I found out about The Night Portrait by novelist and art historian Laura Morelli, when her assistant asked me to do a Q&A with the author on both of her 2020 historical fiction releases.
The first was The Giant, a novel of Michelangelo's David which I reviewed on Shomeret: Masked Reviewer here. That review is so far my most viewed post of 2020 on that other blog.
I was gifted with a PDF of The Night Portrait well in advance of publication, but was unable to read it because I couldn't adjust the miniscule font on my Kindle e-reader. So I had to wait until my pre-ordered copy arrived from Amazon. I dived into The Night Portrait after I finished and reviewed the title I was reading for a blog tour with a post that had to appear on September 20th. This is why it took me longer to get to this dual period novel dealing with the creation of Leonardo Da Vinci's Lady With An Ermine and its later history during World War II.
The first of the two women protagonists to appear in the narrative is fictional museum art conservator Edith Becker who is introduced to us during 1939 in Munich. The museum staff are poring over the records Edith had created about the great paintings by Old Masters in private hands in Poland. The Nazis were stealing art from every nation in Europe where they had a presence. The Chairman of the Board at the museum where Edith worked was justifying German theft of these paintings with a conspiracy theory about Americans seizing them for Jewish museums in the United States. I have visited Jewish museums. They only contain works by Jewish artists. There's no possibility that you would ever have found a portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci hanging on the wall in a Jewish museum.
I sincerely doubt that Edith took the Jewish Museum conspiracy seriously. She was much more concerned about her life being hijacked. She was being sent to Poland in order to assist with the largest art theft in history. Edith felt that these paintings "had been cast like dice into a game that had spiraled out of her control." This is a direct quote from Laura Morelli's narration.
It seemed to me that the Nazis were taking advantage of Edith's love of art. If a painting was given into her hands, she had to preserve it. She would clean it and ameliorate any damage that had occurred during its travel from the home where it had been kept by its owner. Edith was portrayed as a consummate professional who was inwardly horrified to be conscripted into participation in a criminal enterprise. Yet she wasn't helpless either. Could Edith find a way to disrupt the Nazi plan to own all of Europe's great art?
The second female protagonist in The Night Portrait is chronologically first because she is the woman that Leonardo Da Vinci painted when Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, commissioned what became known as Lady With An Ermine. She was Cecilia Gallerani, the sixteen year old mistress of Ludovico Sforza. So history remembers Cecilia as a perpetual sixteen year old. Here is a public domain image of the painting from Wikipedia.
Lady With An Ermine by Leonardo Da Vinci
Cecilia might not be regarded as a feminist in the modern sense of the word, but she knew what kind of life would make her happy, and it wasn't becoming a nun as her family intended. She wanted to be surrounded by the beautiful things that you would find in a ducal court, and to become a celebrated singer. Ludovico Sforza fell in love with her, and she got everything she wanted. Cecilia had beauty. She was also a musician and a gifted singer. The Night Portrait also tells us what happened to Cecilia after her relationship with Ludovico Sforza was over. I will tell you only that Cecilia Gallerani's life was not a story of victimhood. Cecilia had a strong will, and she was able to charm people.
There were also significant male characters including Leonardo Da Vinci and participants in the Monuments Men. The Monuments Men were officially known as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program. I am linking to its Wikipedia article. They were a military organization run by the Allies of World War II to protect European art and return stolen art. Stolen art was returned to the family that owned it when possible, or to the government of the place of origin.
I was most interested in the character of Edith. Her inner conflict between her passion for preserving art, and her opposition to Nazi art theft gave her a fascinating level of complexity. I was reminded of Hanna, the protagonist in The Woman Who Heard Color by Kelly Jones. Hanna was an art dealer who facilitated Nazi art theft. The main difference between Edith and Hanna is that it seemed to me that Hanna was a voluntary collaborator with the Nazis. See my Goodreads review of The Woman Who Heard Color. I admired Edith, but I thoroughly despised Hanna.
I was also interested in finding out more about the life of Da Vinci. I was surprised by Laura Morelli's portrayal of Da Vinci's attitude toward the role of art in his life. I knew that Da Vinci had a great many interests other than art. In The Night Portrait Da Vinci was shown to have priorities that appeared to be far more important to him than being an artist.
The bibliography that Laura Morelli has included shows the depth of her research, but it also provided me with a number of really awesome candidates for further reading on the topics covered in The Night Portrait. Among the volumes that I intend to obtain soon, Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation and Identity by Paola Tinagli might be of particular interest to the readers of this blog.
The Night Portrait combines accuracy with narrative power. Those who love books with moving characters and a plot with impact will want to read it for those aspects along with the compelling history and themes. Laura Morelli seems to have built to a crescendo with her novels of 2020. I anticipate her future fiction with enthusiasm.