When Lauren Patterson, an American PhD student, discovers the diary of an assistant to Leonardo da Vinci, we are immediately immersed in the personalities and intrigues surrounding the greatest genius in history. A series of dramas and conflicts–extortion, murder, defamation, betrayal, bitter artistic rivalries–play out against prosaic everyday struggles to extract money from clients, find lost pattern books, deliver on rash boasts fuelled by too much wine and, amidst all of this, create timeless masterpieces.
The enthusiastic diarist is Paolo del Rosso, enamoured of Chiara, Leonardo’s goddaughter and the model in some of his greatest paintings. Their tender relationship is the constant thread of the Renaissance tapestry.
Also weaving through the diaries is the complex saga of the Mona Lisa and the scandalous secret behind her smile.
The chronicle also reveals the existence of Paolo’s charming drawing, inspired by love and created with Leonardo’s assistance.
At the centre of everything, is the maestro himself–animal lover, vegetarian, contrarian and dandy. When not executing the commissions of ungrateful clients, he is constantly juggling finances, friends and rivals while trying to find time for his true love–his scientific enquiries.
Meanwhile, the discovery of the diaries is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Lauren, an opportunity threatened by academic jealousies, unwanted media attention and personal insecurities. However, a partnership develops between the young researcher and an English art dealer as they work to complete the diary and track down Paolo’s drawing–a trail they will follow from Renaissance Florence to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and to a thrilling dénouement when the portrait gives up its remarkable secret and our protagonists embrace their future.
Read more on the background to the Mona Lisa.
I have just republished ‘All Visible Things’ after extensive changes, in particular to the modern story. This follows my belated discovery of the services of Kaytie Lee, a freelance editor. Kaytie’s guidance was invaluable and whatever failings my book retains, they are assuredly not the fault of this excellent professional. I am now contemplating re-editing my previous books, especially ‘Empress’. Time will tell.
I have appended the opening scenes of the new and improved ‘All Visible Things’ below.
ALL VISIBLE THINGS
I have never seen Maestro Leonardo so angry. He announced his return from the home of Signor del Giocondo by slamming the door. He then swept his eyes around our bottega before fixing on Salaì. In a loud and harsh voice, he scolded Salaì for the untidiness of his workspace, then cast him out with a command to stay away until he could swear an oath to mend his ways. Maestro then stormed across to Agostino and berated him for the slovenliness of his vestments, driving him out also, declaring he should return only when newly bathed and attired in fresh clothes. I confess, at this I became extremely anxious, worried that I too would incur Maestro’s wrath for some fault.
Fortunately, his harsh words with Salaì and Agostino had sated my master’s temper, although not his anger.
Still with a rough tongue, he addressed me. “That despicable creature, that pretentious cloth merchant, had the temerity, the insolence, to demand–I tell you, Paolo, the scoundrel actually demanded–that I paint his miserable mouse of a wife, Mona Lisa.”
“No matter, Maestro, we will find another, a more worthy commission, I am certain of it.”
At this, I witnessed a peculiar transformation of my master. His entire person seemed to shrink as he threw himself onto a chair where he lowered his head into his hands.
His voice was muffled when at last he responded in his normal, pleasant voice.
“I regret very much, Paolo, that I had to accept Giocondo’s appalling commission. And you will weep at the miserable fee I was compelled to accept.”
Present Day – Oxfordshire
Lauren Patterson slumped back in her green leather chair and stared, mesmerised, at the extraordinary document in her hand. After what seemed an age, but was in fact no more than two minutes, she lifted her eyes and gazed blankly around the room, her thoughts in a tumult as she contemplated the implications of what she held in her hand. Absently, she admired the way the louvred blinds beside her sculpted the late afternoon sun into a pleasing arrangement of stripes marching resolutely across the gleaming surface of her desk. She tracked the alternating procession of light and shade, finally arriving at the battered box crammed with musty papers. The old container was newly beguiling, its siren whispers promising new secrets.
Dust motes danced lazily in the warm glow, undisturbed by the ornate longcase clock tolling the quarter hour.
The first time Lauren had been shown into this room she had to suppress a giggle. This was, by some margin, the most elegant room she had ever visited, and then, to her delight, she was informed that it had been assigned for her exclusive use. The antique furniture glowed, the Chinese carpet luxuriously cushioned her steps, and the faces in the family portraits arrayed around the walls welcomed her into their private domain.
The clock’s cheerful chimes startled the young woman from her trance. Carefully she put down the diary page, grasped the arms of her chair and pushed herself upright. She leaned across the desk to rifle through the stack of papers in the box. The remaining contents consisted of more of these distinctive sheets–hundreds of them, and all written in what appeared to be the same flowing hand.
She lifted the next document from the pile and examined the paper. It was heavier and had a smoother finish than the coarse sheets she had been working with up until now. At first glance, it appeared to be from the period, as did the hand of the writer. Even through her thin cotton gloves, she could feel the quality of the paper.
Lauren didn’t have to be a Leonardo scholar to recognise that the manuscript on her desk was incredibly important.
She replaced the sheet in its box and eased off her gloves. Deliciously barefoot, she strode across the room to stand at the window beside the tall clock. From this vantage she could see all the way down the aisle of majestic oak trees, patiently cultivated by generations of gardeners to conduct visitors to the house’s main entrance. As she surveyed the now familiar scene, Lauren was acutely aware that this was a pivotal moment, a once in a lifetime opportunity. She had to think, plan, concentrate. She drew strength from her surroundings; the unbroken line of Englishmen who had nurtured this environment had been raised to a quiet but certain confidence. Now, by some mysterious alchemy, the ancient house and its ghosts lent the young woman a measure of their store of serenity and resolution.
She would seize this opportunity with both hands.
She returned to her desk and scanned a few random pages in the pile. She glimpsed dates – 1508, 1519, 1502. The sheets were not in order–at some point they had been jumbled up. It was clearly an extensive chronicle, but when did the entries begin?