I recently finished two nonfiction books on terrible historic events—one natural, the other unnatural—in Florence, Italy’s recent past; well, recent when compared to the age of the city itself.
Dark Water, by Robert Clark, recounts the devastating flood that struck the city in the fall of 1966, specifically the damage wreaked on the renaissance art that is synonymous with Florence, and her citizens’ efforts to restore it.
In his story, Clark parallels the history of 13th Century Italian artist Cimabue’s Crocifissue with that of the Arno. The Crocifissue is considered to be the seminal transitional work that links the art of the Medieval Age and the beginnings of the Renaissance. As Florence’s main tributary, flowing through the center of the city, the Arno is her lifeblood. Clark takes the reader from the early days of Cimabue’s career to the day of the flood, highlighting the Crocifissue’s periods of distinction and celebrity, and her lows of disfavor and disinterest by the art world. So too has Arno had its share of highs and lows, flooding the city every few decades. Clark does a nice job of integrating Florentine’s reactions to their waterway’s occasional distemper and their efforts—mostly a lot of talk—to prevent her banks cresting again in the future, including Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest proposal, which is returned to every time the Arno floods. Clark looks in on other works along the way as well, including Vasari’s Last Supper.
Throughout this preliminary history leading up to the flood, Clark keeps from crossing the line into art-history pedantry by sprinkling in entertaining but pertinent anecdotes. When the flood does hit, the pace kicks up to The Da Vinci Code levels. At times I was breathless as Clark followed the personal stories of Florentines and transplanted outsiders during the cataclysmic event, like the tragic tale of the wheelchair-bound elderly woman who was trapped in her apartment. The most emergency crews could do was hoist her as high as possible with a makeshift rope winch dropped through the security grill of a window and hope the waters crested before they reached her. Or the story of the priests who rowed into the church in which the Crocifissue was displayed in order to save it, scooping up bits of floating gold paint that had flaked off which they hoped could be used in the crucifix’s restoration.
When news of the flood’s devastation was reported the next day, restorers, artisans and students from around the world descended upon the city to help in the recovery of Florence’s art and antiquities, including several tons of priceless books and documents. As more and more attention is drawn to the plight of the Crocifissue and other irreplaceable works, and as city officials and overseers of the recovery process take advantage of the increased global attention to further their own careers, Clark’s examination gives equal due to the human cost of the tragedy. Who restores their lives? Clark wisely leaves the reader to make his or her own conclusions.
If there is one glaring fault of Dark Water, it is the lack of photographs—barely a half dozen—to accompany the text. Yes, the reader is treated to a shot of the Crocifissue before the flood, but not after. And the few photos of certain events after the catastrophe are interesting. But they only serve to accentuate the reader’s hunger for more.
Still, Dark Water is a great read and receives four out of five spiders.
As for The Monster of Florence…
What would you do if, after moving to your dream home on a hilltop of the beautiful Tuscan countryside, you discover that a brutal murder took place just outside the door of your home a few decades before?
So that’s why the house was so cheap, might be a reaction once the initial shock subsided, but more than a few would seriously consider moving. But if you’re a writer whose move to Florence was in order to research and write a murder mystery concerning Renaissance art, you might simply shift gears and write about real slayings instead. That’s what author Douglas Preston did. In The Monster of Florence—which Preston wrote with journalist Mario Spezi—Preston recounts the serial killings that shook Florence from 1968 to 1985 and the investigation that continues to this day.
Spezi is actually the one who reveals the horrifying secret of the house to Preston, during an interview Preston undertook as part of the research for his planned mystery. As one of Florence’s most distinguished newspaper reporters, Spezi followed the slayings closely. His knowledge of the inner workings of the criminal and court systems; his deep network of contacts therein; his deductive analysis and flair for dramatic writing increase his notoriety as well as his paper’s circulation.
The killings are brutal; the victims’ lives taken while in the act of lovemaking. Evidence of both a gun and knife—believed to be the sort used by scuba divers to gut fish—are found at each scene, and the female victims are never left whole. Still, a mere hundred pages into the book, the murders are done . . . and the real story begins to unfold. Nary had I a chance to question the direction the book would take when I was hurtled into the unbelievable world of the investigation.
It is said that the difference between fiction and nonfiction is that fiction has to make sense. The Monster of Florence could be the poster child for this adage. My flurry of page-turning was only given respite when events in Preston’s story forced me to take a moment to shake my head in disbelief and remind myself that I was reading a true story. Then I plunged back in, each time under the delusion that things could not possible get any stranger . . . and then they would!
The Monster of Florence isn’t so much about a serial killer as it is about the Italian judicial system, a system wrought with conspiracy theorists and run under the firm belief that the answer to a crime must equal the temerity of the crime itself. The evidence be damned; logical deductions that do not measure up to the wickedness and horror of the crime cannot be viable, regardless of how solid the findings. And woe be to those who deign question the investigation.
Unlike Dark Water, The Monster of Florence contains eight pages of black-and-white photos. But DO NOT look at them until you have finished the book. Key plot points are revealed in the captions that accompany the photos. Rip the inset out and give them to a friend, if you must.
The Monster of Florence receives four and a half out of five spiders.