Published: 19 July 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction
The year is 1525. A gifted young artist, Bernardino Luini of the Da Vinci school, is commissioned to paint a religious fresco in the hills of Lombardy. His eye is caught by the beautiful Simonetta di Saronno, recently widowed by the Italian Wars.
Captivated by her beauty and her sadness Bernardino paints her likeness, immortalizing her as the Madonna in his famous work which can still be seen in the Sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazia in Saronno.
As the sittings progress artist and model fall in love, and Simonetta reciprocates Luini’s genius by creating a work of art of her own. She makes a drink for her lover from the juice of almonds – still enjoyed to this day as Amaretto di Saronno.
But as the fresco and the liqueur near their completion the couple’s affair distils into a heady brew of religious scandal which threatens their love; and ultimately their lives.
The Madonna of the Almonds tells the story of seventeen year-old Simonetta di Saronno, who loses her husband in battle and is left destitute due to his mismanagement of their estate. Devastated by grief and friendless, Simonetta must fight to save her home by forming an unlikely alliance with a Jewish business man known as Manodorata and by posing for the famous artist, Bernardino Luini.
When Bernardino arrives in Saronno, he is immediately captivated by Simonetta and realises she is the woman he has been destined to paint all his life, but his reputation as a womaniser precedes him. Simonetta is scandalised by Bernardino’s irreverent attitude to religion but as she poses for him, she begins to discern the real man behind his carefully constructed facade and she softens towards him. Before long, the couple are fighting their mutual attraction but an innocent kiss is misinterpreted and Bernardino is forced to flee.
Heartbroken, Simonetta focuses her full attention on saving her home and pours her love for Bernardino in her experiments with almond flavoured liqueur, eventually creating the famous Amaretto di Saronno. The bittersweet liqueur becomes sensationally popular, ensuring Simonetta’s future and that of Saronno, but Simonetta’s happiness is soon marred by the escalation in violence towards the Jews which has tragic consequences for her close friend, Manodorata, and his family.
I have to admit when I first started reading The Madonna of the Almonds, I found it incredibly slow and was tempted to give up on it more than once, however something always drew me back into the story despite myself. By the end, I was so enchanted by the setting and the characters, I didn’t want to leave them behind.
The inspiration for this novel comes from the real legend behind the creation of the famous Amaretto Disaronno liqueur which was invented by a widow who fell in love with Bernardino Luini when he arrived in Saronno to paint the frescoes in the sanctuary of Santa Maria dei Miracoli. Not much is known of Bernardino’s life so Fiorato has plenty of scope in creating his character for the novel but she blends his real story with the fictional elements beautifully.
I loved Bernardino from the outset as he is very irreverent and basically cares little about how he is perceived. When Bernardino falls in love with Simonetta, he reveals more about his painful past, and in particular his tormented relationship with his mother which has contributed to how he perceives women. By the time he meets Simonetta, Bernardino is in his forties and has a reputation as a player which often gets him into trouble, but Bernardino’s love for Simonetta sets him on a personal journey that will alter his view of the world forever.
There is a lot going on in this novel but it all flows together remarkably well, although there are passages that are bogged down with too much detail which slow the pace. For me, the story finally came alive after Simonetta and Bernardino have been forced apart and they undergo their own personal journeys. The descriptions of the frescoes Bernardino continues to create and the stories behind the saints he depicts, are beautiful and harrowing all at the same time.
The most upsetting events of the novel surround the persecution of the Jews and in particular the tragedy wrought on Manodorata and his family. Simonetta has defied convention by becoming close friends with Jews, many of whom are directly involved in her liqueur business, but it comes at a heavy price. The passages highlighting the cruelty of the Christians make for harrowing reading and are a tough read.
The twist in the tale comes from a second love story between a wounded young soldier who is rescued by the beautiful Amaria and her grandmother. The young man has no memory of who he is or his past life, so he is content to stay with Amaria who he eventually marries. Amaria and Selvaggio’s love story is interwoven with that of Simonetta and Bernardino, but it isn’t too hard to guess why.