The Italian Job

March 31, 2010

So, it was wonderful. It was better than wonderful – it was full-on, fabulous, up-to-the-brim great, from day one of the Bologna Book Fair through to the final moment of my subsequent Tuscan mini-vacation. In fact, you can see just how great it all was from this photo of me at the fair . . . .
Oh no! Seems that the wrong picture has somehow been inserted here. This isn’t a shot of me at the fair – it’s the Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna from Florence’s Loggia de Lanzi. Ooops, sorry about that terrible slip of the mouse!

I’m clearly all awry. Because Italy has made me think, as it always does.

I am a lover of small things. The exact word (where no other will do), the correctly placed comma, the minutely timed glance. The perfection of precision underpins any great work of art, and the best writers know it.

But I also love the immense. The stupendous idea, the theme that stretches to infinity, the question to which there are a million answers; the vastness of time and history. And I love stories that carry a whisper of that.

For me, Italy is about both the great and the small. The endless, and yet the angel dancing on the pinhead.

When you stand in the tiny church where Dante first saw his Beatrice, or in the chapel where Boccaccio set part of the Decameron, his masterwork, your feet are set on the dawn of western literature. When your face is two feet away from the still-vibrant colours of a fresco painted on stone in the first half of the fourteenth century, or when you look up at the graceful poise of Donatello’s statue of David, you find yourself breathless before such ancient beauty.

In our time we think we know everything, but the truth is we are in danger of forgetting so much. Italy pulls me back to the heart of things.

The Bologna Book Fair nudges me to remember that behind the daily tasks there lies a huge and international industry. The wonderful friends I meet again in the halls, and the new ones I make at the fair, bring home to me that personal relationships underpin so much of what goes on between agents and editors, between publishers from very different cultures; that the sharing of ideas, the passing of information, the word on the street is as real and dynamic as it has always been. Bologna is so much more than just ‘a bit of jolly’; it’s one of the engine rooms of business, and a microcosm of how trade has always been done, right back to those medieval merchants scurrying down cobbled streets, their dark cloaks swishing behind them.

Art and money; the heavenly and the mercantile; the grand vision and the detail necessary to carry it off. The polarities always exist together, and no place makes me more aware of that than Italy. I see it in the extraordinary engineering of Brunelleschi’s massive dome, constructed more than 600 years ago ( I see it in the brush strokes of Botticelli’s gorgeous ‘Primavera’ ( And I see it in the magnificence of Florence’s San Lorenzo Church, where the bones of Cosimo de Medici, the founder of one of history’s greatest and wealthiest dynasties, lie crumbled beneath inlaid marble.

If we want to make and love art we move between times – the past, present and future. The continuous line is awe-inspiring and humbling, but we all share this sense of beauty and value. And we walk in the footsteps of so many who knew what it means to strive to be great at their craft.

As the great Renaissance painters and architects understood, every detail is crucial in supporting great structures – every plank of wood, every touch of the brush; and every detail of a story. And the greatest art is generally underpinned by the necessity of business.

We may never end up painting the Sistine Chapel or chiselling a flawless Pieta, and we may never be remembered for writing the Divine Comedy. But we can still aspire to greatness in whatever we do. And that goes for agents as well as writers.

I love Italy. It sets me straight.