It’s 1566, Italy. Francesco Bassano, 17, is in Venice for the first time to get pigments for the paintings he and his father, Jacopo, make in the studio back home in the northern Veneto town of Bassano. During his visit Francesco has meetings with the painter, Titian, and the art historian, Giorgio Vasari. These meetings start him questioning.

What’s true genius? he asks, inspired by Titian’s creativity. How can I have a career that’ll bring me fame? he queries Giorgio Vasari. More urgently, as he heads back home he decides he must demand that his father answers: When will I be free of your control, able to work as an artist on my own?

These questions swirl in Francesco’s mind as he rises to the challenge thrown down during the conversation he had with Vasari. He believes they’ve struck a bargain: he will seek out an intriguing or entertaining story associated with one of his father’s paintings and in return, Vasari will write a favourable entry about Jacopo’s artistic prowess in his new book due out soon. Francesco’s gamble is that, by providing this, he stands to gain recognition in the future for his own work too.

Discovering preparatory sketches for a very unusual portrait, Francesco thinks he may have found the material for the needed anecdote. The work brilliantly depicts two hunting dogs but is an extraordinary composition since a portrait of dogs alone in a frame (without an owner, his child, a courtesan, or as part of a religious scene) is something totally unheard of at this time.

Excited, he asks Jacopo to give him the background to the sketches/painting but is refused. Also rejected is Francesco’s request for independence. He’s spurred to rebel against his father when his mother, Elisabetta, slips him information to help him learn more about the dogs’ painting.

Returning to Venice, Francesco embarks on his quest to piece together the painting’s story. It takes him across the Veneto and to Florence. The journey becomes one of self-discovery for him, as well as for those he encounters. From each character he learns more of the painting’s history: about the role played by the dogs portrayed in it, and the pain and conflict still reverberating from the dramatic events of the past. He learns also about his father as an artist and a man and is obliged to reassess their relationship and forge new ideas about his own future.

New questions flood in as he travels and learns: Where does inspiration come from? How much courage does it take to break taboos, be an innovator? What will you have to sacrifice if you’re to see your vision become a reality?

Narrated sequentially in first person present tense, Francesco’s voice opens the novel, the story subsequently being taken up by the painting’s patron, Antonio Zantani, by Francesco’s uncle and by Zantani’s niece. Four more characters speak before the story reverts to Francesco’s voice for its climax.

The Fortieth Part is set against a Venetian High Renaissance backdrop where shimmering beauty and opulence exist side by side with appalling squalor. It draws on the known facts about Jacopo Bassano, his circle and his ground-breaking portrait. Crafting a daring fiction celebrating the realities of being an artist during a period in history when creativity, competition and covetousness were reaching fever point, it demonstrates that true originality will always exact its price.

The 1548 painting, Two Hunting Dogs Tied to a Stump, hangs today in The Louvre’s Gallery VI, immediately to the right of the Mona Lisa.

 

Photo: Francesco, age 37, a portrait by his friend Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto.
Undertaking commissions together for painted ceilings in the Doge's Palace, Tintoretto's powerful style is said to have influenced Francesco's work

Praise for The Fortieth Part

'A wonderful story, a wonderful panorama of Venice, marvellously imagined'

Celia Brayfield

Celia Brayfield is a novelist, journalist and cultural commentator. Her most recent novel is Wild Weekend (Little, Brown/Time Warner Books) a comedy that transposes the 18th century play She Stoops to Conquer to a Suffolk village in heyday of New Labour. Previous novels include: two social comedies set in an affluent suburb of West London, Getting Home and Mr Fabulous and Friends; two darker works exploring the experience of English expatriates in France and Spain, Harvest and Sunset; and Heartswap, in which she reworked the theme of infidelity in the opera Cosi Fan Tutte as a romantic comedy set in millennial London. Her first three novels, Pearls, The Prince and White Ice, were international genre bestsellers.

'Sensitivity and real originality... Ambitious, sprawling in scope and taking in a rich blend of history, culture and language: sixteenth century Venice is beautifully captured'

Gavin James Bower

Writer and editor Gavin James Bower’s first novel, Dazed & Aroused, was published by Naim Attallah's Quartet Books in July 2009. Describing the collapse of one man’s dream of the glamorous world of modeling, critics praised it as ‘a stunning debut novel.’ His second novel, Made in Britain (‘a visceral look at modern society that will haunt the reader’, ‘gritty and close to the bone’) was published in September 2011. The Soldier with No Name, his biography of influential 20th century avant-garde artist/photographer/writer Claude Cahun was published in 2013 by Zero Books.