Saturday 10 December 2011

In which I commit identity theft, throw a child from a bell-tower and acquire a patina – Michelle Lovric

I’ve just had a classic History Girls weekend.

It was a rare time alone in Venice. With no shopping, cooking or explaining to do (see Louise Berridge’s post on the bewilderments of those who live with writers), I confess that I went a little feral. The dishes piled up in the sink while I destroyed my wrists at the computer. I drank toxic levels of Illy coffee. I ate leftover pasta for breakfast. I rode outside in the vaporetto, in spite of the intense cold. I overdosed on architecture, art and historic crime, some committed by me.

It started at 8.15 on Saturday when I went knowingly and deliberately to the Lorenzo Lotto exhibition at the Accademia to steal some faces for my WIP, The Fate-in-the-Box. I had the gallery to myself at that hour and I was able to commit multiple acts of identity theft: I found the perfect sneering nose for an aristocratic boy; a mismatched couple whose marriage was going to founder dramatically, and even a rather sweet baby. No, I did not scruple even there. I had a vacancy for an infant’s face, so I took the infant Jesus too, dammit.

Thence to a photographic odyssey down the Grand Canal as I’m arranging for an urgent message to be transmitted from San Samuele to San Marcuola via Chinese whispers between the statues that adorn the facades of the palazzi in between. Mission accomplished, I looked for a relief of a bird at the end of that line who might break free of his stucco and fly to my protagonist’s humble dwelling to warn her of the danger. A shaggy-legged eagle on the side of Ca’ Gatti Casazza served nicely.

Off to photograph the building that belonged to The Company of Christ and the Good Death for the forthcoming website pages for my new children’s book Talina in the Tower. Then to the Rialto market to photograph some gut-wrenched displays of meat for another blog, and a trudge up through San Polo to try to find a garden wall with an apple tree than overhangs the street for the first encounter between my two child protagonists. The cold was intensifying and the shop windows were looking more and more luminous. Perhaps I tried on a nice woollen hat. Perhaps I didn’t. If it did, it was the kind that you would instantly recognize from a Carpaccio painting. (Possibly the massacre scene in the Saint Ursula cycle).

My to-do list was melting like fat on a barbecue – filling the air with rich scintillation. Home for translating some Venetian proverbs and an evening in the elegant and deliciously chilling company of fellow History Girl Imogen Robertson, whose Instruments of Darkness I recommend with all my heart. Then a little Berlusconi-vision to see what kind of fantasy-projected lingerie Italian women will be receiving in their Christmas stockings this year. (And I’m talking about the news channels here). I also learned that you say ‘Attila L’Unno’ in Italian.

Sunday it was a thousand words before breakfast and then up the bell-tower of the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari accompanied by the most sophisticated and urbane priest I’ve ever met and two lovely Italian architects. At seventy metres, the Frari’s is the second highest bell-tower in Venice. Ingress is forbidden to the public, and I’d had to negotiate this visit. The tower hides behind a goblin’s door in the left of the nave. Once it was unlocked, we found a huge surprise inside. I’m not going to tell you what it was, because the extraordinary construction of this tower is crucial to the plot I’m hatching. Suffice it to say some reference books have relied on flawed guesswork to describe it, and that the inside of the Great Pyramid of Cheops lacks lustre in comparison. Amneris d’Ago, my young Venetian seamstress, is going to have to make the same journey up the Frari campanile that I undertook in breathless wonder, but she’s coming down somewhat faster than I did.

Yet even we were too fast: after my architect friends and I came down, we still had to come down. We were high on bell-tower and we needed to sit in an historical café (I know it is, because there’s a plaque that says so on the stairwell at Toppo) and calm ourselves by talking about what we’d seen while nibbling the ring-shaped biscuits known as bussolai.

Then it was a slow, beautiful walk with my friends past San Rocco and Campo Santa Margherita, through San Barnaba and over the Academia Bridge as the dusk set in and the mist swallowed the horizon in soft white mouthfuls. It was the kind of evening when you think, ‘If I can grow old in a place like this, with friends like these two, then bring it on.’

Because of the campanile and because of these thoughts, it was a day in which my personal history acquired a new patina. Why do we call it ‘distressed’ when we refer to the appearance of something that has become more complicated and layered through age and use? The word for that effect should be far more positive. (See my blog in praise of dirty books.)

Of course, I was happy to return to London, to my lovely husband and my clever students at the Courtauld. But I’ve been changed over this intense weekend, living by the book, in the book and for the book.

I’m sure others of you have had that experience too?

Michelle Lovric’s website
Talina in the Tower is published by Orion Children’s Books on February 2nd 2012 – new Talina web pages coming in January


Stroppy Author said...

What a lovely weekend, Michelle. Yes, I've stolen identities in Accademia, too - I wonder if we have any of the same characters? That kind of intense wallowing in research is wonderful - such a treat to enjoy yours vicariously. Thank you!

michelle lovric said...

I bet we have stolen some of the same faces, Stroppy Author. Even some of the same hats and shoes. I sometimes wonder if there should be a separate entrance and a higher ticket price for writers at these places, given what we get up to?
ps forgive the typos and spelling mistakes in this blog. My new patina does not include a spellcheck facility.

Essie Fox said...

I think your new patina should be 'encrusted' - as with jewels.

I can't wait to read Talina in the Tower. I'm sure you will have conjured up images of Venice and its characters (from reality or glorious paintings) just as vividly and magically as you have done before.

Mary Hoffman said...

Wonderfully evocative post, Michelle!

How useful that Biennale vulture would have been for carrying messages!

Linda B-A said...

Lovely, lovely post...

Sally Zigmond said...

I am so looking forward to reading the novel, Michelle, after reading this evocative, sensual and intriguing post. I have never, alas alack, been to Venice although I have always longed to. After reading this, I am even more adamant.

Marie-Louise said...

Lovely post - will be reading the book just for the whispering statues alone!

adele said...

What a fabulous post! Lovely!

H.M. Castor said...

Magical post, Michelle! Sitting here nursing 'flu in Bristol, you have transported me utterly. My vicarious enjoyment of Venice, of your research - and your energy! - has been a great tonic. Thank you!

Leslie Wilson said...

Wonderful post - I know so well that wonderful feeling of going out and plundering for the novel - like rioting, but with no evil consequences, rather beneficent one. I'm sure Baby Jesus should be delighted to lend his face. He must have borrowed it himself, from some peasant kid or other who was brought to the artist's studio for some much-needed dosh by his Mamma all those years ago..

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely, Michelle!

Theresa Breslin said...

What a gratifyingly sensory post Michelle, thanks, but the "thousand words before breakfast" left me gasping!