art · book review · historical fiction · NetGalley · Renaissance Italy · WWII

Book Review – The Night Portrait

Summary

“This is a truly original novel that has earned its place among my favorite works of historical fiction.”–Jennifer Robson, USA Today bestselling author of The Gown

An exciting, dual-timeline historical novel about the creation of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous paintings, Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine, and the woman who fought to save it from Nazi destruction during World War II.

Milan, 1492: When a 16-year old beauty becomes the mistress of the Duke of Milan, she must fight for her place in the palace—and against those who want her out. Soon, she finds herself sitting before Leonardo da Vinci, who wants to ensure his own place in the ducal palace by painting his most ambitious portrait to date.

Munich, World War II: After a modest conservator unwittingly places a priceless Italian Renaissance portrait into the hands of a high-ranking Nazi leader, she risks her life to recover it, working with an American soldier, part of the famed Monuments Men team, to get it back. 

Two women, separated by 500 years, are swept up in the tide of history as one painting stands at the center of their quests for their own destinies.
 

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My Review

Combining two of my favourite topics – WWII and art – I needed no persuasion to read this book. 

It centres on Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine, from the moment he is called upon to paint it in the 15th Century until its many journeys during WWII between Poland and Germany when the portrait was “saved” by the Nazis – read “stolen” – destined for Hitler’s project to have the best art collection in the world. 

Told through four viewpoints, the story spans the centuries connecting the past with the present.  Leonardo and Cecilia (the subject of the portrait and mistress of the Duke of Milan) are the 15th Century perspectives, while the modern day characters are Edith (the art conservator whose role it is – against her will – to list the art on behalf of the Nazi government) and Dominic (one of The Monuments Men tasked with tracking down the stolen art as the war comes to an end).

Their stories weave effortlessly across the timelines, and I particularly enjoyed how she ended a chapter with a certain line, only for the next chapter to start with that line. Though the characters were centuries apart, they shared a vocabulary and a mindset. 

The scenes in Renaissance Italy between Leonardo and Cecilia showed two people, both wanting to make their mark. Leonardo yearned for his ideas on flying and weapon-building to be taken up by the Duke, and agreed to paint the portrait to keep in the Duke’s favour. Cecilia wanted to be more than a nun, after her brothers ruined her chance of marriage in her home village. Once she met the Duke, she had high hopes of being his wife. Needless to say, both Leonardo and Cecilia had unfulfilled dreams, yet their lives were nothing if not extraordinary even after their first encounter. 

Edith objected to being sent to Poland, away from her ailing father who suffered dementia. She objected to the work she was forced to do. It was a moment of clarity that made her realise she had a duty to preserve the art she found, and some day return it to its rightful owners. Dominic, a talented artist himself, wanted at first to have a more proactive role in the war. He felt he had a cushy number, until he too had that moment of clarity and understood that saving the artwork was an important role not just to return it to its owners, but to secure it for future generations.

This is quite a different take on a WWII novel; refreshingly so. It doesn’t gloss over the atrocities at all, but nor are these events at the core of the story. Clearly a lot of research went into this book; its detail is sublime. Fans of historical fiction will be sure to enjoy this book. Highly recommended. 

My thanks go to the publishers – One More Chapter – and Netgalley for the e-copy I received. To the author, Laura Morelli, my congratulations on a great idea, beautifully told. 

As always, 

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