Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Wandering the halls of the Rocca: the birth of a novel – #HistoricalFiction #WWII #ArtPreservation

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By Kate Bristow (Guest Blogger)

My late husband and I had always loved Italy. When we were living and working in London in the 1980s, before we got married, we used to visit Italy on vacation. It became a running joke between us that we would one day buy a house there. Instead, we moved to Singapore and spent over a decade in Asia, getting married and having our two daughters while living there. In 2000, returning to Italy with friends and family for a summer vacation, we impetuously bought a five hundred year old farmhouse that needed extensive renovation.

During the arduous three years it took to render the house habitable, we would travel back and forth to Italy from Singapore to oversee the renovations. On one particularly cold day in winter, we stumbled into the Rocca, an ancient fortress in the nearby town of Sassocorvaro. There were many facsimiles of famous paintings mounted on the walls with Italian descriptions. My Italian was rudimentary at that point and we could not understand what they were doing there. We subsequently learned that, during World War 2, the local superintendent of the arts, Pasquale Rotondi, had managed to save ten thousand priceless works of art from the occupying German army by hiding them and then transporting them secretly to the Vatican. Several of these pieces had been hidden behind fake walls in the Rocca. I thought this was a fascinating story, and longed to write a book about it. A couple of years ago, after the death of my husband and the forced isolation of the pandemic, I decided to finally write the novel.

Research was tough because many of the sources were written in Italian. Even now, my Italian is not great so I spent weeks arduously translating all the articles and papers I could find on the events. My best discovery was the diary of Pasquale Rotondi himself. He wrote journal entries almost every day during this time period. An Italian historian Anna Melograni had published an academic paper containing all the entries, and this was an incredibly useful source.

I also sought out books and articles that have been written about the war in Italy, the partisan movement and the daily horrors faced by the Italian people especially after the occupation by Germany in late 1943. Robert Edsel wrote a bestselling nonfiction book called ‘Monuments Men’ about the race to save art after the war, as well as the follow up ‘Saving Italy’ which has a chapter on Pasquale Rotondi and his fellow curators and art historians. But the best research for me was wandering the halls of the Rocca in Sassocorvaro and the Ducal Palace in Urbino, speaking to local Italians with knowledge of the events and immersing myself in stories of day-to-day life for Italians in the countryside during that terrible period. I wanted to make sure that my book ‘Saving Madonna’ is as much about the lengths that ordinary people will go to achieve extraordinary things as it is about faithfully chronicling the real life events that happened. I hope you enjoy it!


Is a painting worth dying for?

Inspired by real events, an unforgettable story of love, courage and sacrifice to save a country’s heritage.

Italy 1943. As the Allies bomb Milan, Elena Marchetti reluctantly gives up her coveted job as an art curator in the city to return to her family farm near Urbino. She takes up a new role assisting Pasquale Rotondi, the Superintendent of Arts in the region, in protecting works of art from all over Italy that have been hidden in the relative safety of the countryside.

At a family celebration, Elena reunites with Luca, a close childhood friend. A shattering event instigated by the occupying Germans deepens their relationship, and they start planning a life together. When rumors surface that Italy’s art is being stolen by the German occupiers, Pasquale hatches an audacious plan to rescue the priceless paintings in his possession. Elena and Luca are forced to make an impossible decision: will they embark on a dangerous mission to save Italy’s cultural heritage?

Saving Madonna book cover


Luca was getting frustrated. Two weeks had passed since he had stood up for Elena during the argument about the truck, and he was no closer to procuring her any sort of transport. He had visited all the neighboring farms, except for the one owned by Signor Bruni, to find out if there was any chance of borrowing a vehicle. He had not been surprised to learn that nobody wanted to give up their precious trucks or cars. Even those who had been without fuel for months still clung to the hope that somehow they might be able to find some. It did not help that very few thought that helping the superintendent was a priority given the more immediate issues they were dealing with.

I have six children to feed, two cows that are ailing, a fence that needs mending, and more besides,” complained Signor Conti when Luca had stopped to talk to him that afternoon after coming upon the farmer struggling with barbed wire on the edge of one of his fields. “I can tell you now, moving some paintings around is not at the top of my list. I can’t imagine you’ll find many takers in these parts, son.” Signor Conti looked at him kindly. “I am not saying I want the Germans to take them either. Don’t get me wrong.” He let off a stream of expletives, as if to emphasize how much he despised the occupiers. “I just think we have to focus on what we can control rather than the things we can’t.”

About the Author

Kate Bristow head shot

Kate Bristow was born in London. She fell in love with reading when she got her first library card at the age of four. Her first attempt at writing and publishing for a wide audience was a local newspaper typed laboriously at home on her mother’s typewriter while at primary (elementary) school in north London. It is surely a loss to cutting-edge journalism that only one issue was ever produced. Kate divides her time between her small-but-perfectly-formed modern home in Los Angeles and her five-hundred-year-old farmhouse just outside Sassocorvaro in Italy.

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Kate Bristow will be awarding a $25 Amazon/BN GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.


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Goddess Fish Promotions said...

Thank you so much for hosting!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Welcome to Beyond Romance, Kate. This book sounds like a labor of love.

Lisabet Sarai said...

By the way, the cover's fantastic!

Katebristow said...

Thank you so much for hosting me today! I really enjoyed writing this post!

Katebristow said...

And glad you like the cover!

Marcy Meyer said...

The cover looks great.

Sherry said...

I enjoyed the blurb. Sounds like a good story.

Elaine G said...

Enjoyed reading the excerpt. Sounds like an interesting book

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