Think of synaesthesia: a young boy realises that, for him, tastes or scents trigger other senses and associations. Then set the scene in late 15th-century Florence, a city whose bustling streets are filled with men and women going about their everyday lives, where beauty but also violence and death are commonplace. And lastly, fill the book with extraordinary recipes and the wealth of ingredients, spices and herbs found in Renaissance Italy. This is the story of Nino Latino, nephew of one of the city’s great painters, Fra Filippo Lippi.
After his mother’s early death, Nino learns all that he can from Carenza, the family cook, and his father, a member of the tightly knit butchers’ guild in Florence. Even the market sellers teach him the value of genuine, peasant recipes. But Nino falls foul of powerful political factions in Florence, where social status separates him from his childhood love, Tessina degli Albizzi. Armed with his unique gifts, he works first as cook for Cardinal Gonzaga in Rome, and then as steward for the Spaniard, Rodrigo Borgia, already notorious as a cardinal in the years before he became pope. The wheel of Fortune, lauded and feared in equal measure by authors and poets, sets Nino on a dangerous path that culminates with the Pazzi conspiracy against Lorenzo de’Medici in 1478.
Kazan ably builds the plot to a rousing climax, and the descriptions of food, Florentine politics – as well as its renowned artists – and the world of the cardinals’ households, the papal Curia, and Roman humanism are well researched. Sometimes the use of Italian jars, but it is a useful tool for incorporating colour. This is definitely a book to savour and enjoy.