The Bellini Madonna By Elizabeth Lowry <p>The Bellini Card, By Jason Goodwin

Two novels, two very different brushes with an artistic MacGuffin

Reviewed,Jane Jakeman
Tuesday 09 September 2008 00:00 BST

Alfred Hitchcock, in conversation with François Truffaut, invented a term for a device around which an entire plot revolves: "the MacGuffin". A valuable painting by a great artist makes an excellent MacGuffin for a novel. Have that picture lost or stolen, and you've got a chase for several million quid's worth of loot, and an attractive bit of culture.

Michael Frayn went for a lost Bruegel; Iain Pears for a stolen Titian. Now we can add two Bellinis, by different members of that brilliant 15th-century Italian family, and in two different novels, to our gallery of painted MacGuffins. Elizabeth Lowry's plot corkscrews around a lost Madonna by Giovanni Bellini. The Renaissance painter's work is adored and beautifully understood by an otherwise cynical art historian, Thomas Lynch, in disgrace after some unfortunate sexual encounters breaching the latest academic guidelines. He finds a reference to an uncatalogued painting depicting the Madonna in old age. Following a slender thread, he finds his way to Mawle, a decaying mansion inhabited by an eccentric family with Italian connections, and becomes impassioned not only with the search but with the wild and lovely daughter of the house.

A complex narrative twists and turns back in time to Baedeker's Italy, and Robert Browning's aphrodisiac asparagus. This is a first novel and Lowry has thrown a very considerable talent into it, creating a splendidly quirky art historian.

And so to Jason Goodwin's The Bellini Card. His two previous outings for his investigator, the eunuch Yashim, have been set in 19th-century Istanbul. In that city, over three centuries earlier, Gentile Bellini had arrived to paint the Sultan, introducing portraiture to the Ottoman court and taking representations of the fabled ruler to the West. A lost painting of Mehmet II is now the object of Yashim's quest, in a society where depiction of the human form is regarded by some as unacceptable.

The search is set mainly in a Venice suffering under the Austrian yoke. There is much interest in the description of La Serenissima from an unaccustomed Ottoman viewpoint. Goodwin's fans will also expect luscious descriptions of food, and won't be disappointed. Lowry places greater emphasis on the beauty of the art. For Yashim, trying to please a new Sultan, the quest is more Hitchcockian in its perils, than artistic. Both books are, however, thoroughly enjoyable pursuits of the art lover's MacGuffin.

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