by Kate Bristow
Genre: Historical Fiction
Print Length: 258 pages
Reviewed by Maxwell Gillmer
A striking look at the power of family and community in the face of crisis
It is not difficult to fall headfirst into Kate Bristow’s Saving Madonna, a fictionalization of the historical feats by Pasquale Rotondi: an Italian art historian known for hiding almost ten thousand works of Italian art during World War II. Saving Madonna is not merely a depiction of Rotondi’s life but of multiple families in 1943’s Northern Italy, displaying their sheer will to survive in the face of fascism and the threat to Italian heritage.
Elena Marchetti, a student of art history, has just returned home to Urbino from Milan on account of the Allies’ bombing of her city. In Urbino, Elena reconnects with her family and her oldest childhood friend, Luca Rossi, of a neighboring farm. But things are different now: Elena and Luca are no longer children; Elena’s brother and Luca’s brother have both escaped to join the Italian resistance group; and their town of Urbino has been cast in the looming shadow of the Nazi soldiers occupying the land and the threat of conscription by Mussolini’s army.
Charged with the drive to become an art curator, Elena beseeches Pasquale Rotondi, the superintendent of The National Gallery of the Marche in Urbino, to assist him in his rumored initiative to transport and protect thousands of the nation’s works of art from Allied bombing and Nazi pillaging. Elena unites the people of her community, anguishing through the tribulations of war, occupation, and fascism, with a unified goal to save the culture of her people.
Saving Madonna is an inspiring chronicle of redemption that stretches beyond the bounds of a single story of history. Simultaneously painful and inspiring, it’s a love story, a tragedy, a coming-of-age story, a tale of heroes that tugs at your heart and grips your hand; it’s a journey of cultural liberation.
Bristow’s picturesque prose of the Italian countryside is cinematic. She places the reader within the pastoral landscape with such a force the reader cannot help but share in the love the characters hold for their country.
Distinguished from other historical stories of saving Italian art (in which those who stored or retrieved hidden art were people from other countries such as the United States and the UK), Saving Madonna underscores the roles the Italian people played in shepherding the protection of their own culture and community. To those of Urbino, the fight for art is personal. But it does not stop there—the people of Urbino are fighting for their lives; they are fighting for their homes.
“I want to fight for something,” Alessandro says to Luca as he is about to go off and join the resistance. “Otherwise we’ll lose whatever honor we still possess, and Italy will never recover from this horrific mess we’ve been dragged into.” There is no single answer to what work must be done. Liberation comes on all fronts.
The love Elena and Luca share for each other and their country is palpable, and Bristow’s ability to let that love shine through their commitment to their art is quite remarkable. The reader can feel the passion seep through the text—“If those beautiful paintings and sculptures and tapestries—all that representation of life—are gone, we’ll have lost part of our humanity, for God’s sake. I saw what can happen in Milan. I don’t want this war to destroy what makes Italy so strong.”Regardless of where or how they fight, they are all fighting for the common goal of saving their country.
While Saving Madonna exemplifies the humanity of struggle throughout almost the entirety of the novel, at times the emotional weight the characters feel when in the presence of the art falls a bit flat. The descriptions of the paintings are not given as much influence over the text as, say, the farms or the animals or the people in the café or the touch of hands in a barn at night. However, this irregularity in the intensity of how one may expect art to be depicted in a novel about art is not wholly diminutive of the text. Rather, it shines a light on the fact that, while about the process of saving art, Saving Madonna is not limited to the characters’ commitment to simply the paint on canvas—it is the people who overcome, who survive through years of terror and decades of remembrance that make this novel so beautiful.
Elena, Luca, their brothers, their parents, and the townspeople of Urbino all are as revolutionary as the real Pasquale Rotondi. Saving Madonna is a story of Italian heroism in which everyone plays a part. After all, as Elena says, “helping to save the art is going to help save a part of Italy’s soul.”
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