When prostitute Luciana is asked to model for the artist Botticelli, she steals a miniature version of the painting in recompense for not being paid but she is soon horrified when she learns someone is willing to commit murder to get it back.
The painting in question is the famous Primavera or Allegory of Spring which was completed around 1482 and has raised many questions over the centuries as to whether it contains a secret code. Luciana becomes the face of the central figure, Flora, a personification of Spring shown in a flowered dress and scattering flowers around her.
After Luciana’s roommate is mistaken for her and murdered, Luciana flees for her life and partners with Brother Guido, a young monk, who has a few secrets of his own. Luciana and Guido try to decode the painting which takes them to Italy’s most famous cities – Venice, Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa, Naples and Genoa – while staying ahead of their enemies who will stop at nothing to get the painting back.
I’ve read a few of Marina Fiorato’s novels and while her characters don’t always feel genuine to me, I always love the settings, particularly when it is Renaissance Italy. The characters in The Botticelli Secret are likeable, even if they come across as too modern at times, but it is easy to get passed that and just enjoy the book as a bold adventure through Italy. Luciana is a sixteen year old prostitute to who has no filters when it comes to her sexual exploits and she has a rather bawdy manner as a result which is it at odds with her angelic beauty. Luciana is certainly no lady and her profanity can be grating at times but she has a strong personality and even though she has no formal education, she is intelligent and her ability to see the world in different ways helps her decipher the painting’s secrets. Luciana has a mysterious background as she was abandoned as a baby and found in a glass bottle before later being recruited into prostitution. Luciana’s adventures lead her to eventually discovering the truth about her parentage and it turns out she is connected to the painting in more ways than one.
In contrast, Guido is a learned young man devoted to his religious calling and immune to Luciana’s charms much to her chagrin. The pair initially meet when Luciana is peeing in the river and Guido hands her a pamphlet to save her soul, but Luciana’s failure to seduce him sticks in her mind and he is the one she turns to when she needs help. The journey to decode the painting mirrors the journey of self-discovery these characters undergo as Guido also has to come to terms with his own personal history and the effects the secrets have on his faith. Although they are complete opposites, Luciana and Guido work exceptionally well together which inevitably draws them closer.
Fiorato also adds historical figures into the plot, most of whom you will recognise if you are good at history, and they work well with the fictional characters to enrich the plot when our intrepid duo travel through the various Italian cities.
While the secret at the heart of the painting may seem convoluted, Fiorato explains in the afterword that it is in fact based on a real life theory and she does a great job of spinning the secrets out so much so the painting becomes a character in its own right. I’m not going to reveal what the code is or how Luciana and Guido decipher it, mainly because it would take far too long but also due to the fact it would spoil the fun. More than once, I found myself looking at a picture of the painting as Luciana and Guido examined it.
The Botticelli Secret is a fun read with a plot full of adventure and mad twists, but as always it is the exquisite setting that steals the show.