Assemble under the roof of a spacious Florentine villa a 75-year-old gentlewoman of subtle mind and delicate sensibility, the even older nobleman who has been her lover for 25 years, an embittered homosexual dealer in rare books, a pompous scholar, a depressed young music student, a raunchy sculptress. Introduce into this faintly decadent mixture the yeasty ferment of four visitors from the United States. Season with liberal quantities of love, pride, envy, venality, suspicion, ambition and secrecy, and you have the ingredients of a titillating tale.
There are more than a dozen principals in this complex narrative of how relationships in a stagnant, introverted society are shaken up by the arrival of the Americans. Signora Madeleine Benassi is the owner of the villa (locally known as Villa Aphrodite because of the flamboyant behavior of its former owner), which she has converted into a kind of demi-pensione, not because she needs the income but because she wants the companionship. The impoverished nobleman Ricoverini, the Marchese dei Guidoni, is her longtime lover; his ancestral palace is mortgaged to the hilt. The misanthropic book dealer James Molyneux has spent 20 lean years in Italy on the income from a small inheritance. John Battle Davenport is a retired American professor engaged in research for a book he confidently expects to be the definitive work on the artist Raphael.
The first of the Americans to arrive in Florence is Mark Stapleton, a California youth backpacking his way through Europe, who carries a letter of introduction to Molyneux and has also accidentally made the acquaintance of Signora Benassi. Hard on his heels comes a wealthy elderly heiress named Emilene Ladore. She is given to wearing a red wig, is homesick for Texas, is dubious about Italian sanitary standards and is uneasy in the company of her official escort, Dr. Wesley Knuckles, and Wesley's niece Laurie, whose function is to serve as
The reviewer is a New York writer and editor. Emilene's companion. The three have come to Italy so that Wesley can introduce the homespun heiress to the glories of Renaissance art, with the object of persuading her to use her inheritance to establish a center for Renaissance studies.
The plot, as intertwined as a bowlful of spaghetti, centers on such events as James' discovery of a valuable drawing, possibly a Raphael, hidden in a book the marchese has given him to sell, the signora's decision that she and the marchese should finally be married, the disappearance of seven silver teaspoons, the snoopings and spyings and tattlings in an art library, the devious maneuvers Wesley uses to gain endorsement for the foundation he expects to head, James' passionate love for the unspecting Mark, who is himself in pursuit of Laurie. There are numerous subsidiary strands in what is almost too dense a mixture of plot and subplot. In the end, as the signora says, "We all get part of what we want -- which is perhaps all that we deserve."
What the reader deserves from this author is more careful attention to style. Thomas Baird seems not to know that cadence is as essential to literature as proportion is to art. The book is peppered with such clumsy locutions as "He was discreet to a wonder," "James could help himself by helping Ricky, whom he much liked," "One would have taken her for a bureaucrat from one of the People's Republics rather than for an Italian, she was dumpy and dowdy, like that."
This would also have been a better book if the author had refrained from trotting out his expertise at every junction. A professor of art history at Trinity College, he takes for granted that his readers are as knowledgeable, or even as interested, as he is in the technicalities of art and architecture. In the very first paragraph we read about "lettering as fine as that on a Flavian entablature." Or, to take another example, does everyone know what is meant by the Stanzaof Heliodorus, one of the keys to authenticating James' discovery? The author does not bother to explain that it means a room in the Vatican decorated by Raphael.
More meticulous editing would have made a helpful difference in this entertaining fairy-tale comedy of manners, motives and human frailties.