First of all, Donna Russo Morin is a scholar of the Renaissance period and a fan of Dante. If you’ve never read Dante‘s Divine Comedy, fear not — Ms. Morin gives you enough information in the quotes at the beginning of each chapter and the quotes from the characters in the story to understand everything you need to know in the story. Just as Dante’s masterpiece is divided into three sections, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, so the quest in this historical fiction/romance/adventure story, which is set in and around Florence, Italy, early in the 16th century, also involves going through the each of these spiritual journeys in order to find the treasure that bestows power beyond imagining to however holds it.
The protagonists in this adventure are an unlikely pair. Battista della Palla (an actual historical figure) is an art scholar who has studied with Michelangelo and is still friends with him. He has a half dozen extremely loyal followers who assist him in acquiring famous paintings and sculptures, and share in his profits. However, more often than not, his means of “acquiring” such pieces of art require the stealth and skill of a thief. Many of his “acquisitions” are made for King François of France who has, from time to time, come to the aid of Florence against Spain, and Battista is nothing if not a patriot.
It is on one of his dangerous forays behind locked palace doors that he meets, or rather is rescued by Madonna Aurelia, over-protected and over-age ward of Federico II of Gonzaga, the marquess of Mantua. Her life has been spent behind the palace walls, constantly in the company of several ladies, and unable to satisfy her longing to see the world she has read about that lies beyond the castle walls. When Battista finds the treasure he seeks is protected by an early alarm system, he is forced to flee. He is wounded, and quickly becomes surrounded in an area for which he has no research and would have been caught except for the quick thinking of Aurelia who makes a spur-of-the-moment decision that this thief will be her ticket out her pleasant prison.
As if released by the detraction of the parchment, the bottom of the trunk fell away, splashing into some sort of liquid-filled basin waiting the few inches below, visible only when he bent all the way over, cheek skimming the floor as he spied the container hidden behind the stubby claw footing of the chest. Instantly smoke belched up and out, great funnels of dark gray vapors streaming out of the chest and filling the room.
She saves Battista from his pursuers, and then saves him from his wounds, guiding him safely home to Florence with his treasure.
The task the king has set for Battista involves finding the three separate parts of a triptych hidden in three yet to be established places which all require the successful completion of what amounts to an obstacle of exceedingly dangerous trials that must be solved by the words from Dante’s epic poem. Aurelia helps him to unravel the puzzles and soon becomes his most faithful helpmate in his quest. However, there is some mystery about her that keeps Battista from totally trusting her, and keeps the reader guessing until almost the end of the story. Nonetheless, they are soon inseparable and a romance blossoms.
The second part of the quest sees Aurelia badly wounded and Battista takes her to Rome, which is closer than Florence, and to the home of Michelangelo where he knows the artist will have his own doctor care for he. As she recovers, Aurelia is delighted that Michelangelo is not only willing, but eager, to play tour guide and introduce her to the city she has longed to see and most especially, to show her his artwork in the chapel within Vatican City.
Morin’s work is filled with the sights and sounds of Florence and Rome, the work of famous artists and sculptors, and life in the precarious events of the time. Warring factions hoping to rule Italy’s city-states trickle down to the common people and Battista and Aurelia find themselves thwarted by would-be assassins. Morin’s tie-in of the quest to Dante’s work is flawless and her descriptive imagery transporting. This is an exciting period in the politics of Italy as well as in the amazing art and sculpture being created that would last to modern times. Morin has created a great adventure, fraught with human peril and supernatural trials. * * * *