Ardent by Heloise West
Rating: 4 Stars
Publisher: Manifold Press
Genre: Gay Romance
Tags: Historical – 1475 Tuscany, Artists, Murder/Mystery
Length: 292 Pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
In the village of Torrenta, master painter Morello has created a color that mimics the most expensive pigment of all, the crimson red. Master Zeno, from strife-ridden Medici Florence, tells him the color gives him a competitive advantage – but Morello must be careful. Fraud is ever-present in the dye and pigment markets.
As they work together in Torrenta, Morello falls hard for Zeno’s assistant, Benedetto Tagliaferro, a young man of uncommon beauty and intelligence. Benedetto is still fixed on his old lover, the master painter Leo Guisculo, and cannot return Morello’s affections.
But when Leo dies in a terrible accident, it’s to Morello that Zeno and Benedetto turn for help. And Morello soon finds that in Florence, every surface hides layers of intrigue.
As the blurb states, master painter Morello has created a colour, Ardent Red, that mimics a vibrant crimson, a colour that is only used by painters who are sponsored by patrons and have workshops that are commissioned by wealthy clients, generally in Florence. Dye, pigment is worth a lot of money, and Morello’s new colour could cause him serious trouble if it’s discovered to be his own alchemy and not created via the usual companies. Visiting from Florence, Master Zeno clearly lays out the issues if Morello were to sell his painting with the colour used in it – he could be branded a fraud, repercussions would follow him, his career and the workshop he is contracted to – a painter’s life is such that he can find himself tempted by money at some stage. Morello is advised to tell no one and never use it again. He has the formula in safekeeping and agrees to keep it quiet, he created it to use in his much loved painting of Achilles and Patroclus, to have the right colour for a cloak, but he doesn’t want to cause any problems and he assures Master Zeno he has no intentions of selling that particular painting.
Meanwhile, Master Zeno’s assistant and travelling companion, Benedetto Tagliaferro, catches Morello’s eye. Benedetto has been the assistant and lover of Master Leo Guisculo of Florence for three years, until a year ago when Leo Guisculo told Benedetto he was too old – at twenty two – for him. Leo is also married and has children but nothing gets in the way of Leo Guisculos’s good times, or his sexual appetite – neither marriage or gender of partner.
Morello finds Benedetto to be smart, gorgeous and clearly same-sex attracted, or born to the house of Venus in Saturn, and Master Guisculo crazy for not loving the beautiful Benedetto. So while in Torrenta Benedetto has an affair with the besotted Morello. There is intensity to their sex, and Morello feels more for Benedetto that just a passing dalliance, but the shadow of Leo Guisculo looms large over their liaison. While Morello has some sweet words for Benedetto, Benedetto shuts it down, he also runs hot and cold, confusing the uncomplicated and open Morello.
Whether in Torrenta or Florence the men have to be careful about watchful eyes of citizens who may inform priests, magistrates, the Night Court, about the ‘vices’ that certain men undertake. Caution has to be exercised so that someone doesn’t drop a letter into a box incriminating them. Morello has a daughter, which helps in Torrenta, but the woman he had the child with really wanted to snare the local blacksmith, and Morello never thought it fair to marry a woman when his interests lay with men, so he is careful with any man he fancies. The local priest also supports Morello when one letter is sent his way. Guisculo has an inner sanctum of professional men in Florence, friends who sleep with one another and/or have each other’s backs which forms a degree of safety, although Benedetto has come under scrutiny.
When Benedetto returns to Florence to resume his tutelage under Master Guisculo, Guisculo is increasingly distracted by a new lover, and Benedetto does what he does best – makes sure Guisculo stays on task with his jobs and talks to the workshop’s patrons who want to speak only to him. However, not long after Benedetto returns, Guisculo dies when scaffolding falls while he’s working on a fresco. Initially it is thought to be an accident, Guisculo’s wife attempts to capitalise on Leo’s death, telling people that Benedetto was incompetent, she is out for blood, partly because her husband is dead, but mostly for revenge because Leo and Benedetto used to be lovers during (the beginning of) her marriage to Leo… and prior. She also wants some items returned to her that Benedetto claims to know nothing about. The local Captain of Justice calls Benedetto in for questioning, and satisfied he is innocent proceeds to let Benedetto know that someone tampered with the scaffolding, for Benedetto to keep his eyes and ears open as he is closer to the ground at the workshop. Benedetto takes an offered dagger from the Captain and swears to help, but mostly he wants to avenge Guisculo.
In the meantime, Master Zeno sends for Morello to take care of the workshop’s business so they hopefully won’t lose patrons and business to other shops. He knows Morello is a fine painter, a master in his own right, a man of integrity, and that Morello has been offered an appointment in Milan. With the news of Guisculo’s death and his desire to help Master Zeno, combined with the chance to see Benedetto again, Morello cannot refuse the offer in Florence.
Florence is not the nicest of towns, there are gangs and the Medici rule is intense. Morello has to learn his way around town and talk his way into regular patron’s graces, which on one occasion involves a small bit of his Ardent Red in a painting. There are patrons, gangs, apprentices, a murder, and the circle of friends of Leo Guiculo’s to deal with… and Morello’s deepening feelings for the gorgeous but seemingly hot and cold Benedetto.
Apart from the interesting relationship between Morello and Benedetto, there are plenty of people and events in Ardent to keep the arcs moving well throughout. There are also any number of suspects in the murder of Leo Guisculo. Having Morello in Florence doesn’t make things any better either – people could call Benedetto and Morello out as having murdered Leo so they could be together/because of jealousy/because of the workshop. There are partners and ex partners of Guisculo’s, another master who tried to rape an underage Benedetto and who Leo publicly thrashed for it, Guisculo’s angry wife and her lover, other workshops who want their work, the Medici, clients, staff, and so on. It keeps the reader on their toes.
The two issues I had with this book were Benedetto’s annoying, unwavering love for Leo Guisculo, even when Morello was a more dedicated man who wanted Benedetto warts and all. I thought Morello was so charming and, at times, a part of me believed he was too good for Benedetto. Ah, but Morello wanted his angel, his heart, so I was happy for him to have Benedetto. Toward the end there were distractions when I just wanted time spent on the initial characters and the initial crime and mystery, it created a busy feel and became a tad name-heavy.