Victoria Blake on how her fascination with a painting inspired her new novel, Titian’s Boatman.
It all began when I fell in love with a man. Rather an unusual event for me because I’ve been with my partner Maureen for eighteen years now. The man in question hangs on the wall of Room 2 in the National Gallery in London and when I first encountered him thirty years ago he was called The Man with the Blue Sleeve. He’s by Titian, one of the great geniuses of renaissance Venice and he was painted in 1510 when Titian was about twenty years old. The portrait has undergone various title changes over the years including A Man with a Quilted Sleeve and Gerolamo Barbarigo (1510) but to me he will always be what he was when I first set eyes on him: The Man with the Blue Sleeve.
Barbarigo was part of the patrician class in Venice, part of the elite when Venice was at the height of its power as a trading nation. I think he’s sexy, sardonic and arrogant. Each time I stand in front of him I see something different: his finely plucked eyebrows, the straightness of his nose, the set of his mouth which might indicate he’s about to smile or more likely sneer at you. He looks like a man who knows a secret that he has no intention of telling you. And every time of course there is the splendid beauty of that gorgeous blue sleeve.
I realised that I always found myself in front of him when I was in a particularly restless frame of mind and imagined him to be laughably unsympathetic to whatever predicament I found myself in. I imagined him saying such things as, “Pull yourself together,” or “Go and get yourself a proper job.”
So the origins of my book lay in my love of this painting by Titian and then Titian led me to sixteenth century Venice and there my research led me to two more fantastic characters – Pietro Aretino and Veronica Franco. Aretino was a great friend and supporter of Titian’s and was known as ‘the scourge of princes’ because of his tendency to blackmail the powerful. He had been at various times a soldier, a pornographer, a poet and a pimp. Scandal followed him wherever he went. He ended up in Venice after fleeing Rome, having got on the wrong side of the pope. However he and Venice were made for each other. He loved the city so much he even named one of his daughter’s Adria after the Adriatic, the sea that Venice floats in.
In Venice he became a sort of journalist, part gossip columnist, part art critic, part political diarist. He produced a vast array of letters which he then published. The letters cover everything you can think of. Some are to kings, cardinals and princes usually begging for money or gifts; he managed to wangle a gold necklace from Francis I of France, albeit one which carried the motto “His tongue speaks falsehoods” and there’s a famous painting of him by Titian wearing it. Other letters are written to thank people for gifts of salad or thrushes, or warning of the dangers of eating mushrooms, or advising his gondolier not to marry. I think reading that letter was the start of my main character, Sebastiano, who is a gondolier for Titian, Aretino and Franco. Aretino was as likely to be rubbing shoulders with ambassadors, cardinals and princes as he was to be hanging out with pimps, tricksters and prostitutes. It’s what makes his letters so much fun, this mixture of low life and high life. Some of his letters are extraordinarily beautiful and sensitive. There are gorgeous descriptions of Venice and a tender description of the death of his friend Giovanni delle Bande Nere. I loved Aretino because he and his letters are a fiction writer’s dream. In them he comes bounding across the centuries to us, bursting with life, generosity and devilry and they contain the kind of colourful details that all historical fiction writers crave. I also read his pornography which of course contains details of another kind! It’s very funny and was useful when it came to descriptions and metaphors for sex scenes.
Finally, there was Veronica Franco, who is the basis for my character Tullia Buffo, a courtesan returning to Venice after the plague of 1576 and trying to rebuild her life and position after having lost everything to thieving servants. Franco was very unusual in that she was literate (only 10-12% of women were) and she was encouraged to write by her patron Domenico Venier, patrician, poet and head of a literary salon. He not only encouraged her writing, he published her and her poems and letters have come down to us. Franco actually came to rather a sad end, dying in a poor part of the city aged 44 but I gave my Tullia a much happier ending. After all that is one of the perks of writing fiction – you get to choose the endings of your characters.
I had no idea when I first stood in front of The Man with the Blue Sleeve all those years ago that he would lead me on such a fascinating journey. I very much hope it’s one that my readers will enjoy as much as I did.
Victoria Blake grew up – like Phillip Pullman’s Lyra – in the grounds of an Oxford College. Daughter of acclaimed historian Lord Robert Blake, famous for his pioneering biography of Benjamin Disraeli, Victoria grew up loving history. She studied the subject at Lady Margaret Hall, then worked in law, publishing and bookselling. She has written the Oxford-based crime series featuring PI Sam Falconer and has written two true crime books for the National Archives. Her novel Far Away was shortlisted for the Historical Society Novel Indie Award 2016. Titian’s Boatman is out now.
- The Man with the Blue Sleeve, circa 1510, Titian
- Veronica Franco, circa 1575, Calieri or Tintoretto