most pleasurable. Tremendous fun. The pursuit of great art always is, don’t you find?”’ If the whole effect is a touch scuola di, all the schools from which Lowry has learned are good ones, and (as all those who deal in Gothic must) she handles some dangerously clichéable material with a fine sense of when to twist it into something new. The consciously researched and programmatically recherché detail after (in the art-historical sense) McEwan and Byatt sometimes weighs her down, but Lowry knows how to convey atmosphere almost as well as the former and the relationships between characters significantly more capably than the latter. There are too few sentences without adjectives, and some with far too many (‘I steered the protesting chassis gingerly down this rutted lane, straining my eyes through the dappled shadows of the long green tunnel that stretched for what seemed like an eternity’), but we can just about put that down to its being related by an art historian, whose faintly purple prose is one of the novel’s many exercises in pastiche.