Novel Destinations: Florence

If you've never been to Florence, Italy, and have the chance to go, I highly recommend it. Whether you're there for art or history, or just want to eat and shop, Florence has something for you. Of course, if you're not going to make it there this year, I have some books to ease the pain. To the surprise of no one who follows this blog, they are mysteries, highly evocative of the shadowy corridors of old Florence. All of these books are exhaustively researched, so you may end up learning a thing or two along the way.

Giulio Leoni makes the great Dante Alighieri his protagonist in The Mosaic Crimes. Newly elected Prior (sort of a city alderman), the irascible Dante is arrogant, divisive, and all too often, right. Here he looks into the murder of an architect that leads him to a group of exiled intellectuals, that leads him to another murder and a huge secret. Leoni makes the foreign world of the High Middle Ages accessible while making Dante perfectly of them. Anyone familiar with the Inferno will find this book a particular delight, as it is alluded to on many occasions. Of course if you aren't, you can enjoy the mystery and the red herrings thrown about with abandon along with the hummer of a resolution.

I, Mona Lisa by Jeanne Kalogridis attempts to put a life behind the world's most famous portrait. Lisa is the daughter of a wealthy wool merchant in tumultuous 15th-century Florence. She weds the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent for love, but falls victim to the fanatical priest Savonarola and his followers. Surviving for vengeance, Lisa's fortunes rise again with the Medicis and a portrait worthy of her spirit is painted by Leonardo di Vinci. The mystery lies in the relationship between Lisa's mother and father and her true parentage. This is a fast-paced, steamy romp through the blood-soaked streets of Renaissance Florence.

Taking place around the same time, Alana White's The Sign Of The Weeping Virgin again involves the Medicis. Diplomat Guid'Antonio Vespucci (a real person) and his nephew Amerigo are tasked by Lorenzo di Medici to solve two mysteries: a young woman's disappearance rumored to be the work of the Ottomans, and the source of tears produced by an image of the Blessed Virgin in a local church. White makes great reading out of the labyrinthine politics of the day, which tended to be carried out messily and in public. Mysteries sacred and profane mix freely in this intricately plotted book.

Jumping ahead several centuries, the popular Chris Bohjalian writes of WWII and its aftermath in The Light in the Ruins. The aristocratic Rosatis were reluctant hosts to Nazi officers, and now someone is hunting them down in 1950s Florence. It's up to Serafina, a former partisan, to stop the murderer and make sense of her past. Being the only female detective on the police force isn't easy, and Serafina keeps her former activities quiet among her colleagues. Deeper than some of the other books on this list, this book ponders the fate of peacetime virtues during war. 

The past is not gone in David Hewson's The Flood. Flipping between 1966 and 1986, policeman Pino Fratelli, aided by an American grad student, starts by looking at a case of vandalism that turns into something much bigger and darker. For those who are not art history buffs, 1966 was the year a massive flood damaged or destroyed many precious artworks in Florence. It is also the year Fratelli's wife was raped and murdered (the culprit was never caught), an incident Fratelli blames for his current brain tumor. Secret societies and the full range of Florence's history are deftly woven together in this compelling mystery.

Vivat Firenze! Have favorite books featuring Florence, or mysteries set in Italy? Tell us about them in the comments.

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