Laura Morelli is the author of the new novel The Night Portrait. Her other books include The Giant and The Painter's Apprentice. An art historian, she lives in Georgia.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine in your new novel?
A: What would it be like to be tasked with the job of stealing a priceless painting?
That was the original question that opened the world of The Night Portrait to me.
Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani--The Lady with the Ermine—is interesting on many levels, but particularly because it was an object of desire both in the 15th and the 20th centuries.
The earlier story revolves around the court of Milan and Ludovico Sforza, who commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint his teenaged mistress in the late 1400s. Ludovico practically had a revolving door for his mistresses; Cecilia was just the latest in a string of amorous pursuits, if we are to believe the historical record.
But there must have been something special about Cecilia for Ludovico to ask Leonardo da Vinci to paint her. I wondered what it was.
At the time, the portrait was groundbreaking; up until then, most Italian Renaissance portraits depicted the female sitter in profile, with no sense of engagement with the viewer. But Leonardo captured Cecilia’s liveliness in this remarkable image.
Nearly 500 years later, another powerful man was enraptured with Cecilia’s image. The portrait was at the top of a list of masterpieces that senior Nazi leaders wanted to confiscate for Adolf Hitler’s planned art museum.
Hans Frank, Hitler’s governor in Krakow, was obsessed with this portrait, had it wrenched from a personal family collection, and did everything possible to keep it in his personal possession.
The so-called “Butcher of Poland” was held responsible for the lives of millions of innocent Polish people, and yet he claimed after his capture that he had only wanted to “safeguard” masterpieces like this one. The portrait was one of the last treasures in Frank’s personal possession when the Allies arrested him in 1944.
Curiosity about this picture’s incredible history led me down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, until a story told in two timelines emerged clearly in my head. Edith and Cecilia suddenly seemed as real to me as my next-door neighbors. After that, the book seemed to write itself.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I always start with primary sources—documents written during the time period I’m researching. What did people choose to focus on? What did they choose to ignore? How did they write about events? What language did they use and what telltale details stand out?
I also rely heavily on my training as an art history scholar, because there are so many rich pieces of information to be gleaned even from footnotes. I read widely about da Vinci and scoured the scholarship about this portrait and the known facts of Cecilia Gallerani’s life before I began formulating her story.
For the 1940s, obviously there are a ton of primary sources—official records like the Nuremberg transcripts, German and American newspapers, and of course, personal testimonies.
Reading the eyewitness accounts of the Monuments Men and diaries of art professionals helped shape the fictionalized character of Edith, a German conservator who finds herself embroiled in an impossible situation.
Of all the amazing things I researched, I think what still stops me in my tracks is realizing the massive, almost incomprehensible scale of Nazi art confiscation during World War II. It’s even more incredible that the majority of those works made it back to their original owners. Nothing short of a miracle!
Q: The book includes historical figures as well as fictional characters. What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and historical as you wrote the novel?
A: I think art history is the most fascinating topic in the world and it’s why I pursued a Ph.D. in the subject. But in the end, art history is really just about stories and people. Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. Those can’t-make-it-up stories are some of the best!
Historical fiction has a certain duty to pin itself to the facts and readers come to the historical fiction genre for authenticity; they want historical novelists to bring the past to life on the page. When writing about real figures, I feel especially that historical novelists bear the burden of making sure that their readers understand what’s made up and what’s not.
But the nature of studying history is to realize that many details are lost, even from the recent historical record. For me, that’s where imagination takes over, and the fun of fiction begins! I think the best characters for historical novels are those with only a tantalizing handful of known facts.
At a certain point, however, I’ve only done my job if all this research “disappears” for the reader. If a reader picks up a historical novel rather than a history book, they want to embark on an immersive journey to the past. A historical novel has to deliver a great story above all.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope The Night Portrait sparks some great book club discussions about individual choices in the context of big, scary world events.
It’s incredible to realize that by 1944, the Nazis had either stolen or tried to steal every known painting by Leonardo da Vinci—in addition to thousands of other priceless masterpieces.
Many German art experts who were conscripted to the Nazi effort to collect works of art—functionaries like the fictional Edith Becker in The Night Portrait—quietly returned to their lives and their jobs after the war.
A few of them later spoke about their attempts to assist the Resistance, either by documenting stolen works, saving convoys from bombing, or returning works to their original owners. Others undoubtedly took these secret activities to the grave.
Living through our own tumultuous year, it seems a good time to reflect on challenging historical events. “What would you do in this situation?” is always such a great question!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: In 2021, look for a second dual-timeline story about another one of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portraits and its fate during World War II.
In the meantime, I’ve released a historical novel based on the creation of Michelangelo’s David. It’s a story that I worked on little by little over two decades, one that features one of those tantalizing protagonists and a work of art that wouldn’t let me go! More about The Giant at https://lauramorelli.com/giant/.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Readers can join my free online course about the portraits of Leonardo da Vinci, and access much more historical background, videos, images, research, and further resources related to World War II art theft and The Night Portrait, at lauramorelli.com/NightPortrait.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb