HOW IT BEGAN
That day in Aix en Provence, finding the kiosk sold out of The Guardian and buying Le Figaro instead, the last thought in my head was that I’d set myself on a new path. But my eye was caught by the front page photo: a painting of two dogs looking out from a bright blue background. Two handsome curs – what was this about? Publicity for an exhibition of High Renaissance Venetian art at the Louvre, it turned out, in which Jacopo Bassano’s 1548 Two Hunting Dogs portrait was featured alongside works by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto.
I love dogs and was struck by how soulful this couple were. I went to Paris, I saw the painting where it hangs in Gallery VI, immediately to the right of the Mona Lisa. Not once, but many times, captured, tussling with the mystery surrounding it, the paradox of its creation. At a time when placing a portrait of dogs alone in a frame was unheard of, why did an artist choose to break the taboo? If determined nonetheless to depict dogs, why pick bedraggled and gaunt ones? I knew that such dogs, hunters, were prized beyond their owner’s wife’s rubies.
Years later, on my desk next to the yellowing cutting from the Figaro which now tops a whopping pile of research files, notes from art history courses and assorted ’Learn Italian’ textbooks, there is a completed manuscript. The Eyes that Look is fiction – but fact-based, honouring what I found delving into Jacopo Bassano, his family and his intellectual and artistic life in the Venice and Veneto of the mid 1500s. It was a joy to take this one small aspect of the High Renaissance’s teeming creativity, allow my imagination free rein and, via a coming-of-age story, explore the conundrum of the Two Hunting Dogs.
It’s fascinating to speculate what provokes artists to innovate. The Eyes that Look seeks answers. First though, it asks: Yes, we may have eyes that look – but how clearly do we see?
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
It’s 1566, Italy. Francesco Bassano, 17, is in Venice for the first time, getting pigments for the paintings he and his father, Jacopo, make in the studio back home in the northern Veneto town of Bassano. Francesco meets the painter, Titian, and the art historian, Giorgio Vasari and his encounters start him questioning.
What’s true genius? he asks, inspired by Titian’s creativity. How can I have a career that will ensure me fame? he queries 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 swirling in his mind, Francesco rises to the challenge thrown down during his conversation 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 through this, his own work will also gain recognition.
Discovering sketches in the attic, Francesco thinks these may be material for the anecdote for Vasari. The sketches brilliantly depict two hunting dogs – but are extraordinary, since at that time to make a portrait of dogs alone in a frame (without an owner, his child, a courtesan, or as part of a religious scene) went against all portraiture conventions.
Francesco asks Jacopo for the background. Was a painting made from the sketches? His father refuses to provide any details, also rejecting his request for independence. When Francesco’s mother, Elisabetta, slips him information to help him trace the painting’s patron, he takes off to solve the mystery for himself.
His quest takes him across the Veneto and to Florence, the journey becoming one of self-discovery for him, and for those he encounters. Witness to some of the era’s astounding art and architecture in the very act of its creation, Francesco is enthralled. He is also exposed to human frailty and inhumanity and, while thinking anew about love, truth and beauty, experiences bitter betrayal.
Little by little, he learns the painting’s story: about the heroic role played by the loyal dogs portrayed in it, the affection and admiration they aroused, and the pain and conflict that still reverberates from the dramatic events of the past. He learns about his father as an artist and a man and, obliged to reassess their relationship, forges new ideas about his own future.
Multi-sensual in its storytelling, The Eyes that Look is set against a Venetian High Renaissance backdrop where shimmering beauty and opulence exist side by side with appalling squalor. As entertaining as it is informative, the novel invites readers to come revel in unrivalled artistic richness. A spirited, daring fiction, its ultimate message is that true originality will always exact its price.