Hellenga, Robert. The Sixteen Pleasures.

NY: Soho Press, 1994.

In November 1966, the Arno River, which flows around Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, overran its banks with a vengeance and the city was flooded to a depth of twenty feet and more. The force of the inundation destroyed completely many ancient works of art — especially frescoes, which couldn’t be moved — and seriously damaged thousands more, from wood carvings in churches to oil paintings in museums to incunabula in cloistered libraries. I was in library school at the time and my professor in “History of Books and Printing” was one of the hundreds of foreign art and book restorers and conservators who descended on Florence as the flood receded, determined to save as much as they could of what remained.

None of the horrific damage really came as a surprise to the locals: Engineers had been warning the Florentines and the Italian government of the terrible possibility for several centuries. Hellenga focuses on the story of Margot Harrington, another of the “mud angels,” ordinarily a conservator at the Newberry in Chicago. She’s twenty-nine, single, and dissatisfied with her life (we learn all the reasons why) and she wants to get in on the drama and excitement of the international rescue effort. She had lived in Florence as a schoolgirl with her (now deceased) art historian mother for awhile, actually, and speaks fluent Italian. Professionally, though, she’s very small potatoes and she seems destined to remain on the sidelines of the rescue — until Dr. Postiglione, the head provincial art restorer, finds her a spot reclaiming the library of a small convent where his cousin is the abbess.

And then a startling book surfaces in the library — a 16th century collection of erotic engravings accompanied by crudely sensuous sonnets, both by noted artists — which the Church of the time was supposed to have suppressed. Only they obviously missed a copy, which was subsequently bound in with a missal (as protective coloration, one assumes) and is now almost certainly unique, and very, very valuable. And Margot gets to restore it. Secretly, because the bishop would demand possession if he heard of the volume’s existence. The book brings her together with Il Dottore, with whom she falls in love, and who develops strong feelings for her as well — but he has preexisting entanglements which make him untrustworthy. He’s a sympathetic character, though.

Hellenga seems to do his best work with extended thematic sequences which sometimes have little to do with the main story. The first of these concerns Margot’s journey by train across France and into Italy, where a couple of other American women assume from hearing her speak Italian with the conductor that she doesn’t understand English — and so she finds herself overhearing a number of things she obviously isn’t meant to know. Another sub-story tells of Margot’s attendance at the death in the convent infirmary of an elderly nun who isn’t interested in having the priest give her last rites. And there’s the story of her mother, during a long, slow death from cancer, attempting to leave a lengthy tape of thoughts and messages for her family. Perhaps the most hypnotic, though, is her description of the cleaning, repair, and rebinding of the book of engravings. At least, it’s fascinating to anyone who knows about the history of books. I’ve done a little binding work myself over the years, though on a far more basic level than Margot, and I could see clearly in my mind just what it is she’s doing. It’s apparent that the author either consulted with an expert (he doesn’t credit one) or is an experienced restorer himself. Finally, there’s the sale of the book at Sotheby’s (under rather murky legal circumstances, arranged without hesitation by Margot), following an electrifying round of bidding. During which she nearly blows the deal. Margot is very knowledgeable about some things and somewhat naïve about certain others and it’s fascinating to watch her gradually evolve, under stress, from a stumbler to a sure-footed young woman. Incidentally, while female authors often create very convincing male lead characters, it’s unusual, in my experience (and for some unknown reason), for male authors to do good female leads. But the author is masterly in developing all his characters and in putting the reader in the milieu of Florence nearly half a century ago. (Wow – fifty years. A startling thought in itself.)

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Published in: on 7 April 2011 at 4:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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