The Wolves of St. Peter’s by Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk

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“It didn’t help that he could hear what sounded like wolves in the distance, yipping and howling that seemed to come from the hills beyond the Trastevere. Could they even be inside the walls? He had never known a wolf to carry anything off other than a sheep, but he was sure the local wolves, like everything here, would be bigger and meaner. He imagined them with ribs protruding under matted coats, blood and saliva dripping from gleaming white fangs as they slunk along in the rain. It was, as Raphael had said, a cursed city.”

Italian history has always fascinated me, Italian Renaissance history even more so. Throw in a few key artistic characters of the time (that would eventually become infamous for their creative genius) and I’m hooked. The Wolves of St. Peter’s was not a book that was on my radar before I read it, but after finishing it I have to say it was a great read with a mystery twist that keeps you hanging on right to the very end.

Francesco Angeli has been outcast from his beloved Florence. A passionate affair with the Duke’s wife had sent him fleeing for his very life, a social pariah, forced to do penance by becoming the servant of the ill-tempered and disgruntled Michelangelo. It is an arrangement forged by his father to provide a living for his son while in Rome but mainly enacted to punish Francesco’s foolishness. While Rome in 1508 offers numerous corporal diversions, including the intellectual company and finesse of a competing artist named Raphael and the subsequent visits to the elegant Imperia brothel, Fransceco still yearns for the comforts and prestige of his home and the woman he unwisely loved. Life becomes even grimmer as the city begins to flood, starving wolves roam the city walls and one morning Francesco witnesses a stunning, blond-haired woman being pulled from the Tiber River, a woman he knows. His search for the truth behind the beauty’s murder will plunge him into the midst of a scheme of treachery and deviousness performed by some of the most colorful characters in Rome.

There is so much richness in this novel, the characters and settings are an endless feast. I have yet to walk the streets of Rome (someday, someday) but I have strolled down the corridors of Venice and it was like being back there again. Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk have an artful skill which draws you back into 16th century Rome, with its hobbled homes and thriving docks. However, while many authors tend to focus on the glorious warmth of Rome, Buonaguro and Kirk reveal Rome in its darkness and most damp grandeur, reflecting the very nature of the story being told. Flooded, dreary and plagued by wild animals, the Rome in The Wolves of St. Peter’s is a city of mystery, one where people scheme and unleash intentions not suitable for the light of day.

Within this setting are characters that are rich and endowed with a wide range of attributes; the arrogance, yet wistful hope, of Calendula, the bat-man Dante’s perceptible insanity, the clever bravery of Susanna, the colorful pomp of the Turk. One of my favorite elements was the depictions of the artists Michelangelo and Raphael, two names that would become synonymous with the beauty of art and architecture in Italy. Only a few names would surpass theirs in artistic recognition. Michelangelo is the intolerable and cantankerous artist chosen to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a job he detests while still being consumed with its perfection. He is paranoid of other artists, specifically Raphael who is everything Michelangelo is not; polished, well-respected and active in the highest echelons of Roman society. They play perfectly against one another, highlighting the contrasting elements the other possesses. I’m always interested in how artists are portrayed, as most of them lived extraordinary lives themselves, and whether these two depictions are completely accurate was never a concern, mainly because they were just so enjoyable to read.

Apart from the book being wonderful all on its own I love to be able to support, and recognize, local authors. Buonaguro, from Toronto, and Kirk, from my hometown of Kingston, take the age-old tale of a man who cannot have the woman he loves and spin it anew with thrilling suspense and a full parade of imaginative characters. They take a place and historical period which is ripe with creative possibilities (in my mind at least) and write a story that is gripping, saturated with remarkable characters in a city that has a life of its own. It makes me wish, and search, for more books like this to feed my literary hunger for Italy, artists and secrecy.

Devon – a1000booklife

Other books by Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk: The Sidewalk Artist (2005) and Ciao Bella (2009)

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