Monday, October 24, 2022

Q&A with Damian Dibben




Damian Dibben is the author of the new historical novel The Color Storm. His other books include Tomorrow. Also a screenwriter, he lives in London.


Q: What inspired you to write The Color Storm, and how did you create the character Zorzo?


A: Set in the cutthroat art-world of Renaissance Venice, The Color Storm is about the search for a new color. The daring young painter Giorgione is in the fight of his life to beat his rivals and find it first. A ravishing, searing tale of creation, ambition, rivalry, and passion at one of the most seismic turning points in history.


A visit to the Royal Academy in London six years ago started me off. Seeing In the Age of Giorgione. I realized how little I knew of this young artist, an almost forgotten figure, but who truly stood his own against the more famous figures of the time, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian (who was in fact once Giorgione’s pupil).


Giorgione created a new way of seeing and painting, an almost impressionistic style where mood and atmosphere suffused everything. I wanted urgently to tell his story and help give him back to the wider world.


At the same time as I was researching, I was reading about the contemporary artist Anish Kapoor, who had copyrighted his own black and started a series of “color wars” between artists.


Zorzo is the Venetian painter Giorgione, who died tragically early in his life. Little is known about him other than he was born near Venice, was tall (hence his nickname, Big George), striking looking, successful in his day, and most probably died of the plague.


All the rest must be gathered from the handful of paintings he left behind. I loved making the character flesh and blood, a heroic, ambitious, and magnetic figure.


In the same way that, in Amadeus, the life of Mozart is so brilliantly realised from the vantage point of someone much less famous, I thought that describing the era of Leonardo and Michelangelo through the eyes of a lesser-known artist would bring it alive in a more vivid and entrancing way. 


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: First off, I did a tour of British and European galleries to see all the Giorgiones first hand, along with the works of his contemporaries, particularly those of Bellini, his former teacher, and of Titian, Giorgione's student.


I immersed myself in the age. They were seismic decades; the epoch of print and ideas and global trade. The world was changing rapidly and out of all recognition.


And of course I went to Venice, where the novel is set. The city is a character in the book, a place of grandeur and mystery, where you are never quite on solid ground.


As well as between sea and sky, Venice sits between east and west, a multicultural mixing pot, where colour, texture and pageantry are adored. All the treasures of the world, minerals, silk, china, spice, from Arabia, India, China, and Africa all threaded through the Venetian ports. 


Learning about how painters' studios operated during the Renaissance was the most revelatory aspect. They were the dream factories of their day, like film studios now, with dozens of craftspeople working in unison to create finished canvases.


In the largest there might be 60 apprentices: carpenters, model makers, paint grinders, brush makers, varnishers, gesso and tempera artisans. Every notable artist had their own studio, and each studio was in competition with the other. 


The production of color was at the centre of the workroom. It was extratcted from minerals such as lapis, cobalt, and azurite for blues; malachite and verdigris for green; porphyry and hematite for reds.


It was sourced from vegetation: berries, roots, seeds, stones and vines all contain distinct hues. Workshop apprentices would be sent to the country to dig down into the earth for ochres and umbers, collect insects in the fields, or grub for mollusks on the shore.


Tyrian purple was derived originally from a particular shell found on shores of that ancient city. The more I learnt about the world of the Renaissance studio, the more dazzling it became.


Q: The author Rachel Joyce said of the book, “There is so much to think about and relish. Not simply the story itself—with all its glorious twists and turns—but the search to express ourselves. A celebration of art and a hymn to color.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love the description. I tried on the one hand tried to deliver a great, page-turning thriller, the mood and atmosphere of which I wanted to be reminiscent of a complex Hitchcock thriller such as Vertigo.


At the same time, I wanted to immerse the reader in a totally fascinating, sensory and original world. Just as in the novel Perfume, smell is used to create the framework of the story, I have used colour in same way for mine, in its design and construction.


Sybille, for example, the mercurial, unhappy, and possibly dangerous heroine, is portrayed with colour in subtle ways. In each scene she wears a different hue, from malachite green to tiger’s eye, to dragon’s blood red, to silver grey, vermillion pink, and bone black. These tones subtly infuse the quality of the scene, whilst revealing new aspect of her character. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: For me there is one overriding takeaway: what it is we leave behind when we’re gone. In questioning what marks the characters make on the world, what good or bad do they bring, both tangibly and emotionally, I would love the reader to consider the marks they might make, large or small, on the people around them.


It goes without saying, the novel is also a celebration of art and creation. For me, art is not a luxury; rather it is present everywhere and is the light that illuminates everything else.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A novel set in the modern day, but still related in many ways to everything that interests me, particularly history and art.


The hero of the story is a collector from all eras of the past. He was orphaned as a boy and inherited a fortune. At 40 he still lives as a loner in a sprawling Mayfair mansion, until a series of circumstances lead him to adopt a French boy who also has lost his family. The boy may not have long for the world and a revelatory story ensues, both joy-filled and heartbreaking.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I trained originally as an artist and have always carried on this side of things. Writing this novel was so revelatory, on so many levels, it got me into the studio again and I have been creating a collection of artworks and extraordinary pieces of furniture inspired by aspects of the book.


In February, before the paperback release, I’ll be exhibiting and selling them in a large Notting Hill gallery. 


There’s a flight of vermillion drawers topped with a flying eagle, a lapis-coloured cocktail cabinet with angel wing doors, a crystal chandelier with a flock of exotic birds, and a series of stunning jewel cabinets, fantastical worlds of colour in miniature.


Each piece is somewhere between an artwork and item of furniture, many practical, all beautiful. Just as my novel transports us to Renaissance Venice and immerses us in a world of opulence and colour, each piece in this collection – large or small – takes us on a comparable journey.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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