Imprimatur, by Monaldi & Sorti

The Innocent tale of plague and papal conspiracy they couldn't suppress

Barry Forshaw
Wednesday 04 June 2008 00:00 BST

Apparently, the Italian authors Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti bristle at comparisons of Imprimatur to the work of Dan Brown. Their novel may involve violent death and papal cover-ups, but the similarity ends there. Monaldi and Sorti's prose (in Peter Burnett's sympathetic translation) is infinitely more subtle than Brown's tin-eared word-spinning. However, the husband-and-wife duo are also unhappy about comparisons to a much more prestigious novel: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. But their objections could be a little disingenuous, since both books are sprawling historical mysteries with a brilliant prelate at the centre and a callow apprentice supplying the Dr Watson-like figure.

What might grab the attention of English-speaking readers is something the authors (and their publishers) claim is an attempt by the Catholic church to suppress this book. The first Italian edition was a success, but the publisher Mondadori decided not to reprint. According to Monaldi and Sorti, there was pressure from the Vatican.

The authors claim to have found documents in the secret archives of the Vatican revealing that William of Orange had received money from Pope Innocent XI in Rome (although the alliance between the Pope and William is not a new discovery). The authors decided to use the idea that a Pope had bankrolled a nemesis of the Church as part of a novel, but the timing was unfortunate. As Imprimatur was published, the Vatican inaugurated canonisation procedures for Innocent. The couple say they were forced to flee Italy – although they now live in Rome. Mondadori (which is owned by PM Silvio Berlusconi) has never offered comment.

Whether or not you choose to believe all the above, or dismiss it as hype, what does Imprimatur have to offer? It's 1683 in Rome, and Atto Melani is a spy from the court of Louis XIV. An inn is cordoned off after a plague outbreak, and among those quarantined is Melani and his young apprentice (the narrator). They uncover a plot to assassinate the Pope, the alliance between William of Orange and the Vatican, and a conspiracy to use the plague as a weapon against Islam.

For the reader who has little interest in ancient papal conspiracies, is Imprimatur worth it? Yes: this is an exuberant and discursive historical novel, crammed with fascinating detail. It is certainly not as accomplished as The Name of the Rose, but most readers will find it more accessible.

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