The Sixteen Pleasures By Robert Hellenga
Delta Books (Dell Publishing) 1995
This review has to be rated R18, so if any readers are under the age of 18, please STOP READING now. Thank you.
In 1524, Pietro Aretino wrote [lewd] sonnets to accompany the drawings of sixteen sexual positions by Giuliano Romano, Raphael's talented twenty-five-year-old pupil. Their collaboration produced one of history's most notorious works of erotic art.
In November 1966 (thats just over 41 years ago) the city of Florence (Firenze) in Italy was flooded. Hundreds of artworks and old books were damaged and destroyed, and many others were saved.
This novel is about Margot Harington who went to Italy as soon as she heard about the flooding, as a "mud angel" to help save the books in a small convent. Margot was a book conservator. That was her speciality. She was assigned to a small Catholic Carmelite convent with a small library. Some of the books were damaged beyond repair, and others were saved. Still others were damaged but salvageable. Together Margot and the nuns worked to save as many books as they could. One of the first tasks to be done was to slip pieces of tissue or toilet paper in between every single leaf of every single wet book. A very time consuming task. The tissues would draw out the water from the book pages. Margot also re-bound and re-covered some of the books as well.
While Margot is at this convent, the nuns discover a book of erotic drawings. This book had been bound together with a Roman [Catholic] Missal and Prayer Book. The erotic art book is called I Sonetti Lussuriosi di Pietro Aretino. The Sensuous Sonnets of Pietro Aretino. The practice of binding two books together was not uncommon in the early Middle Ages, but was unheard of by the seventeenth century.
Aretino's "Sonnetti Lussuriosi" were composed after he first viewed Giulio Romano's drawings, and were later compiled into a printed edition with Raimondi's splendid engravings. All except a very few copies of this book were promptly burned by the Church. No surviving complete copy is known to exist.
The Bishop of Florence claims that the book should be taken to the local Diocese office for safekeeping. Margot feels that the book belongs to the convent and that they should benefit from the sale of the book, not the bishop. Margot spends several weeks rebinding and recovering the book. She also asks another art restorer to sell the book to a book seller. But when the book sellers offer is only a few thousand dollars, Margot changes her mind and says the book is not for sale. She knows that such a rare book should bring a lot more money in the market. So Margot steals the book, takes it to Switzerland (without an export license) and sells it through Christies. She makes almost a quarter million dollars, and after taking off her 10% commission, the rest goes into a trust fund for the women at the convent, and then finally she returns home to America.
I liked this book. Margot does other things as well such as sleeping with a married man, but none of that was as interesting as the conservation details. If you truly like the arts of the book, then you should read this novel.