The Velvet Underground of Italian Renaissance painting

THE ‘GIORGIONE’ in the title of Tracking Giorgione (Brandon ), the ambitious novel by Hungarian born writer Thomas Kabdebo, is the familiar name of Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco, an Italian Renaissance painter and contemporary of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Giorgione is known for the poetic quality of his work, though only six surviving paintings are known for certain to be his. This has made him an enigmatic figure in European art history.

To say it another way: posterity has given Giorgione the bum’s rush, in that while Leonardo’s name comes easily even to those with only the most basic interest in things artistic, Giorgione’s reputation exists mostly in the rarefied rooms where art historians talk to each other.

Giorgione was the Velvet Underground of Italian Renaissance painting – no-one bought the album, but his influence has been big – whereas Leonardo was The Beatles.

Almost as interesting as the story of Giorgione is that of the novel’s author. Thomas Kabdebo was born in Budapest but had to leave his native Hungary in 1956 after participating as a student in the uprising against the Soviet-sponsored dictatorship then ruling that country.

It would be another 33 years before the Hungarian people would be free from the yoke of neo-Stalinism. During that time Kabdebo made his life in Britain, where he lived from 1957 to 1982. He now lives in County Dublin.

Tracking Giorgione is a book in which the writing appears effortless, which always means that a great deal of work has been invested in it. The most difficult thing in the world for a writer, especially when dealing with a ‘high’ subject such as this, with its huge potential to inspire self-important writing, is not to appear like you’re trying too hard.

The story is narrated by Giorgio Barbatella, a British art historian of Italian extraction. Giorgio becomes obsessed with finding the lost paintings of his near-namesake and involves in his research his students at the University of London, his friends, and his family, including his Czech wife Helena and daughter Eve.

He takes us with him on a journey through Switzerland, London, the Czech Republic, Italy, Greece, and finally to Dublin. As the story unfolds it becomes obvious that it is less about a long lost Renaissance artist than it is about Giorgio Barbatella and his circle.

Relationships flourish and fracture. Despite the inherent dangers of such subject matter, it is a book that keeps its feet on ground we can all recognise: “I got my MA and soon an advancement: I was appointed assistant lecturer in the history of art department at University College. The small extra salary had eased our financial situation.”

That said, in places the prose is very daring: “Like an innocent young girl’s breast, the little town of Castelfranco Veneto makes a slightly rising hill on the flat landscape. With a little imagination, the tower of the parish church…would appear as the nipple on the breast”.

Now that’s writing that would have got the Board of Censors all hot and bothered in the Ireland of old!

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