Launch: Jeffrey Hantover’s The Three Deaths of Giovanni Fumiani
INTERVIEW BY SUSAN HIGGINBOTHAM
Jeffrey Hantover’s novel The Jewel Trader of Pegu was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, Borders “Original Voices” selection, and an Independent Book Sellers BookSense pick. He is the author of The Forenoon Bride (Severn House, forthcoming 2023). His poetry and prose have appeared in various literary journals. He talked to Susan Higginbotham about his new novel, The Three Deaths of Giovanni Fumiani.
How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?
A Venetian ceiling painter falls to his death in 1706. Four years later he turns up dead again. An impoverished nobleman asked to unravel the mystery of the artist’s death and disappearance finds himself in the underbelly of the dying Republic and must overcome lies, murder, and the ambition of the powerful to uncover the truth.
Your novel is set in Venice in the early 1700s. What drew you to this time and setting?
I guess you could say it was a typo or lazy editing that was the impetus for the story.
Venice has been one of my favorite cities – I spent my honeymoon there. On one of my early trips, I bought the Blue Guide to the city. The immense illusionistic ceiling painting in the church of San Pantalon fascinated me. It was as if the ceiling opened up to heaven. The paragraph on the church said Giovanni Fumiani fell to his death just as he completed the painting after twenty years. A list of Venetian painters in another part of the book put his death four years later. Likely an editing mistake, but what if Fumiani had died twice?
I knew little about your title character before this interview. Without giving anything away, can you tell us a little more about him? Are the other characters in your novel based on people who actually lived?
Giovanni Fumiani (1645–1710?) was a Venetian painter of moderate success. He was trained in the art of quadratura, illusionist ceiling painting, and he is best known for his immense ceiling painting on canvas in the church of San Pantalon. Other historical characters that appear in the novel are Nicola Cassana, a self-promoting painter of mediocre talent; Zaccaria Sagredo, a patrician aesthete and collector; and Doge Silvestro Valiero and his ambitious wife Elisabetta Querini. Stefano Bigio, the patrician gumshoe, is a creature of my imagination along with his long-time courtesan, his vegetable monger ally, and the other characters he comes into contact with in his search for the truth.
You have written both nonfiction and historical fiction. What brought you to write historical fiction?
I didn’t set out consciously to write historical fiction. I was attracted to characters and stories that just happened to be in the past. My training as a graduate student in historical sociology primed me for that attraction. And to be honest, doing more research in the library postpones the challenge that the blank sheet of paper presents.
I understand that you have worked as an art critic, and I found your novel to be visually vivid. How does your experience in that area inform your writing?
I was an accidental art critic. My wife was appointed the head of Sotheby’s Hong, and everyone thought I must know something about art, though I had never taken an art history course in college. I became the arts editor for the Hong Kong Tatler on my wife’s merit and later was asked by a gallery owner to write the first major English language essay on contemporary Vietnamese painting about which at the time I knew nothing. I was forced to look with fresh eyes unencumbered by theory or inherited language and ideas. I think that experience helped me in developing the character of Bigio who himself had paid little attention to the art of Venice.
Your novel is a historical mystery. Do you find that writing in that genre presents particular challenges?
Whether it’s Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, or Stefano Bigio, all literary detectives must discover and decipher secrets. So I think there are shared challenges in writing contemporary and historical mysteries. My task was a bit more challenging because Bigio wasn’t a professional detective and so he had no template to follow.
Tell us a little about your research process for this novel.
I returned to Venice to retrace the steps Bigio might have taken in his investigation and to see the art that gradually opened his eyes to the life and death of Fumiani. I went to Bologna where Fumiani studied the art of quadratura to see the impressive ceiling paintings in the city, not only in churches and palazzo but the library of the main hospital – a pre-Covid trip. I went to Rome to see other ceiling paintings, foremost among them the breath-taking masterpiece by Andrea Pozzo in the church of Sant’ Ignazio. Back in New York, I had the rich resource of the Frick Art Reference Library where I cast a wide net to understand the life of Baroque painters – their materials, practice, finances, and patronage. Art is never produced in a vacuum, so I researched the political, cultural, and social milieu of late 17th and early 18th century Venice.
You’ve travelled extensively. Do you have a setting in mind for a future novel?
I have another historical novel, The Forenoon Bride, coming out this summer. Inspired by the British ballad, “Lord Bateman,” it’s set in Elizabethan England and the Byzantine empire. Coming out in 2024 is a novella, Sweet Willie Gold Has the Blues. Its setting is probably the most exotic of any of my fiction: Midwest America in the late 1980s.
What authors (not necessarily authors of historical fiction) most inspire or have influenced you?
I had the good fortune of taking a writing class at the Westside YMCA with Allan Gurganus. In the class of young, aspiring writers there were several future novelists, a MacArthur fellow, and an editor of Poets and Writers magazine. Allan was a gentle, humane, and perceptive critic of our work. Whatever good writing I have done, I owe to him. My good friend and poet laurate of Hawaii, Cathy Song, encouraged me to write poetry which helped me to open up hidden memories, look at the world through more lyrical eyes, and pay attention to the power of every word.
What is the last great book you read?
Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These. I have to add with some embarrassment that it was only this past year that I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.